What if the leaders at IBM had stuck to making punch card equipment? What if after making the transition to the personal computer market, they had stayed entrenched there?

Punch card equipment is long gone, and with recent PC sales numbers significantly in decline, the leaders of IBM have stayed ahead of monumental changes in the market and kept the company moving forward for decades.

The secret?

An open mind.

Too often, CEOs place self-imposed limitations on themselves, both in business and personally. The status quo becomes acceptable and new ideas become verboten. When this happens, growth is stifled — a dangerous situation. Many business gurus will tell you that you are either growing or dying. A stagnant company sees itself as not losing ground, but as its competitors move forward, its relative position in the market fades, even though it views itself as standing firm.

The only way to avoid this is to keep an open mind. CEOs need to constantly grow and learn from a personal perspective — so they constantly improve their leadership and people skills — and also from a business perspective — so new ideas are allowed to push the organization forward.

While there are many approaches to keeping an open mind, here are three ways to get started.

 

 

  • Embrace trial-and-error. Finding success might require experiencing a dozen failures. Whether it’s a new way of running a meeting or trying to find the next innovative product, accept the fact that success has a cost. Don’t eliminate an idea because it goes against what the company has always done.

 

 

  • Seek knowledge. As a professional, a CEO should never stop learning. There should always be a curiosity about your industry that drives you to seek an understanding of the latest trends and strategies, but you should be constantly looking at other industries as well. Often, best practices in one industry can be applied to another. If you are the first to make the move, it will give you an advantage over the competition.

 

 

  • Find a mentor. The right mentor can make you aware of your blind spots. Without someone to offer a different perspective, it is easy to fall into familiar ways of thinking, thus stifling the chance of new ideas taking root.

 

 

The longer a CEO runs a business, the easier it is to fall into the trap of doing what worked yesterday or last week. When this goes on long enough, the business ends up with an overall strategy that is several years old.

You would never say, “Let’s use the same strategy we developed five years ago,” but because of a closed mind, that’s what ends up happening by default.

Be vigilant about your search for knowledge. In the end, it will make you a better leader and improve your company’s chances for success.

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

Published in Akron/Canton

When you flip a light switch, turn on the water or start your car, you expect reliability every time. For employees, it’s just as mandatory that they be reliable, by showing up on time, completing the tasks at hand and basically doing their jobs time and time again.

By the same token, your employees expect you, as their leader, to be reliable. This means when you say you’ll do something, you do it, when they need direction, you provide it, and when the chips are down, you’ll be there for them.

Being reliable is good, but being too predictable — not always. In fact, being too conventional can make your company a “me, too” organization that only reacts to what the competition does, rather than taking the lead. It can be a bit more daring to set the trend, but if managed and controlled correctly, the rewards dramatically outweigh the risks.

Warning signs that your leadership has become too predictable occur when your subordinates begin finishing your sentences and know what you will think and say before you utter that first word on just about every topic. Compounding the problem is when your employees begin to perpetuate the negative effect of you being so darn predicable by believing it themselves and telling others, “Don’t even think about that; there’s no point bringing up your idea about X, Y or Z because the boss will shoot you down before you take your next breath.” This bridles creativity and stifles people’s thinking and stretching for new ideas.

It’s human nature for subordinates to want to please the chief. Under the right circumstances, that can be good, particularly if you are the chief. But it can be a very bad thing if you are looking for fresh concepts that have never before been run up the flagpole.

Uniqueness is the foundation of innovation and the catalyst for breaking new ground. George Bernard Shaw, the noted Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics, characterized innovation best when he wrote: “Some look at things that are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

The “why not” portion of this quote is the lifeblood of every organization. A status quo attitude can ultimately do a company in, as it will just be a matter of time until somebody finds a better way.

As a leader, the first step in motivating people to reach higher is to dispel the image that you’re exclusively a predictable, same-old, same-old type of executive who wants things a certain way every time. There are dozens of signals that a boss can give to alter a long-standing image and dispel entrenched mindsets. You can always have a midlife crisis and show up at work in a Porsche or Ferrari instead of your unremarkable Buick. This flash of flamboyance will certainly get people questioning what they thought was sacrosanct about you. The cool car might also be a lot of fun; however, the theatrics might be a bit over the top for some, not to mention a costly stage prop just to send a message.

A better solution is to begin modifying how you interface with your team, how you answer inquiries from them and, most importantly, how to ask open-ended questions that are not your typical, “How do we do this or that?”

Another technique is when somebody begins to answer your question, before you’ve finished asking, particularly in a meeting, abruptly interrupt the person. Next, throw him off guard by stating, “don’t tell us what we already know.” Instead, assert that you’re looking for ideas about how to reinvent whatever it is you want reinvented or improved in giant steps as opposed to evolutionary baby steps. If you’re feeling particularly bold, for emphasis, try abruptly just getting up and walking out of the meeting. In short order, your associates will start thinking differently. They’ll cease providing you with the answers they think you want. Some players will hate the new you, but the good ones will rise to the occasion and sharpen their games.

If you want reliability, flip the light switch. To jump-start innovation, you could begin driving that head-turning sports car. Better yet, get your team thinking by how you ask and answer questions and by not always being 100 percent predictable but always reliable.

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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Published in Akron/Canton

Long work hours, heightened competition, demands for efficiency, and new laws and regulations are all challenges faced by executive leaders today. It often feels like we’re running up the down escalator — constantly in motion, exerting excessive energy with our adrenaline pumping just to get through a normal day.

After awhile, the demands take their toll. In addition to serious potential health consequences — including heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. — stress has behavioral side effects, making us anxious or depressed.

The result of that chronic stress can severely compromise our ability to lead. It affects not only each of us personally but also the teams we lead and the organizations we run. When we acknowledge the power we have over our people and businesses, this subject takes on real urgency.

Check your emotions

Emotions are contagious, so as leaders we need to be vigilant about the emotions we’re passing on to those around us. Are you carrying fear and stress to those around you?

Imagine different scenarios: a boss who responds to stress and fear by acting aggressively toward employees and becoming overcontrolling, a leader who appears calm but buries his head in the sand, or a leader who remains calm and responsive.

The first two will create fearful, stressed out or frustrated employees whose performance is stunted or paralyzed, while the latter creates an atmosphere of trust and confidence, where people are encouraged to act. Where would you rather work?

We can start by paying attention to the emotions we’re passing on to others and honestly assessing whether we’re contributing to their productivity or inhibiting it. If it’s the latter, we have to find ways to defuse our stress — through exercise, relaxation or levity — and avoid taking it out on those around us.

Be honest

The ability to speak openly and honestly is a critical leadership behavior. If a team member isn’t performing up to par, avoiding a conversation only increases ineffectiveness and raises anxiety.

When we find the courage to have honest conversations, we create a climate of transparency and openness — necessary elements of healthy and productive workplaces.

At the same time, we relieve stress and anxiety by being proactive and confronting tough situations head on.

Stay connected

Being connected through devices means we’re always available.

But are we? Being available to everyone all the time can leave us unavailable at any one time. It’s hard to focus on the conversation you’re in when you’re constantly ready to respond to the outside world.

We can enhance our leadership by demonstrating that we’re present and connected in the moment, in face-to-face conversations. Those human interactions make us better leaders and reduce stress.

Be open to learning

A hallmark of effective leadership is openness to learning. Alvin Toffler, author of “Future Shock,” said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

As leaders, we’re besieged by information, and the contexts in which we work are changing daily. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be not only willing to learn but eager to learn as well.

Emotions are like an on-off switch to learning. If you’re resistant and fearful, you’re in “off” mode, and it will be nearly impossible to learn. If you face new situations as opportunities for growth with an attitude of willingness and curiosity, you get turned “on.”

Our leadership ability is directly correlated to our openness to learning. Once you’re “on,” learning isn’t a source of stress and anxiety but is a source of energy and creativity. ?

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Published in Columnist
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:00

Effective leadership

As leaders, we understand that our actions, whether good, bad, positive or negative, are being continually examined. Our job as leaders is to create a vision, develop and execute strategic plans, define goals, and set objectives aimed at creating excellence through products and services that address the needs of the customers and markets we serve.

Accomplishing these tasks cannot be done in a vacuum; a team of highly skilled and dedicated leaders is needed to accomplish these goals. CEOs and business owners are constantly challenged to seek out the talent needed to build an effective leadership team. Though difficult, it is paramount to find talent that has a keen understanding of your organization’s market, vision, mission and objectives.

Building a team of talented leaders that share similar capabilities, traits, ambitions, and that are qualified to lead an organization is one thing, but getting this group to function together to lead a business effectively and efficiently requires special attention.

It is vital to have a leadership team that consists not only of highly skilled, functional leaders but also those who possess the ability to understand the broader picture. Members of this team must be willing to contribute, provide productive opinions and work as a team to reach consensus, and then collectively execute these decisions throughout the organization.

Leading strong leaders requires managing egos, resolving conflicts, balancing power and integrating opinions in a way that ultimately fosters a team that is aligned with your organization’s vision, goals and objectives.

Reflect for a minute on the qualities that have brought you to your leadership position. You are a visionary and you’re high on confidence. You likely have charisma and years of experience. You have a wealth of important contacts and you are a person that most would consider to be “plugged in.”

Now assume that those in your organization, technically your subordinates, share many of those same qualities that you possess. The possibility and likelihood of friction in these relationships is high if you don’t manage these relationships carefully.

Below are some action steps to take to enhance your leadership within your organization.

1. Set the expectation that leaders actually lead, be accountable, take risks and don’t wait for direction. If those around you are not willing to do the same, then maybe it’s time to make a change.

2. Spend quality time with leaders individually to understand their views on their role and their vision of how their functional area contributes to the mission of the organization. Are they thinking big, stretching their direct reports and delivering the results you expect?

3. Challenge the team and individuals to stretch their thinking and share their “big ideas.” Be clear and concise. Put things into context so they understand the meaning and possible outcomes of decisions.

4. Set clear expectations of leaders and the leadership team. Expect individuals to know the overall business and be able to separate themselves from their functional role and contribute to the enterprise by tackling complex issues.

5. Mandate open and frank dialogue between leaders while reiterating that these discussions remain confidential.

6. Expand their role by asking them to contribute by taking lead roles on enterprisewide matters.

7. Allow leaders to lead so they own their actions and decisions. It is your responsibility to identify and select high-quality talent with the knowledge and experience needed in order to contribute to the organization.

These steps are the beginning to a harmonious relationship with your top team members. Remember, the goal is the respect that you earn along the journey, not friendships or three people to round out a great foursome on the links. Your energy, vision, determination and drive are the active ingredients in leading by example. ?

Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. He can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or tony@upfrontmgmt.com.

Published in Columnist
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:00

Focus on the critical few

As businesspeople and business leaders, we have full plates. Whether it’s balancing work, home, community, social obligations, aggressive business targets, strategic initiatives to sponsor/support/implement, unwelcome external influences, or customers expecting more for less, prioritizing all of that can be a daunting challenge.

Prioritize and focus are the business vernacular terms we always hear. We smile grimly, mutter “uh huh,” and return to our overwhelming pressure cooker without changing a thing about what we do or how we are approaching our work.

But those words really are the key to managing our crazy world of over-commitment and under-capacity — when combined with two more words: critical few. Prioritizing and focusing on the critical few results, products and people who truly matter more than others is job No. 1 for executives.

How to look at it

The facts: You have a critical few customers, without whom your business would dramatically suffer. Ensure that your organization serves those customers disproportionately well. That does not mean ignore the others; ideally, all customers would be served flawlessly.

You have a critical few products/offerings that make up the 80 percent in the 80/20 of your business. Ensure you get them flawlessly right. Your brand is set by those core products or services. If you get it wrong there, the rest may not matter.

You have a critical few employees/direct reports who play a disproportionately impactful role in the success of your business. Your time should reflect that understanding. It doesn’t mean ignore everyone else; it simply means that you cannot leave to chance that your key people are sufficiently directed, motivated, feeling challenged by their work and appreciated.

They are people you can build the rest of the organization around. You’ve got to get it right with these folks above all others and then rely on their help to reinforce and motivate the rest of the organization.

Optimize and organize

So clearly, identifying your critical few customers, products and people is job No. 1 for results. How do you optimize your short list of the critical few? Simply answer these three questions:

?  What are the critical business results you need to deliver?

?  Who are the key performers who will deliver those results?

?  What are the critical few behaviors that your key performers must do?

That reads like common sense, and it is. But achieving it isn’t so simple.

Don’t forget reliability

You know your critical results and key performers right now, but what about those all-important critical few behaviors that people must do to make it work? If people don’t do the right things, you won’t get results.

Many initiatives are designed to get those critical few behaviors to occur — behaviors that we think should automatically happen, but they don’t. How do we get people to do the right things reliably?

It’s not about making people happier at work. Many happy workplaces go belly-up. It’s easy to be distracted by things that create fun and do little to improve performance.

It comes down to (1) pinpointing those actions, which if performed reliably, will move the needle for your organization and (2) ensuring there are reinforcing consequences for those critical few behaviors and corrective consequences for behaviors inconsistent with what you need. That alignment is necessary, and it is often overlooked.

So in a nutshell: Ensure focus on the critical few results, people and behaviors. Don’t allow yourself or your organization to be distracted. Without the critical few happening well, you will spend many more hours fixing things than growing your business. ?

Published in Columnist
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:00

Emotions are contagious

Long work hours, heightened competition, demands for efficiency, and new laws and regulations are all challenges faced by executive leaders today. It often feels like we’re running up the down escalator — constantly in motion, exerting excessive energy with our adrenaline pumping just to get through a normal day.

After awhile, the demands take their toll. In addition to serious potential health consequences — including heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. — stress has behavioral side effects, making us anxious or depressed.

The result of that chronic stress can severely compromise our ability to lead. It affects not only each of us personally but also the teams we lead and the organizations we run. When we acknowledge the power we have over our people and businesses, this subject takes on real urgency.

Check your emotions

Emotions are contagious, so as leaders we need to be vigilant about the emotions we’re passing on to those around us. Are you carrying fear and stress to those around you?

Imagine different scenarios: a boss who responds to stress and fear by acting aggressively toward employees and becoming overcontrolling, a leader who appears calm but buries his head in the sand, or a leader who remains calm and responsive.

The first two will create fearful, stressed out or frustrated employees whose performance is stunted or paralyzed, while the latter creates an atmosphere of trust and confidence, where people are encouraged to act. Where would you rather work?

We can start by paying attention to the emotions we’re passing on to others and honestly assessing whether we’re contributing to their productivity or inhibiting it. If it’s the latter, we have to find ways to defuse our stress — through exercise, relaxation or levity — and avoid taking it out on those around us.

Be honest

The ability to speak openly and honestly is a critical leadership behavior. If a team member isn’t performing up to par, avoiding a conversation only increases ineffectiveness and raises anxiety.

When we find the courage to have honest conversations, we create a climate of transparency and openness — necessary elements of healthy and productive workplaces.

At the same time, we relieve stress and anxiety by being proactive and confronting tough situations head on.

Stay connected

Being connected through devices means we’re always available.

But are we? Being available to everyone all the time can leave us unavailable at any one time. It’s hard to focus on the conversation you’re in when you’re constantly ready to respond to the outside world.

We can enhance our leadership by demonstrating that we’re present and connected in the moment, in face-to-face conversations. Those human interactions make us better leaders and reduce stress.

Be open to learning

A hallmark of effective leadership is openness to learning. Alvin Toffler, author of “Future Shock,” said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

As leaders, we’re besieged by information, and the contexts in which we work are changing daily. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be not only willing to learn but eager to learn as well.

Emotions are like an on-off switch to learning. If you’re resistant and fearful, you’re in “off” mode, and it will be nearly impossible to learn. If you face new situations as opportunities for growth with an attitude of willingness and curiosity, you get turned “on.”

Our leadership ability is directly correlated to our openness to learning. Once you’re “on,” learning isn’t a source of stress and anxiety but is a source of energy and creativity. ?

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Published in Cleveland
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:00

Who wants a dream that's near-fetched?

Steve Jobs was credited with inspiring Apple’s trademark advertising campaign challenging each of us to “think differently.” But how does one go about thinking differently? Since founding the Alliance of Chief Executives in 1996, I have passionately studied and experimented with how CEOs can generate breakthrough ideas — which are the most visible examples of thinking differently.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Marty Neumeier who in 2003 launched a think tank called Neutron to merge design thinking with business management. He’s written three best-sellers, but his newest book, “MetaSkills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age” suggests that we are entering a new age in which the “left-brain” skills of the industrial age, while still very important, will be surpassed by the “right brain” skills of creativity, sensing and learning.

As computing advances have made information immediately and almost totally accessible, Neumeier believes that we must develop the ability to cultivate five “metaskills” if we are to reshape the world.

Feeling

The ability to draw on human emotion for intuition, aesthetics and empathy is a talent that’s becoming more and more vital. It’s the ability to connect deeply with people through vicarious imagination or “putting yourself in another person’s shoes.”

Seeing

Integrative thinkers don’t break a problem into separate pieces and work on them one by one. Instead, they see the entire architecture of the problem — how the various parts fit together and how one decision affects another. By resolving the tensions that launched the problem, they can craft a holistic solution, which often requires them to reject the urge for certainty and grapple with the messiness of the paradox.

Dreaming

The No. 1 hazard for innovators is getting stuck in the tar pits of knowledge. Knowledge has a powerful influence over creativity. When we’re stumped or in a hurry to solve a problem, our brains often default to off-the-shelf solutions based upon what everyone knows. The proper approach to invention is not logic but wonderment. Creative thinking begins with phrases such as “I wonder,” “I wish” and “What if?”

Making

Creativity is a messy process, and we arrive at better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then constantly improving upon them. The best designers believe in failing fast. Their drawings, models and prototypes are not designed to be perfect solutions.

Learning

If you’re seeking new information or fresh insights, you need to look beyond your clique, since a clique is a closed system that acts more like a mirror than a window. The antidote to the clique is to open the window and connect with groups outside your own. Put yourself in the way of meeting like-spirited people, not just like-minded people.

So how do normal people like us think differently? Steve Jobs was smart — but not exceptionally smart. However, he learned the trick of divergent thinking. Biographer Walter Isaacson said Steve’s “imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected and at times magical. He had the ability to make connections that other people couldn’t see, simply because they couldn’t let go of what they already knew.”

We need to stop seeking only current best practices and challenge our assumptions about our current limits and ask questions about what might be. Howard Schultz once said, “Who wants a dream that’s near-fetched?”

In order to solve the global problems facing us, we must think differently than we have done in the past. No single individual is as smart as all of us, so we must learn from others with different knowledge and skills. By seeing our problems from new perspectives, dreaming big ideas and fast prototyping new solutions, we can make a dent in changing our world.

Paul Witkay is the founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives. Based in Northern California, the Alliance of Chief Executives is the most strategically valuable and innovative organization for CEOs in the world. Reach him at paulwitkay@allianceofceos.com.

Published in Columnist
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:00

An extension of your team

Every company, irrespective of size, at some point needs a variety of service professionals. The amount and experience these professionals possess can substantially add value to your business and mitigate risk.

Technical matters of law, financial audit, tax, industrial marketing and public relations are usually best handled by outside experts. Attorneys, auditors, tax experts, public relations and industrial marketing professionals have specialized knowledge and skills that you couldn’t and shouldn’t hope to duplicate.

Clark-Reliance’s business philosophy has always been that we make service professionals an extension of our team. We frequently invite them to sporting events, company dinners and other internal events. Knowing our service professionals on a personal basis and allowing them access to know our staff makes it a better and more effective partnership.

Our senior management works closely with these providers so that they can answer questions efficiently and quickly whether it’s a simple or complex business issue.

It is also good practice to formally meet with service providers on a frequent basis, even if the meeting is only an update. This practice will allow your providers to gain a better understanding of your business and provides a discussion forum that is different than just dealing with them on an as-needed basis or for “crisis interventions.”

Legal services

Whether you have in-house counsel or not, outside legal service providers are an imperative partner to help you grow and protect your business. Partnering with a reasonably sized firm allows you access to worldwide contacts, practices and procedures.

Almost everyone has four distinct reasons to use an attorney or specialized law firm, even if you do employ general counsel:

Acquisition — When your company is engaged in an acquisition, you need a highly specialized legal team to provide expertise in areas such as due diligence, negotiation, asset acquisition, purchase agreements, taxation and employment transactions.

Intellectual property — The need to safeguard your new product ideas can be ensured by a highly specialized attorney who can protect and defend your intellectual property, patents, trademarks and copyrights, both domestically and worldwide.

Product liability — The misuse and misapplication of products that have been sent into the stream of commerce may result in litigation or unjustified claims that need to be addressed by competent legal counsel.

Labor and employee issues —The multitude of employment law issues, regulation and compliance requirements and employer/employee legal issues demands a working relationship with a labor/employment legal professional.

Financial services

The changes in the United States Federal Tax Code and the continuing compliance with tax laws for federal, state and local taxation demand comprehensive and technical knowledge. Most companies also need to have audited financial data for borrowing purposes or to meet public company regulations. This highly specialized and technical knowledge can only be accessed through a tax and financial adviser.

There are four areas where a financial/tax service professional can assist any business.

Taxes — Whether you are an S-corporation, C-corporation or LLC, you need to have a tax adviser analyze the tax implications of business decisions to ensure that you are properly taking advantage of the complex tax code.

Grants and tax credits — The research tax credit remains a valuable source of support to businesses that conduct qualified research and development.

Acquisition process — During the acquisition process, it is imperative to include your financial advisers in terms of due diligence and specific issues like goodwill, inventory valuation and working capital adjustments.

Audit — Private or public, it is a good idea to have your financial data analyzed and scrubbed by experts in areas of revenue recognition, inventory valuation and off-balance-sheet transactions.

Utilizing service professionals provides a road map to avoid the pitfalls that can present significant obstacles to your business success. ?

Matthew P. Figgie is chairman of Clark-Reliance, a global, multi-divisional manufacturing company with sales in more than 80 countries, serving the power generation petroleum, refining and chemical processing industries. He is also chairman of Figgie Capital and the Figgie Foundation, a member of the University Hospitals Board of Directors, corporate cochairman for the 2013 Five Star Sensation and chairman of the National Kidney Walk.

Rick Solon is president and CEO of Clark-Reliance and has more than 35 years of experience in manufacturing and operating companies. He is also the chairman of the National Kidney Foundation Golf Outing.

Published in Columnist

In late February, Office Max and Office Depot agreed to merge, pending normal government and shareholder approvals — and while this merger had been anticipated by the financial community for many years, the reasons why this took place are all too common.

The office supply world has changed dramatically over the past 16 years. In 1997, Office Depot attempted to merge with Staples, but the courts halted this due to the potential monopoly. Since then, the rise of stronger independent dealers working in the B2B marketplace, the rise of e-commerce sales (both independent dealers and others), and department stores expanding office supply goods in the B2C marketplace have forced marketplace changes.

Is this just a temporary rearrangement of the deck chairs? There are a number of reasons that make up the failure of these two companies to make it on their own. The first reason boils down to debt.

The bottom line is that these two firms combined have nearly 2,100 stores across the United States. This in itself has created massive amounts of debt — both on the balance sheet and off the sheet too. Office Max has more than $1 billion in off balance sheet debt and $1.7 billion of debt listed on the balance sheet. In addition, there has been another $2 billion in write-downs during of the past five years.

The second lesson is having a stagnant business model heavily based on brick-and-mortar stores. This new company, as yet un-named, will have 2,100 stores nationwide. Competitor Staples will have about 2,000 stores. However, all of the self-serve stores have been in a retail retraction for a few years and have been closing or reducing the size of stores in an effort to cut costs.

What you can expect to see

In order to create a healthy balance sheet, my crystal ball tells me that, due to duplication of resources, over the next few years, you can expect closures of distribution centers, a continuation of store closings, financial write-downs, layoffs and reductions in debt. Will this be enough to please shareholders? Stay tuned.

Since Depot bought Max, will Office Depot bring all of its outsourcing back from overseas or send more out? Will the handling of customer service issues improve or decline? Some clients have been told not to order on Friday, because they won’t deliver on Monday. Will they outsource all delivery personnel?

Will these changes affect their B2B clients? It is very likely — and not in a positive way.

By far, the biggest question is whether all of these changes will impact the remaining store, B2B and e-commerce sales.

What to do right now?

Businesses should control their business destiny and not wait for their dust to settle.

Look at your company’s strategic initiatives. Many common strategic initiatives include cost cutting, vendor reduction, “buy local” and sustainability.

Take this change in the marketplace as a reminder to examine this line item in the budget — even if you aren’t using Depot/Max. As we’ve seen, there isn’t a line item in a company budget that is above scrutiny.

I’ve worked with many clients nationwide and have been able to show them a double-digit price decrease compared to self-serve stores — all the while providing a higher level of service. While the pricing makes one competitive, it’s the service level that maintains loyalty.

Caution: Businesses that look strictly on price may likely be short-changing themselves by not looking at overall value. Consider working with a local partner who can make your office run smoothly. This will lower both hard and soft dollar costs while helping achieve strategic initiatives.

Independent office supply companies carry thousands of products. They have formed their own buying consortiums to lower the cost below self-serve stores and provide nationwide delivery. These include furniture, janitorial/sanitation, coffee/breakroom and computer supplies.

If you could purchase nearly everything for the office, with a reduced number of vendors and have a favorable impact to your balance sheet — wouldn’t you make a change? ?

Bill Botkin is a sales consultant for Today’s Business Products. Contact him at (800) 536-5163 or bbotkin@todaysbp.com.

Published in Columnist

With 88 percent of businesses now active on social media, the social media landscape is becoming more cluttered and more difficult. This means that, for businesses, it is becoming harder and harder to break through the noise and be heard.

In order to penetrate the noise, businesses must deliver the right message to the right person in the right way. Increasingly, the way that people want to receive messages online is visually.

We’ve heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is true. The brain can process images faster than text. This is why images are breaking through on social networks — because they provide a quicker way for people to comprehend information.

Image-based social networks, such as Pinterest and Instagram, are among the most popular and quickest-growing social networks online. Images are the most liked and commented on content on Facebook and links to images get the most clicks on Twitter. All signs point toward images as the most popular, most shared and most liked content on social networks.

The point is that with so much content on social media, images are increasingly the content that is breaking through and getting results. I realized this trend and recently published a book called “Visual Social Media Marketing” about how brands can take advantage of this and get results.

So, what can you do to take advantage of this trend? Here are three simple steps to start taking advantage of the visual revolution online.

Include images on your website

The visual Web focuses around images, and as your website is shared online, the images from your website are usually the focus of how your website content is shared.

For example, when I post a link to a website on Facebook, the image is shown beside the link to my content. In this example, I’m sharing a link to our report on Google+. The image of the Google+ report is on our website.

Having the image on our website is important to how the link to our website shows up on Facebook. The reality is that if you want to drive traffic to your website from social media, each page on your site should have relevant images that are appropriate for sharing on social networks.

Use images on existing social networks

If you want your business to be successful on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+, images must be a part of your strategy. Consider these statistics:

?  Images are the most shared and clicked on content on Twitter.

?  Images receive 50 percent more interactions on Facebook.

?  Google+ users have uploaded 3.4 billion photos.

?  Recruiters spend more time examining a LinkedIn user’s picture than actually reviewing the person’s qualifications.

These statistics show that if you want to break through on the leading social networks you must have an image strategy. Images are easy to consume and eye-catching, and with all of the content on social networks, images break through and get better results than text updates.

Consider joining Instagram and Pinterest

Instagram and Pinterest are two of the quickest-growing social networks and they can be your way to reach new audiences and get results ahead of your competition. Consider joining these networks and participating in the community to reach your audience in a new and interesting way.

Visual marketing is a trend in social media that you just can’t afford to ignore. If you want your business to stay relevant, drive traffic to your website and build shares and likes on social networks, you can’t afford to ignore the power of images in achieving these objectives. ?

Krista Neher is the CEO of Boot Camp Digital. She is an international speaker and social media thought-leader, as well as the author of “The Social Media Field Guide,” “Visual Social Media Marketing” and “Social Media Marketing: A Strategic Approach.”

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