As Alan Kalter met with his employees on a Sunday night in August 1996, his advertising agency’s building burned behind them. No one was hurt, but everyone’s hard work at W.B. Doner & Co. was going up in flames.
But Kalter, chairman and CEO, didn’t let that stop him or his company from moving ahead. At the meeting on the lawn, he told employees to call clients about the fire first thing Monday morning. Employees also told clients that they would not miss a deadline, and although they were out of the building for 22 months, they delivered on that promise.
Kalter says many competitors thought the company would go under, but instead, business grew and, in 2007, Doner posted revenue of $173.1 million.
Kalter said one key to the growth was giving people more responsibility and giving them the authority that goes along with responsibility to make decisions.
Smart Business spoke with Kalter about how to make decisions and develop a vision.
Make a decision. You have to be a good enough listener to share with others and then understand what they’re talking about before you make a decision. But, you also have to make the decision. Somebody’s got to make a decision. It’s part of the job of being a leader.
I just read a book that was the transcripts of the discussions that Kennedy had during the Cuban Missile Crisis. ... Basically, he kept saying, ‘Give me another opinion. What about this? Give me another opinion.’
He kept pushing everybody to give him points of view, sometimes based on information, sometimes based on intuition, and, in the end, he made a decision. He got it from experts, meaning the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or he got it from people he believed in and trusted, and he got it from people who had the pulse of the nation. But, in the end, he had to make a decision. Nobody else made the decision.
I think, in life, people like to give opinions, but they like leaders who make decisions and then move on. They’re not always going to be right, but, at least, you have a decision, and therefore, you have action.
No decision is a decision, and it’s not a very good one. You basically decide for inaction.
In the end, every organization is a living organism that has to accomplish something. At the top, somebody’s got to make decisions that allow people to do their jobs. If you don’t make those decisions, they can’t do their jobs.
It’s the one thing a leader should do is make decisions so people can do their work.
We make a decision, we don’t second-guess it, we don’t have regrets, we move forward. If we have to change that decision, OK, but we don’t do it with recrimination.
Develop a vision. That’s a lot of listening, a lot of analysis, looking at the competition, understanding where you might fit in to that.
Our company, being in the advertising business, you have to look at where you think advertising in general is going, where you think you’re going to fit in to that, what resources you need in order to fit in to that.
Then, obviously, you have to share that vision with a lot of people and get feedback, and that’s where the listening comes in.
You have to be honest about what your capabilities are. You can’t just create a vision, then decide, ‘I’m going to do that,’ but it doesn’t have any reality baked into it. I think there is the understanding of the opportunity, but then there is the pragmatic side of what is possible.
Know your strengths and weaknesses. It’s critical, and that shouldn’t be something that holds you back. That should help you understand where the real opportunities are for you to capitalize.
Why go chase something that some other company owns and is well ensconced in that territory? Now, you are going to have to try and dislodge them or find something that you can do better than anybody else, and make that a point of view and then build your resources around that single point of view. It’s like P&G basically saying, if you’re not No. 1 or 2 in the category, it’s a brand somebody else should own.
Embrace failure. Don’t hide from a mistake or hide from a failure. Embrace the failure. If you embrace it, you can learn from it. If you just have a failure and the failure becomes mentally debilitating, what good is that?
Every failure, there has to be something that can be learned from it because you didn’t know it if you knew the reason the decision would result in failure, you wouldn’t have made the decision.
Learn from it so you don’t make that mistake again, and move on. I make decisions that sometimes result in failure, but that’s the way it goes. But, so do a lot of people here make decisions that result in failure. Then we learn from it. We don’t have recriminations about it because I think recriminations stifle inventiveness and innovation.
HOW TO REACH: W.B. Doner & Co., (248) 354-9700 or www.wbdoner.com