MaryAnn Rivers Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

In her first six months on the job, MaryAnn Rivers not only had to familiarize herself with the operations of Entertainment Publications Inc. and transition through tenuous business decisions, she also had to develop a management team essentially from scratch. In September 2006, when Rivers was named president and CEO of the $196.8 million company that produces the Entertainment coupon book and handles other merchant promotions, only one person remained from the previous management team. While many would try to fill the open positions in a hurry, creating opportunities to make mistakes, Rivers instead took her time to find a team that was diverse but had the same common value system. Smart Business spoke with Rivers about how she drove change at Entertainment Publications Inc.

Get employee input. When I first came to the company, I spent the first two or three months on the road with salespeople and in the field just sitting down and giving every salesperson a half an hour to share what their challenges were, what they thought should change, and what were the problems and opportunities they saw.

I took all of that information, boiled it all down, and gave an overview to the folks back here and to the sales organization, and then we made decisions off those things. The turning point was when we did what we said we were going to do. We actually put ideas into action, as opposed to just paying lip service.

We put some key goals out and, for example, said, ‘By this date, you will have a new compensation plan or key goals for the upcoming year, three months earlier than you did previously,’ then delivering on it.

It comes down to, ‘We heard what you said. We can’t fix everything today, but here are the things we are going to do.’ When you say you are going to do something, you make darn sure you do it, regardless of what obstacles get in the way. That develops trust, and the more trust you develop, the more they open up and talk.

Know your shortcomings. I spontaneously quiz people when I’m out talking to them about, ‘Tell me about the vision of the company, and what are the three key goals?’ I can almost tell immediately what is getting through and what’s not.

When they can’t articulate back a certain part of the vision or the goals or strategy, I know we missed there, and we need to go back to the drawing board and either reposition in a way they do understand it or communicate by a different means. It’s sort of a test period to see that they are picking up on it.

I will go into a new-employee orientation session, in which they may have heard through the interview process or their first couple of days in training on what the vision is and what the strategies are. By that time, they may have heard a few things or maybe they haven’t heard much at all, but through the process, they should have been in touch with vision and where we are headed.

I will address maybe a room of 30 people and say, ‘Here’s the vision, but can you tell me what that means or what the three goals are for the year?’ When they can’t say that, I’ll often turn that back around and say, ‘I really missed on that and didn’t communicate it clearly enough.’

That’s really the only reason it’s done. It’s not to catch them not knowing. The onus is on myself and the leadership team to make sure that it is inspiring enough that they understand it. If we can’t get our employees to understand it, and the people that are in our organization living and breathing it every day, how are we going to change externally?

Reward excitement. You are dealing with short-term challenges and with the long-term challenges and balancing those two things. Sometimes, the day isn’t long enough to handle the world we are living in today and create and dream about the world we want to live in tomorrow.

It really comes down to keeping people excited about it and energized enough. That’s one of the things in change leadership is to determine which people are really excited and have the extra energy. A lot of times, it comes down to employees thinking about tomorrow at their kitchen table or while on a run and in off time. That needs to happen to have enough people excited to generate that excitement all the time.

You need to make sure you are recognizing those achievements every day that people do.

Make sure they know that, even if it is a scenario where they made a mistake or where they failed at something, you want to try to encourage and reward people who are trying new things and taking risks.

Changing is about a lot of risks, and some go well and some don’t. In those cases, where there are huge wins, make sure those people get rewarded and recognized, and open up those lines of communication. Make sure they are hearing about the vision and focus in the here and now but also thinking about tomorrow.

Encourage different opinions. People are generally fearful when there are times of change to bring up that they don’t agree or don’t buy in. We try to encourage people to express their opinions.

I like to hear contradictory evidence and debates because what makes an organization healthy is that constant challenge and internal debate that makes us all smarter and allows us to continue to learn. It’s not about expressing an opinion that is counter to what the thought is.

It’s more about attitude. Can you have that debate in the room, and, at the end of the day, can that team make a decision and move forward even if everyone doesn’t agree?

Here, it is people who have been here for a long period of time, who are passionate and enthusiastic and have the right attitude, integrated with people that have been here with external perspective. They are both equally important, and make sure people understand that. You say it again and again that everyone is valued as long as they take the right attitude, approach, openness, and willingness to try and make mistakes, and respect each other’s opinions, and get in alignment where we need to go.

HOW TO REACH: Entertainment Publications Inc., (888) 231-SAVE or