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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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Published in Akron/Canton

Patty Klein is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. It’s this attention to detail that makes A-Plus Meetings & Incentives so successful.

As president and CEO, Klein has used her background in business consulting to build a 16-person meeting planning company that can do — or figure out how to do — just about anything for its clients. The company, based in Coral Gables, Fla., serves a number of Fortune 500 companies, including Staples Inc. and Ryder System Inc.

Smart Business sat down with Klein at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how she’s built a company that can creatively cater to a variety of client needs.

Q: How did you develop the variety of service capabilities you have?

Every time a client says something like, ‘We need to do this,’ we just say, ‘We can do it.’

It's just something that we develop based on requests and pretty much a lot of times analyzing and just saying, ‘What are we doing for you? What are they using other vendors for and how do we then provide that service, as long as it's within the scope of the meeting, either pre or post?’

Q: Where do you look for creative inspiration?

We stay creative first and foremost in the agenda design. I think that's really where the rubber hits the road. You can have great décor, you can have a new innovative dinner and food and so forth, but to me, the creative part comes in, ‘How do we make this meeting more interesting and more impactful and have a higher return on investment for the attendees?’

A lot of times I'll just talk to clients and talk to them about what ideas they have, and I share among clients. Why not? None of our clients are competitors. … Once I get a partner, I feel it's really important. I know I sit in the Staples meetings; I sit in the Ryder meeting. I understand their strategies; I understand what's important to them. And I want them to win in their business.

(We need to) make sure the content is as fresh and integrated as possible with the strategy of the company. So we really spend a lot of time talking to our clients about, ‘What is the goal? What do you want to see? What are the outcomes?’ Because we need to measure that we've done that on the outcomes.

Q: What metrics do you use to gauge feedback?

We do an online survey after every program. We measure not only our service in terms of logistics — all the communication, how easy was the website, how is everything from check in and with our service on-site, which is critical …  but we measure every single content of the session in terms of the effectiveness, and we measure all the outcomes. We start off with, ‘These were all the goals. How did we do against all the goals?’ We can really show the client the return.

A lot of times we brainstorm based on what happened the last time. So let's analyze everything about the meeting: what went well, what didn’t go well. And that gives us ideas to bring back the clients and say, ‘Next time, we need to do this differently because based on the survey results.’

Q: How important is word-of-mouth feedback to your business?

If I can get a potential customer to talk to talk to my clients, every single time I've won their business. It's that much of a wow. … A couple years ago, one of my clients tried another meeting planning company and I was concerned, but it was the best thing that could've happened. They did nothing of the same level of service. But that experience, that's so hard to describe, and that's where my client references really make a difference, the wow stories.

Q: How do you create that wow factor?

It's very simple — you do everything that the client wants but even more.

Because of our business consulting background, we really get involved with actually writing and viewing presentations as well as helping people do rehearsals. Things that a lot of other meeting-planning companies don’t do, we do. And we built a model where we’re sort of soup to nuts, so not only do we design the agenda content, but we actually negotiate with all of the hotels, do the flights. We have an internal air department at our company. Transfers, greeting people at the door, all the food, all the AV production … as well as all of the on-site service, and then follow ups with budget reconciliation.

Q: How to you engage your employees in that culture of superior service?

We hire for service at our company and we train for meetings. We don't really hire a lot of experienced meeting planners because they have some habits that are not within our company. They would sit on the sideline. Our company strategy is to interact and become the client’s friend, because that creates the glue and it is the service business over the long term. We go to the store and get people tampons, aspirin or whatever they need, prescriptions, because that's the difference between us and our competition.

Mistakes in our business are very costly for us. So we do have a very strong perfectionist and detail orientation, and I demand that of my people. And when a mistake happens, we discuss that and we make sure it doesn't happen again. … If it's a small mistake can we learn from it and we avoid it with processes next time, and that's probably good for us that we learned about it. … What I'm really trying to build is a culture of accountability and ownership.

How to reach: A-Plus Meetings & Incentives, (786) 888-3201 or www.aplusmeetings.com

Published in Florida