Brooke Bates

Monday, 21 February 2011 17:33

Unlocking performers

If Kobe Bryant played for Greg Ashlock’s team, the star wouldn’t get much coaching about the fundamentals of basketball. Nor would he need it.

Ashlock knows that key players don’t need specifics about how to play the game. As the market manager and president of Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles, Ashlock has learned how important it is not to micromanage his 400 employees.

“You still need a coach to direct that a little bit … and think more strategically,” Ashlock says. “But as far as the day-to-day activity is concerned, I don’t really need to manage that in the same way Phil Jackson doesn’t really need to manage how Kobe’s going to get to the basket and score. He needs to orchestrate some of the plays. He needs to orchestrate the strategy on how they’re going to play against the Celtics.

“However, from a tactical level, they’re performers. They’ve proven to be performers and they don’t need somebody overseeing their minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour decisions.”

Ashlock has adopted that hands-off philosophy across the eight radio stations in the L.A. market of Clear Channel Communications Inc. By staying out of the way of his employees, he unlocks their creativity and makes the company stronger with their innovation.

A recent success story comes from Dan Granger, an account executive in Ashlock’s market who broke the radio mold to make his clients more successful. He took some tactics that have been popular in Internet advertising, applied them to radio and created what he calls audiolytics — radio ad campaigns founded on transparency, accountability and analytics.

Granger will be the first to tell you it’s not just about taking the ball and running — it’s about the result.

“All the creative ideas in the world don’t matter,” Granger says. “It doesn’t matter how much buzz you create. It doesn’t matter how many people laugh at your ad and are entertained by it if nobody’s buying your product. This economy is reminding people that we should be as accountable as we can be for the results we produce.”

Identify self-starters

Clear Channel encourages autonomy, but don’t assume employees just do whatever they want whenever they want.

“If you want that kind of freedom, then you have to have the successes to warrant that,” Ashlock says. “That autonomy’s not granted to everyone. You really do have to earn the right to get that autonomy.”

Employees have to prove themselves capable of the responsibility. It starts with bringing people on board who are already autonomous.

“It’s critical that you hire the right people, because if you’re going to grant autonomy to somebody, they have to be competent,” Ashlock says.

He looks for candidates who exhibit initiative and have some success to show for it. You have to dig to find that.

“The way you’re going to know somebody’s a self-starter is based on past experience,” Ashlock says. “Whether it’s the work they’ve done or through the people that you talk to that they’ve worked for, there’s no better example or backup for somebody on whether or not they take initiative.”

Start by asking candidates to elaborate on what they’ve done. But they can say anything. The real test is what their former bosses say, so check references heavily.

“I would never rely solely on an interview,” Ashlock says. “It’s going to be based on past work, reputation, past employers and what they have to say.”

Ideally, the reference will say the employee didn’t come to them with problems but solutions. Look for indicators that candidates are driven by results for the sake of personal achievement, not just to please a boss. When Granger talks about his project, for example, he’s so vested he’ll tell you he’s spending his money, not Ashlock’s.

“Some people crave freedoms, but they know that they’ve got to produce results to maintain that,” Granger says. “Those people put more pressure on themselves than you could ever put on them. For one, they don’t want to fail themselves, but they also don’t want to fail the people who have given them those freedoms and those opportunities.”

Once you hire self-starters, they should prove their ability to drive results before you loosen the reins. Don’t set new employees loose until they have credibility.

“Once you know they’re going to make good decisions, then granting them autonomy and freedom’s not a stretch,” Ashlock says. “Managers that don’t grant the autonomy means they don’t have a lot of confidence in the people below them.”

Assign homework

Once you have employees with initiative, you have to give them opportunities to innovate.

“The biggest thing is, at the top, you have to be willing to take some risks,” Ashlock says. “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.”

It’s a balance of encouraging innovation while emphasizing the expected result.

“Everybody knows that it’s a place where they can thrive on creativity and pushing the envelope,” he says. “I don’t mean you push the envelope without vetting the process out a little bit. You do it with a good idea of how and what the result’s going to be.”

In order to vet ideas, you need background. Set the expectation that employees do homework to make their case. Fortunately, self-starters tend to do that without urging.

“It started with just trying to answer the question: What works?” Granger says of his idea. “So many people spend money on radio and walk away and say, ‘Radio didn’t work.’ I wanted to find out why they would end up feeling that way when I knew that there was a way to make it work. So it came from a frustration, and it drove me to just start picking up books.”

Granger dug into “Tested Advertising Methods” by John Caples and “Confessions of an Advertising Man” by David Ogilvy, to learn how industry predecessors produced results. That research taught him about direct-response advertising and provided case studies for proving his idea to management.

“What it really required is just, No. 1, reading anything and everything that provides case studies — whether that’s from a recent online company that posts information about what they find or it’s reading a book from 85 years ago about what was done,” he says. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same goal, which is sell products for businesses. And it occurred to me that we could take all the same principles that are used in any form of advertising and apply them to our industry.”

Employees should have a plan for translating their case studies into your industry and your company specifically. To do that, they need a keen understanding of your core and future goals.

“We’re here to innovate, have fun and, at the end of the day, move product,” Ashlock tells managers. “And the way we move product is through the innovation and the encouragement of taking educated risk.”

Granger can recite the vision Clear Channel has had since it first began strategically purchasing radio stations in Texas to reach decision-makers in industrial regions — it’s about reaching advertisers and helping them sell. And he could tie that to his new model of tracking results to optimize advertising success.

“Dan, over time, took a very big-picture approach to not just getting an order on the air but, ‘How do I move somebody’s business?’ which is always the right way to approach any client,” Ashlock says.

Because Granger’s idea aligned with the corporate goal and he could illustrate how it would improve a service he already provided, Ashlock’s decision was easy.

“If it’s part of their core business model and they’ve come up with a plan to help with that, then nine times out of 10 they’re dead-on because they know their business so well,” Ashlock says. “If it’s an area that they’re looking to branch out into — maybe it’s something in the digital space that’s not as much part of their core business at this point — I’ll bring in other people more knowledgeable in that area for us to vet out some of the possibilities and some of the concerns.”

Once the pros and cons are on the table, it’s an evaluation of risk versus reward. Think of it as a seesaw where you want to maximize the reward — whether in terms of revenue or customer satisfaction — long-term while reducing risk.

“If the risk that they’re wanting to take is not going to reap that much of a reward, then (we say), ‘Hey, go back and revise your plan a little bit where there’s a stronger chance for us to benefit greater, whether it’s from a ratings standpoint or revenue standpoint,” Ashlock says.

The key here, from Granger’s perspective, is that managers don’t bluntly turn down ideas. Give employees a chance to make them better.

Then consider whether the idea lines up with your core. Ashlock relies on customers for that barometer.

“If there’s some kind of huge revenue potential, but it would damage a brand, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “If it’s going to compromise our integrity, if it’s not going to resonate with the listener, then we won’t do it. There’s plenty of things that we’ve decided not to do, because they don’t fit what the station’s about and it would seem like a sell-out or a disconnect with our listener.”

Measure success

A great idea could have all the potential in the world, but that has to actually materialize.

“It’s not autonomy without some kind of measurement,” Ashlock says. “That autonomy … would be short-lived — and when I say short-lived, not a month or two (but) over a nine-month period — if there weren’t successes attached to it. Successes back up that autonomy.”

Ashlock gave Granger’s idea a thumbs up along with a timeline. When you give approval, you also give checkpoints that must be met to validate the proposal.

Those milestones will differ with each project, but obviously you’re looking for growth and improvement — whether that’s with your revenue or customer satisfaction.

“It really had to do with new and repeat business,” Ashlock says. “Are you able to sustain clients better under this model? Are you able to bring more new business on? [It’s] quite frankly talking to the clients and asking them about their experience. Is (the service) better than what they’ve had in the past? Are they getting better results? Are they moving more product? Is their return on investment better?”

When he got emphatic yeses across the board, Ashlock considered the model a proven success. That was easy to back up with facts because, due to the nature of audiolytics, Granger had built-in metrics. Along with a team of three others, he sets up unique phone numbers, landing pages and discount codes to track responses to clients’ ads. They also look at before-and-after trends, such as increases in overall Web traffic., for example, launched a pilot program with Granger in 2004. There was skepticism from an online company trying radio for the first time, but thanks to the success it has seen through audiolytics, it has grown to be the largest advertiser on the largest news/talk station in the country.

Now, Granger’s team grosses nearly $4 million annually in local radio spot sales.

He couldn’t have done it without an environment that supports innovation while stressing results.

“The biggest indicator whether something is working is if the client comes back,” Granger says. “There’s so much money wasted in the name of creativity, it makes me sick, when this is about performance. At the end of the day, if you perform, if you make (clients) profitable through their investment, they’ll give you more money.”

How to reach: Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles, (818) 559-2252 or; Dan Granger, (818) 566-6419 or

The Ashlock file

Greg Ashlock

Market manager and president

Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles

Born: Dallas

Education: Undergraduate degree from Northwestern State University, La., and USC-Annenberg, for graduate school

What was your very first job, and what did you learn from it?

L.A. Dodgers PR department. It’s important to love what you do, and that still holds true today. As I look at business peers across multiple industries, those that are excited to go to work each day are the ones that are performing the best.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’ John Wooden

Describe your favorite radio station to listen to.

Hot 92.3 (old school and R&B). It just doesn’t get any better than Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye when you’re looking to kick back and unwind.

What’s your favorite stress relief?

Hanging out with the kids, either in the pool, in the game room on the Wii or playing cards on the patio.

Monday, 21 February 2011 07:05

Adding ammunition


Zack Schuler was reading a book about leadership when a stat struck him — 25 percent of a CEO’s time should be spent recruiting.

Schuler can’t argue. Hiring is crucial as his company, Cal Net Technology Group, continues growing. In 2007, he added nine people to the then 40-person IT consulting company, spurring 20 percent growth in one month.

“Unequivocally, the No. 1 challenge is finding the right people,” says Schuler, founder, president and CEO. “If you have the wrong people, it’s devastating to the organization. You cannot achieve sustainable growth without paying a lot of attention to your recruitment process.”

Cal Net, which has offices in Northridge and Anaheim, almost doubled its revenue between 2005 and 2009.



Create a process. We’ll screen 200 resumes [for a network engineer position]. We’ll boil that down to 10 people that we talk to on the phone. We’ll boil that down to three or four people that we bring in for an in-person interview. Then we’ll boil that down to one or two people to send through our lab, where the engineer spends eight hours building a small network environment.

We’ve implemented similar practices within (other) parts of the company. For example, when it came to hiring our controller, we hired our CPA firm to administer an accounting exam, which took three or four hours to complete.

If they don’t score well on the exam, you can take them out of the race. It actually shows somebody’s interest in the position if they’re willing to go through hours of interviewing and test-taking in order to come on board with us.

Several candidates have said, ‘Are you going to pay me to go through the exam?’ at which point, we chuckle and say, ‘No, we’re not, and as a matter of fact, you’re not even going to be taking the exam now for asking that question.’ When you tell somebody, ‘You’ve got to take an exam,’ you can gauge their attitude. [If] they’re like, ‘Great, I’d love to show you how well I can perform,’ that’s the kind of person we want to hire.

Inspect resumes. If somebody says something [on their resume] like, ‘Possesses experience with server operating systems,’ that’s not good. I want to see: ‘Expert in Windows Server 2008 R2.’ I want them to list out their skill sets in detail. (Frequently,) the candidate could be qualified for the position, but their resume is just too thin to attract my attention.

Another thing I love to see is where somebody will have received promotions and they’ll have dates listed like, ‘From March of ’07 to February of ’08, I was at this company in this position. Then from February of ’08 to December of ’09, I was at the same company but in this position.’ First, I like the fact that the person was promoted. The second thing that I like about it is that they remembered when they were promoted, and if they remember that, it means that job growth is important to them.

If somebody shows up and they have a list of references ready instead of, ‘References available upon request,’ that’s a positive. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m good. Call these people and ask them.’ I also love to see references of former bosses as opposed to a peer. It’s like whatever the departure was, it wasn’t bad.

Start conversations. They can be the best technical people in the world, but if they don’t know how to interface with our client, it’s just not good. The skills come through in our exam. But if they don’t have the attitude, they won’t even make it to the exam. The first thing that we’re going to hire on is attitude.

It all boils down to, when they show up for the interview, if they’re a good conversationalist. One of the questions that we ask is, ‘Tell me about your last vacation.’ We want to ask a question that they don’t have a prepared answer for. It gives us an opportunity to see what their dialogue skills are like. They don’t have a canned answer for it because nobody asks that question. We’re able to figure out how well this person’s going to do [with clients] just through their process of communicating with us through the interview.



How to reach: Cal Net Technology Group, (866) 999-2638 or


Monday, 21 February 2011 16:16

Robert Scharar makes connections at FCA Corp

Don’t be surprised to find Robert W. Scharar sewing buttons on his jacket. A boy scout since 1958 and now a board member of the Sam Houston Council, he has skills to show for his merit badges.

Scharar also credits the scouts with business networking. As founder, president and CEO of FCA Corp., a wealth management, financial planning and investment advisory firm with more than $500 million in assets, he researches potential investments. His involvement in community organizations forms connections to inform decisions.

“It’s important for businesses to participate in volunteer activities,” says Scharar, who also created four international mutual funds with assets of more than $50 million. “That’s a good way to expand your business knowledge and do something good at the same time.”

Start conversations. Just a smile and a hello and an interest will often spark a discussion. Ask about what they’re doing or ask about their country. We all like to talk about ourselves, so give a person a chance to talk about their country or their family or their job or their interests, and the conversation will unfold. It’s not always just one conversation, but it’s the continued friendliness that evolves from that.

In my BlackBerry, I write down the names of the people I meet at the counter at the airport. I can’t remember all those names, but you have no idea how helpful [it is].

Stay open to info. We’re always looking for ideas to invest in: trends of growth, trends of success, positive things that would make an investment worthwhile. Sometimes, it’s just coming up with the idea of the industry to be looking at. It may not be that particular company’s even available for sale; it just may mean that you get an idea that you had not pursued before.

Oftentimes, it’s not so much because I’m looking at their company, but I’m looking for somebody that has some technical knowledge that can explain some product I’m not familiar with.

When you open yourself to deal with people beyond your normal circles, you get great information. You can often learn a lot about the community by being willing to talk to people. Cab drivers often form that nucleus for a lot of people because they’re the only contact they have, but there’s a lot of contacts you can make if you’re willing to just reach out and look for areas of common interest.

Don’t make assumptions of people’s worth. Oftentimes, we get too hung up on titles and because of that, we don’t necessarily give people a chance to show what they can do. If you’re able to step back and recognize that people have value, you’d be shocked at what you can find out.

Keep lines open. Seeking information about what’s going on in the world that might apply to your business is generally not invasive. You can do that without people thinking you’re selling them something — because you’re really not.

Now, out of that can come opportunities because people say, ‘What do you do?’ I don’t necessarily even at that stage give them (my) card. But if it might be helpful, I’ll sometimes say, ‘I do work in that area. If sometime in the future you want to talk about it, feel free to give me a call.’

Don’t put them under any pressure, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you can solve their need and you’re not giving them the ability to work with you. You just have to be careful how you do it. We all are taken aback when somebody comes in and you feel like, if they don’t have a sale closed at the end of (30 minutes), they’re going to go on to the next activity.

Volunteerism … can lead to opportunities. If you try to go volunteer specifically to get X, that’s not going to work. But put yourself in an environment where the volunteer activities involve other people — particularly different people, not everybody who thinks the same way you do — and you just never know.

Just put yourself out there. I don’t go around handing my business cards to everybody I meet, but just let people know you’re open to questions. You’re rewarded in many ways for doing that — not always immediately, never from a particular activity — but by being engaged, you’d just be amazed at the kinds of things that evolve.

How to reach: FCA Corp., (713) 781-2856 or

Back in 2002, when Peter Shaper joined the company that is now known as Harris CapRock Communications, the business looked much different than it does today. At that time, 80 percent of the company’s business came from the United States, mainly from energy customers who needed communications and network services for their critical operations.

Then, thanks in part to 2007’s acquisition of Arrowhead Global Solutions — which became CapRock Government Solutions and produced double-digit growth — and last year’s acquisition by Harris Corp., CapRock tapped into new growth avenues. The Houston-based company is expanding the services it offers, the vertical markets it serves and the geographic footprint it reaches. For example, it entered and provided service in 35 countries in 2009, shifting the balance so that 70 percent of CapRock’s revenue today stems from outside the U.S.

“The reason we have continued to grow even during the recession is by creating more breadth, by diversifying the verticals we’re in, diversifying the geographic markets we’re in, diversifying the services we deliver,” says Shaper, group president. “That diversification has made a difference.”

CapRock has seen 202 percent growth in the last three years alone, rocketing from 2006 revenue of $119 million to 2009 revenue of $359.3 million. That pattern landed the company on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies and Space News’ list of the top 50 companies in the space industry, and it earned Shaper the distinction of Via Satellite’s Satellite Executive of the Year for 2009.

But accolades aren’t a reflection of rampant, unchecked growth. Shaper sticks close to the company’s core to evaluate new ideas and opportunities. That keeps CapRock growing in the right direction and stabilized for the future.

“Not all markets, not all parts of the world go into recession at the same time, and so by having the real breadth, we get some areas that are countercyclical so they’re growing when others are not,” Shaper says. “It’s rare that we find all areas of the world, all markets, all services growing at the same time, but as long as we have some that are, we can continue the overall growth.”

Set the course

For CapRock to grow in alignment with its core, Shaper has to lead the way with a clear strategic vision for the course.

“Have some vision for the future for reaching that next state or reaching a new height or a new goal,” Shaper says. “Share that with other people so they can see it, too, so they can all really work toward that same goal.”

Shaper starts with five imperatives encompassing the company’s vision. Because they’re considered competitive differentiators, those aren’t publicly shared — but they are certainly repeated internally as often as possible. Shaper takes every opportunity, from new employee orientation to quarterly all-hands meetings to strategic planning sessions, to align his 757 employees around CapRock’s vision.

“We tell all of our people that your activities need to be working toward those strategic imperatives, and they better be either growing revenue, growing margins or growing the team,” Shaper says. “Be able to communicate that strategy to (employees) … being very clear about how those goals are aligned with where we’re going strategically. It’s that repetition of the message that allows people to really start to get it.”

The goal in communication is consistency, and the key is relentlessness. It may get tiring for you, but repetition will keep employees motivated and keep you focused.

“To a certain extent, they are hearing the same old thing over and over again. To the extent that we are energetic and enthused about it, then people don’t mind hearing the same thing over and over again,” Shaper says. “Sometimes you feel, ‘Boy, do I really need to go repeat this again?’ The answer’s always yes because there are always people who need a refresher on what we’re doing and where we’re going and why. It’s a great refresher for us, the management team that’s presenting the same imperatives over and over again, because it keeps us focused on what’s really important.”

Communicating your course also predetermines a compass to measure potential moves. By articulating your differentiators ahead of time, you set the filters that opportunities must pass.

“Any new product, any new market, any new service, anything new we want to do, we measure against: Is this really playing to our strategic objectives? Does this further where we really want to go in terms of our long-term vision of the business?” Shaper says. “If it’s not helping us along that path, then it’s probably not something we want to do.

“If it’s not our core strength where we have some reason to have an advantage, I’d rather not invest our time and our money that way. Where can we really compete in an advantaged way such that we have a good chance of winning and growing and being successful in that market?”

When you stick consistently to that core measuring stick, it’s also easier to communicate course adjustments to employees. You know how to explain a move into a new sector if it passes through your core filters.

“Here’s a new market we’re moving into — the maritime market. Here’s why we’re moving in,” Shaper would tell his employees. “If you look at our strategy, it fits squarely into where we’re going and what we want to do. Folks who are in remote and harsh conditions need mission-critical communications. They’re on a global basis that can leverage our scale. By lining up the strategic elements that make it make sense, it allows everybody to understand why we’re doing it.”

Train champions

Shaper’s job would be easier if all he had to do was communicate the vision and then stand back as opportunities rolled in. Obviously, a lot more legwork has to happen before the company decides to pursue an idea.

He shares that workload with employees by equipping them to vet opportunities before they get to him. The constant communication serves to educate employees about the evaluation process they should use.

“We have to teach folks who are going to champion new ideas, new products, new services and new geographies how to evaluate them,” Shaper says. “Make sure they understand the strategy and where we want to go and how we’re going to measure whatever ideas they bring, so that the people on the front lines are filtering these out themselves.”

Some champions get more specific training because their positions involve finding ideas to turn into products. Some CapRock employees, for example, are tasked with geographic expansion, and others in R&D, engineering and development are responsible for ushering potential products and services to Shaper’s desk.

“Generally, for it to get any legs, someone has to decide, ‘I like this so much I want to be its champion. I’ve heard it; I know three or four other people who’ve heard it. I’m going to go out and do a little investigation. I’m going to put together a presentation and say, “Here’s something that we should do,”’” Shaper says. “Whether it’s a new product or service or changing something we have today, without a champion nothing really ends up getting (done).”

Depending on the opportunity, Shaper has different expectations for a champion’s preliminary research. A brand-new product or service would obviously require the most prep, ranging from customer discussions to market sizing and economic viability tests. A simple cost-saving idea, on the other hand, might not need as much background analysis.

The champion’s responsibility is then presenting the case to management.

“That champion will push the idea up the chain,” Shaper says. “Eventually, the executive committee will look at it, talk about it, push back, maybe ask for more information and say, ‘Well, that makes sense. It fits in our list of priorities to invest in. Here’s the capital to go make something happen.’”

Continuous communication indirectly paves the way for this pass-off. You can’t expect employees to present an opportunity to you if they don’t have an established connection. Interacting with employees regularly will make them more comfortable sharing ideas.

“By (communicating) often, doing it frequently, getting out and meeting people so it’s not the first time they’ve talked to me face to face, doing it in a casual setting — either walking around the office or at office events — it just will make the executives more real, more approachable,” Shaper says. “Really connecting with the employees is critical to be able to lead them. That consistency in forming connections with employees is what builds the bridge and allows them to be very courageous and transparent in bringing things to you.”

Run field tests

If opportunities are still standing after the champion brings them to Shaper’s executive team, then they have to face the field. The next test is how CapRock customers react.

“We will always take these ideas and go out to some key customers — typically key customers who we would like to be the initial buyers — and we will make sure we spend time with them on, ‘OK, this is what we’re thinking about doing. Here’s the need we think it solves. Is this something that you would buy, and where does the price point need to be?’” Shaper says. “We’ll have customers come in and help us develop what the end solution is so that we’ve already got a known market by the time we’re ready to go to market.”

You could conduct general market research and read articles about the state of the marketplace, but Shaper prefers listening to the voice of the customer. In addition to regular one-on-ones between customers, salespeople and management, CapRock sends out surveys and sets up additional events to solicit feedback, such as the Customer Advisory Board, or CAB. CapRock invites a broad cross-section of customers from different markets, different areas of each market and different functions within client companies to achieve a diverse spectrum of perspectives.

“We run the CAB as a forum for them to talk and us to listen,” Shaper says. “We facilitate the discussion, but we try to do as little of the talking as we can because that’s where we get the real value — it comes from listening, not from talking.”

To get open feedback, CapRock keeps itself out of the conversation until the end. The two-day session starts with an objective focus on customer needs before shifting into a company-specific evaluation.

“Our core focus at our CABs is usually what’s coming next,” Shaper says. “What challenges are you facing? What opportunities do you see? We have discussions all around the future — what they see coming and what’s happening.

“We specifically carve off a separate section where I stand up and ask them, ‘What are we doing well at CapRock, and what are we doing poorly?’ so that the discussion around the marketplace and the challenges and opportunities doesn’t become colored by commentary around CapRock. … Using their challenges and opportunities at the end of the two-day meeting, they help us prioritize: Here are the most important places for us to spend our development dollars. Those next products, services, capabilities that we should be investing to generate are based on the two days of discussions that they just had.”

If done correctly, customer feedback solicitation is continuous. You’re constantly gathering input from meetings with customers, survey results, advisory board sessions and quarterly marketplace reports. Keep your ears perpetually perked for patterns.

“It’s a steady stream, and you’re always listening for trends within that stream,” Shaper says. “(We) all sit down and discuss what are we hearing, what’s going on, and the trends will start to come up: ‘Well, I’ve been hearing this three, four, five times. We ought to think about acting on this.’ As you start to hear the consistency and something becomes a trend, then you start to believe that it might be real and you take action.”

Shaper relies on this process for testing ideas against CapRock’s core-centric success, separating growth opportunities into pursuits and passes. Throughout the process, he also gets employees on board with the direction they end up taking.

“We want to have those opportunities to really kick ideas around, discuss them with some emotion and then know that we’ve got to make a decision,” Shaper says. “Once we make a decision, we understand why it wasn’t just a random decision but we’ve got some rationale why and we’re all going to back that.”

How to reach: Harris CapRock Communications, (888) 482-0289 or

The Shaper file

Peter Shaper

group president

Harris CapRock Communications

Born: Houston

Education: Master of business administration degree from Harvard University and bachelor of science degree in engineering from Stanford University

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

My first job was a summer job when I was in high school, and I was a gofer. I literally drove a truck, picked things up, dropped them off, drove things all around town, picked up equipment, supplies. The most important thing it taught me was that I wanted to be one of the guys who was working in the office, not one of the guys who was working out on the manufacturing floor.

Whom do you admire most and why?

I admire children most because they have such a fantastic positive outlook on life and none of the weight of negative attitude and bad things having happened to them. That’s just such a wonderful way to go through life. I wish I could still have a child’s attitude.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

It would clearly be the ability to control time. One thing I definitely don’t have enough of is I never have enough time. So if I had the ability to slow time down and create more for myself, that would be my superpower.

If you could have dinner with anyone from any time, who would it be and why?

I would probably choose Jesus because so much of world history since then has been dominated by differing religious views; the crux of them all is during his lifetime, from the Jews before and after, to the Christians, to what that did to the Muslims. I just think that’s a fascinating crossroads in the history of man.

What’s your favorite stress relief?

It’s exercise — playing basketball.

What’s your favorite local spot for a business lunch?

I love going different places all the time so I guess my favorite spot is always the next one that I haven’t tried.

Saturday, 19 February 2011 23:13

Interactive conversations

Maybe Regis Philbin wouldn’t convert your prospects to customers by confirming their final answers. But Amanda Lannert thinks your business could benefit by borrowing some philosophies from interactive games.

Lannert is president at The Jellyvision Lab Inc. — a sibling company to Jellyvision Games, known for its best-selling games “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “You Don’t Know Jack.” She’s taking interactive conversations beyond gaming to help companies better communicate with customers, replacing virtual game show hosts with virtual insurance agents, enterprise IT salespeople and even guidance counselors.

“Find ways to ask questions to let people self-select into the information they want, versus just piling a bunch of information on your website and making people have to do the legwork of understanding it all so that they can then match the product to their needs,” says Lannert, who has about 50 employees. “Try to help people narrow down to the information they need at a level in which they can understand.”

Smart Business spoke with Lannert about turning prospects into customers with interactive conversation.

Be respectfully relevant. The best salespeople that we see in all industries ask questions first. They make it about you, the buyer, not about the product first. The salesperson doesn’t come up [in a store] and say, ‘Oh, the texture of the chiffon is so lovely.’ They say, ‘Where are you going to wear the dress?’ and then they put the product into the context of what the user cares about versus just blathering on about the product. They’re engaging and not pushy.

We’ll ask stuff like, ‘What keeps you up at night? What problems are you interested in solving?’ and we’ll lay out four or so options on the screen. … People click and then you can focus on that and know that you’re dealing with their top issue.

Be relevant and respectful of your audience and their time. … It’s about having an editorial perspective that allows you to know what you’re talking about but not speak in a way that’s mired in industry lingo or corporate gobbledygook. Being clear, being conversational is respectful to your audience.

Just remember, people read and think and process best in conversational English versus jargon or lingo or corporate-speak. Try to read your copy out loud. If it’s not what you would say to a human being, rewrite it. Call your husband or your wife or your mother and read it to them, and just have them raise their hand when they start to get a little tricky.

Take it slow. Interactive conversations are a touch-point in a very long and complex sales cycle. Our philosophy is that, for complex sales and transactions, you need to take a long-term dating focus. You don’t want to move too quickly on the first date.

You need to set up a strategy of providing valuable advice and service over time, sometimes when it has nothing to do with actually selling your product. Sometimes, it just has to do with proving that you’re a credible, reliable, helpful person. That will pay dividends.

The best way we’ve found to build and maintain relationships is patience. … You accrue brand equity the same way you build interest in dating: You build intrigue by being patient.

Our goal is usually to get people to move from being a website researcher to being an active lead on the phone with a representative who can configure a solution. So we say, ‘All right, would you like to speak with a rep?’ Can we capture a lead right away? They say, ‘Oh, I’m not ready to be sold to.’ ‘Well, that’s OK. Can we send you a white paper on blank that you already told me that you’re interested in?’

Provide options. Instead of, ‘Can I close? Yes or no,’ it’s, ‘Would you like to close? Would you like to learn more?’

You can set up stuff in marketing automation. … And then two weeks later, you have an automatic e-mail that says, ‘Hey, there’s a new webinar.’ Two weeks later, ‘Here’s an interesting article I read that might be germane to your business about how this solution has helped other companies.’

You continue to provide resources and advice that has nothing to do with (selling) that allows people to get more comfortable with your solution over time. A white paper may not actually advance your sale, but it builds your credibility so that when someone actually is ready to move toward your solution, they’re more likely to remember you, more likely to give you a call.

Match needs to inventory. The great thing about the Web is you are not limited by physical space in terms of the amount of inventory you can cover. And the bad thing about the Web is that you’re not limited by physical space (for) the inventory you can cover.

That’s why consumer decision support tools are so important, particularly when you’re selling something complex. You don’t want to force your prospect to have to become a category expert. You just want them to have to understand their business, their pain and their situation and then you want to say, ‘I get the products. I understand the background of everything we offer. Based on what you said, I’m going to recommend this, and I’m going to tell you why based on what I’ve learned about you.’ So you take the onus of expertise off of the prospect who’s doing research and all they have to know is what they know already: their own situation.

People so often forget the ‘and why.’ … That’s how you build confidence in the sale. When (other interactive decision support tools) get to the recommendation, they drop people off at a page because to present produced recommendations for your entire inventory could bankrupt the company. Well, don’t produce the whole inventory. Narrow the coverage you need to provide and invest in a recommendation. Invest in saying, ‘Hey, customer, I hear you. I know what you’re looking for, and based on what you told me, this is what I recommend and here’s why.’

How to reach: The Jellyvision Lab Inc., (888) 387-4446 or

The golden arches, the swoosh, the apple – Keeven White will tell you these recognizable icons are not brands. He knows that it goes much deeper than logos, taglines or even products – it comes down to consumer perceptions.

As the president and CEO of Whitespace Creative, an Akron-based integrated marketing communications agency and project resource that has averaged 25 percent annual growth over the past decade, White has made branding his business.

White spoke at the Smart Business Akron Live Luncheon at InfoCision Stadium last year about keeping your brand relevant in the face of social media, boredom and busyness.

What is a brand?

A brand is really the perceptions that are held in the mind of your customers. It’s that gut feeling they have about your company and the promise that your company puts out to them, what to expect when working with your brand or company. The brand completely lives within the minds of your customers.

How is branding different today?

The tactical landscape has changed radically. Social media has really taken the control away from you as the company and put it back in the hands of the consumers. It used to be that companies could outspend consumers to take control of that perception by putting a better image out there and saturating the market place with it. Well, now consumers have the voice and they have the ability to get that rapid distribution of their perceptions of what your brand is, and that has really changed the approach that a lot of people have to have in branding.

You still have to have all the advertising and marketing functions, but companies really need to embrace the fact that (social media is) going on because that conversation’s happening whether you’re taking part in it or not. Companies have to find a way to get involved and still influence that discussion, but they can’t do it from the bully pulpit anymore. They have to do it from controlling their products and brands and the way things are going out to the community.

What’s the biggest challenge of branding?

The biggest challenge of branding is boredom, and that comes from inside. Companies tend to get bored with their own brands way before your consumers get bored with it, and that’s from the visual presentation standpoint. They’ve seen it internally for so long, but to the consumers, it’s a small piece of what they see.

It used to be, back in the 70s, the consumer might get 500 pieces of advertising thrown at them per day. Today, it’s more like 3-6,000 thousand pieces per day, so they have tons of clutter coming at them. If you’re lucky enough to create connections with the consumer that they come to expect certain stylistic things coming out of your company and all of a sudden you change those things, you lost a connection that you had. Now you have to fight the 3 to 6,000 other impressions that are coming at them to reconnect those pieces.

What’s the biggest branding mistake leaders make?

They underestimate it. A lot of people want to do it once and just forget about it instead of making it a priority. Brands, if done right, can create long-term value and can drive premium pricing. Just because you have a logo and a couple ads that are consistent doesn’t mean that that’s a brand. You have to constantly focus on enhancing it and expanding it, and too often there’s other things that come up that take priorities, like sales are off this month. But branding has to be a priority at the top level of the company. Keep the focus on making sure that that brand is consistent. … The perceptions are always changing and you have to make sure that you’re trying to influence that.

Talk to your consumers. Find out what they think you are because it probably is going to be a lot different from who you think you are. The brand is not about what you say you are, it’s about what they say you are. You’ve got to get the consumer input and then go about delivering on things and creating more pieces that enhance that expectation.

How to reach: Whitespace Creative, (330) 762-9320 or

Saturday, 19 February 2011 23:06

Embracing diversity

Suddenly immersed in Switzerland to head teams from 17 different countries, Kelly Grier was understandably overwhelmed. It was late 2000, after she moved her family overseas for a position with Ernst & Young LLP.

Grier was responsible for Europe, Middle East and Africa engagement teams, and she was having trouble handling the group’s broad differences. Some advice from the chief financial officer of a client turned the challenging experience around and shifted her mindset going forward. He told her she wasn’t in the “United States of Europe.”

“Every one of these countries is very unique. Every one of its people are very distinct,” Grier remembers him saying. “They have their own culture, their own mores, their own business practices, and you can’t just come in here and impose the American way. You can’t even try to come in here and have one homogenous approach to all of the different geography, because it’s vastly different from one country to the next.”

Grier is closer to home today, as the managing partner of Ernst & Young’s Chicago office, but she remains a huge proponent of global mobility — if for no other reason than she sees her clients expanding globally all the time. To be able to serve them competitively and effectively, leaders like her need that same expansive mindset, whether or not they hone it overseas.

“That criticality of being able to operate with a global mindset and function effectively in any geography around the world — having that sort of intellectual agility is critically important for us, as a firm, to serve our global client,” she says. “Even if you are solely a domestic organization, the fact is that the global environment is influencing your success, because your competitors might be overseas and pulling your business outside of the U.S. You face domestic competition where there’s a more global mindset, and they’re offering a differentiated solution because of that advantage.”

Grier’s broadened perspective translates into everyday inclusive leadership when she leverages her team’s diversity into a common vision.

“You can’t generalize people or places or business practices,” says Grier, who oversees 1,700 employees at E&Y’s second-largest office. “You really need to understand and respect that there are vast differences — and that’s the power of it. If you aren’t able to harness the power of it, it will be an incredible impediment to your success.”

Draw out diversity

When Grier met with teams from the 17 countries she oversaw, she’d get about 17 perspectives around the issue. She grew so accustomed to that constant diversity of thought that she notices when it’s missing from her team today.

“I can just sense when I’m not getting everything,” she says. “In some cases, I’m not getting everything because people in the room aren’t contributing everything that they have to contribute, and in some cases, it’s because I don’t have the right complement of people in the room. There’s no panacea for this; it’s really a learned behavior that comes from operating in a highly diverse environment where those diverse perspectives are really valued.”

You can obtain diversity on your team by intentionally building it in, but that doesn’t mean you need to place employees just to fulfill a quota of minorities.

“When we talk about diversity of perspective, it’s not necessarily their ethnicity or even their gender — it’s their experiences that inform a more diverse perspective,” Grier says. “You could align (team members) with other activities, other projects, other teams within the organization. Even transferring them from one business to another business or from one function to another function broadens one’s perspective. You could certainly ask that they take on a leadership role in community organizations. There’s almost an infinite amount of opportunities to broaden one’s perspective and create that kind of diversity of thought and experience.”

You can also highlight diversity by grouping cross-sections of employees for projects. Grier forms task forces with representatives from various generations, service lines, genders and ethnic backgrounds. The internal communications task force, for example, represented a spectrum of communication styles, which helped develop more effective messaging that would resonate across the company.

An intentionally diverse team is crucial, but it’s moot if you don’t maximize, and later leverage, the team’s diversity. In order to do that, you have to tap into every viewpoint you can and consider its weight in the discussion.

“Diversity without inclusiveness is counterproductive if anything,” Grier says. “You’ve got to have the ability to really draw out different perspectives and then synthesize a wide variety of thoughts and perspectives. You’ve got to know when you’re not getting that broad and diverse spectrum in the dialogue. Looking for the folks who may not be fully engaging or participating and drawing them out, that sends a message that everybody matters.”

One of Grier’s partners, for example, is an “intellectually sophisticated thinker” with plenty of valuable perspectives to share. He’ll fill an hourlong one-on-one — and then some — with his distinct ideas. But in a two-hour group session, he only makes a couple of comments.

“I’ll ask him in advance of the meeting, ‘This is what we’re going to talk about. You have such a valuable perspective; I want people to be able to benefit from that perspective. I really want you to talk specifically about this when we get everybody together,’” Grier says. “I needed to know that person well enough on a one-on-one basis to know that this is his style, that he does have this incredible broad perspective that’s very valuable. For me to draw that out and get that that very valuable perspective infused in our group discussions, I needed to approach it differently.”

Welcome all ideas

Part of inclusive leadership is soliciting opinions. But if you’re quick to brush off certain perspectives, see how quickly the feedback stops.

You need to give diverse perspectives a safe place to surface by creating an environment where all opinions are welcome.

“How, as a leader, you respond to that contrarian view will really dictate whether or not people feel safe in sharing a perspective that’s different from the norm,” Grier says. “You’ve got to be visibly both encouraging and then rewarding those folks to share a perspective that is different.”

The way you react to comments that directly challenge your stance can be the biggest revelation about your leadership style.

“As a leader, you’ve got to be able to face some criticism of how you’re seeing things, and not become defensive or dismissive,” Grier says. “That immediately shuts down that communication channel. You’ve got to express a little bit of humility — perhaps, ‘I didn’t know that,’ or, ‘I hadn’t thought about it that way.’ You really set the tone by how you behave — not only as a leader of the team but when your own perspective is challenged.”

Even if you end up going with the majority, your decision-making process only benefits from a richer variety of thought. If you want to expand the possibilities on the table, you’ll want to vet every perspective you can.

“If somebody says something that’s a little out of step with the normative thinking and you don’t give that point of view ample airtime in the discussion or if you’re dismissive, if you’re defensive, if you don’t really listen to what’s being said and understand it fully before you make an opinion of what place it has in the discussion, that will immediately shut down that candor that you want,” Grier says. “Make sure that everything that you say is grounded in the spirit of inclusiveness and encouraging that candor, because it’s very easy to just react quickly in a manner that sounds dismissive. At that point, the conversation’s over and everybody around takes a message from that; it’s not just the person who may have made the statement.”

You set the stage for an inclusive environment, but you won’t get far if you’re the only one with that mindset. Enforce an open attitude from your team members, too.

“Where you see a member of your leadership team cutting somebody off at the pass, you’ve got to call them out on that — obviously in a constructive manner and in a respectful manner — so the person who made the comment knows you insist on having that open and inclusive environment,” Grier says.

That’s sensitive territory; so many leaders prefer to privately pull the violator aside later. If you can do it constructively though, as Grier does, call the person out in the meeting to make a point for everyone.

“I would probably say, ‘Bob, I think that Jim was about to share a perspective that I would find very valuable,’” she says. “‘Before we move on to the next point that you were going to make, I want to make sure that he has an opportunity to complete that thought.’”

Unite perspectives

The more diverse viewpoints you draw out, the more perspectives you have to keep straight. Managing and synthesizing those is the key to leveraging diversity.

To keep track of what her employees think, Grier records it all.

“I take copious, copious notes,” she says. “It sounds so fundamental, but I will take notes of every one of these conversations. Very quickly, you see themes emerge. They’re not exact replications of one another but there are common threads through these conversations. It really does become apparent after having several of them and reflecting on, ‘What were the key themes and how do I then coalesce those messages into one message that will resonate with everybody?’”

Writing gives Grier something to reference and ensure everyone’s voice is represented. By synthesizing opinions inclusively, you’re setting yourself up for buy-in later on.

For example, Grier spent the first 90 days as managing partner of the Chicago office on a listening tour, meeting one-on-one with partners, senior managers and various staff members as well as with groups of employees. All she did was ask questions about moving the company forward — and listen. Then she melded several perspectives into the vision she conveyed to employees later.

Sure, you won’t satisfy every person’s wishes every time, but weaving every perspective through your thought process will show employees you listened.

“People are more inclined to buy in if they’ve got some skin in the game and they’ve been a part of crafting that vision,” Grier says. “Having that upfront engagement — my 90-day listening tour — people could hear the words that they had said to me in the messages that I then conveyed in a more synthesized fashion afterward. They knew that I had listened to them and they know that their perspective was part of the strategy, and they were on board in driving toward that strategy.”

Another benefit of drawing diverse opinions out during your meetings is exposing members of your team to them. Those discussions can build buy-in by enhancing understanding of the issue, potentially turning employees on to ideas they initially shoot down.

“For example, when a company launches a new internal development program, members of its team may jump to conclusions about what that program means to them,” Grier says. “Team members could make assumptions based on their previous experiences with similar development programs, which impacts their engagement. To maximize results, leaders should elicit a diversity of perspectives right away, debunk misconceptions and incorporate relevant suggestions. Those steps should greatly improve the participation of your teams and the program’s success.”

If you make those steps habitual, you’ll extend the power of diversity into the fabric of your organization. When Grier compares the business world that she witnessed overseas a decade ago with today’s environment and then projects another 10 years into the future, she realizes the importance of continually harnessing all perspectives in an ever-expanding global paradigm.

“You can’t rely on just saying the right things; you’ve really got to experience a mind shift,” Grier says. “Most companies have a stated objective of having an inclusive culture and really celebrating diversity. But first of all, it needs to be grounded in the fundamental imperative, which is that the world is different today than it was a decade ago, and it will be profoundly different a decade from now. We need an entire paradigm shift to be able to not only survive but really thrive in that changed global environment.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (312) 879-2000 or

The Grier fileKelly Grier

Chicago Managing Partner

Ernst & Young

Born: St. Cloud, Minn.

Education: B.A. in accounting from St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana

Favorite travel destination: Italy or France

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

My very first job was as a babysitter. I certainly learned the importance of being responsible and communicating well. I actually had a wide set of experiences when I was young: I worked at this Dairy Queen-type shop. I also worked at a machine shop, if you can believe that, for a period of time as I was putting myself through college. I’d say you can probably take all of those experiences together and one of the key lessons learned is just respect — respecting everybody for what they bring to the table, having a bit of humility to how you approach the people that you work with at all spectrums of the work environment. I have a great deal of empathy and support for the people who come in and empty my trash bins because that’s very much aligned with a job that I would have been doing to put myself through college.

Your workday is off to a bad start. How do you turn it around?

I truly don’t have many days that start off on a bad note. I actually just love what I do. There’s array of challenges or issues that I’ve got to deal with, but rarely does that actually cause me to perceive that as a bad start. My workday is also very dynamic. What I do from 7 to 8 and then what I do from 8 to 9 and thereafter is very different. So it would be difficult for me to get mired in any particular issue because I’m so quickly on to the next.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

It’s got to be being able to clone myself to be a multitude of places at the same time. I feel like I’m trying to do that on any given day, anyway.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?

I would say Martin Luther King. He was such a dignified leader and was so committed to his values and faced such incredible adversity. He could have gone down a path of conflict and destruction and he didn’t. He was so committed to his values of what’s right and what’s wrong that he was able to really galvanize this whole sweeping nation of change in a way that was still aligned with his values. That’s difficult to do. It would be easy to become frustrated and angry and try to force change in a way that is perhaps not aligned with your core values. Somehow, in the face of adversity we can’t even imagine, he was able to do it. As a leader, that’s a quality that I greatly admire, that ability to galvanize and inspire others to do good and to carry out the mission without losing your way from a core value perspective.

One sip blew Bill Newlands away. The flavor had bounced around the R&D lab for years, and now the new president was getting a taste.

“I thought, ‘Boy, that is just dynamite,’” he says, remembering his initial reaction to the cherry-infused bourbon.

Not everyone at Beam Global Spirits & Wine U.S. was quite as enthusiastic about the idea of messing with the company’s core brand, Jim Beam.

“A lot of people who had been here for an amount of time thought we were absolutely off our rocker to bring out a product that put cherry into our core line,” says Newlands, president, North America Beam Global Spirits & Wine. “Many of the salespeople thought that this was a little silly to be playing with Mother Nature, if you will.”

True, Beam Global has built a legacy on its beverage portfolio, which contains eight of the world’s top 100 premium spirits. That claim to fame, along with $2.5 billion in annual revenue and 3,500 employees worldwide, makes it the fourth-largest premium spirits company in the world.

But keeping the brand successful more than 200 years after Jim Beam launched isn’t just about one man’s tastes or even one work force’s collective opinions. When it comes to releasing new products, Newlands’ decision-making process rides on collaboration, mixing employee input with consumer preferences.

By keeping an open mind to the various perspectives of feedback he receives, Newlands has kept the U.S. operations of the spirits giant strong — accounting for half of the company’s worldwide sales volume.

“Leaders have to be very careful that they don’t think they have all the answers,” he says. “For those of us who have been fortunate to be put in leadership positions, the odds are it’s happened because some things have gone right — but that doesn’t mean you have all the answers. It’s important to recognize that.”

Encourage collaboration

The preparation for soliciting feedback goes way back. In order to find out what employees thought about the cherry bourbon, Newlands couldn’t suddenly ask what they thought. It takes time and consistency to create an environment where people are comfortable sharing input — especially input that challenges your opinion.

As he has moved up the food chain, Newlands has taken every opportunity possible to involve employees in communication. Whether they’re going over the corporate vision or the goals for the year, he encourages his employees to contribute.

“We really do encourage people to challenge and to do it constructively,” he says. “That’s highly useful because obviously no individual’s going to have as many good ideas as the collective group. Creating an environment where constructive challenge is the norm rather than the exception is very helpful.”

If you want collaboration, you can’t dictate decisions. Newlands gives his team practice at being a team by sometimes stepping aside. When the leader backs off, it puts the pressure on the team to work together cohesively.

“I don’t like to be the arbitrator very often,” he says. “I encourage my team to debate issues that they have amongst themselves, letting them know I’d be happy to arbitrate, but I also think it’s a much better scenario if individuals work through debates and issues and come to conclusions. That way, there’s more shared ownership. And anything that creates shared ownership is much better than someone dictating, ‘Here’s the answer, and good luck implementing it.’”

Blend that role with an active approach to collaboration to show you’re serious about it. Make an effort to solicit feedback from others. The most basic opportunity to do that is in your routine meetings with direct reports.

“When I’m doing my staff meetings, I try to leave a bunch of open time on the agenda [to ask], ‘What are the issues? What are the challenges? What are we missing? What did we not put on the agenda?’” Newlands says.

He also asks his direct reports to share what they’ve been hearing from their direct reports. Encourage that dialogue down the line to keep feedback bubbling up at each level.

Stick to that same input-seeking approach any time you communicate, whether it’s a private conversation or a companywide meeting.

“At the end of any conversation I have in any communication forum, I always leave time for questions,” Newlands says. “If nobody really has anything they want to ask, I will stand there and wait, because one question will tend to breed more questions. The more people get what they have on their minds out, the better off we’ll all be.”

But no matter how long you wait, some people just won’t offer their input. So create other avenues to give the shyest employees a chance to contribute.

“Some people are just not comfortable raising their hands and asking us questions,” Newlands says. “So we also have an anonymous avenue where people can submit questions ahead of time — or actually, in many cases, during the event — anonymously. I’m more interested in getting the questions out on the table than I am in necessarily having someone stand up. I’d rather have the opportunity to address a question than to ignore it because someone’s a little uncomfortable saying something publicly.”

Research the options

With that kind of environment, employees started to share their opinions about the cherry bourbon without much urging. But to get the targeted input that would determine the product’s future, Newlands had to ask specific questions.

Opinions and objections will only get you so far before you need more tangible facts to prove an idea. This is where general idea-sharing turns into the result-oriented research that will get an idea off the table and onto the shelf. Think of it as the precursor to consumer testing — and if done correctly, this should help predict what will come from that.

“We tried to … get input as to, ‘If we were to do this, what is the most important thing that we would have to do so that our distributors, the retailers, ultimately, the consumer will engage with it and enjoy it?’” Newlands says. “Ask the tough question of, ‘Who’s going to reject this and why?’ Therefore, you understand the objection before the objection happens. That’s very helpful because if you’re armed with an answer to an objection, you can deal with it. If it’s a surprise, it’s a very tough answer.”

Approach your research like a funnel, starting broadly and narrowing your focus as you go. Newlands starts with a look at the overall marketplace, including assessments of popular products in other tangential fields.

“We had the debate about, ‘Why cherry?’” Newlands says. “Well, if you think about Cherry Garcia, it’s the No. 1 selling flavor at Ben & Jerry’s. If you think about Cherry Coke, Cherry Pepsi, [they’re] very popular flavors within other beverages. So you look around at what I would view as ancillary products, not even in your category.”

In the next level of assessing an idea, look at your closer competitors and the types of products and services they offer. You want to make sure your product is positioned to differentiate you competitively.

The most important step of the idea-evaluation process comes from your customers. Beam Global uses consumer test groups extensively and also goes directly to key accounts and bartenders to find out what customers are asking for and what trends they see coming.

You should know who your target audience is, but a good starting point — at least for the sake of forming a focus group — is your current customers. For example, before launching a single-barrel version of Knob Creek, Newlands brought in other Knob Creek drinkers and asked them questions about the new product.

“We let them taste it. We let them see the packaging we were considering. We talked about the features and benefits of the product to see if it had appeal to that audience,” he says. “What that helped us do was to refine the concept that we’d put in place. There were certain elements [where] the consumer said, ‘I’m more interested in age,’ or, ‘I’m more interested in proof,’ or, ‘I’m more interested in the look of the packaging,’ or whatever.

“We made sure we understood what the things were that were vital to attract the consumer. … We explored with them, ‘Which of these variables are most important to you?’ so that as we brought something new to the table, we were going to catch their attention and interest.”

In order to get that kind of feedback — the kind you can consider fact instead of objectionable opinion — you have to ask the right questions. Consider who you’re talking to and what kind of knowledge they come with. If you bring in current customers, you know they’re already familiar with your product portfolio.

“What you have to do is evaluate: How do you ask the right questions?” Newlands says. “Oftentimes, a consumer isn’t always able to project. In other words, if I told you I could take you to the moon tomorrow, you think, ‘How am I going to get there? I don’t get it.’ It’s hard for you to project that if you don’t know anything about getting to the moon.

“It’s important when you do your research to make sure that you keep the questions and the understanding simple enough that the person has some experience with them and therefore can answer something they feel like they know something about. You have to make sure that your research and the facts that you gather make sense, because you’ve asked questions that are answerable by the people you’re asking.”

Make your decision

Sometimes, by the time you get to this point, your answer will be clear. Sometimes, all of your research will naturally converge toward one direction. Those are the easy decisions.

“The most interesting decisions often come when you can get two answers out of the same set of facts,” he says. “That’s where a little mystery comes in, because sometimes you will have something that is viewed by two consumer groups as very positive and very negative.”

The cherry bourbon met initial skepticism from employees, but consumer test groups loved it. When you face bipolar opinions like that, it comes in handy to have test groups rate which of the product’s features are most important to them. Then look at which areas are easiest to tweak so you can accentuate the pros for one option or another.

“You have to find ways to perhaps increase the positives for one side of the equation or decrease the negatives on another side of the equation to get to a more optimal result,” Newlands says.

To combat the criticism that the cherry bourbon shot too far off the Jim Beam path, for example, Newlands worked the core brand into the name and released it as Red Stag by Jim Beam.

“We made specific choices around it to ultimately maximize its potential for success — and lo and behold, we had some with it,” he says.

Beam Global shipped more Red Stag orders than Newlands ever expected. The offshoot became the second-fastest-growing premium spirits innovation in the country last year, and it remains successful with consumers.

The key during all of this is to actually listen to the feedback you’re getting — which means keeping an open mind and considering opinions different from your own. Newlands fell in love with a certain package for another upcoming product. But when the consumer test groups preferred another, he had to hold his tongue.

“[It’s] focusing your attention on whatever facts you can bring to bear but not being blinded by what you want to see,” he says. “At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what I like. It matters what the consumer likes. Make sure that you are open to looking at the realities of who you’re trying to talk to. Not falling in love with an answer but falling in love with the right answer is very helpful.”

How to reach: Beam Global Spirits & Wine U.S., (847) 948-8888 or

Tom D’Arcy knew Grubb & Ellis Co. even before he came on board in November 2009. Then again, who wouldn’t? It’s hard not to be familiar with one of the giants of commercial real estate — especially after you’ve been in the industry 28 years.

“The biggest challenge has just been getting my arms around the company itself,” says D’Arcy, the new president, CEO and director. “I understand the industry, but getting to understand our company — its culture, the information flow, the nuances of the company itself — I’m not there yet.”

When the board approached D’Arcy, he began a prudent due diligence of the company, which involved meeting with key employees, clients and investors to learn what he was getting into.

“What I found was what I expected to find: a strong brand, a broad platform — we have 120 offices spread around the country, 6,000 employees — multiple lines of business, diversity of revenue,” he says. “What I saw was a company that clearly had a lot of resources available, a lot of scale, a lot of scope.”

Now, his challenge is just what to do with all of those resources to take advantage of the growth potential.

D’Arcy continues to get more acquainted with the internal workings of the company’s three main segments: transaction, which includes brokerage leasing and purchase of buildings; investment management of public nontraded REITs; and management services. Then, he combines that knowledge with external barometers of what’s happening in the broader marketplace. The goal is driving the company forward in a way that represents the needs and desires of all constituents.

Basically, D’Arcy has to match the company’s capabilities with opportunities in the marketplace, aligning its capacity with demand for services.

“You can’t just chase every opportunity,” D’Arcy says. “You have to focus in on the highest value opportunities you have as a company. For a company like ours, where we’re so diverse and we have so many resources and such scale, there’s many businesses that we could enter, all which need to make sense. But you really have to try to maintain a focus and focus on those areas that are fully complementary to the core.”

Know your markets

Obviously, you have to know what’s happening around you in order to recognize — not to mention tap into — any opportunities.

D’Arcy’s understanding of the external marketplace comes from parts of the company that are immersed in the outside world. Grubb & Ellis has 100 research professionals scattered across the country, all led by a chief economist.

In each market, researchers keep a close eye on the local ins and outs of the industry — including vacancy rates, rents, sale prices, new developments and new tenants moving in.

“At any point in time, you can get onto our website and you can drill down into the markets and submarkets,” he says, referring to the Metro Trends quarterly reports that include analytical commentary and detailed graphics. “So in almost every market and large secondary market and every asset category, we’re providing real-time research. That’s one of the differentiating factors for us as a company.”

D’Arcy strongly prefers the company’s research capability to the secondhand knowledge leaders get by taking someone else’s word.

“The key is that we’re not just purchasing third-party research, nor are we simply regurgitating what we see in the popular press,” he says. “These folks live in these submarkets and understand these submarkets as well as anybody. It’s all about being local. The closer you are to the market, the better off you are.”

Brokers can then pass that detailed information on to clients. So if a corporate client is considering relocation to a new market, Grubb & Ellis can fill the company in on what’s happening there in terms of rent, vacancies and comparable transactions.

“That’s one of the things that clients are looking for, is that industry knowledge on a market and submarket level,” D’Arcy says. “It’s a clear resource for our brokers as well as for me personally; it’s an opportunity to always keep my pulse and know what’s happening in the marketplace.”

While the local origination of your market research is crucial, that micro-level information can also feed your macro-level understanding — thereby fueling broader decisions you may face. By pooling together local data, you can start to identify broader trends.

D’Arcy, for example, can extrapolate the big themes in retail and industrial spaces from individual market trends. That way, when he decides where to allot additional resources, he has a wealth of information about growing areas of business to back him up.

“When we’re making decisions, we’re making really deeply educated decisions about what’s happening in terms of the trend lines in the commercial real estate market,” he says.

Analyze the facts

Even the best research is just cold data until you apply some analytics. In a service business, that means understanding what current trends mean for your clients’ future. That, in turn, helps determine the direction your company will take as you focus on the areas your customers need.

For example, Grubb & Ellis closely tracks sale prices of buildings. In the third quarter of 2009, for the first time in a couple years, it saw value increasing. That indicated buyers and sellers were getting closer in their ideas of pricing — and the market was nearing the bottom.

While research, charts and tables help convey that, the key is explaining what it means to the client.

“What we’re telling our clients is that the market really does feel like it’s reached the bottom,” D’Arcy says. “We think that the direction of rents is going to be moving higher. So from a corporate perspective, if you’re looking to make a longer-term investment in additional space or move to a new building, now is probably a pretty good time to do that.”

During that analysis, you’ll reveal areas where you need to focus your company’s attention, as well. Grubb & Ellis invests resources in high-return activities — and relies on research to identify demands that will reap the highest return.

For example, when banks began to take over buildings in dealing with problem loans, D’Arcy knew that would mean more appraisal business for banks trying to valuate properties. So in June, D’Arcy announced that the company would enter into the appraisal business. Three months later, Grubb & Ellis Landauer Valuation Advisory Services opened with 12 offices and plans to grow to more than 350 appraisers across the country.

“We’re not simply entering this business because we see a short-term market opportunity,” he says. “We think it’s fundamentally a good business over time, and we’re going to be good at it. In order to do it, you have to be national in scope, and we have the ability, obviously, to be able to deliver that to our clients.”

Although, as a public company (NYSE: GBE), Grubb & Ellis reports quarterly financial results, D’Arcy doesn’t run the business quarter to quarter. Looking longer term will help you validate opportunities as core areas rather than one-off transactions.

The key to evaluating whether opportunities will continue reaping success in the future is considering the past.

“You have to look back at what the business has been like historically,” D’Arcy says. “You’re looking at recent trends and you’re looking at what technology can appear, and then you try to make the best reasoned judgment that you can.”

Knowing what has affected an area in the past can help you predict future obstacles or successes. D’Arcy found that the appraisal business has been steadfast, driven mainly by the expertise of the appraisers. Even technological improvements won’t change the necessary skill set that makes an appraisal successful, so as long as the company can staff those competencies, the business line will be as fruitful next year as it will in the next five.

“We’re trying to make investments in our business so it’s going to create long-term value for our share owners and our clients and our employees,” D’Arcy says. “We’re obviously very cognizant of [quarterly] financial performance. We have strict metrics that we use. But when we’re investing in something, we’re not investing for next quarter or next year. We’re investing over the long term.”

Keep an internal gauge

Of course, to determine what opportunities the company can realistically pursue, you also have to understand how far your internal strengths can stretch by staying in touch with employees. They should be part of your growth equation all along.

D’Arcy taps into the company’s “robust internal communication regime” to keep employees aligned around growth goals. He holds companywide conference calls, for example, and records weekly calls between management directors so employees can tune in at any time. The company distributes a weekly newsletter and recently began posting a blog, as well.

“We try to use a number of different ways to be able to communicate a consistent message — not only to our employee base but also to our clients as well as to the investment community,” he says. “We put out a lot of information and then provide an awful lot of ability to provide feedback. So there are many doors and avenues open for employees to relay information.”

Often, the struggle isn’t providing the avenues but getting people to pursue them. Overcome that obstacle and encourage feedback by confirming that employee input matters.

“Not everybody wants to make a suggestion or say something critical,” D’Arcy says. “And so from a corporate perspective, one of the most difficult things is to get people comfortable challenging decisions. … Once we get that feedback, it’s incumbent on us to make sure that we relay back to the employee base that it is valued, that what they’re saying means a lot to everyone at this company.”

Top-down and bottom-up communication happens in tandem. To keep employees informed about your company’s direction, for example, an important message is articulating financial targets. While D’Arcy reiterates those goals to management directors to pass on to their teams, he’s also asking what tools and resources they need in order to meet expectations.

While it’s important to have those feedback loops built into companywide communication, getting input requires getting personal.

“One of the challenges is making sure you’re getting into the field,” D’Arcy says. “And that’s probably the funnest part of my job, is being able to meet with our team members and hearing what’s on their mind, hearing what’s working, hearing what we could do better.”

In addition to asking those general questions, drill down to get details.

“From an employee perspective, [ask], ‘What are the resources you need? What are you hearing in the field? Is there a message in the marketplace that’s not consistent with what we’re trying to relay as a company?’” D’Arcy says, citing examples of questions he asks employees. “Every aspect of where we are as a company is something that we want to hear.”

That constant loop of communication is critical for keeping your entire company focused on the growth areas you’re pursuing. At Grubb & Ellis, that means rallying the work force around a four-pronged growth strategy that involves recruiting brokers, expanding management services and investment management, and entering into high-margin complementary businesses.

Grubb & Ellis ended 2009 with $535.6 million in revenue and $5.8 billion in assets under management — all thanks to a strategic approach to growing in the right areas.

“The biggest challenge you have is you want to be aggressive from a growth perspective, but you don’t want to be reckless,” D’Arcy says. “You always want to be growing and pushing, going forward, but at the same time, you want to make sure that you’re doing it in the prudent fashion ... on a measured basis with the resources of the company.”

How to reach: Grubb & Ellis Co., (800) 877-9066 or

At an American Payroll Association reception, Michael Purcell heard someone gushing about a competitor’s paycard.

Purcell, co-founder, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Global Cash Card, stepped in. His company offered the same, convenient paperless payroll services.  And he could do one better — show a live demonstration of it.

Product education is the key to initiating long term customer relationships, even before purchase. That differentiates Global, which has seen monthly growth as sharp as 35 percent in its 10 years.

“That’s why we’re growing and taking the market … because we are out there to educate people and make them understand it and make them like not only the card but like our service,” says Purcell, who has about 153 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Purcell about building customer relationships with education.

Where’s the line between educating about your industry and advertising for your company?

We do it hand in hand. (Understanding) happens as they see a demo of our system. They see how it works. The perfect way to understand what we do is see a demo of our system, where all our competitors show you a PowerPoint. When you see a demo of our system, you can see how easy it is, how it works, and you get a greater understanding of how paycards work.

In the masses, I think everyone’s understanding and knowing what a paycard is. They’re just looking to find where these companies are. And that’s our greatest challenge right now: letting them know that Global Cash Card exists.

If we get the chance to do a demonstration of our system, we probably win the customer eight out of 10 times. It’s really tough to buy a car without touching, feeling it, taking it for a ride. For most people, touchy-feely is really the best way to show someone what the product’s really like.

How do you educate clients after they sign up?

We have an implementation team that actually goes around to the [client] companies to implement the cards, get people signed up — which is really key because just signing on a client and saying, ‘Oh, we got this customer,’ you only get 400 cards out with them, you really don’t make money. See, the way we make money is on volume. When people use the card as a signature, we get paid the interchange from Visa or Mastercard.

They will educate them on the card on how not to get charges. They sign the people up that way. If you just put a check-stuffer in their check, they’re probably not going to sign up because people hate change. But we’ve found it to be very successful to send out the implementation teams so you can see who we are, get who we are, know that the company that you work for is backing this.

We also have a small tutorial [on] how to use an ATM so you don’t get charged with checking your balance. They educate them on the fact that Global Cash Card won’t charge them to talk to a live customer service rep. Some of our competitors will say, ‘Well, if you talk to a customer service rep, it’s $2,’ which is absolutely ridiculous.

They also educate them as to have a breakdown of the savings a paycard does versus a live check.

Once in a blue [moon], we’ll bring up some people who have already gone with the paycard in the company and let people know, ‘Hey, this has been great for me and here’s why.’

That’s the key. If we don’t do a good job in them liking the card, us, they’re going to … complain. They’re going to say, ‘Hey, we don’t want this.’

What’s the key to customer service?

We do our own customer service in-house. Some of our competitors go to a third party; most of them are not in the country. We’re based out of Irvine; the customer service here costs a lot of money. We just feel it’s completely necessary because it’s people’s money. The most important thing to them is their money. People … really need an answer to their questions immediately. … Believe me, I’d love to cut costs, but it’s too valuable.

We do have the best system and technology in the industry. We have our thing, which is: Systems and service equals easy — the formula for paycard success. You hear some nightmares with companies that have went with other paycard providers. … We just want them to have a long-term relationship with us and we know that if they’ve got 30,000 of their employees on our card and their employees are happy, they’re not going to make the change.

Our president is in the middle of customer service. He can come sit with me in the corporate side and he doesn’t want to. He knows it’s a financial product and he knows people want answers immediately and they want decisions made. They don’t want to wait for someone in India to call someone else and for that person to not really be available if they have those kinds of questions.

We’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And (our reps) know that without customer service, there is no growth, there’s no job security. They see that customers can be snatched up. They go through a really grueling three-week program with our product, how it works, our system, calls. We really strive to have people understand that it’s a relationship that you are trying to build with them.

They give (clients) their cell phone numbers. They say, ‘Look, if you have a question … call us.’ So it’s all relationship building. We are dedicated with weekly calls — or in some cases, there’ll be biweekly calls with them. We just don’t hand you a piece of plastic and you’re on your way. We’re with you at your hip every step of the way.

How to reach: Global Cash Card, (888) 220-4477, ext. 210 or