Follow the leader

How many times have you
stood at a busy crosswalk with other pedestrians waiting for the “Don’t
Walk” signal to flash to “Walk”?
How many times have you
along with other unsuspecting
pedestrians entered the crosswalk before the sign changed
because one “leader” prematurely elected to proceed
across the street? The lesson
in this example is that blindly
following the leader is not
always to your best advantage
and can sometimes be downright dangerous.

Think about where most leaders get their ideas and inspirations. Certainly, they do some
analysis, read the papers, watch
TV and check the Internet. No
doubt, they also talk to associates, consult the usual suspect
experts, such as barbers/hair-dressers, taxi drivers and probably even have periodic pillow
talks with whomever, just like
all of us. After digesting and distilling all of this critical data, the
experts have an “aha” moment
and promulgate their epiphany
of the next trend, be it where
the stock market and economy
are heading, what the consumer
will need tomorrow or how
companies must change. Just as
sure as the sun sets in the west,
the majority of business executives aren’t much different from
the people at crosswalks.
Without any qualms or questions, they fall into lockstep and
follow the leader before really
thinking about where they’re
going and if it’s even safe.

In business, wisdom is the
ability to discover alternatives.
Let’s examine other methods of
creating a new strategy, playing
the stock market, buying real
estate or pursuing whatever
else is your vice or pleasure. No
matter what you’re trying to
accomplish in order for your
company to cope with change,
fundamental bottom-up analysis
is the best starting point. You
must also think as a contrarian
and create alternative scenarios
that are applicable to your specific circumstance. Be creative
in your thinking but not outrageous. You’re not looking for a
one-in-a- million chance to win
the lottery. Instead, figure out
how to adapt your business to
meet your customers’ altered
needs and counter their resistance points.

Dreaming of “what could be
and should be” has a place in
your analysis process. However, your dreams must be
grounded and fact-based. Look
at your current business environment and then ask, “How
can we do it differently from
others, and how can we turn a
negative into a positive?” Don’t
be intimidated by what the
leaders are saying and doing,
but instead, study what your
customers want and then figure out creative methods to
deliver it in a manner that will
knock their socks off.

Here is a hypothetical solution
using contrarian thinking.
Assume you own a health spa
50 miles from the center of
town. Gas prices are reaching
new highs every day while environmentalists are turning up the
volume about the negative
effects of gasoline on the planet.
Prominent “thought leaders”
aggressively tell the populous to
stay close to home to save
money on fuel and, at the same
time, help reduce air pollution
by driving less. If you simply
played “follow the leader,” you’d
be calling a real estate agent to
move your spa from its pastoral
setting to the urban center.
Instead, you turn lemons into
lemonade by adding free luxurious limo pickup and return
service for your clients so they
don’t have to pay for the gas.
To deal with the environmental piece, you promote the fact
that your limo is a hybrid or
runs on big electric batteries
and/or has a very long extension cord.

In 1929 when the stock market crashed, many investors
were doing half gainers off tall
buildings while others on Wall
Street wisely chose not to follow and instead became buyers. After the devastating trauma of Sept. 11, New York City
real estate prices plummeted
over predications of pending
economic doom. However, the
“smart money” started buying
previously coveted properties
at bargain prices and eventually reaped huge profits.

Use difficult times to your
advantage by challenging common wisdom and searching for
innovative opportunities and
solutions. Following the leader
can sometimes be OK, but
very seldom are the results
great. Buying straw hats in the
winter and not becoming an
automaton follower can be
very profitable for your organization and you.

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

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