Tuesday, 03 January 2012 16:17

Best of 2011: Guidebook to growth

Processes

One of the most critical elements of creating a plan or vision is to make sure you have sound processes in place within your business. This starts with evaluating your products.

“You have to look at your product range and you need to ask yourself the question, ‘Is this the best product, or are there competitors that are better than I am?’” says Martin Richenhagen of AGCO. “American cars are not sold outside of America because they’re lousy cars — not because people in Europe prefer European cars. The technology isn’t leading technology and leading quality. Today, you need to be able to lead in technology and lead in quality and have a competitive cost position.”

It’s also important that as part of your processes you’re willing to take risks.

“A willingness to take risks and experiment is very important because the good ideas stop coming if people think there’s no chance it will ever get implemented because they’re viewed as too risky,” says Chip Perry of AutoTrader.com. “You have to be willing to experiment, make mistakes and iterate toward a better solution in order to promote an innovative environment where people feel safe to make suggestions that are outside the box, and then the company has to be willing to methodically test and evaluate them.”

And above all, you have to make sure you have measuring processes in place as well.

“Invest in data and metrics, not just metrics that your clients use but metrics internally, trying to make them simple but sort of poignant,” says Chris Krubert of ApolloMD. “You have got to understand what is the key component that determines success.”

Krubert says if you don’t have ways of measuring, it’s something you need to spend some time processing, as well.

“You have to come up with ways to measure it, whether its technology or simplifying your process, but then monitoring it and benchmarking it and having historical data, so you can do a trend analysis and when you’re pointing toward the worst direction, you can act,” he says.

Planning and vision

It’s hard for any business to know where it’s going if it hasn’t taken the time to do some strategic planning and analysis.

“You have to find a niche in the business,” says Mit Shah of Noble Investment Group. “I think that companies of the future that are going to be very successful will have a niche. They aren’t broad-based companies that do a lot of things. They’ll find a couple things they do really well, and they focus on those things, and they outperform the competition there. It’s way too difficult to be good at many different things.”

So how do you find a niche? You have to look at trends and what you’re good at.

“I encourage people to analyze the markets,” says Millard Choate of Choate Construction Co. “What’s the coming trends? What are the needs going to be not just today but six months to a year from now? Try to anticipate where to deploy your resources to produce the maximum return.”

Watch the wording that you use, as well.

“You can wordsmith sentences that become ambiguous,” says Jeff Bowman of Crawford & Co. “What you have to do is create a series of effectively executable plans that are then absolutely easily translated.”

For example, you might say something such as, “We’re going to increase sales around the world,” which is a very wide open statement.

“Increase is a good word,” Bowman says. “Sales is a good word. Around the world? What does that mean? It has to be more defined than that. What’s the marketplace? What is the product we want to grow? That’s where a lot of strategies have to be planned in the sessions that you do prior to laying those strategic plans out.”

No matter what you do, make sure you’re honest with yourself and aren’t being unrealistic.

“It’s important to be as objective as you can and gather objective facts and information,” says Chip Perry of AutoTrader.com. “One of the things we try to do is whenever it’s possible, to go out and do some research about the potential impact of an idea so we’ll go talk to consumers and dealers and manufacturers and ask them for their guidance on how valuable they think it is, so research is a very important part of it.”

On top of everything, make sure you don’t put your strategy on the shelf and forget about it.

“A strategy document is a living document,” Bowman says. “Events change, and you have to change an organization to implement the goals.”

Measuring

One of the other key elements to successfully leading is measuring the goals and processes you’ve created.

“You make your own metrics for what success is,” says Ted Turner. “You set up criteria and write down what you think would make you feel successful. Each person would do it differently. What success is for one person wouldn’t be success to another. If one guy said, ‘If I made $1 million, I’d be a success,’ but to another, ‘I wouldn’t be a success unless I made $1 billion.’ They’d be off by a factor of 1,000 to one.”

So what should those metrics look like?

“You have to have quantitative, objective measurements of your business results,” says Bob Puccini of Mizuno USA Inc. “That’s certainly an indication. You have to have a clear indication of (key performance indicators) — what are you trying to measure? What’s important to you? Therefore, if those things are important to you relative to achieving your business goals, these are the KPIs you ought to be looking on a regular basis. If we’re succeeding or not based on certain benchmarks, that’s one indication.”

And make sure you’re not trying to measure and hold people accountable to things they can’t control.

“Make sure you focus on things that you can control,” says Darrell Grimes of MAG Mutual. “In other words, you can’t control, and I can’t control, interest rates. You and I can’t control health care reform. You and I can’t control tsunamis and earthquakes that are actually affecting us today. Focus on those things that you can control, but remain flexible and keep your options open but have a mission and reason for being.”

2 Tips: Customer relations

“Ask probing, delicate questions to make sure that their vision is consistent with what our plan is and then updating it periodically.”

Chris Krubert, ApolloMD, January

“You have to understand what your client’s hot buttons are, what his interests are. It’s not just always revenues. Each client has his own nuances so just customizing your approach to that client and making sure you’re taking care of them and promote that you’re looking out for their best interest.”

Millard Choate, Choate Construction Co., September

4 Tips: Culture

“Let’s be honest, this is a tough labor market. People aren’t jumping jobs right now, so we get that. You can’t use that as a crutch because as soon as the market comes back, they’ll leave for a better opportunity once available.”

Mit Shah, Noble Investment Group, February

“Recognize the value in what the honesty can deliver for you. Create an environment where truth and bad news is accepted and used as a learning opportunity, which means you also have to check egos at the door. You have to build trust with your constituency — your employees — where it becomes safe to have those open discussions.”

Bob Puccini, Mizuno USA Inc., December

“If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customer. … It’s important that they understand that we’re all in the same boat and we’re all rowing in the same direction — that when times are good, they all get bonuses and when times are not so good, we may get a smaller bonus or no bonus at all. If we don’t all pull together and understand what the financial results are, we will not do as well as a company, and we won’t service the clients the way we want to be serviced. It’s an open-book policy.”

Darrell Grimes, MAG Mutual, August

“One of the hallmarks of successful companies is being open-minded and receptive to ideas for improvement from the employees, who are closer to the work than the executives are. It’s kind of built into your DNA. Either you are or you aren’t receptive. You have to be curious and receptive and then be willing to work with it. Then you need to set up a pattern and a tempo of consistency on this topic. If you do it once, and it goes away — a flash in the pan idea — it becomes not effective. If you do it every year, you’ve been doing it for 10 years, people come to expect it, and it becomes part of the culture.”

Chip Perry, AutoTrader.com, May

4 Tips: Communication

“Although you have to craft the format differently, I believe you have to be very consistent with the communications, whether it’s your employees or customers or suppliers or investors. You can’t have different messages. You have to have a consistent strategy and talk to them and adopt it to their viewpoint a little bit. You can’t create different ones for different people – it doesn’t work. … Making it a simple message is very hard. … You have to be able to communicate not only to your senior people but also be able to reach somebody who is working on a factory floor who may not speak English, and translate it and be ruthless and streamline the message down. When you do that, it means you have to be very clear about what you have to do. If you use a lot of words, you don’t have to be so clear. If you use very few words, you have to be much more clear.”

Jim Bolch, Exide Technologies, November

“I listen because no one person has all of the ideas,” he says. “It’s a collaborative environment.”

Darrell Grimes, MAG Mutual, August

“Make sure people understand what they’re accountable for. They do things that they understand much easier than things that they don’t understand. … The world we live in, you get swallowed up in the amount of data you’ve got. You have to cut through and say, ‘What is the important data that you’re going to measure people on?’”

Jeff Bowman, Crawford & Co., June

“If you ask someone their opinion, and you never follow it or you never use it, then why in the world would they ever want to give it again. But if you ask people their opinion and say, ‘To every extent possible, we’d like to take your ideas and make things better, and they see that we actually take ideas and implement it and use it to create a better work environment, it’s synergistic and it just grows.”

Michael Bass, Piedmont Newnan Hospital, April

4 Tips: Hiring

“It’s a disciplined approach to define the key characteristics of what you need in a person to do that specific job and completely severing the ‘I like, I don’t like,’ and then tapping into other people’s sort of ratings on the same scale. It’s pretty clear, hard work or not hard work. That’s almost a quantifiable type. There’s ways you can define that and then ask other people who are in a similar role.”

Christopher Krubert, ApolloMD, January

“The individual who is comfortable is relaxed. They pause, they think about their response. They’re inquisitive but yet they are knowledgeable. The cocky person is usually the person who you can’t get a word in edgewise. They just want to go on and on and on.”

Michael Bass, Piedmont Newnan Hospital, April

“What we always do is discuss it with the guy who has the job because I think it would be very bad if you have a job description, and the guy who’s doing the job would say, ‘That’s not me.’ That happens sometimes. If it’s getting too theoretical and you only have human resources involved or someone from the outside, this could happen. … You need to keep things simple in a way but also very pragmatic. This means don’t make it too long of details. The most important part of a job description is to describe the area of responsibility in the form of results you are expecting. Instead of describing what you expect somebody to do — he has to come into the office at 7 o’clock in the morning and open his door and start to make phone calls — describe activities and describe results you expect the leader to generate.”

Martin Richenhagen, AGCO, October

“If you have a business vision and a business goal and say, ‘Here’s where we’re going and here’s how you have to play,’ those kinds of things allow you to recognize the kinds of skills you need to do that. You have to have a clear vision — where you’re going, where you’re going to play, where you think you can win, and how you’re going to play in order to win. Then you step back and say, ‘Wow, what kind of skills do we need in order to do that?’ Then you do a gap analysis. Here’s where we are, here’s where we need to be from a competency perspective, and what’s the plan to either acquire or develop those competencies.”

Bob Puccini, Mizuno USA Inc., December

6 Tips: Leadership

“Sometimes you just have to be a smart guy growing up in New York to survive. That means knowing which alleys not to walk down. It doesn’t mean you walk down every alley and pick a fight and win them all. It means also being savvy enough to know I’m not going to walk down that alley — that doesn’t look right, that doesn’t feel right. It’s knowing where to play and where not to play, and again playing to your strengths. If you don’t have them, you better acquire or develop them. … That ability to be completely honest with himself was critical as a kid, and it’s just as needed as a leader looking at your abilities and your business. … Sometimes it hurts, but that’s part of being successful. You’ve got to be honest with your limitations.”

Bob Puccini, Mizuno USA, December

“So many people are trying to move up in an organization — step over someone else to get up the corporate ladder. Just focus on the company and just focus on the customer, and you’ll find that all those other problems go away. … Forget trying to beat the guy down the hall. I think there’s too much of that. If people will do that, they’ll see how much easier it is to move up the corporate ladder without doing it. Just do the right thing.”

Darrell Grimes, MAG Mutual, August

“Continue to do what the books say you’re supposed to do — stick to your core values during times of great opportunity and during times of crisis, take care of people, make sure that you continue to commit to things that are part of who you are and who you espouse to be.”

Mit Shah, Noble Investment Group, February

“How do you build trust? There are several ways. No. 1, you say what you’re going to do, and then you do it so that employees know that if I say that this is what we’re going to do or this is what’s going to happen, then I’ve got to make sure that that’s exactly what we do and we don’t deviate from that. Trust is being open and telling it like it is.”

Michael Bass, Piedmont Newnan Hospital, April

“The easiest thing is to do nothing, and then you’ll never get in trouble — and you’ll never get anywhere either, but doing nothing is an option, and that’s an option that most people avail themselves of in life. They do as little as they can, and they don’t realize what they could have done because they didn’t do anything. That’s most people. It’s just too hard, and it is hard. It’s extremely hard, and you’ve got to be — there’s an old expression I heard somewhere — smarter than a tree full of owls to do anything like create a Microsoft or a Google or a CNN.”

Ted Turner, Turner Enterprises, July

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“‘Trust, but verify.’ I think it is critically important to empower your team, but periodically you need to drill down to ensure that you are getting the whole story and you are comfortable with the direction.”

-Jim Bolch, Exide Technologies, November

“Don’t worry about those things you can’t control. Just try to manage through them. I see a lot of people worrying about things, but it’s just more stress in your life. Manage what you can control. Prepare for the worst; accept the rest. Don’t worry too much about what you can’t control. I think that’s important advice.”

-Darrell O. Grimes, MAG Mutual Insurance Co., August

“The best advice I’ve ever received is you’ll only get one chance to make your case for a change order, and only a fool would be willing to attempt to argue about the end result after that. That was my grandfather, who was the road-building construction contractor.”

-Chip Bullock, HDR CUH2A, March

“One of the original founder’s term: personal is best. That’s important. That’s the advice I use. When I’m trying to understand why someone is acting out or stressed or giving me a hard time, trying to keep it personal and trying to understand who they are as a person, whether it’s in a clinical setting or a business setting and that often times will give you the answer. That’s the best advice I’ve gotten to date.”

-Christopher Krubert, ApolloMD, January

Published in Atlanta

Most business owners understand the idea of developing a business plan and know how to create objectives and goals. But many become challenged when asked about their vision for where they want to be in 5, 10 or 15 years, says Ricci M. Victorio, CSP, managing partner at Mosaic Family Business Center.

“Many business owners say they don’t know what they are doing in the next 30 days, much less in 15 years,” says Victorio. “But failing to have a strategic vision will be detrimental to potential growth and long-term success.”

Smart Business spoke with Victorio about how creating a deliberate strategic vision can help move your business into the future and help you achieve anything you can imagine.

Where does a business begin to create a strategic vision?

With the help of a facilitator, imagine the year is 2022; then look back to 2012 and ask yourself, ‘What have we achieved in last 10 years that we are really proud of?’ Instead of asking yourself where you want to be, hypothetically ask yourself, ‘Where have I been?’ Do this exercise with no boundaries and no fear of failure. If you could have achieved anything in these last 10 years, what would it be? For example, if someone has a goal of being retired, then he or she has to think about succession. Who will have taken your place? If you don’t know, you have a strategic issue.

As you think back from 2022, you step into strategic visioning. When you look at what your future needs are going to be, rather than just dealing with whatever happens, you can ask what you need to do now to be better positioned for where you want to be. This kind of behavior is called ‘being at cause.’

‘Being at effect’ is based in reactive behavior and causes anxiety. You will spend more money solving problems, paying the highest price to get it done quickly. Also, hasty decisions may not be the best ones for the long term. Having a strategic vision allows you to make deliberate changes on your own timetable because you are thinking ahead.

Having a strategic vision also allows for creative, innovative problem solving. You can take the time to determine whether an adjustment works. And because you are doing it incrementally, you are ahead of everyone else who will be scrambling to make changes at the last minute.

How does creating a strategic vision allow a business to work more methodically?

For example, if you want to be retired in 10 years, ask yourself what will be required in the next 10 years to bring your successor through the experiential and training process so he or she will be ready when needed. Or if your shareholders want to expand, determine what you have to do to be positioned to build your assets so you will have the available resources when you need them. Your vision for tomorrow should fuel your action today.

Buy-in from your team is essential. Boil it down to a concept. This will create a strong emotional connection that will encourage commitment from your entire organization. With a common vision, all decisions become based upon keeping everyone in alignment with where you are going. Be advised that a strategic plan should be reviewed every year or two, because change is inevitable.

How does the process work?

Initially, all ideas should be welcome without judgment. The only rule during brainstorming sessions is that nothing is impossible. When you give people permission to create without being required to know how they are going to get there, it’s very freeing. People often get stuck in the question of ‘how’ something will be accomplished. But in the visioning exercise, the focus should be on the ‘what we want to be’ and ‘where we want to go,’ and not about worrying or negotiating how we will get there.

After you’ve gone through the predictable ideas, begin considering what else you can do — let go and have fun. You’ll find that people start throwing out ideas that are ‘outside the box’ and potentially brilliant. This is where having a facilitator who is objective, understands the creative process and doesn’t have a vested interest in the decisions that are made is significantly important.

How do you communicate the strategic vision to your employees and get buy-in?

Start by transforming the strategic vision into a plan with action implementation steps. Communicate your overarching vision and provide a way for employees to participate in implementing the vision into actionable steps. Your vision cannot become a reality without their creative participation.

Next, enroll employees into committees to work on fulfilling the three or four major objectives in your plan. They will develop the tactical steps that will become part of your annual business planning. This vision gives you the motivator — the ‘why’ — for the ‘what,’ and then employees are tasked with figuring out ‘how’ to get there.

Buy-in requires that every employee has a stake in the outcome and participates in creating the programs that will get you to the next goal post. Conversely, if ownership believes that the success of the company is built on the genius of top management, change will be difficult. Recognizing that your organization is stronger and more innovative and successful when everyone is working together as a team, rather than when taking orders from the top, will propel you toward the achievement of your dream.

Ricci M. Victorio, CSP, is managing partner at Mosaic Family Business Center. Reach her at (415) 788-1952.

Published in Northern California
Saturday, 31 December 2011 19:06

The takeaway: A tale of two logos

Before you hand out your first business card, before you set up the most bare-bones website, and before you minimally introduce a new venture to the market, you need to have a logo.

A graphic has the power to make a quick and indelible impression, and a good logo can give a start-up an early advantage. Just ask Nike. Just ask Apple. The same is true in reverse. A poorly conceived and poorly executed logo suggests to anyone who sees it that the company just isn’t ready for prime time.

So it was pretty early on when we realized that we needed a logo. As an early-stage start-up, we at Summit Data Communications wanted to look like a professional, confident and dependable company, not a handful of rattled guys taking the biggest risk of their careers. Yet while we knew enough to know that getting our first logo right was a big deal, we still managed to fail at it spectacularly. Here’s how it happened.

We got the first part of the process right: get a good designer. Through one of our partners, we engaged a designer with a good reputation and a portfolio of previous quality work. We then shared with him the collective and unfiltered thoughts of the seven of us, including our favorite colors, shapes and typefaces. Although not one of us had any design experience or training, we provided detailed feedback through multiple iterations. The result was our company’s first logo, which came to be known as “the river of blood,” is reproduced here for the first and last time. In the end, the designer in question refused any compensation for the logo, asking only that we never, ever associate his name and good reputation with it. This was entirely fair because the problem wasn’t him — it was us. We wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

We knew we had a serious problem and we set out to solve it. Conveniently enough, another partner knew another designer, one untainted by a previous relationship with us. He initially agreed to help us out in a few weeks. When he saw the logo, he realized that our young company was a critical case and our image was in imminent danger of irreparable damage. “I’m on it stat!” he said. Just two days later, we had a new logo, pictured here for comparison. This time, only two of the partners knew the project was going on, and the result was delivered not for comment but as a fait accompli.

The takeaway:

Our company got far more from this process than just a respectable logo. I also gained a few valuable management lessons:

  • It’s not enough to hire the right people. You have to let the right people do their jobs. If you hire a pilot or a brain surgeon, you tend to afford them a fair bit of autonomy. The same should be true for engineers, writers, and yes, designers.
  • We all know that too many cooks spoil the broth and that the camel is a horse designed by committee. Still, it’s easy to forget this, particularly when you are on a new team and you are building confidence and relationships. Feedback is great, but acting on every opinion isn’t.
  • Lastly, everyone makes mistakes. The difference is what you do in the aftermath. Successful organizations identify errors early, correct them quickly and learn as much as they can from them. You’re going to fail sometimes, so the key is to fail fast.

Ron Seide is the president of Summit Data Communications Inc., a wireless technology company headquartered in downtown Akron. Reach him at reside@summitdata.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

For Doug Bergeron, slowing down has never been part of the plan. He didn’t slow down after leading the buyout of VeriFone Systems Inc. from Hewlett Packard back in 2001. In fact, he spearheaded the turnaround of the struggling San Jose, Calif.-based company to return it to profitability. A decade later, VeriFone’s U.S. business has more than doubled to $500 million in revenue today, an accomplishment that somehow pales in comparison to the company’s global expansion.

“That’s pretty impressive, but what’s more impressive is that we grew our $100 million international business to $1.2 billion, 12 times the size of what it was when we purchased it,” says Bergeron, CEO of the company, which provides electronic payment systems and solutions such as credit card terminals.

Now that VeriFone has run out of time zones for expansion, Bergeron says his next challenge is mapping the road for the company to grow to $3 billion in revenue.

Partner up

To set the strategy for the company, much of Bergeron’s time goes to finding ways to merge and partner with companies that can further its vision for point-of-sale payment solutions. Last August, he announced that the company may spend up to $1 billion annually on acquisitions in emerging markets and data services. Around the same time, it acquired the electronic payments company Hypercom Corp. for approximately $485 million.

“We’ve realized that we’re an integral part of the payment system but we need partners,” Bergeron says. “We’re not going to do this on our own.”

Bergeron seeks out partnership opportunities that can be meaningfully large in furthering the company’s major goals.

For example, in 2011VeriFone partnered with Google to incorporate Near Field Communication technology into the company’s payment systems and introduce Google Wallet, an Android application that allows consumers to make payments with their phone using virtual versions of their credit cards.

“It’s hard to participate with 25 small companies,” Bergeron says. “It’s better to pick ISIS, which is AT&T and Google, Groupon, partnerships with companies like that, that have staying power and a lot of financial resources. We know that we have confidence that we can get shoulder to shoulder with them and move a market.”

In addition to seeking partners with big shoulders, Bergeron isn’t ashamed to say he always looks for a good deal.

“We will never overpay for anything,” he says. “Remember we paid $50 million for VeriFone in a market that is $4.2 billion today.”

You also want to partner with businesses that complement things that your company is already doing.

“I look for businesses where part of the problem gets fixed by being inside VeriFone,” Bergeron says. “Maybe they lack international distribution. Maybe they lack an R&D capability that we have internally. Maybe they have great products but a lousy sales force. We have a great sales force. So I look for something that not only is a good value, but once we put it inside and take some time tuning it up, that the outcome will be a much better outcome than it would have been before.”

Lastly, try to acquire companies where you could take some of the managers and make them great managers within your business. Bergeron has brought on a number of VeriFone managers, presidents and executive vice presidents through acquisitions.

He makes it clear that once people join VeriFone, there is no combining cultures.

“I’ve seen companies go broke trying to bend over backward trying to merge their culture with your culture,” Bergeron says. “We’re a very successful company. It’s a great culture. It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s feverish. But we’re not going to compromise our culture for a company that we bought.”

To protect your culture, it’s important to treat people as common citizens of the company from day one so they don’t feel like outsiders.

“They are not from the other guys,” Bergeron says. “They are not from the competition. They are VeriFone. We’re a better company for that as a result of it.”

Make strategic investments

To double the size of a billion-dollar business, it’s no longer about deciding which markets to enter. It is about building out existing businesses and services. That begins with casting a wide net to find new and profitable business opportunities.

“We’ve taken the philosophy that we have to invest prudently and not wildly, but we have to have our nose in almost everything,” Bergeron says.

One of the newer markets Bergeron is excited about is taxicabs. While you couldn’t use a credit card in a taxi three years ago, today the company’s electronic payment technologies are universal in taxis throughout New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The key is to look for broad market opportunities, he says. Pick markets with lots of upside, and don’t pick too narrowly.

“A lot of stuff we have our nose in will never ever pay off for us, but that is the price of admission to having the certainty that all of the stuff that does move on from trial to mainstream, VeriFone will be a part of,” Bergeron says.

As a leader, you can’t be overconfident and think you know how to pick all of the winners from all of the losers. You innovate successfully by staying actively involved in many different projects and experiments.

“If you try to be too cute and say I’m going to work on this project, not this one, this one, not this one because I want to optimize my spend … inevitably you probably won’t overspend,” Bergeron says. “That’s for sure. But you are going to miss some of the winners.”

Once you’ve found what seems to be a profitable market, you’ve got to get completely committed.

“Don’t just allocate a little bit,” Bergeron says. “If you are going to pick some projects, get committed and put some wood behind your efforts.”

That may mean taking an initial hit to surface an idea with customers, whether it’s offering the product or service for free initially or on a trial basis. To get retailers get on board with Google Wallet, for example, Google has provided large subsidies for many retailers to be able to upgrade the VeriFone systems with the technology.

“Often in the beginning of new innovations, you have to make it free just to offset the chaos that you’re asking a customer to go through,” Bergeron says.

“We are counting on retailers coast to coast to post these pilots saying, ‘I want to be part of that. I see a lot of consumers wanting to use their phones as a method to pay. I want to get a piece of that.’”

In other cases, such as with putting credit card capabilities in taxis, it may just take some evangelizing until people begin to see the benefit.

“With usage, people find that people spend more on plastic,” Bergeron says. “Governments collect more sales tax. Everybody wins with the electronification of payments. Typically the resistance is fairly short-lived.”

Either way, the goal with any investment of time and resources should be stimulating business.

“Ultimately, beyond the chaos, if customers aren’t willing to pay for something then it’s likely that no incremental value is being delivered,” Bergeron says.

While it takes some patience to evaluate an investment, a CEO needs to have the operating discipline to be able to call a dog a dog. If an investment isn’t profitable, move on and spend your time, money and R&D expenses elsewhere.

“Things do sometimes take longer to progress than one would like, but there comes a day in the evolution of any project where milestones aren’t being met,” Bergeron says. “Customers aren’t adopting. Customers aren’t paying. I think economics can be a great determiner.”

Cast the roles

Bergeron says to scale properly, make sure the right people are in the right positions over time. One of the main ways companies don’t scale properly is by not making sure the right people are the right positions over time.

“They think that it’s the same job, the same skill set,” he says. “It’s not.”

Bergeron gives the example of Asia, which used to be a $50 million division for the company. “When Asia is $250 million, like it is going to be next year, that’s a whole different set of skills,” he says.

“The guy running Latin America is running the company, in a sense, bigger than VeriFone was ten years ago.”

Bergeron says it is his responsibility to ensure all employees in the first two levels of top management are the right people for their jobs every year. In a company that was approximately 30 percent larger in 2011 than it was the previous year, one year can make the difference in someone outgrowing his or her job.

“It might be that there is some terrific employee somewhere in this organization whose skills and whose drive and whose capabilities have tripled in the last 10 years,” Bergeron says. “But guess what? We are six times larger, and that person has fallen behind.”

Today, the company has 700 U.S. and 2,800 international employees. When you’ve reached a certain size, developing the next generation of leaders is no longer a matter or training.

“At a certain level of executive management, there really is no training,” Bergeron says. “We’re not IBM. We’re not going to be sending people to Harvard for a summer workshop.”

Instead, you need to work with people to improve their skill sets in areas that can prepare them for the jobs they will be filling, for instance, by exposing them to different experiences.

“Part of the human development business is identifying areas of growth, and not just saying here is where you need to grow and walk away, but giving them a chance to work on those areas and providing the necessary additional experience,” Bergeron says.

“If there is a guy that I think is going to be running a continent one day, not just a country, and my concern is he doesn’t have multicultural experience, then I make sure that I take him out of his comfort zone and I give him a couple of countries where they don’t speak English. He has to travel there and learn how business is done another way.”

Bergeron believes that the company’s commitment to promotion from within is a cultural strength. It motivates people that if they work hard they can scale with the business.

“I want to give people at least the more-likely-than-not chance that if they continue to improve, there is going to be another bigger job for them if they want it,” Bergeron says.

With rare exceptions, very few of the company’s current executives and managers were outside recruits.

“For the most part, people who are running large countries, large continents today, were sales people that became product managers, that became country managers and just continued to overperform at every level,” Bergeron says.

As for Bergeron, his board is still giving him the thumbs up as the right CEO for the job. With the company six times the size it was when he took the job, it seems like a pattern that won’t break soon.

“I guess I scaled pretty well because the board has kept me,” Bergeron says.

“Time will tell, but it sounds like it’s going to be a very exciting next three or four years here.”

How to reach: VeriFone Systems Inc., www.verifone.com

The Bergeron File

Douglas Bergeron

Chairman and CEO

VeriFone Systems Inc.

Born: Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Education: York University in Toronto, Canada — B.A. with honors in computer science; University of Southern California — M.S.

What was your first job?

I had a paper route from age 10 to 16, gave accordion lessons from 16 to 20, and played accordion on Friday and Saturday nights in a wedding band.

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

I love reading to my kids before bedtime when I'm not out of town.

Who are your heroes in the business world and why?

I admire Larry Ellison for his tenacity and unwillingness to accept no for an answer.  I try to live by that motto myself.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love communicating to employees, customers, and investors. I love taking complex concepts and boiling them down to memorable and relevant simple themes.

Bergeron on the benefits of mobile payment technologies: The early word is that consumers are very anxious to replace a fairly simplistic experience that is the use of a credit card with a more robust experience that the retailer may know more about you based on the fact that your phone is a rich source of data for you. And as long as you permit it, the retailer may like to know who is there, why you are there, where you were before, what you are buying, (offering) some of the benefits that come from online purchasing, (such as) the one-click Amazon experience where they are suggesting other things to buy and knowing where to ship things automatically. There is an opportunity to create a richer customer-to-retailer experience once we start replacing cards with phones.

Published in Northern California

William Wang believes in the power of optimism. As Vizio Inc. endured the darkest days of the recession, Wang continued to believe that the brainpower of his 340 employees would be the ultimate separator that would allow his company to not only survive the recession but flourish after its end.

With that in mind, Wang has been relentless about creating a positive mindset throughout his company, starting with the example he sets.

“I believe that what goes around is what comes around,” says the founder and CEO of Vizio, a consumer electronics manufacturer. “I feel that I’m innovative as a leader, and the rest of the company follows me. Innovation isn’t just about the products we make, it’s about the way we operate. So we get our suppliers to move faster, we get our trucks to pick up merchandise faster, all the little details here and there. We’re a young company, so innovation is actually a pretty common thing within our walls.”

Wang founded Vizio in 2002, and has grown it to a company that generated approximately $3 billion in revenue during 2010. To keep Vizio’s people focused on what’s next for the company, Wang needed to engage his employees through many different avenues of communication, continually spread the basic principles of the company’s values and mission, and continually keep his long-range vision for the company at the front of everyone’s mind.

“I have to act as the cheerleader for the company,” Wang says. “There is nothing we can do about turning the economy around, so we’re going to focus on what we can do within the company instead of changing the economy around. Let’s just focus on the things we can improve ourselves, and remember that we have a good track record. If we keep on doing the same things we’ve done before, we can counteract a lot of the negative news in the environment.”

Set a common goal

If you want to develop a central focus within your organization, you need to form a central goal and put it in front of each person. No matter what task each employee performs within your organizational structure, they are helping the company achieve its goal.

In Vizio’s case, Wang wanted the innovative power of his employees leveraged to create products that are not just on the leading edge of technology, but affordable — and produced in an efficient manner that reduces process waste and gets products to market as quickly and simply as possible.

“Our business was fortunate in that it did not get impacted as much as some of our other competitors by the recession, and affordability was something that was of an even stronger focus as we accommodated the weaker demand in the consumer electronics sector,” Wang says. “That’s why our business is still hanging in there despite the economy, due to our strategy to make products affordable. For example, we recently launched a tablet computer, and instead of fighting with companies like Apple, we came out with a product in the $300 price range. Hopefully by doing that, we’re trying to create traction for Vizio in a new marketplace.”

To Wang, efficiency in the production process is another form of innovation that ultimately affects the consumer. The end user might never see the process by which a product is conceived, tested, produced and brought to market, but efficiency plays a large role in Vizio’s ability to offer electronics at prices below many of their competitors.

“We still have maintained our strategy the same way, regardless of how weak the economy has been,” he says. “In a weaker economy, you have to be super-efficient to be able to pass the savings on to the consumer. That’s how you grab market share away from your weaker competitors.”

Wang’s plan for recession survival is based on basic principles that just about every manufacturing business has employed in some form. Streamline operations and try to get your product to marketplace with a competitive price attached to it. That in and of itself isn’t where you need to expend most of your energy as a leader. Where you need to do most of your work is in your capacity as a communicator.

At Vizio, Wang believes the best innovation comes from employees who realize that they are, in some way, a part of the company’s brain trust. They might not be in the boardroom making large-scale, strategic decisions, but they are constantly challenged to come up with ideas — new products, new spins on established products, new processes, new policies.

All of the ideas can’t be used, but the bigger issue is employee engagement. Your people need to be enabled to think for themselves. For Wang, it comes back to setting the example himself, and getting others to follow his example. Wang can’t afford to communicate simply to hear himself talk. The company won’t advance if he is the only person doing the pulling. Wang needs other employees to provide momentum, as well, by facilitating their own communication opportunities.

“It’s all about teamwork,” he says. “In order to build a team, you can’t just tell people what to do. At some companies, the leadership will tell people, ‘Go do this and do that.’ But that doesn’t always work. People have to be able to know each other. So it is critical in my opinion to have that lateral communication. I encourage that by trying to do it a lot. I walk around the building all the time and try to talk to as many people as I can. It still helps that we only have 340 people. It used to be extremely easy for us, because when you have 30 people, you know everyone by their first name. But we still try to spend a lot of time sharing ideas.”

Wang believes that setting the example for engaged, motivated employees isn’t something you can talk about. It’s something you have to do. The only way employees will follow the path you’ve laid down is if they see it demonstrated in actions instead of words.

“I don’t plan for communication,” Wang says. “I just do it. I like to communicate with everybody. I think it’s something you have to do and make part of your culture. It’s the communication age, you have e-mail — though I really don’t like e-mail because it’s a one-way form of communication — and you also have the opportunity to call each other, get out into the office and talk with each other. And especially if you are in a smaller company, you should take the opportunity to walk around and talk to people.”

Be a coach

The best CEOs are often like the best sports coaches. They set the goals, they forge a path to meet those goals, and they teach the principles that will allow their charges to walk the path. Beyond that, you have to trust that the lessons have taken root and your people will take the principles that you have taught and run toward the goal with them.

In other words, you have to delegate responsibility and accountability to the appropriate level. In Vizio’s innovation-centered culture, that means Wang sets the parameters within which employees can innovate but tries to exert very little control over the process beyond that.

“I want to be a coach,” Wang says. “I don’t want to be a player. If every once in a while someone goes off in a wrong direction, I have to point them back to the way I see fit. But once you decide to delegate, you don’t bring that responsibility back. I don’t spend a lot of time challenging them on what to do.”

If you are in Wang’s position and have either founded your company or been a key player since early in the company’s history, you might be used to certain processes. But as the company grows, you should learn to rein that in and, as much as possible, allow employees to come up with their own ideas and their own processes for trying out those ideas. As long as they aren’t innovating their way off into left field, away from your company’s goals and mission, you should allow room for the mistakes and trial by error that is inherent to the innovation process.

“I used to be more of a micromanager, but I don’t do that anymore,” Wang says. “I found it is a lot more effective if I find capable and willing people to help me execute on the goals of the organization. I don’t believe I can do it all, so I focus more on the vision and delegate the details to the great group of people that we have here.”

Your main roles in the delegation process are to hold your direct reports accountable for reaching the goals that have been established and to ensure that the goals are realistic and reachable. It is not an exact science, but it involves setting a balance between where you want to grow the company and the capabilities of your people. You want goals that are aggressive, yet can be attained without stretching your manpower and resources to the breaking point.

“Everybody has to have a common goal, but the goal has to be reachable,” Wang says. “I see a lot of CEOs set out in pursuit of impossible goals that their people will have a hard time reaching. You have to make sure the goals are achievable, which is why our goals as a company are approved by myself and my top management.”

Wang also points to incentivization as a way to ensure that goals are reached. If you put an extensive rewards program in place that include bonuses, recognition and other gifts, you will make the goals of your organization more personal for your employees.

It’s not wrong to ask your employees to be motivated by serving the greater good of moving the company forward, but personal gain is still a powerful motivator in just about any company.

“Ultimately, we’re in a business situation, so the rewards for us are going to come in the form of money, bonuses and profit sharing,” Wang says. “We do quarterly profit sharing, so the more the company makes, the more the individual team members receive. I believe that when people come to work, the single biggest reason is to make more money — that, and to fulfill their desire for achievement.”

To get the most out of your employees, you need to strike a balance between motivating them through personal gain and motivating them through serving the greater good of improving the company’s outlook. Wang says that stimulating innovation has elements of incentivizing, promoting employees to greater levels of responsibility and large-scale goal-setting.

“Money might be the No. 1 motivation for employees, but it doesn’t mean it’s the number one motivation for them to do their jobs right,” he says. “Our goal of being No. 1 in the U.S. in our industry is a great motivator, not only to give people a reason to work hard, but also to associate themselves with a company that is growing in spite of the economy.

“But it still starts with the person at the top. You have to be willing to give them an incentive first before the positive reinforcement takes place. People have to know that I want to share in our success, then people will work hard and want to come to work. If they have coworkers who share the same values, that is really how you start to get a family-type atmosphere in the workplace.”

How to reach: Vizio Inc., (949) 428-2525 or www.vizio.com

The Wang file

Born: Taipei, Taiwan

Education: Electrical engineering degree from the University of Southern California

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

My best lesson is to learn how to delegate, which I learned through years of experience as an entrepreneur.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

The business leader has to be inspirational, has to have charisma and provide people with hope, and they have to be willing to share with everybody. A business leader has to be generous.

What is your definition of success?

Being in a position where you can come to work every morning with a smile on your face.

Published in Orange County

Growth mode. A lot of business heads want to be there. David Segura practically lives there.

Segura founded VisionIT in 1997, growing the IT solutions firm to more than 900 employees and $230 million in revenue by 2010, expanding the firm’s reach to an international stage, with offices in Mexico, Puerto Rico and India. For Segura, who oversees VisionIT as CEO, growth has been less of a phase and more of a state of being.

“The biggest initial challenge was starting a business from scratch,” Segura says. “It took many years for us to build a strong brand, name recognition in the market, and take it from that stage to national, and then to global. Today our challenges are managing the growth and expansion of VisionIT.”

Growth has required Segura to manage VisionIT — the brand name of Vision Information Technologies Inc. — by developing a strategy for the future and rallying hundreds of employees around that strategy, and continually finding new talent that can help VisionIT remain an influential player in in the IT space. Segura has needed to maintain a strong focus on the long-range goals that he and his leadership team have put in place for the company, while still maintaining a degree of flexibility to adapt to market changes and unforeseen opportunities.

“What is exciting is seeing not only the top-line growth and seeing how much we’ve grown as an organization over the years, but for me it’s more so seeing our solutions become world class, leading the industry and being a key partner to many of our Fortune 500 customers, and our state and local customers,” Segura says. “That was ultimately the vision I saw for VisionIT, having a global impact and influence in the IT sector.”

Gather your people

The strategy and areas of focus in any growing organization need to be defined at the top level, with you and your management team. Segura recognized that fact early in his tenure at VisionIT and has strived to build and maintain a talented leadership team that is cohesive, yet not afraid to express diverse viewpoints.

To aid in building that type of team, Segura sought outside help, bringing in a former executive from Johnson & Johnson to serve as a consultant.

“I loved the group we built in the internal organization, but thought it would be great to have an external executive who has already gone through and managed a global operation, getting his insight on overcoming similar challenges that he faced regarding growth and expansion,” Segura says. “That is one definite recommendation I have: leverage all the assets in your organization. In our case, in building a strategy, we needed to leverage our top executives in the company as well as bringing in the right outside advisers.”

Segura also took steps to augment his internal team with additional direct hires, including the addition of a chief information officer to deal expressly with internal matters.

“A lot of times, companies in our industry hire a CIO in that role more for customer-facing matters,” he says. “But in our case, based on the size of global operations, we reached a point where it became very critical to have a senior leader focused on internal operations, investing in technology that would enable us to better deliver our services across our global footprint.”

As the leader, you have to walk a tightrope between team unity and independent thinking. You want decision-makers who are in agreement about what your company is and where it needs to go. But you also want leaders who can get everything on the table in your planning meetings — points of contention, disagreements, differing philosophies on how to get from point A to point B — so those issues can be resolved in a constructive manner.

At VisionIT, Segura says a major key has been to simplify the focus. The main areas of focus for your business are the foundational building blocks. Their importance can’t be overstated. However, you need to keep the language short and basic. If you can’t sum the goal up in a few words or at most a sentence or two, you’re probably not zeroing in enough on a defined set of goals.

“That’s what I have learned, to keep things as simple as possible,” Segura says. “You want it to be easily understood by everyone in the organization. So that means coming up with something that is easily conveyed, so that people throughout the company can understand the strategy. With your overall strategic plan, it starts with the vision and mission of the company. That is something that doesn’t change. The ongoing future of the company is something that is best left static. The next level down is really the three to four major focused priorities for the overall business.”

Those areas can be broadly stated priorities, such as a focus on people, organizational excellence, financial excellence, or sales and market growth. The areas of priority should be phrased in a way that it conveys clearly what is important to the business.

“Based on the business model, if it’s an organization that creates products for the market, research and development may be one of the core, focused areas of priority,” Segura says. “For our organization, as an example, people and organizational excellence is one of those focused priorities. It’s an area in our business, providing services, that becomes very key for us that we have the right people in the right positions in the organization and are giving them the tools and resources to fulfill their daily objectives.”

Beneath the core areas are objectives housed within each core area. Those objectives can be more flexible and adaptable to changing market conditions, as opposed to the objectives higher up the ladder, which are foundational in nature.

“Those are the areas that, as you are evolving, some get completed in a short time frame,” Segura says. “Others take time to reach. In our plan, we’re typically looking one year and three years out. Then constantly, on a monthly basis, we are reviewing in executive leadership team meetings what will complete the strategic objectives. We’ll ask if there is anything new happening in the market that could impact our strategic plan.”

Go back to the plan

Many executive teams will put a great deal of time and effort into crafting, sanding and polishing an all-encompassing strategic plan aimed at giving the company a well-defined sense of direction for the coming years – and then file it away on a shelf or a hard drive and seldom look at it again.

Segura says that is a recipe for slow erosion of your company’s focus on the vision and goals you originally set in place. In short, putting your strategic plan aside, whether a conscious action or not, will cause alignment to suffer throughout your organization.

“Sometimes people just put a plan on paper, then go and never look at it again,” Segura says. “They never ask if the plan is still really representative of who we are as a company and where we are going. In our case, we tried to avoid that by pulling together in our process a couple of years ago. We went back and looked at our vision and mission, and asked if that would best represent our company. We had participants at all levels in the business help form an initial framework, finalize it and roll it out. Then, at the next level, as I shared it, I was setting the three or four or five top focused priorities in the business.”

You might not change your foundational vision for the company, but the way you reach that vision by serving your customers might evolve over time.

Segura uses the example of employing social media as a means of finding job candidates. The tools you use today, such as LinkedIn, might change.

“Say we’re going to leverage more LinkedIn to do that,” Segura says. “We would have someone do some discovery, make a plan, come back and say this is our strategic objective around social media. We’re going to make a certain level of investment in LinkedIn, we are going to run a pilot to attract this type of talent to our organization, we are going to gauge it, give it a time frame, and gather feedback and numbers.

“But let’s say a new tool comes out in the market. I’ll share in our strategic framework that a new tool might be out, there might be a better tool than LinkedIn, and is getting a lot more passive candidates. That is where you’re going to need some flexibility to say, ‘OK, we have already gone down the path, we’re making this investment, but we need to take a look at another tool in the market. That is why you need constant monitoring, review and discussion to make sure you are on top of what is happening in the industry.”

Leverage your talent

Whether you rely heavily on social media as a recruiting tool or have found success with more traditional methods, if you are growing, you need an effective process by which to add new talent to your team — and a means of making sure you’re getting the most out of that talent once it’s in the door.

At VisionIT, measuring employee performance is a key to the strategic planning process. Segura and his staff want to ensure that management is aware of the skill sets within the organization and how each employee is being utilized.

“We review all the organizational charts, understanding who reports to which manager, how the model is working, how are people performing and whether they’re hitting their key metrics,” Segura says. “Without those types of things, people may say they feel great about their job and where the organization is headed, but the bottom line is the performance. If you’re in a sales role, you might say that you’re getting all these great meetings with potential customers, but how much revenue is being generated? So that becomes very important, the recognition of the metrics of the organization by a specific person, and as you are evolving and growing, you’re seeing certain thing, certain trends happening in the business, as you are evaluating the workload for team members.”

Evaluating the workload of your team members is another check and balance against inefficiency. As you grow the business, you will often see the strengths of your team members in action, which will help you best leverage their skills, reduce inefficiency and create a scalable system of delegation that will offer extra capacity as the size of your business increases.

“I ask my senior team members to often look at what they’re working on and whether it is a good utilization of their time,” Segura says. “And I ask them to continue to evaluate themselves and their teams as we work on more projects and engagements, winning new customers. As you do that, you begin to see the strengths of your team members. You see what they love to do, what they’re really enthused about taking on. That further helps you to evaluate as you grow. Because as you grow, it will become apparent that there are certain areas that need focus and complete dedication. That’s definitely happened here, where we now have senior leaders dedicated to finance and the sales side.

“You see the value over time. When everyone is focused, they can work to achieve great results.”

How to reach: VisionIT, (313) 420-2000 or www.visionit.com

The Segura file

Name: David Segura

Title: Founder and CEO

Company: VisionIT

Born: Detroit

Education: Computer science degree from the University of Michigan-Dearborn

First job: One thing for me was that I was always very entrepreneurial. I started a side tutoring business in college, tutoring kids in technology. They didn’t like technology and I loved it, so I developed a niche tutoring to help them get an A in IT class. That’s one example of many entrepreneurial ventures when I was young.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One of my favorite lessons is about enjoying the journey. We’re often running so much and focused on our objectives, we need to truly appreciate the time we are in and the opportunities that are before us. I remind my team about enjoying every moment. When we were launching our Mexico operations, I reminded them that this is the one time we’ll do it. You can go through changes, it can be stressful, but enjoy the moment.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

There are three major traits: be a very good listener, understand the dynamics of each business you are in, and communicate back with your team on your direction. And making sure people are having some fun along the way.

What is your definition of success?

Success is a journey, so I go back to enjoying the process if you’re doing something that has a purpose and an impact. Ultimately, great service is rewarded with more opportunity.

Published in Detroit

Just about every industry is evolving due to advancements in technology. For Jonathan Brassington, his business is IT services, which means that not only must he evolve LiquidHub Inc. — which he oversees as co-founder and CEO — he must also provide the services that will help his company’s clients evolve, as well.

It’s a challenge that has required Brassington to keep a constant eye on the market, and continually find new ways to serve the market. That, in turn, has required LiquidHub — which generated $54 million in 2010 revenue — to remain nimble, agile and adaptable, which has become an increasingly difficult task as the company’s work force has soared well into the hundreds.

Smart Business spoke with Brassington about how to keep a business adaptable and scalable as it grows.

Define who you are. We develop and launched what we call LiquidHub 2.0, which is our internal transformation. We really developed a framework of core processes. We have eight core processes that we identified and sub-processes under each of them. We’re using each of those as an internal transformation framework for the firm. Everything from sales and marketing to service delivery to alliance partner management, organizational design in team building, financial operating metrics. So the big view from my lens is communication of this to every unit in the firm. You need to have a clear, consistent vision and metrics, and relating the metrics to the vision, and communicating that to everyone on a consistent basis. Every two months, we do an offsite meeting with 35 or so people. We’re approaching 1,000 people now between the U.S. and India. And we’re hiring 30 to 40 people a month now.

Learn the market. Our strategy is based on a client-centric view, so we look at the vertical industries that we’re targeting — financial services and health care. We’re looking at capabilities, whether it’s things we build organically or through acquisitions. We just did our first acquisition. So we’re looking to add new capability that matches the goals that our clients are trying to achieve, or the transformations that are impacting the specific industries that we’re serving our clients in. That is a core metric for us.

We have historically been a technology integration firm, but we are now marrying that core competency and capability into addressing industry-specific problems and opportunities, relative to how those industries are changing. Then, using that as a way to develop a longer-term, stickier relationship with our key clients. You’re looking for a way to get much more intimate with the business, as opposed to waiting for them to address the business problem, and then we’re having to come in as the technology Swiss Army knife. We want to engage with them in ideating what the business solution could be, and how technology is used.

Know your separators. We’re in an $850 billion industry, that’s IT services. It’s very fragmented. The top 20 players account for less than 50 percent of the revenue. After that, it’s very fragmented. So our opportunity was to build a midsized firm that is an alternative to the big guys, but is more scale and critical mass than a 10-person boutique shop. So the challenge for us all along has been how to focus. Within IT services, there is a lot of sub-specialties, and we’re always seeing opportunities within existing clients to do something that is adjacent but not exactly what we do. What we’ve learned to do is focus on some specific areas of competency as we continue to get deeper with existing clients. But also, we need to be agile enough to innovate within those competencies.

A lot of people confuse innovation with going into a new line of business or adding something new. Our view is we stay focused on the mission and the core competencies in areas we’re attacking. We’re always applying new paradigms and approaches in how to deliver them. We’re innovating within the focus areas, versus just trying to do something new, and getting too broad, but not deep enough.

The advice that I’d pass on to other colleagues is that driving strategic focus doesn’t mean you stay stagnant, but it also means that you’re agile enough in innovating and reinventing yourself in the areas that you focus on.

How to reach: LiquidHub Inc., (484) 654-1400 or www.liquidhub.com

Published in Philadelphia
Saturday, 31 December 2011 19:01

Frank Napolitano on designing success

While many famous quotations turn out to be apocryphal, there is one attributed to Albert Einstein that I like even if he didn’t actually say it. It went something like this: “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding the solution.” 

Whether you are saving the world or just responsible for designing a new product or service, that allocation of time spent thinking versus doing still pertains. So I like to reshape Einstein’s attributed quip this way: If you have an hour to create a product or service, spend 59 minutes figuring out how it will elegantly solve a customer’s problem, then spend a minute designing it.

Designing new products and services for customers takes a great deal of courage. Those of us who are tasked with that responsibility know that we are risking our reputations, and generally a great deal of our company’s money, recommending a particular design.  But there are some simple ways to improve our odds of producing a design that will be a success.

First, remember that great design springs from creativity. Your goal is to delight your end user. Yes, I said delight. Your goal is not merely to meet a need. Your goal is to so gracefully address a need that you delight your customer. This requires creativity. And according to at least one expert on the subject, design creativity requires four essential qualities: empathy, intuition, imagination and idealism. Now, these probably don’t sound like qualities you will find in the average engineer — but they are critical to creative thinking. So, as you bring together your team to develop products and services that elegantly solve your customers’ problem or problems, be sure that at least some members of that group are empathetic, intuitive, imaginative and idealistic people. And listen carefully to what they say because their input is as close as you are likely to get to hearing the voice of your customer within your corporate office.

In speaking of that, we frequently are tempted to seek the opinions of our customers when designing a new product, but unless the product or service you are designing is an improvement to or an extension of an existing one, this generally is not a good way to find creativity.

Be bold. You know what is technologically possible for your company and how to best leverage that technology.

Second, keep in mind the words of one of my strategic planning mentors: Strategy is less about what you choose to do than what you choose not to do. When it comes to designing products and services, this is better stated slightly differently: Great design is less about how much your product or service does than it is about how simply it does it. This is sometimes called “the complexity of simplicity” and it frequently is described by reference to the iPod.

I prefer to point to an earlier creator of beautiful and simple designs that performed incredibly complex functions in a way that delighted customers. Danish radio and TV manufacturer Bang & Olufsen’s elimination of nearly all buttons and knobs from their equipment made us first realize that, in the area of design, less is almost always more.

Perhaps your life and designs are a little more ordinary than those of late visionaries Steve Jobs and Peter Bang. But focusing on creativity as the driver of innovation is entirely relevant to every design process. Whether you are creating a new handle for a kitchen peeler or revamping the system screens used by your company’s call center personnel, creativity and elegance mark the difference between useful designs and delightful designs.

Frank Napolitano is the CEO of GlobalFit. Before joining GlobalFit in 2006, he ran strategic planning for the largest gym chain in the Northeast. Napolitano has held corporate leadership roles since 1984, including CEO positions at five different companies. Before that, he practiced law and public accounting with two national firms. Reach him at frankn@globalfit.com.

Published in Philadelphia

During my 30-plus-year entrepreneurial business career, I’ve learned that great opportunities never come at the so-called “right time.”

In 1983, I owned a successful business in Toronto when the chance to acquire the franchise rights for Molly Maid in the United States became available. My family and my wife’s family lived in Toronto, and our business was going well. The idea of selling our growing business, moving to the U.S., and betting on Molly Maid wasn’t popular with most, including my family.

Even though I knew that I could have been quite happy with the status quo, my God-given entrepreneurial instincts told me that bringing Molly Maid to the U.S. had more potential than anything I had contemplated yet. I felt I just had to do it.

With decades of experience regarding new opportunities, I look back at lessons learned and know that with any risk there’s always a price to pay. In my case, it has meant following my gut instinct and leaving something secure and predictable for something I knew had potential to be even better.

In 1984, the choice to stay in Canada and continue to grow my former company would have been easy. That choice, however, would have left me wondering what could have been, and having regrets was not the way I wanted to live. Somehow, I convinced my wife to relocate our family four hours away to Ann Arbor, Mich., and chase our dream, which has been better than anything we even imagined at that time. Looking back, I realize that move defined me as an entrepreneur and not as a businessman. An entrepreneur is a person who will take the opportunities presented, and the businessperson will stay and continue to run his or her business.

In 1998, we added 1-800-DryClean to our business holdings and then the opportunity to add the Mr. Handyman brand presented itself. We were busy and overstretched, and it seemed like the worst time to get involved in another business, though I’m thankful we did. Opportunity and timing are typically at odds with one another, and despite the many reasons not to, we brought on Mr. Handyman and it has consistently dominated the home repair and maintenance industry. Service Brands International has even added a fourth franchise business, ProTect Painters, which is growing nicely. We are still based in Ann Arbor, and have successfully launched, built and subsequently divested other brands as well.

To this day, I continue to be amazed at how an outsider — though it needs to be the right observer — can often see things that an insider doesn’t see. That’s why we use a board of advisers to help us see what we might be missing. If you are not using a board of advisers, financial advisers, nonprofit experts, etc., in your business or even in your life, I couldn’t recommend anything better for helping you create a better future than you could on your own.

As I reflect on more than 30 years as an entrepreneur, I believe the secret is that good opportunities find you, not the other way around. You can’t wake up one morning and say you’re going to go out and find an opportunity — it just doesn’t happen that way. If you are a true entrepreneur, you have to live your life, which is full with family, friends and business, but still remain willing to choose and accept the right opportunities when your gut tells you it’s good — no matter how bad you think the timing may be. That’s because good opportunities never come at what you think is the right time. 

David McKinnon is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Service Brands International, an umbrella organization that oversees home services brands, including Molly Maid, Mr. Handyman, 1-800-DryClean and ProTect Painters. For more information, visit www.servicebrands.com.

Published in Detroit

Throughout all of the elements of leadership that I’ve learned, having a shared vision underscores them all. Without it, you won’t achieve the others.

Let me start by sharing a favorite “aha” moment. A few years ago, I was speaking on a panel at a conference and this question was posed, “How do you hire your leadership team?” Another panelist responded, “I hire my senior leadership members like I buy shoes for my kids, two sizes too big.” I quickly quipped, “Well, then I buy a size 12 for my kids.” It was a great analogy. And it makes a great point. When looking at the team you are building, it has to start with finding players who can embrace your organization’s vision and, as importantly, values and who have the capacity to grow with you and drive you and the organization to a better place.

It is not enough to declare a goal and demand results. You have to cultivate vision and purpose so your teams are moving in the same direction and are inspired to stretch in order to deliver results that go beyond expectations. Results are only one element. If you want to build relationships, listen effectively and create a place of integrity — it’s critical to have a shared vision for success. (And by the way, this is owned by every leader in the company — not just the CEO.)

Declare the dream. If I am going to inspire you to join in my cause, I have to be committed enough to say it publically, say it often and measure against it. Each year at Cbeyond, we unite our teams around a theme that maps to our strategic imperatives. We call it the “Year Of … .” This simple “rallying cry” supported by an ongoing communication of outcomes on metrics that we measure against provide our employees a link to what’s important and how we are doing. It is a powerful way to align our efforts, unite the organization and achieve results together. The “Year Of” theme introduces a shared vulnerability into the organization where we are all committed to a shared vision and shared opportunity — from the CEO down to each individual contributor.

Match incentives to foster collaboration. At Cbeyond, every corporate employee gets a bonus, and we all share the same bonus goals. It’s our way of ensuring that our incentives align with our focus, drive the behavior we want and create an environment that prizes collaboration. We’re in it together and it impacts our compensation. Period. Consider this: Our vision is to be a champion for small business and to deliver an experience that has them stay longer, buy more and refer others to us. To insure that happens, 20 percent of our bonuses are based on how our customers rank their satisfaction with Cbeyond. We turned our vision into a commitment and we aligned our culture, our focus and our compensation. As a result, how we serve our customers permeates conversations every day and in every department. It doesn’t happen in every company and it isn’t an accident that it happens at Cbeyond — our goal is “customer intimacy.”

Paint the picture, tell the story. Context is critical to leadership. “This is where I am taking you and why — and what it will look like when we arrive.” Putting it in every day terms and talking about it in a way that can be understood is key to gaining commitment. I’ve learned through the years to slow down, include others in my thought process and share the experiences that are driving my “moment of clarity” and informing my decision-making. Whether you are talking privately, with your team or with an audience of hundreds, consider the power of framing your point in a story. Telling stories can be an impactful way to create a clear, compelling vision.

You won’t do your team or yourself any favors if your “shared vision” changes every week. Know your outcomes, measure your results and analyze your gaps. Achievement certainly isn’t a given. The power is in quickly organizing around your opportunities to move into a positive trajectory and then rallying all hands to get there as a team. The value of having and communicating a shared vision is that your teams will begin to recognize gaps as fast as you and come to the table eager and ready to be a part of the solution.

Jim Geiger is the founder, chairman, president and CEO of Cbeyond, a company that provides IT and communications services to small businesses throughout the United States and also provided the world’s first 100 percent VoIP local phone network. Learn more at www.cbeyond.net.

Published in Atlanta