Detroit (1202)

In late 2008 and early 2009, the recession was sending many companies into survival mode. The customer base was drying up, and even if you still had a substantial portfolio of customers, your ability to produce and ship products was likely crippled by skyrocketing energy costs.

But through all the turmoil, Sunil Agrawal saw an opportunity for his business, Nova Consultants Inc.

“If you remember back when crude oil hit almost $150 a barrel, we were sitting in our office thinking about how one third of the GNP in this country was going toward energy, and all this money is going to the same countries which we are trying to fight against,” says Agrawal, Nova’s founder, owner and president. “So we tried to think, what is the one thing we will always need in this country to live on? And we thought that it would be energy. So let's develop ways to save energy, to harness energy which comes from non-carbon sources.”

Agrawal decided to enter the solar energy market. It has been a challenge for the company to keep up with the ever-changing face of solar energy technology, but Agrawal and his team have been able to master the market enough to generate $10 million in 2011 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Agrawal about how Nova was able to adapt, and the importance of flexibility in the world of business.

How did you identify solar energy as a good direction for the company?

We have on our key staff chemical engineers and electrical engineers. In 2008 and ’09, the Obama Administration was talking about alternative energy, about coming up with a program for alternative energy, so we thought we might have some opportunity in that field. Three or four engineers in our offices started attending conferences and reading journals, reading books, because there was no formal program at that time that could train someone in solar engineering. So we had the time, the guys were there, they were getting paid, they were very interested, they wanted to do something different, so we decided to give solar energy a try to see how it works.

What else in the company's infrastructure allowed you to capitalize on the opportunity?

Raw materials were not needed. It was all intellectual material that was needed. We had plenty of intellectual material to make it happen, and we used it quite a bit. All the investments that we made in 2008 and 2009 paid off in 2010 and 2011. We now have a number of multimillion-dollar contracts. We have positioned ourselves well for growth.

What would you tell other business leaders about defining a new direction for company?

What happens is that when things are going good, people don’t look for new opportunities. They don't look at the future; they are happy with the way things are going. Even though solar energy is developing a presence here in the United States, we are 10 years behind everyone else. It is because things were going good in this country as far as energy is concerned. So we developed it and gave to other countries such as Germany, Japan and Spain. For example, in Germany, 30 percent of the power comes from solar.

So I would say to other CEOs, look to the future. Don't get too caught up in the present. Look in the future and see what is coming toward you. You have to deal with the present but prepare yourself to deal with the future.

Is there still a way to keep that future-focused mentality when times are good?

If you want to grow, keep growing. You have to maintain that, you have to look to the future. If you don’t, then what will happen, everything that you are doing now is going to become routine, and you will lose your edge. Without an edge, without a core competency, you cannot survive in the future.

What is the danger of getting complacent?

The danger is pretty high, because you become an antique then. You are done, and by the time you try to catch up, the technology has already moved on. In our own field, what we are doing right now, engineering energy, these fuels are changing on a weekly basis. The solar panels that we used three months ago are obsolete now. The efficiency and power is increasing that rapidly. So in our field, either you are in or you are out. You don’t have the option to get in and sit back. You have to keep moving with the times.

How to reach: Nova Consultants Inc., (248) 347-3512 or www.novaconsultants.com

Ryan Maibach had a solid background when he stepped into the president’s role at construction firm Barton Malow Co. A construction engineering graduate of Purdue University, he had been working at the firm in various capacities since 1997, most recently as operations vice president for the company’s industrial group.

One of several Maibach family members on Barton Malow’s leadership team, he had worked alongside his father, chairman and CEO Ben Maibach III, preparing for a larger role within the company.

Maibach was about as prepared as any person could have been to take over as president. But when the promotion came in April 2011, he still found himself challenged to take a $1.3 billion company, with a nationwide presence of 1,500 employees all trying to navigate a still-sluggish economy, and get it ready for future growth.

“Early on, I was just trying to understand what all is in play, especially coming into the position at a pretty challenging time for our industry,” Maibach says. “The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how we best cope with a lot of economic and industry realities, and how we continue to grow and thrive despite some of those.”

Maibach quickly isolated his single biggest need as a new leader: he had to connect with the people at Barton Malow, regardless of what job they performed or where they were stationed within the company’s footprint. He had to engage them in dialogue, solicit feedback on the vision, values and policies of the leadership team and use the employee input to define future goals for the company, both over the short term and long term.

“It was a lot of asking questions, and more often than not, asking open-ended questions,” Maibach says. “When you leave things open-ended, people are going to take the conversation where they want it to go. More often than not, it’s what you need to hear, though not always what you want to hear.”

Take stock

As operations vice president for the industrial segment, Maibach had overseen one of Barton Malow’s five business units. Along with the heads of the four other business units, Maibach had served on the company’s board, interacting and developing relationships with his peers on staff. Maibach says that fact did help him in his transition to the president’s role.

“The process was a little easier because there is a good degree of interaction with your peers,” Maibach says. “It’s not as though I was coming into a situation that I was completely unfamiliar with.”

Like any new leader has to, Maibach used the advantages he had to help smooth the transition, both for himself and the rest of the company. With a degree of stability already established with the management level, Maibach leveraged it to reach out to people at all levels and locations within the company, attempting to build relationships and a sense of familiarity, and rally people around his vision for the future.

“It might sound cliché, but I think the success and failure of a company is directly related to how effective our people are,” he says. “It’s in direct proportion to how solid our people are, how effective and informed they are as employees. So, in the time I’ve been in this position, it has been about trying to reach out and engage a broader segment of our employees, the people that I hadn’t had as much of a chance to interact with one-on-one in my previous position.”

There wasn’t any magic to it. Maibach got on a plane and logged thousands of air miles, travelling to Barton Malow locations and job sites from coast to coast, as far south as Florida and as far north as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“I wanted to reach out, talk to them and understand their view of the company, their role in it and what they see,” Maibach says. “What are their challenges and obstacles, and how best to start working down that list, and getting everyone aligned on the company’s goals and objectives.”

Maibach wanted to provide positive reinforcement for his people, but as he traveled the country during his first months on the job, his people provided him with a great deal of positive reinforcement, too. Maibach discovered that he had a work force with a desire to perform at a high level, people who believed in the company and wanted to continue driving it toward success.

“You hear a lot of the loyalty and passion that people feel for the company,” Maibach says. “You see a lot of the appreciation that people have for certain values, namely the integrity of the company and the associated trust that a lot of individuals have in the company. You also hear from a lot of people the desire to be a part of something big, to be a part of the bigger picture. That, as a leader, is what drives you to provide more opportunities for people to be engaged and be a part of something more than their particular project or their particular role in the company.

“That is really the desire as we look out into a new era. How do we provide opportunities for some really great people to play a role in charting a course and setting a direction for what they are going to experience in the future?”

Utilize feedback

All of the time Maibach spent travelling as the new president amounted to a good first step in establishing rapport with employees and focusing them on the company future goals. But if it had ended there, that’s all it would have ever been — a good first step, a nice initial gesture, and little else.

For your actions to have any meaningful impact over the long haul, they need reinforcement. You reinforce by continually encouraging the behavior you preached, and hopefully demonstrated, in the first place.

In Maibach’s case, he sowed seeds of engagement. Now, when engaged employees come forward with ideas and input on the company’s future direction, Maibach needs to take the ideas seriously and offer constructive feedback — whether the company can use the idea or not.

“I got an e-mail from a young project engineer who I helped to recruit,” Maibach says. “He thought he had this terrific lead for new business, but it was in a location that is not so much a target for us. He sent us a 12-paragraph e-mail on why this was such an awesome idea, so it was obvious that he really believed in it and believe it was a good idea for the company. In that situation, it would have been very unfortunate if the response he received was ‘No, you are wrong.’ It takes a bit more time, but I firmly believe that every individual in the company has a right to as ‘Why?’ in any circumstance. If the idea that they submitted doesn’t make sense for us, part of your response as a leader has to tell them why it doesn’t make sense.”

Responding to feedback in an open, truthful fashion is an example of actions following words. If you preach about your company’s open culture, and how employees’ opinions are valued, you have to demonstrate it. By demonstrating your words through your deeds, you build an increased level of trust with your work force.

As an incoming executive, developing trust was one of the most critical tasks Maibach had to accomplish. If employees receive any whiff of what they think is hypocrisy or an aloof attitude from the members of upper management, your culture will suffer and the flow of ideas can slow to a trickle, or stop outright, which can damage your company’s ability to innovate and adapt in a fast-changing business climate.

“Trust is imperative,” Maibach says. “I can’t imagine not having a barometer for doing the things you say you are going to do. I can’t imagine intentionally looking to mislead. I will readily admit that I’m far from perfect, and I don’t think anyone in the organization would disagree, but if there is any erosion in the trust factor around here, it is not due to lack of trying. There are so many proverbs and idioms out there about doing what you say you’re going to do, and the golden rule of doing to others as you would have them do to you. But really, it is as simple as that. And if you can’t do something, explain why.

“You can’t fake concern or compassion. You either genuinely feel it or you don’t. If you genuinely do, people pick up on that and it helps to build trust. People will then feel like you are looking out for their best interest, and they are going to be a lot more game to engage you.”

Define goals

Many over-the-counter medicines have an active ingredient. It makes the headache medicine cure your headache; it makes the cough syrup quiet your cough. When developing a culture that values employee ideas and feedback, and encourages open dialogue throughout all levels of the organization, the active ingredient is a set of well-defined and compelling goals for the company.

The goals should have their roots what you believe in as a leader, and the values you want everyone in your organization to embrace.

“The purpose, firmly, is that everyone should understand why we’re here, what we’re all about, what is it we want to look to try and accomplish,” Maibach says. “Then, you want to have that resonate throughout the company. It’s centered on your values. What is it that you truly believe in, and how have you acted and functioned over the past several years? It’s not just aspirational values, but what is it that you truly and genuinely hold dear?”

Translating values into goals means turning them into actionable items that are aimed at the achievement of a definite outcome.

“The values have to translate into specific actions,” Maibach says. “How we expect people to engage certain situations, and how to act and behave in those situations. You can talk about broad concepts, like integrity, but what does that really mean. You need to get more specific on that. It’s important to be credible and do what you say, and act in a manner that is consistent with what you preach. To do that, you have to be able to take what you believe and where you want to go as an organization, and put it down on paper.”

Everything Maibach has done in his first year on the job as president of Barton Malow has really boiled down to one word: presence. He developed a presence with his employees, maintained that presence with an ongoing dialogue, and ensured that his presence was tied to the messages he continued to communicate, focusing employees on the values and goals of the company, both now and moving forward.

“Face-to-face presence is certainly the best, but the reality is that when you are as spread out as we are, you simply can’t be physically present everywhere. So you continually communicate, even if it’s just a quick call or note, and hopefully that presence is felt. You’re trying to dive deeper into the organization and understand the things that are in play for everyone. It’s not just presence for the sake of presence. It’s trying to convey the care and concern for individuals, and for their well-being.”

How to reach: Barton Malow Co., (248) 436-5000 or www.bartonmalow.com 

The Maibach file

Education: B.S. in construction engineering, Purdue University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I had the opportunity to work for a really fantastic superintendent, and he taught me that in order to have an understanding of your role as a leader, you have to develop an empathy and understanding, to some degree, of the people who work for you. So he used to send me out to set blocks or rake concrete or lay tile. It was really a fantastic experience. It helped me to understand and have a tremendous appreciation for everything that goes on at a construction site, and what it takes to execute the work that clients are hiring us to do.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Any leader is going to have to have the ability to set a direction, then to get people to rally around that direction, and encourage others along the way. You have to manage the resources that you have, play the hand you are dealt. And anyone in a leadership position is going to have to be able to articulate a vision.

What is your definition of success?

There are different buckets of success. Individually, it’s accomplishing goals and objectives related to the vision for what we are trying to accomplish. For the company overall, it’s to have every person understand their purpose, realize what they are trying to accomplish and what they hope to achieve. Success in an organization is really when you can take all of those things and align them on a common purpose and vision, and structure it in a manner where success for the organization and for the individual are one and the same.

When Nokia implemented a mobile marketing campaign to customers in Australia, they did not take into account their users’ privacy from a legal or brand standpoint. The company’s tips for getting the most out of a phone qualified as spam-texting, and instead of boosting business, Nokia was fined $58,000 fine earlier this year and has suffered reduced sales in the region.

“There are laws going into place now more and more around what you can do in mobile marketing,” says J. Robert Kamal, president, CEO and founder of Kohorts IT, a mobile marketing services company headquartered in Brighton, Mich. “ And the biggest common pitfall we’ve seen is companies trying to do this on their own without any experience at all.”

Businesses are increasingly looking to mobile marketing campaigns as mobile usage continues to rise. In fact, mobile Internet access will surpass traditional PC access by 2013, according to Gartner Research.

But in order to take advantage of this new era of marketing, it is increasingly important for businesses to focus on compliance with privacy standards – those set by governments and by customer expectations.

Account for privacy laws

One of the most common mistakes companies make is to create national or even global mobile marketing campaigns based on the assumptions of their local laws, Kamal says. Identify the privacy laws for all regions your campaign will penetrate.

Privacy laws, including the proposed US Mobile Privacy Act, commonly focus on: what data you will be collecting via mobile devices, who will have access to it and what it will be used for.

“Additionally, the user must agree to the privacy policy before data’s gathered, with the opportunity to opt out,” Kamal says. “And you must clearly identify yourself as the marketer. If those things aren’t in place, than you could be putting yourself exposed to legal risk on future litigation.”

Do not share information with a party not listed in your privacy policy – a common pitfall in business.

“If you collect data on a marketing campaign that you did legitimately for one purpose with a customer, and then you took the data from that customer and sold it to another company, that’s a problem,” Kamal says.

In addition to maintaining users’ privacy, you need to respect it in your marketing techniques.

“Engaging in spamming on mobile devices, thinking that because they’re your current customer, it’s not really spamming, is not necessarily the case,” Kamal says. “Those laws differ from country to country.”

Know your brand

In addition to legal issues, spamming can damage your brand image. Think about how you want to portray your business to customers.

“Is your brand a high-quality, sort of expensive brand? If it is, a spam marketing campaign or a campaign that does not respect privacy might actually damage that brand image that you spent so much time building.” Kamal says. “Look at spammers as a sign of a lowbrow marketing campaign.”

Take time to “purpose build” your campaign, as opposed to developing and implementing a mobile marketing program as quickly as possible. Consider a mobile services company to help you do so if you’re new to the process.

“Put a little thought into who your target audience is, what would be effective to actually run the campaign and (what your) intended results are,” Kamal says. “That reduces the risks and a lot of heartache with the client.”

Target your approach

Considering those factors allows you to target your approach in order to market to people with a high redemption rate. Using demand-draw or opt-in methods attract a relevant audience, as opposed to forcing marketing on random prospects.

“You can probably find a list somewhere that might have some relevance to what you’re marketing, but in the end, you’re going to have a high failure rate with just sort of a spam marketing program,” Kamal says.

Users who find the information irrelevant can easily block future messages from your company, as well as all automated messages.

“It’s hard for users to disseminate the difference between a fraud message and a legitimate marketing message unless you are taking into account the user’s privacy,” Kamal says. “Marketing that shows up on someone’s mobile device that they weren’t expecting doesn’t have a high return.”

Utilize social media

Mobile marketing and social media are inherently tied, as mobile devices are now driving most social media, Kamal says. By combining social media and mobile techniques in your marketing campaign, you can more successfully foster demand-draw.

“Set up a contest on social media that maybe draws demand and gets your message across,” Kamal says. “Then people actually ask for your offering. … Those campaigns tend to have a much, much higher redemption rate than campaigns where you just spam users.”

Social media also gives you access to a wealth of information on people’s wants and needs, which you can use to identify prospects.

“You can send back a response to their (post about selling a car) on social media saying, ‘Hey, we have this offer. We’ll buy your car at Blue Book price … as part of a promotion,’” Kamal says. “Then you can embed in the message back – let’s say it’s Twitter – ‘Just text this message to get your coupon code and show up at the dealer and you’ll get your reward.’

“Customers look at … those kind of marketing campaigns as actually useful. Because at the end of the day, if you were gong to buy a car anyway or trade in a car anyway, if you could get $500 off just for going to one dealer versus the next, you wouldn’t see that as an inconvenience. Nor is it an invasion of your privacy.”

How to reach: KoHorts IT, 810-355-1400 or http://kohorts-it.com

When you consider the setting in which decisions are made in an organization, it’s easy to picture a conference room table. The CEO sits at the head of the table and a council of vice presidents and executives line either side. Bob Frisch, author of “Who’s in the Room? How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them,” argues that some of the most critical decisions in an organization are made before the door to the conference room swings open. In this interview, he discusses the power of the “kitchen cabinet,” the problem with team-building exercises and the question every senior management team should answer.

Let’s start with the basic premise of the book: What leads members of an executive team to come to the CEO and ask, ‘Why wasn’t I in the room?’

The group goes by a variety of different names, but it could basically be called the boss and the boss’s direct reports. Officially speaking, this is the senior decision-making body of the company. Everybody knows that this is the boss and his or her team. They get together every week or every month, and they make the big momentous decisions.

The reality for the people that sit on those teams is that most of the major decisions are made by a smaller group before that team ever gets together. The boss makes decisions with the same handful of people around him or her time after time. It’s an informal ‘kitchen cabinet’ that makes the major decisions and the larger group has to discuss it, modify, communicate it, implement it, etc. The senior group doesn’t actually make the decisions of the organization and that gap between the myth and reality causes problems.

Many companies that experience this type of issue with decision-making think the solution lies in hiring a consultant or someone who tries team-buildin’ exercises. What is actually the result of this solution?

Bosses figure that if the team can communicate better, the frustrations caused by the decision-making process will go away.

The root cause of the problem isn’t psychological. It’s not behavioral. It’s not a communication problem. The root cause is, for example, the different people around the table have different political power. The root cause could also be that the boss doesn’t want to have 12 or 14 people around him every time he wants to make a decision. Bosses want the flexibility, latitude and intimate feeling that they get from having only two or three people around them when making decisions.

A central point for anyone reading this book is to move from ‘Should we do this?’ to ‘How do we do this?’ What starts the process of shifting a company from the former to the latter?

The business case goes in front of senior management teams or executive committees for approval. Usually the group comes into the conference room, the lights go down, they show the business case, the lights go up and things get passed through. We asked numerous groups, ‘In what percent of businesses cases is the case either turned down or significantly changed at the level of executive team approval?’

The typical answer we received was that it was changed at this level in less than 10 percent of cases. Usually what people said is that one or two cases were changed in the past few years. This is a kabuki, ritualistic approval process that is in almost every process flow of almost every business case. The ‘best-practice’ companies don’t say, ‘Should we go ahead and do this planned expansion?’ That’s a foregone conclusion. The question that these companies ask is: ‘Are the various parts of the organization around the table prepared to do what they need to do to support the successful implementation of the initiative described in this business case?’

“Who’s in the Room?”

By Bob Frisch

Jossey-Bass, 193 pages, $29.95

About the book: “Who’s in the Room” is author and consultant Bob Frisch’s examination of the organizational decision-making process. Based on years of research and intense interviews with a wide range of CEOs and their teams, Frisch guides leaders through a process to empower their senior management group. He redirects the senior management team’s focus and spreads decision-making power across the organization.

The author: Bob Frisch is managing partner of The Strategic Offsites Group and has worked with organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to German mittelstand family businesses to the U.S. State Department. Frisch’s work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Businessweek and Fortune.

Why you should read it: Making decisions causes internal tension in organizations. The biggest problem is that this tension often goes unspoken and unresolved. Frisch provides one of the more captivating examinations of the decision-making process. He also explains the reasons that traditional solutions such as team-building exercises and corporate psychologists fail to produce results related to decision-making.

Why it’s different: Frisch makes a critical distinction to which leaders should pay attention. He titles one chapter “Move from ‘Should We Do This?’ to ‘How Do We Do This?’” and he gives interesting evidence to support the belief that the former question is rarely answered by the senior management team. By restructuring the priorities of the senior management team, Frisch takes his readers away from traditional thinking that inevitably forces people to try to make the best of a broken situation.

Can’t miss: “Best Practices: Design an Organization That Delivers the Outcomes You Need.” In this chapter, Frisch teaches readers about the “Three Centers of Gravity.” Despite arguing for the dissolving of as many organizational teams as possible, Frisch help executives revitalize and strengthen the three teams that generally exist in most organizations. The chapter provides a push to an outcomes-based approach that is certain to help organizations be more effective.

To share or not to share: Executives will want their team members to read this book. It’s an inexpensive investment that will prevent needless spending on team-building consultants. “Who’s In the Room” also negates the root cause of the hurt feelings that result from feeling left out.

How to reach: Bob Frisch was a recent guest on Soundview Live, Soundview’s exclusive webinar series. To hear the complete broadcast, visit www.summary.com/webinars.

In business, too many executives believe that the best path to success is to “manage mad” thinking this will project an image of determination and tenacity, combined with the ability to strike fear in the hearts of any naysayers with opposing views.

Is there a better way, a more balanced method to manage other than by mimicking a fire-breathing dragon? Unfortunately, we have too many bad role models who employ a fearsome persona. There are the pugnacious politicians who make every issue a black-and-white cause célèbre, screaming, “If we don’t do it my way, we’ll wind up in a shambles on the precipice of extinction.” Then there are the professional and college coaches, with seemingly permanent scowls etched on their faces, who shout their mandates to be sure players know that if they don’t get the play right, they run the risk of being toast.

Corporate executives from the most admired to the most reviled have adopted this managing mad game face over time, some, perhaps, without even realizing it.

Certainly there is a time and place for a boss to raise his or her voice a few octaves, take on facial expressions of the walking dead and deliver a monologue laced with wakeup calls about either doing it the leader’s way or facing possible draconian consequences. This technique is best used very sparingly in situations that warrant an edgy demeanor. However, if a boss constantly plays the managing mad card, it loses its impact and the message becomes diluted as recipients think to themselves, “Same old, same old — just another series of empty threats.” Constantly portraying a vitriolic curmudgeon serves only to dampen hope and curb enthusiasm.

A point of clarification: Don’t confuse managing mad with being direct and holding people accountable while communicating clearly and explaining the positives, as well as negatives, to a team. This latter method is much preferred by those on the receiving end in order for the team to understand what is being said and, more importantly, what is expected of them.

We have all worked with and known people for whom the use of a smile, a compassionate gesture or a little humor at the right time and place is about as rare as politicians treating each other with respect during a debate. Businesspeople are not elected politicians trying to get votes by speaking the unspeakable with Armageddon undertones.

If you’re the boss, ask yourself if you hear what you’re saying and how you’re delivering the message. Do you need a self-prescribed attitude adjustment and a makeover of your style? If a subordinate projected a managing mad style, you would certainly provide the necessary coaching and counseling. However, if you fear you need this type of tune-up, how can you do it without losing face by asking peers or other trusted associates for a no-holds-barred critique?

There is an easy and effective way to accomplish this self-assessment. Surreptitiously record your next talk to the troops, even a phone conference call or a one-on-one session. Most smartphones have this feature. Before listening to your recording and evaluating your delivery, wait a few hours or until the next day so that you can listen more objectively, being a bit more removed from the heat of the moment. Close your door and use a mirror to watch your own expression as you listen to yourself. You’ll immediately know by what you hear and by your expressions in the mirror if you fall into the managing mad trap. Once you’re done, take a deep breath and then quickly jot down your own impressions, including the tone, choice of words and substance of the message. The big question becomes, “If you were the audience, would you buy what you’re selling?”

If you decide you need improvements, and we all do, use the same voice recorder before you give your next battle cry and rehearse a few times using the device to capture your delivery. Also, do these trial runs in front of a mirror so you can see yourself as others will see you.

When you introspectively examine your technique, you may not like what you discover. However, after the shock of realizing you’ve been managing Mad, you can quickly begin transforming your style, not to morph into a likable wimp but instead to become a thoughtful and effective leader whom others will eagerly listen to and then follow. To get results, it’s sometimes not what you say but how you say it.

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. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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A few years ago, I first explained how I use Twitter. A lot has changed since then, so this is an update on how I tweet. As a business owner, you can adopt my techniques to use Twitter as a marketing tool.

How can you follow more than 299,000 people?

I don’t read the timelines of all the people that I follow. Instead, I only deal with @s, direct messages and tweets that contain ‘guykawasaki,’ ‘alltop’ or ‘guysreplies.’ I answer almost every @ and direct message.

Then why do you follow so many people?

For two reasons: first, common courtesy; second, so that people can send direct messages to me. I like direct messages because they are more efficient than e-mail.

How do you find so many links to tweet?

I use three principal sources: Alltop, StumbleUpon and SmartBrief. These sites curate and aggregate information to make the hunt for quality links much, much easier.

What is your workflow?

I find interesting links and write up a short summary using BBEdit that I post to Holy Kaw, and then Objective checks the Holy Kaw RSS feed and tweets new articles.

Isn’t that a long, complex process just to tweet something?

Twitter is a marketing tool for me. It’s not a social activity or a game. This process is what it takes to make Alltop (one of my business ventures) successful.

How long do you spend on Twitter every day?

If I’m on the computer, I’m on Twitter, and I’m on a computer eight hours per day.

If a company wants an active, aggressive presence on Twitter, how many people does it take?

One person working really hard, unencumbered by a clueless boss and a Luddite legal department, can do it. Certainly one person can get things going enough to prove that Twitter makes sense for a company to add more people to do it even better.

Do you recommend that companies repeat their tweets?

Yes, if they want to ensure that as many followers see their tweets as possible. There will be a tiny number of people who will complain, but you cannot make all of your followers happy.

Do you use ghostwriters?

Yes, several people contribute to my tweets. I use ghostwriters because I want to provide as many interesting links as possible, and several intelligent people (assuming you think I’m intelligent) looking for interesting stuff will find more than one intelligent person.

Do your ghosts respond to @s and direct messages for you?

Never. They only tweet outgoing links to interesting sites and blogs. They never respond for me or as me.

Do you recommend that companies use ghostwriters?

Most companies are ‘brands,’ so this isn’t an issue unless people are so dumb as to think that Richard Branson is @VirginAmerica. Issues arise when the Twitter account is a person’s name.

Why do you constantly promote Alltop?

Twitter is a means to an end: Alltop’s success. This is why I put so much time, energy and money (my ghosts don’t work for free) into it. The Alltop promotion justifies and pays for the efforts of all five of us. You can think of my tweets as PBS content and the accompanying Alltop promotion as the fundraising telethon.

How much promotion can a company get away with?

It depends on several factors: How much do your followers love the company? How good are the deals that you offer? How much ‘real’ content and ‘interaction’ do the company’s tweets contain? Twitter is far beyond Trixie telling Biff and Carly that her cat rolled over. It’s a platform. As such, there is no wrong or right way, just as there is no wrong or right way to maintain a website or blog. Is Zappos ‘wrong’ for using the Internet to sell shoes? Forty years ago, some Arpanet scientists might have said so. The bottom line is that there’s only what works and what doesn’t, and you won’t know which is which until you try. <<

Guy Kawasaki is the co-founder of Alltop.com, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the Web, and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki is the author of 10 books including “Enchantment,” “Reality Check” and “The Art of the Start.” He appears courtesy of a partnership with HVACR Business (www.hvacrbusiness.com), where this column was originally published. Reach Kawasaki through www.guykawasaki.com or at kawasaki@garage.com.

In this time of transformative change, it’s easy to get derailed by internal issues. The key to being successful is to focus on the end goal, not the friction that is generated by change.

Take Yahoo for instance. Ten years ago, it was the dominant player in search. Today, Google’s revenue is in the neighborhood of more than 20 times that of Yahoo’s. The company had the opportunity to be bought by Microsoft but declined, which was puzzling, because there didn’t really appear to be a Plan B. You can read stories about in fighting between divisions and how search was given blank checks while other departments had to fight for every dime, and I’m sure there’s something to that. But I think where Yahoo went wrong was it never really had a clear idea of where it was going or what it wanted to be.

The Internet had changed, and it was no longer sure where it fit in. With no clear direction, conditions inside the company started to deteriorate. So while it may look to some that the company needed to clean up its internal mess first, the lack of a clearly defined external goal most likely contributed to the mess in the first place.

Transforming an organization to compete in the new economic landscape is difficult. It requires systemwide change at levels that most people won’t be used to. There will be the old way of doing things and new ways of doing things, and those two things often don’t mesh together well.

But all barriers have to be overcome to achieve the harmony that’s needed to succeed. You can have all the handbooks, core values and mission statements that you want, but how many people are actually referring to them? Are they doing anything for you other than collecting dust on the shelf?

The key to transformative change is leadership. Leadership has to be committed to a clear course of action no matter what. During these times, internal stress is higher and turmoil is inevitable. Everyone is overworked and on edge.

As the leader, you have to keep everyone focused on the end goal, make the changes that are necessary and move forward. You can’t lose hope, quit or give up. That’s the easy way out.

Focus on your external goals and make sure all of your people understand what their role is in getting there. There will be problems inside your business, but that takes more time to resolve itself. Your job is to stay focused and try to keep everyone else focused on the end goal.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t have to spend some time intervening in internal issues, particularly ones that threaten to derail you from your objectives. You just can’t get lost in trying to sort out every last disagreement or worrying that everyone is happy under your roof. You have to trust that your managers will sort out the little things and that those who are committed will come along for the ride.

In the end, Yahoo lost out to Google for a variety of reasons, but you have to wonder how much of its pain was caused by the lack of a clear corporate goal and the resulting focus on the in-fighting within the organization. It’s not about who wins the fight between Department A and Department B. It’s about the personnel in both departments understanding what the goal is.

To reach your transformational goals, don’t get lost in the details. Stay focused on the big prize, and you will be rewarded with success you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or fkoury@sbnonline.com.

In last month’s article, we looked at effective leadership. This month, I have chosen the topic of courage. Very often, leadership and courage are linked together: A leader must have courage; a leader must act in a courageous manner and so on.

While this is true, it is only part of the story about courage and the workplace. As we shall see, the virtue of courage must run throughout an organization or company –  from bottom to top – in order for it to function at the highest level.

Courage defined

Courage comes from the Old French corage, meaning “heart and spirit.” In other words, courage is an innate, internal quality that resides within the core of your being.

Courage is further defined as: “The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.” Again, we see the word spirit.

Courage is foundational

Courage is associated with such words as fearlessness, grit and power. It is experiencing fear, yet pushing through it to achieve your desired result.

In my book, courage is the thing that underlies every other human quality. Without it, we cannot rightly be honest, dependable, generous or trustworthy. Courage is the foundation upon which all other virtues are built.

Courage and fear of reprisal

Why is so little courage seen in so many companies these days? In my estimation, it is because the leaders of those companies have fostered a culture where dissenting voices are discouraged and opinions that threaten the status quo are thoroughly silenced.

With this climate of possible retaliation before them, team members are fearful of speaking up, sharing their thoughts and voicing their values. Fear of being the first one out the door at the next downsizing has stopped many ideas dead in their tracks in the workplace.

Courage, vision and openness

The first step in harnessing your courage is to develop a vision that represents your authentic self and goals, and aligning that vision with the business and its goals. This is true for the executive, manager and employee in the workplace.

Development of a vision that all members of the team can buy into depends on the openness of a company or organization. An open-minded company allows for discussion, sharing, brainstorming and even dissenting views. An open leader sees the value of the knowledge and experience of everyone in the room, including managers and employees.

The leaders’ openness allows for others to work from a place of courage. They can step up without fear and lend their thoughts to the discussion. The ability to have that courage becomes transformational, both for the person sharing and the company or organization.

Openness leads to the ability to shape and form a vision. It is a vision wrought in courage which gives it power. That vision, brought about by the courage of the people involved in its development, will be the driving force carrying the company forward into new and exciting areas.

What does courage in the workplace look like?

I write this section because so many people have yet to see courage in action in the workplace. It is foreign to them. They have yet to experience the notion.

The best picture I have come across in my work is a picture painted by Jaime Walters in an article from 2002 entitled “Courage: Tap Greater Potential and Thrive Through Challenges.”

Walters writes:

Imagine a group, department or company where "citizen-leaders" are invigorated by the notion that they can be courageous every week -- regardless of their title or role. Picture the results of a team with such high morale and unified commitment to their own group mission, as well as the company's, that its members feel a true sense of ownership and responsibility. Or, visualize the leader who inspires a level of momentum that ushers in a new, more effective way of working and a stronger sense of purpose. All are possible, and each requires courage.

Benefits of courage in the workplace

Drawn from this quote are many of the natural benefits derived from demonstrating courage in the workplace. Benefits like: high morale; commitment to the group mission; ownership; responsibility; momentum; effective; and stronger sense of purpose.

I would add words like: openness, freedom and power.

I close with a few questions that all members of your team can ask themselves regarding courage. Use these questions to help you determine what you can do to step up, step out and find your courageous voice.

- What is your vision for the business/group/department?

- How, specifically, can you be more courageous in your role at work?

- What communication skill would help you become more courageous?

- What tangible benefits will arise from your courageous action?

DeLores Pressleymotivational speaker and personal power expert, is one of the most respected and sought-after experts on success, motivation, confidence and personal power. She is an international keynote speaker, author, life coach and the founder of the Born Successful Institute and DeLores Pressley Worldwide. She helps individuals utilize personal power, increase confidence and live a life of significance. Her story has been touted in The Washington Post, Black Enterprise, First for Women, Essence, New York Daily News, Ebony and Marie Claire. She is a frequent media guest and has been interviewed on every major network – ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX – including America’s top rated shows OPRAH and Entertainment Tonight.

She is the author of “Oh Yes You Can,” “Clean Out the Closet of Your Life” and “Believe in the Power of You.” To book her as a speaker or coach, contact her office at 330.649.9809 or via email atinfo@delorespressley.com or visit her website at www.delorespressley.com.

Before the financial meltdown in 2008, prospective homeowners breezed through the lending process while pursuing the American dream. Now, even veteran borrowers can be stymied by today’s stricter lending environment, especially if they rely on previous knowledge and experience to navigate the process.

“Fortunately, education, preparation and a little perseverance can help novices as well as seasoned borrowers take advantage of historically low interest rates and home prices,” says Marc Reneau, first vice president of consumer lending at First State Bank. “And there are new programs that may allow owners to refinance an ‘underwater’ mortgage (in which they owe more than the house is worth) that were not previously available.”

Smart Business spoke with Reneau about the current mortgage climate and how education and preparation will help borrowers through the process.

How has mortgage lending changed, especially in Southeastern Michigan?

Lending has been very challenging in Southeast Michigan, with lenders going out of business, new and updated regulations, declining housing values and the number of foreclosures. The good news is that there are definite signs of recovery.

However, lenders remain very careful. Gone are the days when you just stated your income. Now you must provide sufficient documentation to verify your earnings and assets in order to show you can repay the loan.

What should a consumer know about the current mortgage qualification process?

All information provided during the application process is validated. When applying for a mortgage, borrowers should be up front and answer all questions posed by their loan officer truthfully and completely. Today, lenders are using a new set of standards to underwrite and evaluate risks. While they may differ from lender to lender or by program, these are the general guidelines.

* Minimum credit score of 620 and a history of financial responsibility and saving. Borrowers can drive a better deal for a conventional loan if their credit score is 740 or higher; however, this does not apply to FHA loans.

* Proof of employment for the past two years and explanation of any gaps.

* Sufficient assets to survive a temporary financial setback. Borrowers should have six months of payments saved. These funds needn’t be liquid, and can be in the form of a 401(k) or other securities.

* Minimum down payment will vary depending upon the loan program and these funds must be in the borrower’s account for at least two months.

* Total monthly housing costs for principal and interest, taxes and insurance should not exceed 33 percent of gross income, while total monthly expenditures for all liabilities should not exceed 45 percent for conventional loans and 50 percent for FHA loans. Remember, even deferred payments on a student or other deferred loan count toward monthly liabilities.

How should consumers prepare for the lending process?

If borrowers are prepared, the process can still be quick and smooth. Borrowers will need, at a minimum, the most recent month’s pay stubs; most recent bank statement(s) including all pages (even if the last page is nothing more than an advertisement); the last two years’ W-2s; if there has been a recent divorce or bankruptcy, a copy of the divorce/bankruptcy papers is needed. Most important, all income must be verifiable. If the borrower plans to obtain a gift, there is a correct way to do so and the loan officer should be able to provide proper guidance.

What are some things consumers do unknowingly that can hinder their chances of obtaining a mortgage?

It’s important to keep spending in check while going through the application process. Borrowers should avoid buying or leasing a new car or trying to fill the new home with furniture with one of those ‘same as cash’ deals, as this is still considered debt and must be counted in the calculation for qualifying for a loan.

Lenders are required to obtain an updated credit report at the time of closing the loan to ensure nothing has changed between the time the borrower applied and the loan closing. If there has been a major purchase, especially on credit, borrowers will most likely need to explain it to the satisfaction of the underwriter before the loan can close.

Has anything changed for consumers who are unable to refinance due to their house being underwater?

There has been a lot in the news lately about a new and revamped government program for homeowners who owe more than their home is currently worth. Homeowners whose mortgage is owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac (and was closed prior to April 2009) may qualify to refinance using the HARP 2.0 program (Home Affordable Refinance Program).

The key difference in this program is that it lifts the cap previously in place on the Loan to Value. Homeowners who are current with their monthly payments but are unable to refinance due to a drop in the value are the typical prime candidates for the new HARP program. Not all financial institutions will participate in this program and not all loans will be eligible. Homeowners should contact a loan officer they trust to see if they qualify.

The program is just taking shape as of March 2012 and it may take longer for these loans to process than conventional loans, but the program does not expire until Dec. 31, 2013, so there is time to take advantage.

Marc Reneau is first vice president of consumer lending at First State Bank. Reach him at (586) 447-4851 or mreneau@thefsb.com.

Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by First State Bank

Many of us have become tethered to our businesses 24 hours a day, seven days a week because of technology. Look around any restaurant, meeting or social function and watch as those around you check their texts, e-mails and social media activity.

For better or worse, we have become slaves to technology and in many cases have reached connectivity overload. Think about the times you have caught yourself at family or social functions discretely sneaking glances at the messages pouring into your smartphone. Is the smartphone outsmarting us or making us smarter and more efficient?

Recently a colleague was lamenting the fact that he can no longer escape work because whenever there is trouble, he gets the call. It doesn’t matter that protocol has been put into place to have others handle after-hours situations. My colleague is still most often the only one who is called.

Why? Because everyone knows he always has his phone with him and he always picks up. My colleague’s constant connectivity has completely obliterated any work-life balance he and his family once had.

Conversely, recently I visited my daughter’s school for parents’ day. As much as I try to balance my connectivity, I was thankful that I had chosen to have my iPhone with me.  Our office Internet and e-mail provider had a hardware glitch that knocked out connectivity at my office. Thanks to technology, an employee texted me about the problem. Had I not been connected, I would have been paying for 15 people to sit around, unable to work. Within minutes of my office plugging in my mobile hotspot, everyone was back to work and reconnected.

So what’s the perfect balance? As businesses owners, CEOs and managers, we need the connectivity to know what’s going on and to be able to respond instantly when needed. That connection and ability to immediately respond can be the difference between winning a customer, contract or losing one. It can help you troubleshoot when there is a problem from wherever you may be. It allows you to take advantage of situations where work and productivity would be lost as you wait in reception areas for appointments, airports for planes, or, in my case, even car lines as I pick up my children from school.

But it can also cause us to miss out on so many things in our lives that we sometimes deem more important that work. To determine if you’re too tethered to technology, consider the following questions:

1. Even after you unplug, do you crave the stimulation you get from your electronic gadgets?

2. Does the distraction of technology cause you to forget things such as dinner plans, birthdays and special occasions?

3. Do you have trouble focusing on family and friends because you’re more focused on your electronics device?

4. When you’re with friends and family do they often comment that it seems like you can no longer be fully in the moment?

5. Are you carrying around multiple devices to help you stay connected?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you may be addicted to connectivity. In recent studies, scientists say that juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. The scientists go on to explain that these bursts of information play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation causes an increased production of dopamine that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

Next time you reach for your gadgets to plug in after hours, ask yourself: are you the boss or is your smartphone?

Adrienne Lenhoff is president and CEO of Buzzphoria Social Media, Shazaaam PR and Marketing Communications, and Promo Marketing Team, which conducts product sampling, mobile tours and events. She can be reached at alenhoff@shazaaam.com.