Dollar signs

Jonathan Citrin

Pressure players

How the financial markets affect your staff

It happens eventually to those in a position of authority or rank. Above all the day-to-day managing, strategy and tactics, leaders must bring something additional to work: presence. This presence — the ability to consistently exude confidence, calm and posture — is oftentimes what separates a successful organization from unsuccessful ones. And it is what causes your staff to look toward you, the leader, for more than just work-related discipline and direction. They also look to you for leadership during today’s volatile and confusing financial times.

Aside from the potential liabilities present in advising an employee on financial matters, your credibility with your entire staff is on the line. In any organization, word travels fast. Your response to a seemingly harmless financial question or two can dent your leadership armor permanently, unless you deliver it properly.

First, understand your staff is more nervous than you. The days of pensions and corporate ladder climbing have been replaced by 401(k)s and the need for an ever-updated resume. Technology has not only ruled many jobs obsolete, but it has also created smartphones that notify the entire world of corporate layoffs in an instant. Your employees live in an environment that is constantly changing. To them, the world of finance is not only foreign, but it creates even more uncertainty and stress.

Second, recognize where you can make the greatest impact. If your employee is asking a personal financial question, it isn’t because they have more money than Bill Gates. Rather, the severity of their financial circumstances has passed the point of silence, compelling them to finally speak up. This is not the time for a hot stock or mutual fund you think will pop. Preach prudence. Use your position to aid staff in being honest with themselves and helping them assess their situation and associated risks. Your calm, realistic attitude will do more than any quick tip or heightened knowledge.

Third, know your limits. It may be inappropriate for you to give significant financial advice to an employee, and you may not be good at it. You may be a professional, but are you a professional investment adviser or financial planner? The most effective way to yield your position of authority is by openly admitting weakness. Telling your employees, “I don't know,” may be the ultimate display of leadership. There is a big difference between guidance and advice. Don't be the expert, refer them to one.

As a leader in your company, your words weigh heavy. By being honest and providing calm, assertive direction, you will improve your staff's financial circumstances and strengthen your role as the leader of the organization.

Jonathan Citrin is founder and CEO of CitrinGroup (www.citringroup.com), an investment advisory firm located in Birmingham, Mich. He is an adjunct professor of finance in the School of Business Administration at Wayne State University.

Published in Detroit
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:56

Paul Witkay

Since founding the Alliance of CEOs in 1996, I have searched for the secrets to generating breakthrough ideas on a consistent basis. CEOs constantly seek ideas to improve, but incremental ideas don’t change the course of a company or an industry. I gain the greatest satisfaction when a CEO experiences that “aha moment.”

What is a “breakthrough idea”? Some people think that innovation applies primarily to new products like the iPhone or HDTV. However, I believe CEOs can innovate in virtually every aspect of their businesses. Michael Dell didn’t invent personal computers but gave us a way to buy them directly. Howard Schultz sold us coffee at five times the price by creating a better experience at Starbucks.

What are some other examples? Jim Cook, an Alliance Director, was on the founding team of NetFlix when the idea to deliver DVDs through the mail and not charge late rental charges was considered crazy. Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t have a clue how they would make money when they started Google. They simply wanted to help people find information on the Web for free. Herb Kelleher questioned the need for the hub and spoke airline system and created Southwest Airlines, which was profitable when other airlines were going bankrupt.

So what are the keys to finding those breakthrough ideas? There are several:

Diversity. The bestselling book, “The Medici Effect” by Frans Johansson, discusses how breakthrough ideas are generated at the intersection of diverse ideas, concepts and cultures. The Alliance of CEOs intentionally brings together CEOs with experience in different industries, markets, skills, philosophies, education, problem-solving techniques and cultures. CEOs who run very different companies feel free to ask all of the “dumb questions” that create an environment for fresh insights and new ideas. It’s critical to talk to people outside of your own industry — even your customers won’t offer breakthrough ideas. A Harvard Business Review article titled “Bottom-Feeding for Blockbuster Businesses” found that the contrarian approach of looking for “customers that others don’t want” resulted in companies that created new business models, such as Paychex, Schwab, Progressive Insurance and Salesforce.com.

Challenging. Patrick Stahler of Fluidminds says that the only way you can rock an industry is to “challenge the hidden dominant logic of the industry.” He calls it the “unlearning phase.” Every industry works on a set of assumptions that rarely get challenged. Cars are rented by the day and music is sold by the album — or at least they were until ZipCar and iTunes came along. No individual or company can challenge each of their basic assumptions every day — they’d go crazy. However, I recommend that CEOs make sure that their own assumptions are challenged on a regular basis. I have found that more breakthrough ideas are created when CEOs think about other industries and how they would change them “if they were the CEO.” It’s typically easier to see changes that other companies should make and, as a result, you naturally think about how similar ideas might change your own company.

Focus on the big picture. Too many people focus only on problems and trying to fix them. They never find time to ask the biggest questions such as: “What business are we really in?” or “What do our customers really value?” or “What if we started the business today from scratch – would we build the same facilities, hire the same people, provide the same products or services with the same distribution channels, price them the same way, etc.?” Disruptive new companies are not constrained by the infrastructure and processes that burden current industry players. To have a chance, industry players must think like they’re working with a blank slate — what would they do if they were starting today?

Patience. Breakthrough ideas rarely happen overnight. They evolve over time, as someone questions whether there is another way to do things than the way it’s always been done. Questions and ideas often have to ferment awhile until they come together. If the big ideas don’t come immediately, relax. The subconscious mind continues to work on the idea while your conscious mind relaxes. However, keep engaging with people who offer different perspectives than your own.

I hope that all CEOs have the opportunity to experience a breakthrough idea that propels their businesses to the next level. I’d love to hear about your next aha moment.

Paul Witkay is the founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives. Based in the Northern California, the Alliance of Chief Executives is the most strategically valuable and innovative organization for CEOs. Paul can be contacted at paulwitkay@allianceofceos.com.

Published in Northern California
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:56

Donna Rae Smith

What makes an exceptional leader? Great leaders do more than direct the collective action of their employees — they inspire and create conditions for them to excel. They are attuned to the needs and wants of others and continuously commit themselves to helping others excel. Even more, a great leader accepts that their effectiveness requires continuous learning. They challenge themselves to intentionally change and personally manage that change through a self-directed process of staying open to learning. Great leaders are great learners.

“As for me, all I know is that I know nothing,” reads the sign above Steven’s office door. Steven, a longtime Bright Side client and the CEO of a global software development business, is an ideal example of a lifetime learner and, as a result, a great leader. He posted Socrates’ words above his door as both a personal reminder of the importance of continuous learning but also to inspire those who enter his office to do so with a genuine openness to learning. And it works. Steven has built one impressive company after another, and he’s done it by modeling an authentic desire to learn and continually develop himself as a leader.

We work with leaders around the world, teaching them a model of personal leadership development. The leaders that use the model most effectively are those that believe in continuous learning and accept that their effectiveness as a leader and their satisfaction as a person require regular review. They are open to change and accept that true change is only sustainable if they intentionally focus on it and work at it, practicing the release of cherished leadership habits and replacing them with new, more impactful ones. This is hard work, which is made harder because behavior change is not a linear, consistently forward-moving process. Rather it is a repetitive process of trial and error, progress coupled with setbacks. So, how do these leaders stay committed to learning and embrace the behavior changes they need to make?

  • They look for and anticipate barriers within themselves and others. Learners recognize that their openness will be regularly challenged so they prepare themselves and transcend the resistance by staying committed to unlimited thinking and possibility exploration.

  • They genuinely listen instead of prejudging ideas. Learners don’t feel the need to jump to conclusions. They pause before responding, giving themselves time to fully process what they’ve heard and even seek additional information. This ensures good decision-making.

  • They seek solutions from diverse sources. Learners look for solutions in nontraditional places. With genuine curiosity, they look for ways to apply lessons from other disciplines, industries, organizations and cultures.

  • They view experience as life’s best teacher. Great learners approach their personal and professional experiences as goldmine opportunities for learning. No experience is insignificant or meaningless. They build in reflection time and, with vigor and energy, review their role in each experience, boldly questioning how they can behave differently for a better result next time.

  • They create a learning environment for those around them. Great leaders encourage experimentation followed by thorough reflection. They embrace failure and create a culture where employees feel safe admitting and reporting mistakes. They believe the best results will come from informed trial and error.

Steven realizes his success as a leader is directly related to his effectiveness as a learner. No matter that his impressive business career has spanned decades and he’s at the helm of one of the most admired companies in the world, Steven is still learning.

Donna Rae Smith is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a behavioral strategy company that teaches leaders to be masters of change. For more than two decades, Smith and the Bright Side team have been recognized as innovators in organizational and leadership development and the key partner to over 250 of the world’s most influential companies. Smith is a guest leadership blogger for Smart Business and the author of two leadership books, “Building Your Bright Side” and “The Power of Building your Bright Side.”  For more information, please visit www.bright-side.com or contact Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Published in Akron/Canton
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

Building toward better leadership tactics

Julian K. Hutton, president, Merlin Hospitality Management
Julian K. Hutton, president, Merlin Hospitality Management
During the recession, staff retention programs inevitably took a backseat as every nonessential piece of weight was thrown out of the balloon to keep it flying. With few tempting alternatives out there, keeping the best staff wasn’t much of a worry; even if they weren’t exactly happy, they were grateful to remain employed. But as the business climate has improved, companies that are successful at attracting and retaining key staff have a major competitive advantage.

Surveys consistently demonstrate that less than half of Americans are happy at their job, and that the No. 1 reason that employees leave a company is not for lack of money, poor benefits or unhappiness with what they are doing. The No. 1 reason they leave is because of their immediate supervisor.

The term “immediate supervisor” applies to the chain of management all the way up to board level. The sad fact is that most people in a supervisory position, from housekeeping supervisors in a small hotel to CEOs of major companies, are poor leaders, with little understanding of how to motivate and get the best out of the people they are responsible for. Why?

Lack of proper leadership training. Nobody would ever consider putting someone without any mechanical training into a job repairing cars or someone who was a qualified car mechanic into heading the legal case in a capital trial. Yet people are regularly promoted into leadership positions without knowing much about the science and practice of leadership. They may be the best car mechanic or the best lawyer in the world, and although this can be an important part of being successful in a leadership role, it is only a part and does not in any way guarantee success leading a team of car mechanics or a firm of lawyers.

Like most job skills, leadership is something that can be taught. Certainly, a basic aptitude is important. You’re never going to be a successful lawyer if you can’t pass law school. But the right people can be trained to lead at all levels and improve the working atmosphere and financial performance of their companies. So why do so many companies set themselves up for unhappy employees and the consequent expensive staff turnover when they have the ability to do something about it?

Arrogance and ignorance. All too many senior executives seem to believe that by having an MBA and by holding senior positions in companies, they are “natural leaders” when in actual fact, as their subordinates will attest, they couldn’t lead a horse to water. They themselves do not have a comprehensive understanding of what motivates people, so don’t see why those skills need to be developed throughout their organization. This lack of self-awareness inevitably pervades the whole company. By not taking the issue of leadership training seriously, they are condemning their management chain to frustration and their employees to misery.

So should we forgive all those petty tyrants and little Napoleons making life miserable for their subordinates and conclude they are not intrinsically unpleasant but just out of their depth in a position for which they have had no training and perhaps little aptitude? Are they as much victims as victimizers? That this is the fault of more senior management in not giving them the tools to do their job? Only up to a point. They have a duty to their company, to their staff and to themselves to do their job better, and there is no shortage of literature on the subject of leadership. As Field Marshal William Slim — a decorated British military commander and perhaps among the greatest leaders of men — remarked: “There is nobody who cannot vastly improve their powers of leadership by a little thought and practice.”

Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company’s hotel management and distressed asset management operations, drawing on 20 years experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry. He can be reached at jhutton@merlinhospitality.com.

Published in Philadelphia
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:27

Steve Goodman

Marketing executives are stretching their dollars in new and creative ways, from utilizing social media to investing time and resources in the latest technology. Budgets are being reassessed for effectiveness and impact. Never before has ROI been so top-of-mind. That is why hyper-local marketing makes perfect sense for today’s businesses that are looking for ways to more directly impact customers.

Hyper-local marketing has been around for a long time — and though there are new ways of activating it, the concept remains the same: Focus on a well-defined, community-related area, concentrate on the concerns of the residents, and highlight the businesses in a limited radius. Small is better — you can tailor your message and achieve far better results than making a generic pitch to anyone who might hear, read or see it. Here’s why it works.

First and foremost, the national or regional approach no longer provides the proverbial bang for the buck. In today’s fickle marketplace, these methods are considered too widespread and, thus, become a “throw it against the wall to see if something sticks” game. How do you solve this? Narrow the focus, find the end user that will find your information valuable, and go there.

Targeted marketing is the precursor to establishing personal relationships. When working in such a limited geographical location, the consumer response will likely develop into real business relationships. In a small town, people know each other and are happy to do business with someone they know. That same theory holds true in a larger city, when the hyper-local element pares it down to manageable units.

Additionally, convenience is a huge factor in decision-making. Marketers are well-advised to access the dedication that Americans have to convenience. We may criticize the younger generation’s lack of knowledge of geography — and laugh at its inability to find Kuwait on a map — but today’s youth know where the local Aeropostale store is. In fact, all generations have a keen sense of their own neighborhood. From the bank and the florist to the doctor and accountant, community geography becomes second nature. This is why hyper-local marketing is effective — it is tapping into a knowledge base that virtually everyone has.

The Internet has tried to convince us that we are a global economy, and in many ways, this is true. But food shopping, going to the dentist, buying a birthday cake and meeting for coffee are still major parts of family life. Those activities rely on proximity, and proximity is the essence of hyper-local marketing. More than 80 percent of business transactions occur within a 15-mile radius of the consumer. This statistic lends tremendous credibility to the benefits of hyper-local marketing.

The key to hyper-local marketing is identifying the segment you want to approach. Once identified, create a message that is meaningful to the largest sector within this segment. There will be one group that stands out — whether it is an age group, such as a senior citizens community, an ethnic or religious base, or even a group with a common occupation (think Silicon Valley).

As an added benefit, hyper-local marketing begets word-of-mouth. People often recommend a vendor, business owner, shop, artisan or professional to someone in their neighborhood. Simple proximity indicates a number of factors — convenience to the center of town, the same weather, similar school systems and so on. If an individual had a good experience, he or she is likely to share the information with someone else who may benefit from that experience and want to duplicate it.

Like any message or marketing strategy, nothing works perfectly without perseverance. However, hyper-local marketing does work if you deliver the message, and stick with it. Though by its very nature it proves a more limited audience, it also offers unlimited potential.

Steve Goodman is the president and COO of Welcome Wagon International. The company utilizes the strategic benefits of hyper-local marketing in more than 1,600 markets across the nation. Reach him at (800) 779-3526 or steve.goodman@welcomewagon.com.

Published in Florida

The mass exodus of manufacturing from the United States to China has reached the level to be considered a threat to our national security.

Between the 1940s and the 1960s, American industrial might was unequal in the world, and a solid domestic economic base was established. Until 30 years ago, our industrial might and the strength of the American economy were the driving force in our foreign policy dominance worldwide.

Reduced investment in the nation’s infrastructure, reduced investment in education, the national policy of permanent entitlement programs, reduced investment in long-term research and development, and squandered resources on grossly overfunded military spending and on privatization schemes resulted in the massive increase in the size of government and in the quality deterioration of government services.

The 1970s and 1980s promotion of globalization and lax regulation only accelerated the loss of American manufacturing jobs and factories. When we should have been investing in the industrial sector modernization and promoting policies to strengthen and increase the dwindling middle class and eliminate income inequality, we went on a binge that benefited Wall Street’s greed at the expense of the manufacturing sector, which had created the middle-class lifestyle under which so many Americans flourished.

Since 2001, the country has lost 42,400 factories, including 36 percent of factories that employ more than 1,000 workers (which declined from 1,479 to 947), and 38 percent of factories that employ between 500 and 999 employees (from 3,198 to 1,972). An additional 90,000 manufacturing companies are now at risk of going out of business. Prior to the banking collapse of 2008, U.S. industries, such as machine tools, consumer electronics, auto parts, appliances, furniture, telecommunications equipment, and many others that had once dominated the global marketplace, suffered their own economic collapse. Manufacturing employment dropped to 11.7 million in October 2009, a loss of 5.5 million or 32 percent of all manufacturing jobs since October 2000. The last time fewer than 12 million people worked in the manufacturing sector was in 1941.

China today reportedly controls about 93 percent of the world’s supply of precious minerals. These minerals are the main component for the manufacturing of printed circuit boards, which are in every component in personal computers, cell phones and MP3 players. Printed circuit boards also control cars, our airliners, our industry, and our high-tech military systems and weaponry.

Our tax base is shrinking, because of the loss of manufacturing and production capacity, while our spending is beyond our means. We are borrowing trillions of dollars from foreign nations to pay for the runaway overspending. Many of these nations, like China, oppose our policies of freedom and democracy, and because of the decline in our economic dominance, they are emboldened to commit acts of oppression against other nations.

As we plunge deeper in debt to them, they are openly demanding that we change our foreign policy and position of support to people, to ideology of freedom and to nations threatened by China, Iran and other oppressive governments.

It is a slippery slope where our own internal freedoms will be challenged by these nations. We must pull the alarm lever now and bring our factories home before we become global slaves instead of a nation of free and proud people.

Amir Soas is an associate professor of national security and Near East studies at Tiffin University where he teaches Counter Terrorism and Counter Intelligence Analysis, Weapons of Terrorism, Forensic Anthropology, Emergency Management, and Arabic. He is certified as an indirect instructor in emergency management for the Department of Homeland Security, Institute of Domestic Preparedness. Soas is an honorably discharged veteran of the United States Marine Corps. During his service, he received meritorious promotions and the good conduct medal.

Published in Cleveland

Whether you’re prepared for it or not, Apple’s iPad and the myriad of new tablet computers coming to market will change the way you do business. Not because there is a shiny new gadget available, but because that shiny new gadget is raising your customers’ expectations by a degree far greater than smartphones like the iPhone, Blackberry and Droid already have.

Regardless of the business you’re in – B2B, consumer direct or retail – the customer experience you provide is critical for long-term sustainability and growth. This is especially true for commodities that can be purchased at multiple retailers, online or direct from the manufacturer.

The impact of mobile on the enterprise, however, is being felt far beyond the point of sale. For example, at Eli Lilly and Co., advanced mobile devices and applications offer its pharmaceutical sales force the capability to be highly productive while they are presenting to physicians, as well as during the significant downtime waiting to see them.

For Lilly, mobile devices with longer battery life like the iPad that are always on and provide instant, secure access to any and all existing resources a physician may want to review about a drug are a must. Compared to the antiquated process of combing through hard copy brochures that may or may not have the very latest information or waiting for a laptop computer to start-up and open applications, this is a tremendous enhancement to the customer experience.

In deal-flow environments such as the one at Simon Property Group Inc., the sales force manages tens of thousands of active leases which have volumes of paperwork and space plans associated with them. Traditionally, the Simon sales force has had to travel with the associated paperwork or store it on discs, neither of which is easy to access quickly and seamlessly. Mobile devices like the iPad have helped Simon bring the largely paper-based leasing side of their business into a streamlined digital space that is much more customer friendly.

The important distinction between the way you may have done business in the past and the way you will have to do business in the future is the consumers’ expectation of access to what they want to see, how they want to see it and when they want to see it. Offering customers a technology-limited experience will be met with increasing frustration or abandonment as the tablet and smarter smartphones become ubiquitous.

For most companies, accessing e-mail via mobile devices is now common. This is great and it represents a big leap forward for many organizations. The new standard, however, is for your work force to be able to take everything they do in the office and do it whenever and wherever they need to, without disruption and without having to fundamentally alter the way they do business.

This means having secure access to all documents, software and other applications – multiple reservoirs of corporate information – and being able to interact with them in familiar environments that have the same interfaces as the office.

Though they are more than just incremental upgrades, mobile devices are still not replacing primary business computers in most workplaces. Today’s mobile devices are highly integrated into the work flow and they are excellent tools for displaying and communicating. However, mobile devices are not yet particularly conducive to content creation. Yes, portable keyboards and docks make mobile devices more like full capability desktop environments. But they are not the first choice when one needs to create a business plan or design a website.

The impact of mobile on the enterprise largely results in acknowledging that your customers (and your employees) expect more from you than they did before smartphones and tablets made their debut. Allowing customer expectations to drive the way you engage and interact with them should help you assess how to implement mobile throughout your business and match the right tools with the right people for deeper connections and a better overall brand experience.

James L. Jay is president and CEO of TechPoint, Indiana’s technology industry and entrepreneurship growth initiative. Jay also serves as president and CEO of TechPoint Ventures, which has invested more than $16 million in early-stage capital in twelve Indiana-based technology companies through HALO Capital Group since 2009. An Indianapolis native, Jay has a successful track record as an entrepreneur, business leader and public servant.

Published in Indianapolis

When comparing weekend activities recently, a friend of mine proudly reported that the highlight of her Sunday was the two hours she spent at a Sephora store trying out different cosmetics and creams.

Spending that much time at any store may seem like an excess, until you realize there is some science behind it, and my friend was simply reacting exactly as shopping researchers had planned.

Ever since women were called the emerging market, marketers have been busy boning up on biology, anthropology and psychology to better understand this target. They realized that women are gatherers versus hunters — they like to explore, take their time and discover new things for themselves or their loved ones. Businesses that have done their homework are redesigning their stores, products, packaging, brand promises and business operations to appeal more to women.

Although some retailers have figured out, others still don’t “get” women. By not appealing to this consumer base, these businesses miss out on capturing a larger share of their consumer base. Women account for 83 percent of all consumer purchases, according to an A.T. Kearney report, and Goldman Sachs analysts estimate that wealth in the hands of women around the globe will increase by $5 trillion between 2008 and 2013. The increasing economic influence of women is expected to continue as they outpace men in college graduation rates, which can lead to higher income levels. This all adds up to major opportunities to rethink and revamp current businesses. So, why isn’t it happening?

Without a doubt, one key factor is simply the organizational inertia that comes with any kind of major change. Another factor may be stereotypes about selling to women and that you just have to “shrink and pink” it — make it smaller and a cute color. But there’s something more fundamental going on.

First, marketers’ views are shortsighted. They measure market size based on assumptions of today rather than incorporating possibilities that the market could be larger than we expected. Think of 3M’s Post-it Notes. When they were introduced, who anticipated that women would use them so much and want them in different colors and shapes, with funny sayings and designs, with a little bit of personality?

Second, the way companies think about innovation needs to shift. We need fewer “incremental” projects and more new projects that incorporate ethnographic and observational techniques and that borrow insights from parallel industries from around the globe. I recently visited a company in Shanghai that is designing a kitchen based on what it learned from hundreds of hours of observing Chinese women cook. It has a new organizational setup, new safety features, cabinets that swivel and a built-in stepstool to reach high places. I have no doubt some of the features will become common around the world in the course of a few years.

Finally, companies need to bring in more perspectives from a variety of disciplines. Too many people in business were trained only in business. We need to bring in more breadth of experience from people trained not only in traditional marketing, finance and R&D but also in psychology, anthropology, biology, history and sociology. They can bring in the insights that the businesspeople might miss. While marketing personal care products to women, I was involved in a team that studied biology, anthropology and hundreds of years of women’s history in various societies. We also conducted interviews with bikini waxers, pole dancers, personal trainers, plastic surgeons, models, fashion designers, lingerie store owners and medical doctors. These perspectives were incorporated into innovation and communication platforms, and the result was a changed business that yielded double-digit growth in a previously stagnant category.

As a professional, I am aware of the pockets of advances in marketing to women, but, as a consumer, I haven’t seen enough. Until businesses understand both the potential of the growing purchasing power of women as well how women are wired, they will not make the changes they need to make to capture it, and somebody else will get the girl.

Robin Moriarty, Ph.D., is the managing director of Kimberly-Clark — Hong Kong, an expert in marketing to women and a former Atlanta resident. She is a frequent lecturer, and previously worked at Bell South and taught at Emory University and Georgia Tech.

Published in Atlanta
Wednesday, 06 April 2011 14:07

Protect your reputation

As I was formulating some thoughts around this topic, this tweet appeared from @DrWayneWDyer: “Your reputation is in the hands of others,” reads the tweet. “The only thing you can control is your character.” It succinctly summarizes the message I want to share with you with regard to managing company reputation.

Managing reputation begins with top leadership and is rooted in your organization’s core values and corporate governance. It is reinforced in your financial performance, corporate offices, employee relations, and customer service guidelines and policies. It is reflected in the quality of your products and services. It is expressed through your company’s social responsibility, vendor and distributor relations, and media relations.

While a corporate image can be created, a corporate reputation is earned. As CEOs, we need to treat our corporate reputation as one of our most valuable assets and protect it at all costs. Protecting corporate reputation is a proactive position rather than a reactive one. It is in reacting to a situation that we can inadvertently cover up truths, make statements we’d love to take back and make poor decisions. 

Proactively managing reputation pays off

At Greencrest, we established our core values more than a decade ago as a group exercise — getting input and consensus from all employees. In the end, the core values mirrored my own personal beliefs and defined the performance and operational tenets of our company. Because they were a part of our roots, they are relevant today and continue to be our guiding principles. They are painted on our wall and greet employees every day.

By identifying company core values, as leaders we can begin to put structure around all other policies. How are your core values reflected in your corporate governance? What about your employment and customer service policies? Corporate image is formed from internal and external communications. It is formed through the quality of products and services, our own behavior and attitudes. It is also influenced by our employees and the experience others have when interacting with us and our company and our physical offices. It can also be shaped by the company’s financial practices and our community and social responsibility.

As leaders, we must continually reinforce the company’s core values and policies and make sure our key staff represent and reinforce them, too. I have found that it is easy to become soft, too forgiving and accepting of the status quo. We become too busy to deal with important disciplinary matters or absent from managing direct reports for whatever reason. But as a company, we are at our best when we enforce our core values.

Don’t forget to plan for the unexpected

As CEOs, it is also our responsibility to manage the unexpected. My industry labels this as “crisis communications.” Organizations can successfully plan how to respond to worst-case scenarios, and in doing so, make us CEOs less “reactive” to situations where personal emotions and immediate response don’t allow us to think as clearly and rationally as we normally do. 

I have successfully counseled numerous companies through crisis situations — everything from hiring illegal immigrants to negativity around organized labor contract negotiations to unfavorable actions of key executives to job-related deaths and injuries. But when the emotional impact of false statements made about my own company took me by surprise, I hired an outside public relations consultant to coach me and to manage our internal and external communications. It was well worth the expense.

Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you will do things differently.” This couldn’t be more relevant today, especially in the wake of the social media revolution. Those five minutes are more like seconds. So, if you’re not managing your company’s online reputation, you need to be doing that, too.

Kelly Borth is CEO and chief strategy officer for Greencrest, a 20-year-old brand development and strategic marketing firm that turns market players into market leaders. Kelly has received numerous honors for her business and community leadership. She serves on several local advisory boards and is one of 30 certified brand strategists in the U.S. Reach her at (614) 885-7921 or kborth@greencrest.com, or for more information, visit www.greencrest.com.

Published in Columbus
Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

How to take a first step in sustainability

For sustainability to have a significant impact on your business, it has to live throughout your organization. You’ll see meaningful change when both the leadership and the culture of your company are engaged, not just when you apply sustainability to your products or processes. But you have to start somewhere, right?

Greening your business is not just about making a statement on Earth Day or on your website, it’s about looking at your core business from a new perspective. Rather than be overwhelmed by a wholesale sustainability program that may or may not resonate with your organization or your marketplace, start by doing just one thing.

That’s what textiles designer David Oakey of Pond Studios in LaGrange, Ga., decided to do when Interface Inc., the commercial carpet company (of which I am a part), first headed down the path to zero environmental footprint. Oakey found himself frustrated by the new vision for his client — all that he could see when he thought about “greener” carpet was hemp and wool, and he knew that wasn’t going to cut it with the company’s commercial customers. Almost in desperation, he said, “Let’s just try one thing — in the spirit of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ we’ll try using less of the petroleum-derived nylon in the tufted face of the carpet.”

It was a small thing in some respects — if it didn’t look good or perform well, it could be checked off as a failed experiment. But at the same time, it was a bit radical; nylon makes a significant contribution to the environmental footprint of carpet. Carpet face weights, or the amount of “fuzzy” stuff on the face of a carpet tile, were long believed to indicate quality. Chintz on the nylon and your product screams “cheap,” or so it was believed.

Flash-forward several months and several rounds of tinkering with new ways of tufting the yarn tighter and the one-ounce-lower face weight was an enormous win for Interface — more intelligence, less stuff. Not only was the difference negligible in terms of appearance, the lower face weight actually performed better in appearance and retention tests. Today, the average InterfaceFLOR carpet tile is more than 4 ounces lighter than it was in 1994.

Importantly, the experiment turned into a huge win in terms of innovation and inspiration. “What can we do next?” his design team asked, eager to get further outside the box and explore the possibilities.

It was the same for The Coca-Cola Co. when they started down the road to sustainability, but for them it wasn’t dematerialization; it was water footprinting that made the most sense. Integral to the beverage business and at the top of the world’s list of scarce resources, water — and understanding the impacts on the company’s core business — was a logical place to start, and a place from which a great deal of innovation and inspiration has sprung.

You could argue that Nike, on the other hand, is in the business of innovation — strong, lighter, faster, better, to quote their House of Innovation site. Green Xchange is not a program for recycling your old running shoes — though they do that, too — it’s a collaboration between Nike and Creative Commons to create a digital repository where intellectual property related to sustainability can be shared. Again, looking at the core business leads to innovation and inspiration, this time on a potentially world-changing level. And again, these are initiatives that strike at the core of a company, not on the fringe.

When Interface first began our journey, companies like Coke and Nike were just starting out, too, and there wasn’t much of a road map for any of us to follow. Stories like the ones I’ve shared here help you start, but if you want to take a deep dive into how a business can do it, pick up a copy of Interface founder and Chairman Ray Anderson’s book, “Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist.” It’s not only a how-to, it’s a “why-to.”

Jim Hartzfeld is managing director of InterfaceRAISE, the peer-to-peer sustainability consultancy of Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. Reach him at jim.hartzfeld@interfaceraise.com.

Published in Atlanta