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When Robert M. Korzenski took over as president and CEO of Solo Cup Co., the $1.6 billion food service product maker had a bit of a problem.

It had been two years since Solo had acquired SF Holdings and its well-known Sweetheart brand of cups, plates and other single-use food service products.

“The outlook for that combination was a great opportunity and one that could change the way the market was being serviced by taking two brands and putting them together to ultimately serve a much broader and larger customer base,” Korzenski says.

Unfortunately, the integration was not going as well as everyone had hoped.

“Part of what I had to try to understand and look at was what caused two companies of similar size and nature in the same industry with similar product lines and so forth, what caused them to be at the point that they were two years into the integration,” Korzenski says.

What Korzenski discovered was that these two companies that seemed to be so similar were actually pretty different.

While Solo had always been a family-owned business, Sweetheart had gone through multiple transitions over the years. The two companies took very different views on the external world and the task of financing their operations.

“Those were two cultures that were clashing as they came together in 2004 through the period that I came in in 2006,” Korzenski says. “It was like we took a blanket off what was happening in the company to say these are all the problems. I certainly single-handedly am not smart enough to figure these all out by myself. And even the executive management team and all the talent and energy that is brought to the party isn’t capable of figuring these out themselves. We need all 7,000 employees in the organization helping us figure out how to do it better.”

Speak with clarity

One of the first things that became clear to Korzenski was that Solo Cup Co. had a lack of leadership. This shortcoming, combined with the lack of a clear identity that had come about through the joining of two conflicting cultures had created a lot of confusion for employees and customers alike.

“Whatever communication or whatever strategic plan existed, it was usually owned by outside consultants, outsiders to the company,” Korzenski says. “It wasn’t developed and owned by that leadership team at the time. It’s my belief that if you don’t own it and you don’t help develop it, you can’t execute it the same way as if you did own it and you did develop it.

“As I looked at the landscape at the time, you could clearly see they were internally focused and that there were confusing signals to the employee base about what was important and what we were trying to accomplish. More importantly, there were confusing signals to the marketplace about who we were and what we were trying to do.”

Korzenski needed to move quickly, because the company was bleeding cash and had a lot of debt, which put Solo Cup in a very precarious financial situation. There wasn’t a lot of time to get things turned around.

“One of my objectives was to bring in place strong people, a strong leadership team that could help right the ship and put it back on track,” Korzenski says.

Korzenski revamped the management team, bringing in people who he felt could make an immediate difference and deliver a clear message about what Solo Cup Co. was doing. It was both simple and desperately needed.

“Truthful and honest and open communication,” Korzenski says. “That’s what people want. People can’t solve problems if you don’t give them all the facts. People won’t want to solve problems or won’t jump on board if they believe you are misleading them and people will quickly begin to not follow you if they suspect that the company is really doing something else and communicating another story.”

Korzenski needed his new management team to step up and help him deliver this message. It would be a lot more meaningful if he wasn’t the only one talking. It also wouldn’t hurt if they did a little listening too. The key was for both Korzenski and his team to be approachable.

“It absolutely can’t only be me,” Korzenski says. “The executive team, which is seven other members that report directly to me, the team understands that my expectation is you listen carefully to what you’re hearing and what people are telling you so you can then translate that into what do we do in response to those situations that are unfolding.

“It really is about your own approachability and about how often you are out visiting not only with your customers, but with your employees and about how well you listen. Sometimes you come in and because of the position, people may be a bit intimidated and might not be as open and honest with their dialogue. But if you listen carefully, everyone is usually telling you what they are really feeling. You just have to listen to it.”

If you personally don’t feel comfortable being part of that communication effort to your people, lean more heavily on your team to fill in those gaps or find a way that falls more into your comfort zone.

“You may never be a speaker that can stand in front of 7,000 employees and address the group,” Korzenski says. “But if you can do that with smaller groups and more intimate settings where you feel more comfortable, use that. … It may not all look the same. It will be different. But everyone has that skill. If you have to do it five employees at a time, then that’s what you have to do.”

Korzenski and his team didn’t just hold meetings, they got out and visited factories and tried to canvas the company communicating with employees.

“It’s really making a strong effort to not only get everybody to hear what you’re saying, but making sure what you’re telling them, they can clearly understand, they can clearly believe in and that everyone is listening to the same message,” Korzenski says. “So it really is about getting to the factories, getting to the facilities and getting out with our sales people.

“Every action, every leadership move and every form of communication through the executive management team through every level of this company must be done in an honest and accurate way. Then people will believe and follow. Short of that, it won’t happen.”

Keep it going

Korzenski began to see the fruits of his and his management team’s labor through 2007 and into 2008.

“Our employees really signed on to what was happening and really started to get engaged in getting the company to new levels and new areas we expected to get to many years before that,” Korzenski says. “Our customers started to believe in us again. Our outside constituents, our suppliers and our board all started to believe that the company was moving in the right direction.”

Debt was reduced. Sales improved and so did cash flow. Then the economy tanked and demand, which was typically very reliable in the industry of plastic cups, plates and the like, took a big hit.

The loyalty that Korzenski and his team had earned in the first couple years was being put to the test.

“They were saying, ‘Look, you’ve been entrusted with a company that has a 75-year heritage,” Korzenski says. “It has one of the strongest brands in the industry. Don’t screw it up.”

The need to keep people informed and involved was even more important now than it had been before.

“I believe in the absolute expectation that all people will participate in a discussion and that we’ll reach consensus,” Korzenski says. “I don’t believe that an autocratic style is the way to win an organization’s heart and soul to move it forward.”

When you experience an obstacle in your path to achieving a goal, you can’t throw in the towel and give up. You also can’t be so loyal to your plan that you don’t recognize the need to adjust.

“You can set the target and you can set the end state, but if you don’t adjust along the way and you blindly follow that end game without halftime adjustments,” Korzenski says. “That will lead to failure as well. So it’s important to put that stake out there, put an end opportunity in front of the work force and in front of our customers as well so they understand where we’re going. But then it’s having the ability to change that, whether it be subtly or pretty significantly.”

But whether you’re adjusting or staying the course, remain accessible.

“My assistant knows that any customer that calls, whether it’s a hot dog stand down the street or Starbucks, she finds me wherever I am and I speak directly to that customer about any issue they may be facing with the company,” Korzenski says. “I expect that of every member of the leadership team as well. I think those are the critical pieces to being successful and then taking that information and turning it into results for the company.”

Continue to evolve

When the economy began to turn in 2009 and 2010, it was time to unleash the next phase of Solo Cup’s evolution. A new campaign slogan for employees, “Think Like a Customer,” was unveiled to indicate that the company had solved many of its internal issues and that it was now time to really focus on being a great brand again for customers.

“What it was intended to do was take this new company and say, ‘If every single employee in this company started to think like they were the customer, what would you do differently?” Korzenski says. “How would you act differently? What would you do in your daily lives so that the customer could visibly see a different Solo Cup?’”

The idea was to reinforce the notion that things would continue to change and employees needed to stay tuned in to so they could always be providing the best product and service possible.

“You want them to be able to depend on Solo to be the company that they can come to for their changing needs and for what they need to solve their solutions,” Korzenski says. “If you have an employee base that thinks that way, that thinks like a customer, then they bring that expertise. We know that listening to what the customers’ needs are in this changing environment is going to be critically important to our success going forward.”

How to reach: Solo Cup Co., (877) 765-6669 or www.solocup.com

The Korzenski File

History of Solo Cup Co.: The company was founded in Chicago 1936 by Leo J. Hulseman as Paper Container Manufacturing Co. It changed to its present name in 1946. The company has 10 North American manufacturing facilities and six state-of-the-art distribution centers, with additional manufacturing and distribution in Central America and Europe. The company is an exporter to more than 70 countries and has a broad product line encompassing many materials: paper, plastic, foam, post-consumer recycled content, annually renewable materials and compostable materials.

Innovations in single-use tableware that reflect the common culture:

1936                Paper cone cup

1946                Solo Cup

1950s              2-piece wax-lined cold cups

1960s              Cozy Cup and reusable plastic holder

1970s              2-color, red Party Cup

1980s              Traveler hot cup lid

1990s              Clear, plastic PET cup

2004                Solo Grips product line

2004                FDA-approved post-consumer fiber hot cup

2008                Bare by Solo line of eco-forward single-use tableware

2009                Solo Squared

Korzenski on delivering a message: It really goes back to something that I did as an intern through one of my summer jobs. I was given an assignment and I was asked to give that assignment to the executive team. I launched into the solution within the first 30 seconds. One of the members of the team took me aside and said, ‘Part of what you have to do is you have to polish this up a little bit. You have to make sure everybody understands the work and the effort that you put into it.’ So take your time to talk about what it is you’re doing.

Published in Chicago

When Jim Bolch took over as president and CEO of Exide Technologies last year, the 122-year-old battery company was doing well.

It had fallen on tough times in the first part of the last decade, but the previous CEO had remedied that and gotten the organization back on track.

“He did a lot of tough love, if you would, to put the company back on track and did a very good job of it,” Bolch says. “But what came away from that environment is the company became very risk-adverse. The people were very reluctant to take accountability for decisions and sort of step out.”

His initial gut-feel told him he was going to need to change the mindset of the organization in order for it to continue improving.

“My challenge is, as I’ve sort of coined it, moving the company from a ‘don’t lose’ mindset to ‘play to win,’” he says. “People were scared of making a mistake. With 10,000 people, [we had] to change their mind and say, ‘It’s OK; it’s time to grow this company and time to win the market,’ and we’ve spent a lot of time over the last year doing just that.”

Build your case

While Bolch initially suspected that the company needed to change its mindset, he wanted to test that theory before he moved on it.

“Early on, you develop some hypothesis, but you want to go out and test them, so a little bit of it was collecting data to test, but also it’s starting to build some consensus as you go along,” he says.

He spent only two weeks of his first three months on the job actually in the office. The rest of the time, he was out traveling to more than 20 countries, touring his factories and talking to different employees, customers and investors.

As he met with each of these different constituents, it was important for him to ask a lot of questions to make sure he was gathering as much information as possible.

“The questions vary depending on where you are and who you’re talking to,” Bolch says. “Typically, if I’m talking to employees, one of the first set of questions I start to ask is, ‘Who are your customers? How does what you do add value to your customers?’ … If people don’t really understand how they’re going to add value, then we have a problem.”

He also asks a lot of questions around how do they do their job, how do they know that’s the most efficient way to do their job, and if they had an idea on how to do that better, how do they implement it.

With customers, the questions are different and more focused on asking them how Exide can do better — what do they like about doing business with the company, what don’t they like, are they responsive, and are they innovative?

“Especially with a customer, asking more open-ended questions, you can learn a lot,” he says.

Then with investors, it’s yet another set of questions.

“With investors, it’s all about expectations — what would cause them to want to invest in our company, what would they expect to see back from that,” he says. “With them, a lot is results, a lot is transparency and understanding of the direction of the company and what we’re trying to do to improve.”

As he traveled and talked to people, he started to see evidence that supported his theory that the mindset had to change. For instance, he went to visit a plant in Kansas City, Kan., that made the company’s industrial products. One of the things he asked them about was how often they went to another plant two hours away in Salina, Kan., which is where he was headed next, to share best practices.

“The room was just silent,” Bolch says. “The simple fact was they had never been there. It wasn’t part of the culture to operate as a global company. It was just small local entities.”

Turn hunches into plans

As a result of his travels and conversations, Bolch thought he knew what needed to happen to start changing the company’s mindset, but he needed the right people in place. He made some changes to his team, and about three months after he started, he took the new senior management offsite for a week to put together a new plan and get their buy-in for it.

“It’s about getting them engaged in the process,” he says. … “We did a lot of prework of understanding where the business was and where it could go. A lot of that is really externally based. You have to look outside the company. You get too internally focused, and that’s a problem. Look outside the company. Look at how you deliver to your customers.”

They brought in both customers and investors to talk about plans.

“I don’t think they had had that as much in the past,” Bolch says. “We weighted the pros and cons. It wasn’t necessarily a smooth process. There was some disagreement along the way, but in that, you build understanding. At the end, we came out as one team that was committed to the plan.”

That formalized plan — no longer just a hunch — had three main components: one Exide, driving competitive operations and global growth through innovation.

The first part was necessary because the company was divided up in a lot of different ways both geographically and businesswise. It wasn’t just in the Midwest that people had very little knowledge of what happened in other areas — it was everywhere — so he wanted to knock down the walls. Going forward, a plant could make multiple products instead of just one and a salesperson could sell multiple products instead of just one. It also meant doing some restructuring. Senior leaders were supportive of this, even though it left their jobs in jeopardy.

“What tells you a lot about the people is the way they go about it — if they really engage and say, ‘Yep, we think this is the right thing for the company. I’m not sure what it ultimately means for me, but I want to be a part of it,’” he says.

The second big part about driving competitive operations centered on making the plants and processes more efficient and cost-effective as well as being a leader in the environmental field. They used objective measures to identify the five most important activities to work on — continuous improvement, environmental health and safety, preventative maintenance, energy efficiency, and equipment standardization and cost reduction. Bolch says he looked at the operating metrics for all the plants to make these determinations.

“You can look at who has the best quality measures in terms of defect rates or who has the most productive work force in dollars per part, those kinds of things,” he says. “Then there’s also the subjective version — when you go to visit a plant, you can say, ‘This is a well-run plant.’ Typically it’s the more objective measures to say if you’re getting good results. Chances are, all the other stuff is going to be good too, at least on a consistent basis. Random is never good when it comes to things like that.”

Then the third part about driving innovation was key to developing new technology based on what customers were telling them — they had to play to win.

“It’s time to grow this business, and it’s time to establish ourselves as what I like to refer to as a company of choice — first choice for suppliers and people who want to work here for employment, first choice for investors,” he says.

Communicate your plan

As he began to move forward, the next step was to communicate the company’s new plan to each different constituent group. He did this through various venues, such as an all-company webcast, internal newsletters, in-person and starting an annual meeting.

“Although you have to craft the format differently, I believe you have to be very consistent with the communications, whether it’s your employees or customers or suppliers or investors,” Bolch says. “You can’t have different messages. You have to have a consistent strategy and talk to them and adopt it to their viewpoint a little bit. You can’t create different ones for different people — it doesn’t work.”

He says you have to start with a simple message.

“Making it a simple message is very hard,” he says. … “You have to be able to communicate not only to your senior people but also be able to reach somebody who is working on a factory floor who may not speak English, and translate it and be ruthless and streamline the message down.

“When you do that, it means you have to be very clear about what you have to do. If you use a lot of words, you don’t have to be so clear. If you use very few words, you have to be much more clear.”

That’s why he ultimately came back to just those three big ideas of one Exide, competitive operations and global growth through innovation.

“That seems to translate well and people understand it,” he says.

But he couldn’t simply leave it at just those three things. He also had to explain what those three things really meant to each constituency, and that meant tailoring that consistent message in different ways.

“It depends on their ability to understand, and what’s important to them,” Bolch says of how you do that. “If you’re talking to senior leaders in the company, you can be very explicit, and you can back it up with a lot of details.”

Then it’s different if you’re talking to a lower-level person in the company.

“They can be very intelligent, but they may not have all the knowledge to absorb it,” he says. “You tend to want to state it in more basic terms so they can appreciate it, and give them examples of how they can contribute because I believe that everybody at the beginning of the day, wants to come in and make the company a better place — I’m just optimistic that way.”

Then it’s a completely different approach when you go outside your company and talk to your customers.

“They don’t care as much how you pay your people,” he says. “What they want to know is how you’re going to run the company in a way that benefits them and how they run their business. Take those same messages and how that’s going to translate into better products or lower costs or higher quality.”

Then, lastly, Bolch had to take that same message and tailor it to his investors.

“If it’s a successful business and making customers happy and we’re engaged with employees, ultimately, there’s going to be better financial results for the company, which is what’s really of interest to them,” he says.

Move forward

After he had effectively communicated the new plan to all the different stakeholders, he then went about moving the business forward. As he worked with people, he continued to reinforce the new plan.

For instance, Exide used to have one large sales force that went out and sold to car manufacturers, such as BMW and Toyota but then had a completely different sales force that sold batteries that go into forklifts. Once when he was out with a salesman in one of the car factories, he took the opportunity to further the plan.

“I would say, ‘It’s great that we’re selling them car batteries, but what kind of batteries are in those lift trucks running around?” 

The salesman didn’t know, and when Bolch would ask why not and wouldn’t it be great if they were Exide, the salesman would respond that it would be nice but it wasn’t his job to know.

“It’s the classic, ‘Not my job,” so now we make it their job,” Bolch says. “As you start to unearth these opportunities, one is you change the incentives and objectives, but the other one is you really communicate where we had victories.”

After that conversation and several others like it, now Exide is seeing victories in cross-selling opportunities across the businesses.

He’s also starting to see the fruits of his labor in other areas. For instance, in the past, you could only build an industrial battery in an industrial plant or a transportation battery in a transportation plant.

“Now we’re breaking through that paradigm saying, ‘If we have the skills, and we have the capacity to build in this plant, why can’t we do that there?’” he says. “We’re doing that and generating a lot of productivity that way.”

And the numbers prove that things are changing, as net sales for fiscal 2011 improved to $2.8 billion from $2.6 billion in fiscal 2010.

He’s also seeing more engagement with employees when he communicates with them, which is a sign of success.

“The first time you do a webcast globally, it’s absolute silence because people aren’t sure what to make of the new guy,” he says. “But as time has gone on, you get more and more questions about, ‘Well, can you tell me about this? I’m really interested in this. Or I had this idea — what do you think about that?’”

He’s now getting more e-mails form employees, which is really exciting for him.

“It says to me that people are now starting to engage more and are starting to understand the business,” Bolch says. “When I go into a plant, people interact differently. It’s not just me. Our whole leadership team is reaching out like that. When you see them engage back, you know you’re making a change.”

How to reach: Exide Technologies, (678) 566-9000 or www.exide.com

The Bolch File 

Born: Jackson, Miss., but I didn’t live there very long. I moved to Shreveport when I was about kindergarten age.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Tulane University; Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, University of Florida

What was your first job and what did you learn that still applies?

Mowing lawns. I was probably 10. One [thing I learned] is you probably don’t want to mow lawns for a living. I think it’s just you have to take pride in what you do. If you’re going to commit to do a job, you do what you said you’re doing to do.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be an astronaut. I was born in 1957, so when President Kennedy wanted to go to the moon, I was like 5 years old so it was an impressionable age I suppose. I used to write letters to the people at NASA when I was a kid, and they would write me back. I had two problems. Once I was 12 years old, I was already over 6 feet tall. And at that time, you couldn’t be an astronaut if you were over 5 feet 10 inches, and also I didn’t have perfect vision. I was written out of the program early on. I had to go be an engineer instead.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

‘Trust, but verify.’ I think I it is critically important to empower your team, but periodically you need to drill down to ensure that you are getting the whole story and you are comfortable with the direction.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

‘Unbroken.’ It’s a story of a WWII army aviator. It was a young man who went into the army at a young age, but he was ultimately shot down and stranded in the Pacific and was a prisoner of war, and it was an incredible story of someone’s personal story and how they survived and how they conquered incredible things. It was pretty inspirational.

Published in Atlanta

William J. Abbott was concerned that Crown Media Holdings Inc. had lost its way. The company, which operates and distributes Hallmark Channel to more than 87 million television subscribers, didn’t seem to have a clear path that it was following to achieve success nor did it have a clear idea of what success looked like.

“We would come up with all kinds of different reasons to pursue an endeavor that might not necessarily enhance that singular focus,” says Abbott, the company’s president and CEO. “The biggest challenge I faced was getting everybody on the same page in terms of what our corporate objectives really are. Especially in the entertainment industry, that can be challenging and difficult in that different entertainment companies sometimes have different focuses and different points of view on what’s really important.”

Abbott wasn’t new to Crown Media. He had spent nine years running ad sales and this experience had provided a window into how the different parts that made up the 170-employee company functioned.

“Previous regimes were always focused on the bottom line,” Abbott says. “I just think that the path to profitability and the path to success were pursued differently and with a different vision. For example, producing volume as opposed to being more targeted in terms of what we produce would be an example of a strategic difference.”

Abbott wanted to change that. His goal was to instill a strategy and a sense of purpose to let everyone know what they were doing and why they were doing it.

“It’s delivering a hard-line business approach to a bottom-line driven emphasis,” Abbott says. “If it doesn’t deliver something for the bottom line, our point of view now is it doesn’t make sense for the business.”

See who fits

Before he could begin plotting this new strategic focus for Crown Media, Abbott had to look at the people who worked for him and determine if they were a good fit.

“The first thing you have to determine is that you have the right team in place that is willing to buy in to a new set of strategies and is willing to pursue things a little bit differently,” Abbott says. “It’s an analysis of the team that you have and ensuring you have the right people on board.”

Abbott knew things about a lot of the people on his team from his experience at the company. But he had to set that aside and gather input as to how they would fit into this new initiative.

“That’s probably a 100-day process of really learning exactly where they have been, what their framework for decision-making is and what they draw on from their experience in terms of how they approach their day to day,” Abbott says. “You don’t want to make snap judgments around looking at someone’s resume and deciding they don’t have the right experience to get where you want to get to. It’s living through the day to day for three to four months. That’s what you need to do to get a sense of their thought process.”

You’re looking at relationships and how people function with each other rather than just trying to appraise the skills of an individual.

“It’s seeing what their relationships are like with other team members and people in their group and in their departments,” Abbott says. “The story is told pretty quickly that way versus any kind of evaluation or fact finding that I would do. It’s through their interaction with others that ultimately tells the tale and the respect or lack of respect they have with other leaders.”

Your observations should not be gathered by planting yourself in someone’s office and watching people work.

“That’s the last thing you want to do,” Abbott says. “The evaluations you make really don’t come through wandering around and talking to people. That creates way too amped up of an environment where it becomes an us-versus-them mentality where everybody is fearful when you walk in their office.”

You’re not trying to size them up on an individual basis, which is often where that pressure comes from. You also shouldn’t necessarily be worried about how they respond to you. It’s the way they interact with others, and with their direct supervisors, that will tell you what you need to know.

“It’s the respect they have in the marketplace, their knowledge overall in the business and their ability to function as the leaders in the organization that are much more important than any one or two questions that you might ask them when they are having a bad day or just got off the phone with somebody else,” Abbott says. “I’m not a big believer in how conversations go in the hallway at 5 o’clock at night or 9 in the morning. It’s a much bigger landscape that you need to look at.”

Talk to your people and gather impressions about how they function as part of a team. Ask about others too and see what you learn.

“Who could say, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice my own personal objectives for what I believe is a philosophy or strategy that results in a good product,’” Abbott says. “It’s having that candid, honest conversation that will begin to help you make that determination about who can get there and who will have more trouble.”

Explain what you’re doing

Abbott learned that he did need to make some personnel moves at Crown Media to get the company on the course he believed it needed to be on. Those changes can be tricky to make as you want to do it without rocking the foundation too much for those who aren’t leaving.

“I don’t know that there is a way you can do it without creating some questions and some sense of trepidation,” Abbott says. “It’s a vigilant communication to the employee group of how well they are doing and how much they are valued. Be as present as possible and as visible as possible and try to reassure people, even on a one-on-one basis, that they are valued and very good at what they do and that they have a bright future in the organization.”

You can’t make the moves and then expect to instantly move on as if the changes had never been made.

“To make changes and not really give a very strong explanation as to why and leaving people in the dark and questioning … is very poisonous,” Abbott says. “You need to overcommunicate and be very clear and as approachable as you can possibly be. At the end of the day, everybody is a human being and they have families and responsibilities and hopefully they work to live and don’t live to work. You’re dealing with peoples’ livelihoods. You want to be sensitive to that fact.

“Not only does it make sense from a business perspective to have an environment where people flourish and like coming to work, but also from a personal perspective. If you’re going to run an organization that has integrity and have people who thrive personally, that’s just the right thing to do. There is a responsibility of leadership to put people in the right places and try as best as you can to ensure their confidence levels are high with what they are doing and that they can feel good about the job they do when they go home at night.”

Get the ball rolling

Abbott did not wait until he had made his personnel moves to begin formulating a plan to create better strategic alignment at Crown Media.

“When I took over, I knew exactly where I wanted to go,” Abbott says. “So I didn’t have to spend a lot of time fact finding or searching for what a strategy might be to make it successful. We were able to roll something out pretty quickly.”

You need something to present to people that shows you’ve done your homework on these big changes you’ve been talking about. But at the same time, you have to show people that they have an opportunity to influence the changes that are going to be made.

“Judging what makes successful television is in the eye of the beholder,” Abbott says. “Through the course of conversations, there will always be that type of creative tension which I think is good and I think it just needs to be solved through talking it through. At the end of the day, hearing what makes the most sense for the brand and for the business is what the ultimate gold star is in terms of making that decision. We view everything through that lens, which makes the decision-making a lot easier than it would be if we were just trying to evaluate something for art’s sake.”

With that in mind, Abbott called on his department leaders to meet with their people in groups to have more intimate conversations about what was happening at Crown Media.

“We don’t put everybody together in one big town-hall meeting, but we have smaller town-hall meetings,” Abbott says. “Communicating that message on a level where you have as few people in the room as practically possible is a strategy that is important. If you’re in an organization that’s too big, it’s absolutely incumbent on the leaders of the divisions to really be the messengers and deliver the news and the new strategy in a compelling and coherent way.”

If you’ve made good personnel decisions, the plan should begin to come together fairly quickly. But there is, of course, no sure thing in business or in any aspect of life.

“At some point, you’ve done the best you can,” Abbott says. “There is a level where you have to have confidence. There is a point in any senior management team’s development and evolution where you make decisions and then you just have to believe in your vision and relentlessly pursue it and make it work. But there is no such thing as a sure thing. You have to have that confidence and a little dash of hope as well.”

The successful execution of these steps is in large part based on your ability to be honest with yourself about your abilities and those of your people. If you’re unwilling to make the tough personnel moves when they need to be made, you’ll have a tough time moving your business forward.

“You have the wrong people in place and you’ve got to make changes,” Abbott says. “There’s no room, at least here in our organization, for people who at the end of the day can’t walk away and learn how to have meetings where they are productive and there is the proper amount of respect given. People need to be mindful that they have colleagues as well who are working for the common good. I’ve been on some of those teams, so I understand what that dynamic is like. It’s not a fun place to work and it’s certainly not a productive place, because you don’t have the type of dialogue necessary to move the business forward. It’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure the team is restructured so that it’s part of the culture.”

The numbers at Crown Media  are trending upwards. Revenue grew to $287.3 million in 2010, up from $279.6 million in 2009.

“It’s really that consistent buy-in that we’re all singing off the same song sheet,” Abbott says. “We all really have in our minds where we want to be, not only this year, but in three to five years. Historically at our company, that hasn’t always been the case.”

Fair or not, the burden on making the tough call that sometimes has to be made to grow your business rests with you.

“Ultimately the leader is accountable and the leader needs to make changes so that he or she brings in the right people where that environment doesn’t exist,” Abbott says. “So yeah, ultimately the fault with the leaders. But individuals are responsible for their behavior and it’s a plague on both of their houses at the end of the day if the organization continues to operate in that kind of manner.”

How to reach: Crown Media Holdings Inc., (818) 755-2400 or hallmarkchannel.com

The Abbott File

Born: Manhasset, N.Y.

Education: English and political science major, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.

What was your very first job?

Maintaining tennis courts at a country club. They were Har-Tru (clay) courts so they had to be swept and various things had to be done on the courts that aren’t typical of your typical tennis courts.

What is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about the TV business?

Why shows stay on the air and why they get cancelled. There is a definite bottom-line formula that determines the success of a show and the genre, and that isn’t always necessarily understood.

Do you have a favorite TV show?

In terms of quality and star appeal, the Hallmark Hall of Fame over 60 plus years has been a franchise that needs no introduction to the vast majority of Americans. It has served a vital purpose in the television landscape for a very long time. It continues to endure and do very well.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Work hard and be prepared. It sounds pretty basic, but preparation is so key to your success or lack thereof. Every day when you wake up in the morning, you decide whether you’re going to be successful that day or you’re not just by the nature of what you decide to do. Being empowered like that and knowing that it is a choice is very good advice.

Published in Los Angeles

Deborah Sweeney was just about at her breaking point. She had a group of employees at MyCorporation that she loved, but the tight bonds that she had built with them was making it really tough to be an effective leader for the business.

“I want them to be connected to me, to feel a connection to the business and to me as the owner and I want to be open with them,” says Sweeney, president and CEO at the 40-employee company that provides online document filing services for clients who wish to form corporations or limited liability companies.

“But sometimes that can end up taking every single waking minute of your day. They all have their ideas and their personal initiatives and motivations and goals. It’s balancing that against the focus on the broader strategic goals of the business.”

Unfortunately, Sweeney was not doing a good job balancing these two tasks.

“I felt this drastic pull of, ‘Wait, I have to grow this business and really focus on the larger business initiatives. I just cannot do both.’”

She needed to find a way to stay close to her people and enable them to still feel close to her but, at the time, separate a bit so she could work on bigger picture tasks like strategic development and growth.

“I didn’t want to shock them,” Sweeney says. “I’ve been running it this way for a year. How do I make this message?”

She began by meeting with key leaders to get their buy-in on her idea to step back a bit from day-to-day responsibilities at her company and focus more on growth.

“I empowered them to work directly with their direct reports instead of having to come to me for all the questions,” Sweeney says.

She scheduled an all-hands meeting which she touted as a celebration to let everyone know about the changes she was making.

“I didn’t position it like, ‘I’m exhausted and I can’t handle you guys anymore,’” Sweeney says. “I positioned it like, ‘Hey, I really think we have an opportunity to grow the business. In order to do that, I need to spend time on those things that are growing the business. So I have a couple people who are going to be taking on more leadership roles and are going to be answering your day-to-day questions.’”

She then handed out charts that explained how things would work going forward and moved her office to the back of the building.

“I felt I needed to give the people to whom I was giving the responsibility that kind of center space for them to be more in front of the employees,” Sweeney says.

At the same time, when you decide to step back from the inner workings of your business and focus more on external issues, you need to make it clear that you’re not abandoning your employees.

“You don’t want to be perceived as disengaging from the business,” Sweeney says. “I almost try to overcommunicate with where I’m going and what I’m doing. You build a trust and respect.”

You also make sure you create systems for people to bring up concerns with you since you are still the CEO.

“I have them every week tell me the five things they accomplished this week,” Sweeney says. “They give it to me every Friday and then they tell me their top three initiatives for the following week. I don’t do it with all employees, so I ask them to ask for the same thing from their team members. So we all consistently flow that information upward.”

The result of all this is that Sweeney has found more time to help her business grow without reducing the workplace culture at MyCorporation to a detached and impersonal environment.

“I’ve seen so many CEOs fall into that thing where they can’t let go, and then they lose the respect of their team because they are so busy trying to manage the minor nuances of who sits where and who is hired when and all these little things that they lose the perspective,” Sweeney says. “I think this is my opportunity to get that back into perspective.”

How to reach: MyCorporation, (877) 692-6772 or www.mycorporation.com.

Just do it

Deborah Sweeney had tried many times to get other people in on the hiring process at MyCorporation. And every time, it was met with very little response.

“Every time I used to do interviews, I would offer, ‘OK, who would like to be involved in the interview process? I want to engage the team,’” Sweeney says. “One or two people, always the same people, would volunteer.”

Sweeney decided that needed to change. This time, they weren’t being asked to help. They were being asked to do it.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to do the interviews this time. I want your team to make the decision to hire this person. If they end up being not that great, you’ll have to deal with the consequences,” Sweeney says. “They did more reviewing of resumes than I’ve ever seen. They had more people on the team interview the people, more engagement once we decided to hire this person and then of course a welcome party and all of this other stuff. They set up it so much better than if I or one of the leaders had made a unilateral decision.”

The key was the empowerment of not being asked to help, but being asked to take on the responsibility themselves.

“They really took ownership,” Sweeney says.

Published in Los Angeles

As the U.S. economy continues to falter, unemployment has never been such an influencing factor since the Great Depression. Unemployment stands at between 12 percent and 15 percent, not the 9 percent you hear every day. That number is based on government statistics that come from people registering for unemployment. In reality, it is estimated that there are as many 25 million people who are currently unemployed.

The average monthly paycheck is $3,500. The average monthly unemployment check is $1,000. That means it costs the government as much as $50 billion each month in lost payroll taxes and paid unemployment benefits. The question then becomes, “How does the future look for job seekers, employers and the economy as a whole?” Also, “How does the HR and talent management industry react to the constantly changing landscape during these uncertain times?”

Many manufacturing jobs are simply gone forever. They are not coming back, either as a result of outsourcing overseas or because certain sectors have become obsolete or uneconomic from a production standpoint. Today, more than 50 percent of consumer goods — from semiconductors to washing machines — are manufactured outside of the U.S., and that trend continues to increase. At the same time, new industries are emerging, which are very much technology-driven but will take time to develop their full potential, especially as it relates to employment.

As a result, many companies are outsourcing their help desks and customer service activities to countries like India, which is having the effect of creating something of an unemployable labor pool in the U.S., due to a lack of job training and/or education.

So what this means is that for as far as the eye can see, we risk having a permanent unemployment rate of between 8 percent and 10 percent, compared to what was previously the norm of between 3 percent and 5 percent.

Looking to the future, the private sector of the U.S. economy is going to be far more dependent on service industries than manufacturing. Therefore, the human capital of industry must be re-educated and re-trained to meet this new criteria. Initially, it will be a painful transition that probably will get much worse before it gets better.

Human resource managers are now looking at significant changes in their hiring practices in an effort to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Due to the uncertain economic outlook, companies are relying more on temporary staffing than full-time employees. Fewer companies are outsourcing their search requirements and are scanning the job boards and going to social networks, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and cloud computing to identify job applicants — from CEOs to entry-level trainees. This, in turn, has required talent management firms, such as ours, to essentially reinvent themselves.

No more brick-and-mortar office space. Outsourcing of consultants and virtual delivery has become the norm. And, many client companies have decided not to provide outplacement services when they plan a reduction in their work force.

The retained search business has also become a victim of these changes. Ancillary services, such as executive coaching and leadership development programs, have been put on hold by many employers indefinitely. 

As a result, our company, ECS, has adopted something of a hybrid approach that incorporates a hi-tech/hi-touch delivery system, providing the best of both worlds to the candidate, including high-quality virtual programs as well as the more personal one-on-one consultation.

Today, the industry is becoming more sophisticated in the development of online career centers and interactive webinars. Consolidation has also begun to create economies of scale. All of the changes now allow candidates a choice to develop their job search from home by accessing the selected service providers’ website, as well as select online certified job training programs. This change has been slow in coming but is now more the rule that the exception. As such, more focus is being given to alternative careers relative to preferred training options and home office environments.

This will not be an overnight recovery. We anticipate unemployment will continue at between 8 percent and 10 percent well into 2012. Political uncertainty, along with tightening of bank credit, concern about higher taxes and the unknowns of health care reform, virtually guarantee it.

Most people in this country want to work and be successful. If we can combine this desire with a re-education program where we have round pegs in round holes, we really can “win the future.”

A viable solution is creating a task force composed of management, government, labor, educators and HR professionals. This group could begin the process of industrial renewal that will put us on a path toward rebuilding our labor pool into a more practical, sustainable level that will launch us into the 21st century and beyond.

In this land of opportunity, there is room for everyone to succeed in their own way.  That’s what makes America great.

Peter Munson is managing partner of Executive Career Services. Reach him at pmunson@ecspi.com or (310) 442-7734.

Published in Los Angeles

When Stephan Liozu came to ARDEX Americas three years ago as president and CEO, he was given a big, fancy, corner executive office. Nowadays, he doesn’t use it. As the global leader for strategic innovation, he decided that his big office could be put to better use. The executive office got a complete overhaul and now goes by the name of Innovation Station.

“I felt that we needed to have a space in the business to really promote that innovation by discovery,” Liozu says. “You cannot do that in a dead-boring conference room sitting on leather chairs. You have to do that in a space that is colorful.”

The manufacturer of building materials has 260 employees in Pittsburgh and 1,850 worldwide and is known as an industry leader in innovation. Liozu, who has a master’s degree in innovation management and is halfway through a doctorate in innovation, wasn’t satisfied with that status, so he opened a competition for the new name of his former office to help further the company’s innovation.

“[In April,] I decided to leave my executive office, and we created — in a big space that was not very useful to the company — we created an innovation station,” Liozu says. “This is a creative space where we have a special paint on the wall that you can write on, we have foosball, basketball, music and people go in there and brainstorm and they just create ideas. We have nice paintings of Einstein’s head on the wall, there are red chairs, there is a lava lamp, and there are tools and small tables, but we want people to move. We want people to dance, we want people to just create and play basketball. As they do this they are emotionally connected to the team there and to the process of, ‘OK, there is no barrier, there is no hierarchy, there is no corporate logo, it is just a space where I can freely express myself.’ I felt we needed this to be able to go to the next step of our creativity potential.”

It is through initiatives like the Innovation Station that Liozu works to improve the ways the organization becomes a better company all around. Here’s how he focuses on innovation throughout the business.

Always be innovating

More and more, the name of the game is to constantly reinvent your company, constantly bring new technologies to the market and stay one step ahead of the competition. To do this, you must look to innovate in every opportunity.

“Companies most of the time innovate because they are forced to,” Liozu says. “Maybe there is a disruption happening in the market or there is a competitor that is making things more challenging and your costs are going through the roof. You constantly have to disrupt your organization, and you have to create some gaps and reinvent yourself through innovation, whether you face a crisis or whether you’re very successful. That’s the best time to be investing in innovation is when you’re successful, not waiting for the crisis to come.”

Too often, companies wait for the market to offer opportunities or necessary times when innovation and change must occur. You have to get your company to look for innovation when things are normal in the market.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge that I’m trying to change the culture to be not reactive to events in the market but to be more proactively innovating whether we need it or not,” Liozu says. “It’s that constant change in innovation and disrupting the organization and introducing new technology when customers weren’t expecting it. It’s challenging because you have to bring your whole organization on board and you have to convince them that everything is going fine. But imagine five years from now, there’s going to be a crisis, you’re going through cycles, you have ups and downs, so eventually there is going to be a crisis. Let’s not stay still; let’s project ourselves and find out how we can avoid the crisis and make the changes now but control the changes. It’s what we call a revolutionary change management. You create your own mini-revolutions and not wait for the markets to dictate when you have to change.”

To get your company to adapt to a new way of looking at innovation, you need to start with the leadership.

“First of all, you need creative leadership,” he says. “You need a lot of creativity, and you need to embrace creativity. You need to promote it and let people give you ideas. So there is a lot of ideation process and ideation culture you have to introduce — brainstorming sessions, discussions with customers or customer observations. You have to constantly be scanning the market, opening your ears and listening.

“The second thing is you really have to embrace complexity. The world has become more complex, and you have to leverage that complexity by bringing in solutions that are simple but innovative. The best companies that are succeeding right now are the ones that really understand the complexity, capture the opportunities that come from complexity and fully leverage them. You do this through innovation and creating systems, creating solutions and creating ventures.”

In order to constantly innovate, you need to look for opportunities through design and discovery within your organization.

“You have to do a little bit of both innovation by design and innovation by discovery,” he says. “You really have to constantly be redesigning the organization internally to match the customer voice and match the trends that are coming — being able to design things very well — designing systems, designing solutions, designing approaches, but at the same time, put yourself in discovery mode. You know what you know, but you don’t know what you don’t know. You have to go out there and try to discover new things, so you need both design and discovery in the innovation process.”

Innovating on a year-round basis can be disruptive and a challenge to get used to for companies that follow a routine. You have to be willing to embrace disruption.

“I call myself an agent of disruption,” Liozu says. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘When you are at peace, prepare for war and vice versa.’ You have to constantly challenge yourself to look at where you are going 10 years from now. Everything may be fine right now, but how do we already work on technologies that may not be needed now but may be needed five years from now? It’s really avoiding the ups and downs, avoiding the reaction, be more productive and systematic in your innovation approach and invest in the right programs. It comes back to constantly reinventing yourself and your value proposition.”

Be serious about innovation

Reinventing yourself and how you do business can be very beneficial, but you need to measure your progress in innovation and invest in it for it to truly be successful.

“We just measured our innovation culture worldwide,” Liozu says. “We just did a very unique survey to measure innovation culture, which is fascinating, and we are learning quite a bit. We developed an innovation cockpit with key performance indicators that we have in there — number of new products created, number of ideas in the bank, etc. We measured things like market orientation, willingness to take risks, importance to customer, voice of the customer and the questionnaire was about 12 minutes with a list of items that you have to agree or disagree with, and you have to respond to those truthfully.”

Having a system in place to measure your progress in innovation will help your company continue to improve. You have to come up with key indicators that you measure on a regular basis.

“You definitely want to have key performance indicators just on innovation,” he says. “Those are very important, and you want to measure those every six months. That way you have annual measurements to say whether you are making progress or not making progress. The numbers speak for themselves, and you can’t hide anything from the numbers. If you really want to change the culture, measuring it is the best way to do so.”

Measuring is just one aspect of staying on top of innovation progress. You have to be willing to make a full commitment to it and designate the necessary resources to it.

“Another key measurement is the investments you’re going to make and these investments have to be made,” Liozu says. “A lot of companies decide to innovate and be more innovative and give them $2 to do it. You need funds, you need investments, you need obviously the payback for it, but you have to show sustainable investments. It’s not short term. You may introduce one or two products from a short-term brainstorming, but at the end of the day, if you want to do that consistently, systematically at the corporate level, globally and locally, you need the right people, the right process and the right investments to do it.”

Part of those investments in innovation is training your staff on better processes and the tools necessary to be on the cutting edge.

“If you’re really serious about innovation, you create dedicated resources to people who are trained in innovation,” he says. “You cannot improvise. If you really study innovation, you really study the tools to innovate, the processes, how to do this, how to do that, how to measure. You cannot just take a guy who has been in marketing and say, ‘Now you’re the innovation manager.’ You have to send that person to a class or to a course. You have to train your people on that.”

Innovate the whole business

Innovation is a complete improvement process of everything you do. It isn’t enough to just look at ways to innovate your products. You need to take a deep look at everything within your organization.

“That’s why you need the culture,” Liozu says. “You need the climate and the culture. You need to communicate a lot and remind people of innovation day in and day out. You have to be serious at multiple levels. One is the infrastructure. Secondly, you have to give them the culture and the climate to be able to share their ideas. And then you have to do something with these ideas. So once you get the ideas, you have to reward the best ones and then work on them and launch them.”

A lot of companies want to appear innovative and will ask for ideas, but then just sit on them.

“That’s the best way to really demotivate people to share that with you,” he says. “You have to execute on these ideas. That’s the way you reach all the way to the front-line people from the top throughout the organization to get people onboard. If you do that, people will know that you are serious. You tell them it’s not just product innovation, its process. How can I do my job better? How can I service my customers better? How can I do this XYZ? How can I cut costs? You have to encourage everybody to share their ideas.”

To get your employee’s creative juices flowing, you have to give them a culture that encourages them to think about new ideas.

“You need to give people a place to be free from the routine and regular noise associated with the business and they will be able to come up with ideas,” Liozu says. “The No. 1 thing is you need to create a culture. You need a culture and a climate that embraces that message that we are going to change for the best. Within that culture, you need to bring in a lot of time that will allow people to brainstorm, and they have the will to brainstorm because they understand why. You allow people to fail, and you celebrate the failures and understand why you failed and you learn from that and do better next time.”

A culture that supports innovation is crucial to developing those processes into your company’s daily fabric, but you also need someone to lead that charge.

“Obviously, you need a champion,” he says. “At the end of the day, every business manager, every CEO and president, should be acting and leading as a chief innovation officer. Because fundamentally if you can do that constantly and if you’re willing to reinvent your business proposition — the value you bring to the market — it has to come from the top office, otherwise change is not going to happen. Some people are too risk averse and some companies are too risk averse and it paralyzes the creative potential of their people. You need the top guys to be the champion of change or the champion of innovation.”

HOW TO REACH: ARDEX Americas, (724) 203-5000 or www.ardex.com/default.asp

The Liozu File

Stephan Liozu

President and CEO

ARDEX Americas

Born: France, became a U.S. citizen in 2009. He has lived in seven different countries.

Education: MBA in marketing from Cleveland State University; master’s degree in innovation management, University of Toulouse. He is trilingual, speaking French, English and Spanish. He also knows a little Italian and Portuguese.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from that experience?

My very first job was when I was 15 and I was selling doughnuts on the beach at Med Sea Resorts in Argeles-sur-Mer. It was brutal. The sun was brutal, and I had competition on the beach. I had six guys selling doughnuts next to me. It really taught me to be resilient and to go out there and try to find a way to differentiate.

What is the best business advice that you’ve ever received?

I get a lot of my advice from books, because I do quite a bit of reading. The one piece of advice I really like is when you have peace prepare for war and vice versa. That is from ‘The Art of War.’ When you’re in business, you really have to constantly be ready for the next round. This is what I really focus on.

What was your favorite name for the Innovation Station?

I liked the Creative Space or ARDEX Innovation Center, but I didn’t win.

If you could do something dangerous without any consequences, what would you do and why?

I would go into space and look at the Earth from up there. The universe is a beautiful design and it makes you wonder how all of this is just suspended. We are in this universe and I would like to see it closer. It’s fascinating to me how we are here on a planet among other planets in the universe that we barely know.

Published in Pittsburgh
Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:01

James White's keys to innovation

It takes a true innovative leader — a master innovator — to recognize when change is needed and embrace it when others in his or her shoes might just turn and run.

When James White assumed the helm at Jamba Inc. on Dec. 1, 2008, nothing was certain except the need to recover from a sales slump, which White understood would require a significant change in direction.

Most leaders in his position would have focused exclusively on implementing a financial turnaround, tightening the purse strings and flattening the organization. But White knew better. He realized too much focus on traditional cost-cutting strategies risked overlooking Jamba’s formula for success — the aspects of the company that had previously won fans and generated sales.

White knew he needed a strategy that balanced the company’s need for streamlined operations with a plan that leveraged its core strengths and preserved its distinctive company personality.

Learning from success

Jamba, which does business under the name Jamba Juice at its locations nationwide, built a history as a high-engagement company that involved employees at all levels in carrying out Jamba’s mission and strategies.

White recognized that Jamba’s high rate of customer satisfaction and brand loyalty was a direct result of the commitment of the front-line work force. But he also understood that some of this engagement had been lost during a period of uncertainty and financial crisis. It was this cultural shift that created a direct, negative impact on the performance of the individual stores, which is why White decided that any successful turnaround strategy would need to include involvement.

He assigned Senior Vice President Steve Adkins to lead the initiative to recapture the company’s strength.

“We needed to demonstrate engagement, energizing others to go beyond our past,” Adkins says. “In order to execute the changes being made to our operational structure and marketing strategies, we needed to equip the employees, namely the store and shift managers, with the leadership behaviors to lead their stores through the changes.”

White also knew time was his enemy. And that’s when he hired our firm, Bright Side, to help transform him and his organization into masters of innovative change.

Increasing awareness; identifying gaps

At White’s direction, we started working with Adkins and the operations leadership team. Together, we defined the company’s current state, envisioned a future state and identified the gaps that kept Jamba from achieving its aspirational targets. White tasked his leadership team with looking for the personal behaviors that kept them from achieving the future state.

It was here that many on the leadership team became aware of their uninspiring leadership style and realized the need to re-establish their level of engagement with the work force. How could store employees be expected to live the vibrancy of the Jamba brand if their leaders lacked energy?

Although unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable, White’s management team embraced this new behavioral imperative. They let their enthusiasm for the possibilities cascade through the business.

“The energy I was displaying was contagious,” Adkins says.

Simplify the message

With White’s innovation mandate as the guide, the management team let this new vitality permeate not only the informal communications within the company but also the “Excellence Program: Recipe for Inclusion,” in-store operating manual.

Using bold images, the operations team communicated tactical aspects of the turnaround strategy, which included new product launches, refined marketing messages and a reduction in store expenses. Visually, the company communicated their new action-oriented philosophy.

Enable accountability through ownership

To build sales, store managers were shifted from being order-takers to active participants in the customer’s experience. Instead of telling the managers precisely how to carry out this initiative, managers were empowered with the creative freedom to execute.

Store managers responded with energy and enthusiasm. Managers initiated suggestive selling. They began educating customers on new menu items and recommending complementary products. More significantly, they modeled these behaviors for their store employees. Employees were encouraged to develop their own approach to engaging the customer and coached on opportunities they may have missed, such as preparing a loyal customer’s order before they reached the front door.

By communicating confidence, the managers responded by owning the strategies they developed and taking personal accountability for the results.

The results of innovation

White’s innovation paid off. Jamba Juice leveraged its core strength — a highly engaged work force — and used it to build a companywide culture that was invested in the development and successful execution of the new company strategies.

Since 2009, Jamba has experienced a true turnaround, enjoying positive results across the business:

• Store ratings have increased by double-digit percentages in service, quality and overall customer experience

• Brand awareness has increased significantly

• Product launch times have been cut by 50 percent

How to reach:  Jamba Inc., (510) 596-0100 or www.jamba.com

Donna Rae Smith is founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc. Reach her at (440) 543-1800, donnarae@bright-side.com or www.bright-side.com.

Published in Akron/Canton
Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:01

Jim Aronoff’s tips for cultural change

Thompson Hine LLP has always been a law firm focused on client service, but Jim Aronoff says that if you go back about seven years, the firm decided to develop not just a strategy but rather a culture of client service to differentiate it from the competition.

Aronoff, now partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office, was part of a small pilot group that got together with about a half dozen of the firm’s most significant clients from around the country to talk about their views, concerns and hot-button issues. They also discussed how the firm could better partner with them, and they ultimately developed a client service pledge that the firm would serve the clients the best way it could. Fast forward a few years, and now that client service pledge is the culture of the organization and guiding the firm into the future.

“It’s one thing to roll it out and get the buy-in, but then it’s conducting it day by day,” he says. “As time goes along, no one thinks about what it was like before we had a client service pledge and before we had client service teams.”

Additionally, the firm has been recognized as one of the top two firms in the country for client service.

Smart Business spoke with Aronoff about how to create a customer-first culture in your organization.

How do you create a culture focused on customers?

From my perspective, there’s nothing proprietary about it. It is common sense. It’s how everyone and how our clients should be treated and how they should expect to be treated.

You need to find ways to communicate with and, most important, listen to your clients, your customers. There is this natural inclination to sell and to market. To truly be effective and successful in client and customer service, you have to be able to listen to and understand the particular needs of your particular client or customer and focus your efforts in that way. That’s really step one.

What’s the next step?

It is essential that each component of your business and all of the employees who are going to be involved in delivering the service in whatever way it is, there has to be effective buy-in and training. Essentially, it needs to become part of your day-to-day culture.

We spent a great deal of time getting comfortable internally that we had effectively trained and had the right orientation internally to execute on our program before we were prepared to roll it out, because we take our commitments very seriously.

How do you get the buy-in across the organization?

It was somewhat methodical. It was a firmwide initiative. You’re talking about a firm of 400 lawyers. We started with the partners, and we had a number of sessions where we did stand-alone in each office and then by videoconference amongst the offices. It ultimately culminated in conjunction with our annual partners’ meeting where all of our partners were together, and we spent the better part of a weekend retreat focused almost exclusively on client service.

As we got the partners buy-in, it was a process of rolling it out to our nonpartner lawyers through developing an implementation plan and understanding the little things and the big things — from answering your phone, or if you’re not in your office that your phone is forwarded to your assistant to cut out the number of rings before a client would get a live person. Our nonprofessional staff had to be part of that equation because each activity that goes on in our office, whether it be our senior-most partner, any of our secretarial staff or our other support services — everybody is, in some fashion, contributing to the delivery of our client service, and if we fall down at any level, then we can’t deliver the level of service that we have committed to deliver and that our clients are entitled to. That’s why it took as long as it did. It wasn’t like we got a small group of people together and they agreed, ‘Yeah, this makes sense,’ and just put it out there. It was a very organized program over a decent amount of time.

The bottom line is you have to live it every day because you can undo a lot of goodwill very quickly.

How to reach: Thompson Hine LLP, (216) 566-5500 or www.thompsonhine.com

Published in Cleveland
Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:01

Thinking things over

The primary function of any leader is to maximize organizational performance by engaging the full potential of its work force. Experience teaches there are core attributes essential to organizational performance and success. Vision rooted in market driven need and/or innovation, talented, cooperating professionals, a positive culture, values-based leadership, commitment and persistence are all key essentials. The most important of these attributes, however, is people — your human capital.

To move an organization forward in today’s hyper-competitive, ever-changing economy and to maximize the potential of human capital, the belief system and customs within which people labor must be perceived as positive, fair and productive.

This belief system is usually referred to as organizational culture. It is your DNA, so to speak, and a key driver of human engagement, enthusiasm and passion necessary to generate positive outcomes from sports teams to politics to businesses.

The most advantageous cultures are based upon positive value and belief systems that serve as a guide for individual and organizational behavior in every decision and action. This is not a garment put on at the office door. It is a life philosophy embraced every day both personally and professionally.

Cultures can be broadly defined as positive, promoting employee connection, innovation, growth and achievement; negative, which can disengage your stars, impair customer service and stifle innovation and growth; and dysfunctional, think Washington. These last two cultural states are inherently unstable conditions that complicate hiring, make it difficult to retain your stars and impede organizational growth and goal achievement.

A positive organizational culture, if it is not already in existence, should be a top organizational goal. To begin development, the message to the entire organization must be communicated clearly and be absolutely consistent over time. Improving your culture requires focus on two fronts.

First, the people you bring into the organization should share compatible values with your existing culture. This facilitates an easier transition into the work flow and work force. You improve your hiring prospects by selecting your interview questions and candidate evaluation process carefully and with specific purpose in mind. Ask key staff to conduct independent interviews. Do not compare notes during the process to avoid bias. Discuss all candidates at the conclusion and select the best by majority decision. Keeping your process collaborative reduces the potential of a hiring error, which can be costly in terms of time, money and disruption with respect to the entire organization.

Cultural development within an existing organization begins one step at a time, first by effectively communicating intent and then by the example set. A positive example is essential since that has a direct influence upon organizational behavior. So, cultural enhancement truly starts at the top. Begin by identifying positive, core values within your own belief system. If you are unsure, focus your development around customer service, employee growth and enrichment, safety, fairness, return on ownership capital, community involvement and environmental stewardship.

Be specific and consistent when defining your values and communicating your message. Practice what you preach. Communicate often and share your successes with the entire organization regularly by any means possible. Mentor your stars to become role models and cultural centers of influence. If you observe backsliding, use it as a teaching opportunity. Don’t overlook repeated backsliding, which can send the wrong message throughout the entire organization

Time invested in cultural development is a small price compared to the returns that can be gained. With consistent effort over time, your cultural compass becomes set as core values are internalized and behavior aligned and synonymous with those values.

It is only a positive culture that releases the true potential of the human spirit to foster innovation, create passion and enthusiasm, grow your best people and energize the organization for its long term vibrancy and success. It’s top down and it begins with you.

Joseph R. Zeno is president of ACS Industries. He was recognized as a visionary at the 2010 Innovation in Business Awards for his innovative approach to reshaping ACS, a manufacturer of couplers and attachment solutions. Reach him at jzeno@acs-coupler.com.

Published in Cleveland

You know that you need a stomach for risk as a business leader. You need to be able to make the tough call and be willing to live with the consequences of being right or wrong on your decision. But your ability to handle risk extends beyond the boardroom and strategic planning sessions to the hallways and offices where your employees work. You need to take a chance on your people, build a culture that suits them and give them the freedom to think and perform in a way that best suits their talents. Below are several thoughts on managing risk for the sake of your culture and your people, from area leaders who recently appeared in Smart Business Orange County.

“Once you’ve set the stage and created a vision for how we can change, that’s all lovely, but at that point, this is all just words. But the proof will be in the pudding. Your first series of executions have to really show benefit, not only in improving the process but maybe also improving the workplace morale, employee satisfaction, things that people can really grab onto both tangibly and emotionally.”

Barry Arbuckle, president and CEO, MemorialCare Health System

“The biggest thing is, at the top, you have to be willing to take some risks. If you’re willing to take some risks, it actually encourages stepping outside the box and entrepreneurship. If you’re only willing to play it by the game and nobody is able to add their creativity or anything outside of the norm, then that becomes a stagnant culture.”

Greg Ashlock, market manager and president, Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles

“My management style tends to be more about hiring great people and letting them run, giving them the field. I’m not smart enough to micromanage these people, honestly. The technical breadth and diversity among the different technology areas that we have to cover … is staggering. I have to hire great people and really trust them.”

David Hankin, CEO, The Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Scientific Research


Your words must become actions.

Set the example of risk-taking from the top.

Give your employees the freedom to use their talents.

Published in Orange County