Change up Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

MaryAnn Rivers was staring at a two-headed monster when she looked at the future of Entertainment Publications LLC.

On one flank was the problem that every business in southeastern Michigan has faced during the past couple of years, to greater and lesser degrees: the economy. Entertainment Publications produces, among other things, coupon books for purchase. But when the economy falters, consumers are less likely to spend money on nonessential expenses, which means fewer coupon books sold, and fewer coupons used from books that are sold.

On the other flank was the changing face of the market that Rivers’ company serves. Entertainment Publications has historically had a major presence in grassroots fundraising, supplying schools and community organizations with sales items. In recent years, some aspects of the company’s fundraising business have undergone a shift in focus.

“We have a gift wrap and products business that we sell to schools as a portfolio of products that we offer for fundraising,” says Rivers, the company’s president and CEO. “For many years, it was a highly profitable product. But if you think about gift wrap and a lot of those gift items, with Costco and some of the big-box stores being very competitive, where you can go in and buy 10 rolls of gift wrap that are fairly high quality for a fairly low price, the value proposition just isn’t there for consumers to pay the price that they need to pay in a fundraising environment. It wasn’t a highly profitable product anymore. We didn’t completely abandon it, but we did make some significant changes to the business model.”

For Rivers and all of the 700 employees at privately held Entertainment Publications, change has been the one constant, and the impetus for change has come from consumers, the marketplace and the economy itself.

Keeping her company nimble enough to react to change has caused Rivers to analyze herself as a leader and a communicator and look for other employees who could lead and communicate throughout the company.

It has been an ongoing task and has required Rivers and her leadership team to embrace change and thrive in an uncertain environment — then ask everyone down the ladder to do the same.

“Once you anticipate what the need is, it’s all about leading people through it quickly, being able to rally the troops and get them moving as fast as they need to, getting them to understand the critical nature of the situation and why it’s so important,” Rivers says.

Stay focused on the basics

When leading your company through a time of change, first you need to identify the areas that aren’t going to change — namely, your core values and operating strategy. Then you have to align your senior leadership on the values and strategy. Leadership team members need alignment first since they are the ones who will carry those foundational cultural principles to the rest of the company.

“I look at (core values and strategy) in kind of two different ways,” Rivers says. “They’re very connected but very different. To relate to the strategy, you need to first get your leadership team very clear and aligned on that strategy. That takes time. It takes a lot of debate and a lot of challenging on what that should be and what that is. But you need to make sure everyone on your team is absolutely aligned.

“From there, you go out and start talking with your stakeholders and constituencies, and really get input from them.”

A focused strategic plan should also be free from distractions that might encroach from the periphery of the business. You and your leadership team should comb through the fibers of your business to see if there are any units or initiatives that don’t fit with your overall direction. A streamlined business is able to adapt to change more effectively and, as a result, is better able to weather the challenges that the market and economy can pose.

“Take all of the other distractions away,” Rivers says. “Get rid of ancillary businesses, ancillary and unimportant initiatives, things that are taking away from the core, uniform strategy that you’re trying to deploy. It’s an ongoing effort. It’s an evolution, and you keep working through it. You keep building momentum over time, and eventually it does pick up.

“Doing that is a lot about assessment and analysis financially. How those businesses or products or channels are either contributing or not contributing to the overall business. You need to understand it, figure out what it is doing and make a case to the organization as to why it doesn’t make sense to play in this arena anymore.”

On the core values side, your task is to engage the company as a whole, creating a dialogue with employees from all levels. You can tell them what you think the company stands for, but they also need to tell you what they think the company stands for.

“The values are so personal for employees, and you really want to get them to buy in to those values,” Rivers says. “But there is also a point in time when you’re never going to get consensus, so you get input and you pick core values, and you start to build those values into the organization and the culture.”

Build the case for change

Any time you try to initiate a major change in a large organization, chances are you will face some kind of resistance. It starts when you make the decision to streamline and build a more nimble, agile business that can react to change.

“You can make the case for why you can’t play in a certain area anymore, but there is still going to be resistance,” Rivers says. “Sometimes, those are pet projects or pet businesses that you’re trying to eliminate, things that people really want to hang on to. You can get some of the same issues when it comes to culture. There are things that are great, things that you want to keep, and there are certain aspects of the culture that you need to move on from. You have to be very stubborn in some cases, having patience but also really sending the message that this has to change. Sometimes the most painful moments are when you come to the realization that change has to occur.”

As the leader of the business, you can’t control how every person reacts to impending change. But you can build the case through constant and consistent communication that repeatedly states your reasons for change. From there, you need to listen to what your employees are saying, what their concerns are and what feedback they want to give.

You need to make yourself available across multiple communication avenues, and you need to open yourself up to tough, challenging questions from employees who might have dissenting opinions or concerns about their future — and be willing to answer those questions in a frank, straightforward manner.

“There are always ‘me’ questions,” Rivers says. “What does this change mean to me; what does it mean to my future role? With what has gone on with the economy, people are wondering if they’re going to have a job. They have concerns about their families and themselves. They’re looking for a level of confidence in the business strategy and the way we’re going to market, that it all makes sense.”

As with many other aspects of leadership, fielding challenging questions is a learned skill. It’s something you resolve to focus on.

“I personally like question-and-answer sessions where people ask tough questions that you have to answer,” Rivers says. “You don’t dodge any of them, regardless of how tough the questions are. Then you have to depend on your leadership team, which can continue to work with their teams and get them to understand the case for change. You have to go back and make the case again sometimes.

“You also have to be very involved in walking around. I go out in the field on sales ride-alongs a lot. If you have salespeople in the field, you need to get out and talk to them and listen to what they’re saying. The more you listen and respond to the things that are important to them, the more likely they are to trust you and buy in. If you don’t listen, they’re not going to listen back.”

Listening takes practice. It goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to absorb and candidly answer tough questions.

“You have to provide opportunities and set up situations where people feel comfortable providing feedback and giving information,” Rivers says. “You have to truly be committed to genuinely listening, and recognizing that you get more knowledge and information by sitting back and listening than by continually talking or trying to send messages. Some people have a natural gift for listening, but we frankly can all become better listeners. It just requires practice. You can also find someone in the company who is accountable, someone who is willing to be honest with you and tell you if you’re not listening enough.”

Build change leaders

You can’t build the case for change alone. You need other leaders throughout your organization who can also keep the case for change front and center with their peers and direct reports.

Rivers says that internally, you will be able to identify the people who truly embrace change by working with them over time. But it also helps to bring in fresh perspectives from outside the organization, which means you need a recruiting and interviewing process that helps to identify change agents.

“By working with people, you start to get a sense for how comfortable they are with change,” she says. “Certain people thrive on change. They love it, and it’s fairly easy to spot that. On that front, it’s about engaging those people and spending time with them to really understand where it is you’re trying to go, and doing it maybe a little more intensely than you would with other people. You need to infuse those types of people into different areas of the business, because you have to get the message to different groups.”

When it comes to balancing the internal element with some new blood from outside the organization, you need to find out a lot about potential new hires in a short period of time. Rivers says you can do that by, in essence, scaring them.

“When you interview people, you share everything with them,” she says. “You tell them exactly how it is, almost to the point of you’ll know who you scare. You can kind of tell the people who get a look in their eyes that they’re not sure about this, and then you know the people who are really engaged, really excited about change and thrive on that. You’ll see the people who want to be a part of that.”

Rivers says Entertainment Publications has made “significant progress” in installing a change-focused mindset throughout the organization. The company is continually adapting its processes, products and the way it takes products to market. High school fundraising has become a market that Rivers and her leadership team has zeroed in on, focusing on growth. The company is well-positioned to continue thriving despite the state of the regional or national economy.

“You need to create some level of comfort and confidence with change, and then create a sense of urgency and continue to push people through that,” Rivers says. “The reality is, when people start to see that they can have success on the other side (of the change), and they start doing scary things that different, it becomes invigorating. It becomes exciting, and other people see it. That’s what builds up the momentum that creates the energy, and that’s when the movement starts to take place.”

How to reach: Entertainment Publications LLC, (888) 231-7283 or