Michael Feuer

Sunday, 26 December 2010 19:00

What have we learned today?

One of my favorite cable news shows is MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” featuring co-anchors Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. At the conclusion of each broadcast these anchors, along with all of the day’s guests, stand up and answer the question, “What have we learned today?”

Everyone who chairs a business meeting should ask participants this same question at the conclusion of the session. One word of warning: be prepared for some surprising responses. Too many meetings are simply an exercise in futility with nothing of substance accomplished because nobody learned anything new. While the presenter thinks the information is relevant and revealing, the participants are left hanging in a fog. When you ask be, prepared for responses such as:

  • The passive participant states: “I understand the purpose of the meeting was sort of, kind of about, oh, you know...”
  • The politically astute replies: “Boss, this was the best meeting ever, I got it and I know what to do,” as he or she thinks, “Oh my God, I have to find someone who can figure out what we’re supposed to do.”
  • The secure realist mumbles a few unintelligible words, while rolling his or her eyes. Translation: another waste of valuable time.

The difference between success and failure frequently hinges on the clarity of the goals, and who has to do what by when.

I’ve never met anyone who gets up in the morning, gets out of bed and says to him or herself, “I can’t wait to get to work so I can screw up.” It just doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, what does happen frequently is that employees don’t understand the objective at hand or what direction should they take in achieving it.

Most company goals and objectives are first introduced in a meeting where reasonably intelligent people gather to combine their thoughts and craft a plan. If in the meeting the goals are not appropriately communicated then it’s a very good bet that either what was discussed never gets off the ground or, if it does, the undertaking will crash and burn in short order.

There are a few basics that can make all of us better communicators, particularly when chairing meetings. Of course, everyone knows they need an agenda for the meeting, but few follow their own outline. Out of the blue someone will bring up a point and then suddenly the meeting turns into a free-for-all and ends as a pointless exercise in how not to do it. I have fantasized that most meetings should be conducted standing up. This would force participants to get to the point before their backs begin to ache, knees get wobbly and feet turn numb.

There’s an old adage: “Chance favors those who prepare.” After preparing an agenda for your meetings, are you spending enough time flushing out what you want to really convey and what action, reaction you want to evoke? For this to occur you just can’t throw a topic against the wall and hope it sticks. People need to be guided down the path. Another major pitfall of most sessions is that executives try to stuff 10 pounds of topics into a 5-pound bag. Keep the agenda manageable, covering the most important topics first, and stay on track while watching the clock as if you’re playing in a college basketball game and you must score “the points you need” before the final buzzer sounds.

Always appoint an active participant in the meeting, not an administrative assistant, as the scribe. Rotate the responsibility among those who attend reoccurring sessions. It’s amazing how people will stay alert and think before they talk when they know their utterances may be indelibly recorded. Also, the notes from every meeting must be published for all attendees by the next morning.

Finally, assign accountability to the individuals with a due date for each task. After a completion date is assigned the person responsible can say if they can’t make the deadline, “I need more time, I don’t want to do it because it’s a bad idea, I don’t know how to do it, or I need more help.” What they can’t do is ignore the assignment and pretend it never happened.

At the conclusion of your next meeting, go around the table and ask, “What have you learned today?” If you don’t ask, they won’t tell and, more importantly, you’ll never know.

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

Thursday, 26 August 2010 20:00

A straight line is not always the best route

As smart as most seasoned executives think they are, many have prematurely pulled the trigger because of the need for speed. The pressure is always there: Do it now, get it done, make it happen — today. Most of the time, experienced managers can pull this off with minimal damage. But every once in a while when the stars and moon don’t align as planned, a serious misstep can occur and be darn near lethal. In the rush to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities, executives take shortcuts — as well they should, provided that they pause periodically for a sanity check to ensure they’re not sacrificing quality for speed.

The reason we accelerate at breakneck speeds is probably because from day one we have been taught that the shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line. Much of the blame emanates from ninth-grade geometry class. With a protractor and compass in hand, it probably makes sense to use this mathematical discipline to solve problems or accomplish objectives. However, this is not necessarily the smartest trajectory to employ in business.

Whether it’s creating a new business methodology, developing a unique marketing strategy or building a business, many times a deliberate detour or zigzag can save time, money and angst. Anyone that’s been in the game of business for even a short time learns quickly that there is seldom a cut-and-dried solution where one starts at the beginning and proceeds directly to the finish line. Most times creating something new is an iterative process that requires flexibility and occasionally a jagged line to produce what is promised.

Let’s say that your plan is to create a new product by following a traditional process and timeline. You devise all of the steps necessary to assign the tasks, priorities, critical steps and a comprehensive action plan. When done, the good times are supposed to roll. Instead, the reality of the creation process usually has a variety of twists and turns with which you must deal. Following your script in order to get the new product to market, you follow time-proven prescribed steps. However, at midpoint someone discovers that the color, the size or the smell of the widget just won’t fly.

Instead of panicking or pulling the pin on the project and its development, the leader decides to call a timeout, take a deep breath and launch a series of additional consumer focus group sessions to do a deep dive to determine what’s wrong and what are the real hot buttons with the targeted consumers. Sure, this will cause a temporary delay and cost a few extra dollars, but at the end of the process, it will likely accelerate the positive results because the product will go to market hitting the bull’s eye of what the customer really wants and needs. Alternatively, if the team simply forged ahead in order to bring the product to market on schedule, it might have been completed, but simply put, the product would have flopped like a bad Broadway play.

At that point, the new product might be killed not because it’s the wrong product but because it’s the wrong color or size or it smells funny. This results in numerous confessions of mea culpa, heads rolling and money wasted.

Certainly speed counts and getting it right the first time without delay is a very good thing, but in the real world, unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen that way most times. Running full out with the gas pedal to the floor might make it seem like you’re leaving the competition in the dust, but in actuality, you could be making flawed decisions that come back to haunt you.

Everyone knows somebody who perpetually leaves the stadium before the big game ends, jumps in the car and drives home like a maniac, only to get in the house, plop down on the couch and proclaim, “I’m home.” Now what? Getting the job half done because you draw a straight line between two points is like going hell-bent for election but forgetting to take voter polls along the way. This usually results in defeat.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Friday, 25 June 2010 20:00

People, people, people

W e’ve all heard the overused refrain that the three factors that matter most in the success of a business are location, location, location. However, at the top of my list, I would substitute people, people, people.

The problem is that, at some point, you have made or will make people mistakes. Either you selected the wrong person or you went awry in providing the employee direction and guidance. What must you do when you discover your misjudgment? It gets down to two choices. First, try to fix the problem, or secondly, when all else fails, eliminate the problem.

One of the most costly issues facing all organizations is turnover, but it can be even more costly to keep the wrong person in the wrong job. As much as you hope that, miraculously, the situation will improve, it seldom does. When all else fails, you’ll have to correct your error because the Good Fairy won’t.

Most smart companies today have numerous checkpoints to minimize bad hires. These include multiple interviews by various executives in the organization, psychological and work-style assessments to improve the odds, and a thorough vetting of the candidate’s historical performance elsewhere, knowing that a tiger doesn’t change its stripes.

Even after taking all of these precautions, sometimes the union between employer and employee just doesn’t click. This results in having the wrong person in the wrong job or having the right person with the wrong attitude. When this occurs, the savior you thought would almost walk on water will start sinking faster than the Titanic did after hitting that humongous iceberg. The worst and most damaging action, or lack thereof, is to let inertia set in, while continuing to hope that there will be some form of divine intervention that will improve the performance of your fallen superstar.

The only logical course of action is to do a double-check and take a sobering look at yourself in the mirror to make sure the problem is not you. Ask yourself these simple questions: Am I giving the appropriate direction, setting realistic expectations and providing the necessary support? If you checked the “yes” box for all three of these, then it is time to solve your problem.

Start by having a heart-to-heart sit-down with the employee and ask him or her some tough questions. Among them: Do you have a clue that you are not getting the job done? Do you realize you are doing more damage than good, and what on Earth is the problem? This is no time to mince words because, just like the Titanic, the person is sinking more deeply by the minute.

If you get very lucky, the employee will have that aha moment and say, “I had no idea.” Then there’s still some slim hope that you can create a road map to get this underperformer back on the reservation. If you pursue this course, make sure that you set a specific timetable as to what has to be done by when and what measurement you will use to judge improvements. This type of open communication can work and the laggard might just do a 180 and get back in the game.

Most times, no matter how much both sides try, it just won’t work. When you realize that you are no Mother Theresa, it is time to move to Plan B. Under this scenario, it gets down to damage control and plugging the gaping hole in your hull. This means bringing together other members of the team and figuring out who will do what until you find the next Mr. or Ms. Right. Don’t be surprised to discover that once you air the problem with your associates, you’ll learn that the underperformer’s deficiencies were the company’s worst kept secret. Typically, once you decide enough is enough, your team’s reaction will be, “What took you so long?”

No leader likes to make people mistakes. However, when it happens — and you can be guaranteed that at some point it will — you cannot afford to prolong the problem. Never forget that the three keys to your success are: people, people, people — who consistently get it right and deliver on their promises.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Friday, 25 September 2009 20:00

In the heat of battle, learn to count to 10

No matter your job title, from file clerk to CEO, you have most likely at one time or another had the urge to take an action that would be immediately gratifying — making you feel good for at least a minute anyway. However, deep down inside you knew that you had better count to 10 before acting with your gut instead of your head.

What can make a grown businessperson want to act spontaneously without thinking of the consequences? The list is likely endless. Example: A customer calls you and wants a better price — for the fifth time in the same month. While listening to this utterly insulting request, a little voice in your head is saying, “Tell this numskull to take his or her business and put it somewhere a professional should never suggest.”

How about this one? An employee walks into your office and makes a demand, which you think is inane and utterly overreaching — be it a promotion, a raise or a threat to walk out the door unless a specific requirement is instantly met. Your first thought is to tell the employee to go buy a tall three-legged stool so that he or she does not get too tired standing in the long unemployment lines.

In a verbal confrontation, time is your best weapon. By continuing to listen without interrupting, you accomplish two things. First, just like a child throwing a temper tantrum, your confronter will quickly run out of steam if you don’t jump in. Remember, it takes two to have an argument. Secondly, if you listen closely, you’ll get a clearer idea of what the real issue is. Most people don’t say what they really mean or can’t articulate their position — especially when they are slobbering as they rant. Therefore, you must be an effective interpreter. While maintaining your self-imposed vow of silence, contemplate if what is being asserted warrants a response or if doing so at that moment will just further inflame this unwelcome encounter. Once you figure that out, you can construct a more thoughtful rebuttal — but on your timetable.

I bet many executives have fantasized about simply walking out on this type of intruder just for the pure enjoyment of doing so. Turning off the lights and slamming the door would be an appropriate exclamation point to the episode. Most leaders, however, have built-in “circuit breakers” that safeguard against seeking impetuous retribution.

Unpleasant e-mails present a different challenge. Here is an easy and fulfilling technique to handle a particularly nasty cyberspace message without doing permanent damage. As a bonus, this exercise can even prove to be therapeutic, as well. When an e-mail sets you off, instead of precipitously retaliating, try this. Step one: Click on the “forward” button. Step two: Craft your response — the more vitriolic, the better. Say it from your heart without regret. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet so use them creatively by typing things you have only dreamed of writing. When your keyboard frenzy ends, this cathartic experience will provide a feeling of serenity, albeit too short-lived.

You’re thinking does this technique make sense. Read on.

Because you hit “forward” instead of “reply,” your e-mail isn’t going anywhere because the “to” field is empty. Voilà, your get even but never sent e-mail didn’t do any irreparable harm that spontaneous responses can inflict. Certainly save your draft e-mail for reconsideration or future self-indulgence. However, in the meantime, you’ll gain time to think of a more rational “censored” reply. Sometimes after deliberation, much like in a one-sided verbal argument, you’ll conclude that no response is the best response. The real message to the sender is you’re not dignifying absurd comments with a return volley. Talk about revenge; this subtle form gets the job done in spades.

Instant communication is a part of today’s business culture. However, learning to creatively stop and count to 10 may ensure that you’re not the one who goes down for the 10 count. By putting a lid on your feelings, you can many times gain control of an incendiary situation. A short pause could give you the opportunity to find a solution that allows you to have your cake and eat it, too, without suffering any indigestion.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Forging unlikely alliances?

William Shakespeare, in addition to being a great playwright, was a very savvy, strategic thinker whose writing reflects insights and valuable business concepts.

In “The Tempest,” his 1611 play about a shipwreck, Shakespeare’s lead character — who faces possible death — proclaims that “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” As this suggests, one can forge an alliance with virtually anyone when the objective is clear and the bottom-line results benefit all involved.

Who says a partner always has to be on your side? What is necessary is that the alliance creates a win-win for each collaborator.

Another work provides further evidence of this proclamation. In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone gives an order to his consigliere to arrange a meeting with a rival mob boss moments after the rival attempted to kill Michael. The young godfather explains that he was taught by his father to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” And we have all heard strategists, diplomats and politicians offer similar pearls of wisdom, including, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In the business world, you can employ these same concepts to achieve an objective, provided that, at the end of the day, you are still standing after the unexpected collaboration with your “strange bedfellow.” However, a couple of caveats do apply: Be sure the bedfellow isn’t packing heat, and avoid meeting in the back of a dimly lit restaurant near the bathroom where a weapon might be hidden that could do you harm.

Let’s imagine a situation in which you can create an ad hoc, special-purpose confederacy. Assume you are trying to get a governing body to provide an exception or allow something that has never occurred before to take place.

Say you have big trucks that exceed the weight limit for using a road that could save you 30 minutes each trip to a construction site. Instead, your drivers have to take the long way around. You also have a big competitor who needs to use this same road for a different project but can’t because of the same problem.

Working together, you could both go to the community and offer to pay for two very expensive, much needed traffic lights at either end of the road and to repair the road if the trucks damage it after the projects are completed. Voila! You would have a win for all involved, even though each party might not be enamored with either of the others.

By creating an unlikely alliance, you could gain critical mass and a common voice.

So how do you get the ball rolling? You could hire a bunch of attorneys to write a position paper on why what you want to do is for the greater good. The document could then be sent to the governing body or media to see what happens. With this strategy, you can be sure that your fees for getting to this point will be expensive, and there is a less than 50-50 chance that this effort will be successful.

While it may seem counterintuitive, you need to swallow hard and devise a plan to change the rules of competitive engagement, at least temporarily, by directly or indirectly approaching the rival head-on. If you aren’t comfortable with picking up the phone and making your pitch to your foresworn enemy, there are numerous effective methods to broker a conversation and a “meet.”

Third parties, such as mutual suppliers, your accountant or even a friend of a friend, can do the heavy lifting without you running the risk of personal embarrassment or rejection.

Do your homework and carefully outline a script for your vicar representative that succinctly explains what you want to do and, most importantly, why a coalition will work for all parties. You just might be surprised at the positive back-channel response you receive to your offer.

This scenario is played out daily in government, diplomacy and even in junior high school, with a seventh-grade boy having another classmate ask the cute girl for a date on his behalf. Don’t get hung up on this self-serving collaboration, as it does not mean that you have to stop preaching to your employees why your competitor doesn’t deserve this or that. A temporary “detente” does not signify the end of a war.

If you still can’t suck it up and be comfortable with sleeping with the enemy, just tell yourself that it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. The truth is, if you’re an innovative thinker, it really is just business — smart business.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Do as I say, not as I do

Just count the number of well-known — and formerly well-respected — CEOs who have fallen on their swords after revelations that they were involved in the practice of backdating stock options.

The benefactors of their ignominious actions have been co-inhabitants of the executive wing. Misguided corporate titans have seduced the best and brightest to join their companies with the lure of a guaranteed fortune from “opportunistically” dated options. And in too many cases, they have been driven by egregious personal greed.

When the first few incidents of backdating options surfaced, some thought they were isolated cases, perhaps attributable to a CEO using a malfunctioning PDA that randomly transposed dates or dropped a digit or two. Initially, apologists for corporate America donned their rose-colored glasses and said, “No big deal, this too shall pass.”

But it didn’t pass. Instead, it became painfully obvious that the practitioners of this new calendar math seemed to multiply exponentially to epidemic proportions.

How could this be? Aren’t CEOs supposed to be captains of our free enterprise system, who not only inspire and innovate but also lead by example, disseminating their advice to subordinates while holding themselves to an even higher standard?

It may have started with a few executives justifying that they were simply trying to find an economical way to hire or keep top performers. With the equivalent of getting a sneak peak at tomorrow’s stock prices today, they picked an option grant date that guaranteed new riches to the recipients.

At first, a misguided CEO thinks, “I’m doing this for the good of the company. So what if it is a little on the gray side? What counts are the end results.”

Dozens of similar scenarios have no doubt been played out in the run-amok executive’s mind. However, none would pass my “Mother Rule.” Forget Sarbanes-Oxley; if you wouldn’t want your mother to know you did something, then it’s gotta be wrong.

The crack-cocaine addiction in Corporate America doesn’t always involve a white powder — sometimes, it’s just the stroke of a pen. How could reasonably intelligent executives get themselves into so much trouble? It has to do with their super-sized sense of self, incessantly fueled by the yes-men whose full-time jobs are to pave the way for the boss. The CEO starts to think he’s omnipotent because he has the power to make things happen.

There are antidotes to stem these illusions and keep managers on the straight and narrow. The most effective is a simple reality check that keeps you grounded and curbs rash impulses to take the first bite of forbidden fruit. Don’t isolate yourself and only hang out with people who are suck-ups.

You must regularly talk one-on-one with employees on the lowest rung. Get off your derriere, go to the cafeteria and break bread with the troops. These sessions will be an eye-opener. You’ll quickly realize that your employee’s problems are strikingly similar to your own. They just want to do their job right and take care of their families.

Most important, you’ll learn that they hold you and your abilities at a very lofty level. Although it’s a frequent favorite American pastime to criticize the boss, in truth, most employees think their bosses, particularly the CEO, are much better leaders than they really are.

Your reality check will kick in when you realize that bad actions trickle down and can have devastating effects on every employee. If you make a bonehead decision, or are ever tempted to cross the line between right and not-so-right, think twice about the consequences, not just for you but for your people.

It’s your duty as the boss to ensure that your employees and investors are first in line before you. If you follow this path, you’ll often wind up with a bigger payoff for yourself, be it economically or in personal gratification or the increased esteem of your associates.

The Wall Street saying describing the greedy is, “There are bears, bulls and pigs.” For those with questionable motives, I would propose, “There are bears, bulls and crooks.”

CEOs who backdate stock options and commit other acts of malfeasance prove that so few can do so much damage to affect the perception of so many who always try to do it right. The good news is that most executives follow their own words by doing themselves what they ask others to do, without ever taking a PDA out of their pocket.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

In order to close a sale, customers must hear the word “yes” before they make a purchase, agree to a service or sign a contract. Few people will do business with a company that makes it a practice of giving a dozen reasons why something cannot be done, instead of figuring out how to say “yes.” The word “yes” is the launching pad for every transaction, but too many companies don’t seem to get it.

A negative response to a request may at first blush seem appropriate, but a seller must learn how to turn a negative into a positive. There are some easy techniques to accomplish this seemingly elusive feat. As an example, a customer wants a delivery on a Tuesday, when your truck only travels to the customer’s area on a Friday. Instead of summarily saying “no” because it does not fit your schedule, empower your people to find a solution. Teach them to be cautious with their choice of words and learn how to use softer and more conciliatory synonyms for “no.” For this delivery request example, your representative could say, “Yes, your request is reasonable. We will work on making it happen. However, until we can permanently change our schedule, can we deliver on X day instead of Y day?”

I could never understand why a retail store would put up signs that proclaim what a store won’t do for its customers instead of what it can and will do. “No food or drinks allowed.” “No checks.” “No who-knows-what.” Sure, a retailer doesn’t want anything spilled on the merchandise and certainly doesn’t want to get stiffed with a bad check. However, instead of posting a “no-no” statement, the sign could easily be rewritten to make the negative a positive. A substitute to this same proclamation could be: “We have the lowest prices in town because we don’t incur the added costs of processing checks, and we pass this savings on to you. For your convenience, we accept all credit cards.” Of course, these illustrations are oversimplifications, but they will point you in the right direction.

Never forget your business needs the customer much more than the other way around. Management’s job is to promote creativity and underscore the objective of accommodating your customers’ needs with the ultimate goal of exceeding them. You’ll never do it if you start with the word “no.” The lifeblood of most every company is repeat business. The toughest initial hurdle is to get a customer to try your product or service. This initial trial is also typically the most expensive step in the sales process, but after that, it can lead to a long-term and profitable relationship.

There is nothing worse than telling a customer, “No, it is against company policy,” or even worse, “We don’t make exceptions, no way, no how.”

Recently, I was in a fancy-schmancy restaurant when the waiter began his shtick by rattling off a list of requirements for the privilege of eating at this establishment: “Chef does not allow substitutions, won’t prepare the entrée other than broiling and insists on cooking everything medium rare.” I interrupted the waiter in midsentence exclaiming my confusion because I thought my guests and I were the customers and the restaurant took the orders instead of giving them. The waiter looked at me as if I were from another planet. He then continued with his spiel. What was the net result of this string of “no’s”? First, I had a lingering bad taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t from the food. Secondly, I reduced the tip from my usual 20 percent plus. Worse yet for the restaurant, I won’t rush back for a return visit and most likely will repeat my tale of woe when this eatery comes up in conversation. You do the math of the cost per letter of the use of the word “no” and what this did to the restaurant’s bottom line.

Nyet, nein, no or like words in any language can all have the same effect: lost sales and profits, not to mention a tarnished image. It doesn’t get “no” worse than that. Your job as a leader is to find a way for your team to always get to “yes.”

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s signature line, “I don’t get no respect,” always garnered a few good chuckles. As a leader, however, if you find yourself in this same predicament, it’s no laughing matter.

Most executives usually try to do the right thing. They carry out their responsibilities, weighing the pros and cons of their actions and decisions.

Way too many executives think that their people will somehow recognize the angst they endure before gaveling an action into effect.

People cannot, however, understand why you do something simply through osmosis. This is where communication comes into play. How many times have you made an important decision and just filtered it down with what I call the “so be it” method? Sure, sometimes mandates are a part of being a leader and some are popular and others aren’t.

Throughout my career, I’ve learned a number of lessons about respect. The most important one is that respect can be earned in many ways, and most times, it’s simply a reflection of your attitude and actions, rather than what you actually say.

When I was a young CEO of my retail, publicly held, Fortune 500 company, I participated in what are known as Wall Street security analyst field trips, in which an underwriter organizes an excursion that takes portfolio investment professionals on the road with CEOs of similar businesses. One such trip was a bus tour of retail stores in Providence, R.I., visiting each respective CEO’s store along the way. The tour included a 45-minute walkthrough, led by the CEO of the chain explaining why his or her operation was the best on the planet.

On this particular tour, everything was running late and my store was the last stop. As the bus arrived, my watch told me there was a huge time problem because participants had planes to catch.

As we entered the store, it was spotless. All of the employees were wearing their “Sunday best” and you could literally eat off of the floor. The leader of the tour whispered in my ear that I had 10 minutes to get the message out. As I rushed 20 portfolio managers through the store, talking faster than the pitchman on the classic FedEx commercial years ago, the dejected looks on the employees’ faces were apparent. My tour ended almost faster than it began as I walked backward out of the store continuing my pitch.

As we boarded the bus to the airport, I felt lousy. I knew the employees most likely had suffered acute gastrointestinal distress while preparing their store for “show time.” As the bus barreled down the freeway, I realized this was a defining moment for me. Using my cell phone I called the store manager and told him to get in his car, catch up to my bus and quickly get me back to the store. Instinctively I knew that I had to show this store’s employees that I respected them and their work.

When I returned to the store, the employees gawked at me with eyes bigger than saucers. I then spent about two hours walking the store, aisle by aisle, with all of the employees in tow, asking for their input on everything they do. I missed my plane, had to stay overnight and ruined my schedule, but it was worth it.

Word of this encore visit spread through our 1,000 stores faster than Grant took Richmond. In no time, this infamous visit turned into a celebrated success and became a part of the company’s history.

You, too, can pick your own time and place to recreate a “respect event” that will speak volumes about how you do business. This can be achieved by arriving at meetings on time and ending the meetings as scheduled. It can also be reflected by not piling on the work just because you decided you needed something on your timetable without consideration of what else is currently on someone else’s plate.

Respect is contagious and can start a cascading trickle-down effect. Your direct reports will begin to increase their respect for subordinates — and even you, if you’re lucky. It’s not only the right thing to do, it is the right way to build a business and create a positive culture.

If you feel you just “don’t get no respect,” you can improve your business persona by following this golden rule — “To get respect, you first have to give it.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Mr. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Read Michael Feuer's previous column

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Do you work to live or live to work?

Is your work the means to an end or the epicenter of your life? Most businesspeople, on a conscious or subconscious level, want superiors, peers and other constituents to believe they are one of those unselfish corporate types who do whatever it takes for the good of the company. Everything comes in second place: family, friends and one’s very existence, including creature comforts such as adequate sleep and eating three square meals at a table, not a desk. If that is you, then you have checked the “live to work” box.

But wait a second, does this really make a modicum of sense?

When I interview management candidates, after I have determined the interviewee might be a fit, I always ask: “What comes first, your family or your job?”

Those who immediately respond “my job” move down multiple notches on my scale of suitability if, in fact, I believe this is their permanent sentiment.

For a chance to play in the big leagues, most wannabe executives will do whatever it takes to make the lineup. The smart ones, however, know that just like a good novel, a business career has a beginning, middle and, hopefully, an abundance of exciting last chapters.

When aspiring managers begin ascending the corporate ladder, many work as if the clock has no hands. Toiling away at their desks from early morning to the wee hours of the night is an investment in the future to gain experience, a means to accomplishing meaningful objectives and, yes, to a certain degree, an opportunity to obtain face time, sometimes even vying for the coveted corporate appearance trophy. Those who go for appearance alone, without the meat on the bones of accomplishment, are easily unmasked as having a “big hat but no cattle.”

However, hitting the trifecta of experience, accomplishment and the ability to showcase a “get it done” work ethic makes for the complete package.

Once a manager reaches a certain midpoint in a career and has a few good people working for him, he moves from the role of solo doer to that of teacher and navigator who can successfully direct others along a process from point A to point B. Appearances are secondary at this point, as the key is what is in the package, not the wrapper.

During this stage, the middle manager should have that “aha” moment recognizing that business is not an all-or-nothing proposition and he can get a life. I admired any employee working for me who without equivocation would state he could not meet with me at a time that I requested because of another important commitment, which could be attending a kid’s ballgame or a first school play. This communicated volumes to me about the manager’s character and ability to balance priorities and make appropriate choices that fit the circumstances.

On other days, however, I would see this same manager looking like death warmed over the next morning because he just pulled an all-nighter to get the needed task done.

A real game-changer occurs when one reaches the ranks of senior executive with a team of players in the anteroom who are more than ready, willing and able to answer the bell. This gives the leader the opportunity to plan rather than just do, calling the signals instead of responding to them. Priorities change as the executive becomes a dreamer — a visionary who can look beyond today to tomorrow, identifying the future challenges and opportunities, and positioning the organization to respond to them.

In many respects, this is both the best of times and the worst of times. The best is that the leader has others to do the heavy lifting. This provides the executive the time to make other contributions, not just to the company but to his family and community, as well. The worst-of-times component is that the buck stops at the leader’s door. Important decisions have to be made daily, and that pressure can take a toll both mentally and physically. At this point in a career, the need to balance becomes something that is just not nice but necessary to endure the pressures at the top.

An all-time best fast-food jingle positively asserted, “Hold the pickle; hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us,” with the payoff line of “Have it your way.” The secret of having it your way in business is learning when and how to balance a career with a fulfilling personal life.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Penny-wise<BR>or pound-stupid?

The hits just keep on coming. It started last fall with the banking industry crisis and stock market meltdown that left most everybody shocked, awed and a whole lot poorer. These events triggered reactions, some knee-jerk, causing businesses to rethink and adjust their modus operandi to ensure that they could live to fight another day.

The government came to the rescue with the TARP bailout, followed by “Son of TARP,” aka the stimulus package. These elixirs included everything from stemming mortgage foreclosures all the way to fostering pork-laden catalysts to spur new jobs.

Culminating a now infamous all-night February congressional drafting session, Congress passed this imperfect panacea, more than 1,000 pages of legislation, and our new commander in chief signed the plan, making it the law of the land. This marked yet another well-intentioned but questionable “Hail Mary” government set of solutions. From the get-go of this economic debacle, few organizations escaped unscathed. Sales and profits withered and liquidity evaporated as consumers worldwide went on a protracted spending hiatus.

In response, companies around the globe started paring costs and programs. Virtually every day businesses proclaimed that because of the bold steps they were taking, they would ultimately emerge stronger while crossing their fingers and thinking, “From our lips to God’s ears.”

The question now emerging is: Were these newly minted methodologies and cuts penny-wise or just pound-stupid?

With the probability of little immediate relief from the sagging results on the horizon, management must again examine the newly made promulgations to ensure the decisions actually accomplished a goal.

In good times, smart businesses and organizations share the gains. Now, it is appropriate for companies to have their employees, suppliers and even tangential partners share the pain. The trick is that whatever is done must serve a purpose that can sustain the test of time. The worst scenario is eliminating something only to reinstate it, often at a much higher cost, because it was quickly recognized that the medicine was worse than the cure.

Most companies’ short list focuses on hunkering down and pruning excesses, be it people, processes or even unprofitable customers. Certainly, saving money in most cases makes sense, provided savings for the sake of savings don’t cause even further damage. As an example, is it smart to stop face-to-face meetings with your best customers just to save the price of a no frills, coach-fare plane ticket? Remember, if you’re not staying in front of customers, it’s a good bet your competition will be your more-than-willing substitute.

Not spending money to improve or maintain mission-critical undertakings can translate into huge blunders that companies will live to regret in the months and years ahead.

Here are a few penny-wise steps that could produce tangible benefits. Instead of arbitrarily implementing an across-the-board RIF (reduction in force), consider creative alternatives that will better serve the greater good of your employees, customers and business. Rather than the traditional spare-no-department layoffs of X percent of people, ask employees to take a temporary pay reduction. Turning this negative into a quasi-positive tells employees that they will need to endure this pay hit for, say, only six months. Then add the twist that normal pay rates will resume in November and December to make the holiday season just a little more tenable.

Do the math and determine if this savings tactic gets to the same bottom line number as more disruptive firings, while allowing you to maintain your full existing work force for the better days ahead.

Also, be creative with your suppliers. One example is if you have equipment coming off a lease, instead of replacing it with the latest and greatest updated version, make a deal to keep the older devise for a longer period of time and negotiate a meaningfully lower monthly fee. This is a real win-win, as your vendor continues receiving revenue on something that is possibly already written off of its books while you can reduce your cost.

Focus on the end objectives and consider made-to-fit alternatives, rather than using off-the-shelf traditional methods. Don’t be afraid to spend money to make money, and be weary of actions that risk saving yourself out of business.

Executives are paid to make the tough decisions and then sell them to key constituents, whether they are popular or not. Abdicating a thoughtful risk-reward assessment of significant economic counter-measures is not penny-wise and can prove to be painfully pound-stupid.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.