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Reading the landscape Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

Kevin Weiss had witnessed other publishing industries fall victim to the independents. Major labels in both the film and music business had watched, seemingly helpless to stop it, as the independents took away one artist after another.

“When you go to a movie today, most of those guys who are doing those movies are independent film houses that have been picked up by the big distributors,” Weiss says. “There is a whole lot of independent music out there that is great music today.”

In his mind, Weiss could see with crystal-clear clarity the same potential for the independent publishing industry when he joined Author Solutions as its president and CEO in December 2007.

“They are having trouble making money, and they’re being attacked in multiple places, including by Amazon, who is trying to cut them out,” Weiss says. “The fact is, (the publishing industry) has a model that doesn’t work. Independent publishing is absolutely here and now.”

Weiss was convinced that not only did he have a model that would work but also a model he could successfully implement at Author Solutions. The challenge was to take the passion and energy he felt for this grand opportunity and convey it to the nearly 1,000 employees whom he needed in order to make it happen.

“You can set the direction and you can start to change the focus of the corporation, but you really have to win the hearts and minds of the people and establish the vision of where you want to go,” Weiss says.

“For me, the hardest thing I’ve had to do here is really transform the thinking and focus of the business that we’re not this little $18 million company in Bloomington, Ind. We can be a $100 million company growing at 30 percent a year.”

By displaying a single-minded focus on achieving his goal, communicating directly and clearly to his people and establishing a solid focus on the customer, Weiss and Author Solutions brought 19,000 titles to market in 2008, six times the number of titles of consumer publisher Random House, or about one out of every 20 book titles in the United States last year.

Here is how Weiss put Author Solutions in a position to flourish.

Set your vision

When Weiss arrived at Author Solutions, he saw a company that simply wasn’t moving fast enough. He did not see the level of urgency to get things done that would be needed to achieve the growth that he had envisioned.

So his vision was simply to remake the company in order to move faster.

“I’m accustomed to technology culture, which is a fast-paced, very customer-focused kind of environment with a need to get things done very quickly,” Weiss says.

“I kept asking questions like, ‘Why does it take five months for us to get a title from submission to complete? Why can’t we do it in 60 days?’ And now I’m saying, ‘Why can’t we do it in 45 days?’ I was pushing us to say, ‘Why don’t we try to do some things a little differently?’ We’ve been doing it this way for four years and it gives us reasonable growth, but it doesn’t give us hyper growth.”

Weiss wanted his employees to see that they could be a part of a blossoming industry. But he needed to get them to see it the way he did and get them to understand what it would take to achieve his lofty goals.

“You have to keep it simple, but it has to be meaningful,” Weiss says.

“It has to have real value to all the participants along the way to be able to do it. That’s really the first step. If you don’t get the vision strategy of how you are going to execute against that vision right, you might be lost forever or you’ll be lost for a long time and you’ll have a confused organization. You’ll be working 24-7 trying to change each and every one of them.”

That doesn’t mean that you won’t be throwing them any surprises. Technology would be a big part of increasing capacity at Author Solutions and technological changes can be scary for some people.

“A lot of people shy away from the technology aspects of their business, because it’s not something that they know,” Weiss says. “But if people don’t take into account what technology can do for them, technology will do things to them that they don’t expect and aren’t prepared for. We used technology as an enabler in transforming our business.”

The company changed its production process and completely redid its technology platform.

“We asked people to do things that they had never thought they were capable of doing,” Weiss says. “They looked at me like I had three heads sometimes. I said, ‘Trust me, guys. I know this looks hard. I know this looks crazy. I know how uncomfortable it feels right now, but it is going to work.’ A couple of nights, I said, ‘I hope.’ But you have to be decisive and you have to have compassion when you’re pushing people to do things that they never thought they were capable of doing.”

That compassion and support for your people when enacting significant changes is a crucial part of the process.

“You have to encourage people,” Weiss says. “They have to know that you’ve got their back. They have to know that you have confidence in them to do it. They need to understand they are not going to lose their job if they make a mistake. You want people to feel a part of this change. That’s why you have to keep painting that vision for them.

“Once you’ve established that vision and you’ve brought the team, in my case, the management team around me and one level below, under the tent to see what that vision is and then put in the individual changes that are required, it’s a matter of going out and making sure you communicate effectively on why you are doing it.”

Be visible

When you are managing a high-growth company, change becomes a way of life for employees who may not be used to the new fast pace. Weiss increased his visibility with employees to respond to questions and address concerns.

“The best people I ever saw were visual leaders that were out there that you didn’t feel uncomfortable about approaching,” Weiss says. “If you were uncomfortable, they made you comfortable by coming out and finding you and listening to you. I try to do that. I’m sure there are people out there that don’t think that I do it very well, but it’s very important, and it’s something I focus on a great deal. You have to be a good communicator as an executive, or else left to the written word, you’re left to a speechwriter to write your words, and I don’t know that that necessarily works.”

You need to make sure that your front-line leaders, those who deal directly with the employees who work directly with customers, are speaking in the same voice as you.

“If they can’t answer the question, then you’ll look awfully dull if you’re the only person that can make that happen,” Weiss says. “Every month, I bring in all the first-line management team as well as the executive team to listen to what’s going on.”

Talk about what’s going well, what’s not going well and what you’re unsure about. If mistakes are made or changes in your plan need to be done on the fly, don’t shy away from them.

“You need to be open-minded enough to know that you’re going to make mistakes,” Weiss says. “When you make a mistake, be man or woman enough to own up to it. ‘OK, I made a mistake here. We’re going to make a change here, and this is the reason why.’ You’ve got to be decisive in what you do. If you leave things floundering, that’s a bad deal.”

Weiss also utilizes surveys to solicit employee feedback. The key with those, of course, is to make sure that you respond to the issues noted in the survey to encourage employees that their voice is heard and that it’s not a waste of time to fill out the survey.

“We want to make sure we understand what the employees are saying and that we’re reacting to it and putting plans in place to address the concerns,” Weiss says.

Maintain customer focus

Growth only comes when you make the customer happy, so Weiss has made it a point to keep everyone thinking about the customers.

He says he stole an idea from Stu Leonard’s store, a grocer in Connecticut, about the importance of making the customer happy.

“Outside of his stores, he’s got this big block of granite,” Weiss says. “When I first went there back in 1983, the block says, ‘Stu Leonard’s Rules. Rule No. 1 is the customer is always right. Rule No. 2, when the customer is wrong, refer to Rule No. 1.’ It’s all about the customer. If we solve the customer’s problem, if we do it better and if we do it faster and if we do it cheaper than everybody else and if we do it with a high degree of customer satisfaction, the world is our oyster.”

Customer focus is more than just words and rules.

“It’s far more subtle than that,” Weiss says. “It’s publicly recognizing people that do things over and above for the customer, (such as) little silly programs like giving somebody a rubber duck or sending people on a trip for having gone over and above the call of duty to help people out and help others. When you are in a corporation where they are very customer-focused, you generally find the same corporation being heavily focused on great teamwork, as well.”

Author Solutions has customer metrics in place for every phase of the business, and Weiss says you need to monitor the metrics on a regular basis.

“We develop a reporting process with customers,” Weiss says. “The way you set it up is you make sure the people that understand the process the most work with you to figure out the appropriate questions to ask to test how you are doing with your customers on each phase of the process.

“On the sales process, you want to understand things like did the rep answer all your questions, was the rep courteous, did the rep respond to you in a good time frame? Did the rep sell you what you really wanted, or did you feel like you got sold something you didn’t really need? Was the rep clear about what you were buying? You don’t want so many questions that the customer says, ‘I’m done; I’m not answering any more questions.’ But you want to make sure you get the right ones that help you impact a change in your business, if in fact, things start to slip.”

Each one of his executives has a responsibility for ensuring that their customer satisfaction metrics are continually updated.

“They get to review them with me,” Weiss says. “We constantly look at whether or not they should be changed, dropped or if they are in good shape.”

The reports are done weekly and go out to department leaders, who then share the data with their teams.

“When these things get out of phase, they are responsible for reporting up through the management chain on the things they are doing to change the result,” Weiss says.

And a better customer focus isn’t the only thing that’s changed since Weiss took over.

As he looks at Author Solutions today, he sees a team bonded in the pursuit of success.

“The teamwork in the company wasn’t bad when I got there, but today, it’s as good as any of the places I’ve been in the past that were really fantastic,” Weiss says. “It’s just continuing to reinforce with the people that the customer is important and that your teammates are important. If we do that right, people will find us. And they do.”

How to reach: Author Solutions, www.authorsolutions.com