There is “a tale of two mindsets” when it comes to understanding which employee groups are leaving and why they seek to leave. Furthermore, our research indicates that corporate leaders often fail to understand the nonfinancial priorities of their employees, such as the need for strong leadership, effective communication and career advancement opportunities, while the degree of importance that younger employees place on these nonfinancial priorities varies across geographies.

Boost performance

Companies seeking to enhance their global success need to figure out how to maximize business performance in the geographies they choose to operate in. As they expand globally, they will encounter several salient challenges:

  • Attracting talent (especially leadership) to successfully navigate the market.
  • Maximizing the performance of local talent.
  • Retaining employees in markets with high turnover rates.

This becomes especially important in the context of the existing gulf between employers and employees on talent priorities.

Mind the gap

Generational differences fuel much of current social and political tension in Western Europe and the United States over globalization, nationalism and immigration, according to an in-depth analysis of results from the Pew Global Attitudes surveys.

Older Americans and Western Europeans are more likely than their grandchildren to have reservations about growing global interconnectedness, to worry that their way of life is threatened, to feel that their culture is superior to the cultures of others, and to support restrictions on immigration.

This generation gap is less pronounced in Eastern Europe and is virtually nonexistent in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Nevertheless, Americans and Western Europeans of all ages are less likely than people in other parts of the world to tout their own cultural superiority and are less wary of foreign influence.

These findings are based on Pew Global Attitudes Project surveys conducted among more than 66,000 people in 49 nations.

As a consequence, although there is a growing recognition that in order for companies to build effective retention strategies they will need to tailor their tactics to account for generational differences, there remains the problem that many corporate leaders may be misreading the priorities among different generations, leading employers to offer the wrong incentives to the wrong employees.

Differentiate strategies

Effectively addressing these challenges begins with a more complete understanding of the local work force, its various segments, and what makes each group tick.

Rather than standardizing talent management, companies should devise country-specific talent strategies with the involvement of local leaders who are as versed on the different aspirations of the generations that make up the work force as they are on other aspects of their business.

Such an understanding could help companies:

  • Better address key issues for global expansion and enhance return on investment on talent programs through the design of customized programs that speak directly to employees’ aspirations, ambitions and attitudes (based on the generational cohorts that comprise a given country).
  • Enhance leadership capabilities for managing and collaborating across borders and generations, thereby enhancing management effectiveness and business performance.
  • Create competitive advantages by helping them stay current on expected work force composition, employee benefit options and preferences and other competitive offerings to determine the best plans to attract, retain and motivate top talent.

For those companies that embrace the concept of “plan locally, connect globally,” understanding and connecting with the aspirations of the demographic groups they are targeting can help them in their efforts to reduce cost and optimize performance on a global basis.

The recognition that customers are a heterogeneous bunch emerged as one of the important ideas for marketers in the last century. With the increasing importance of talent as a competitive factor, the recognition that generations differ around the world may be one of the important strategic avenues for decades to come.

Sherri Elliott-Yeary is the CEO of human resources consulting companies Optimance Workforce Strategies and Gen InsYght, as well as the author of “Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage.” She has more than 15 years of experience as a trusted adviser and human resources consultant to companies ranging from small start-ups to large international corporations. Contact her at sherri@generationalguru.com.

Published in Dallas

Few tasks are more central to effective leadership than communicating well and making sure your charges are doing so too. Communication pitfalls are rife in business. Maybe you have a tendency to rush through strategy sessions, or to be too subtle, to not spell things out clearly enough. Maybe you find yourself becoming so dependent on a PR person or group of PR people that you start to feel inaccessible. Maybe you have a manager who’s basically good at articulating his thoughts, but when his mouth opens, his ears snap shut. Here, from the pages of Smart Business Dallas, are some ideas from business executives on how to avoid such missteps and keep everyone in your company connected.

“When most people hear [communication], they’re thinking of transmitting, so we really tried to put the emphasis on receiving. It’s making it a part of the leadership culture to emphasize listening well and asking appropriate questions to enhance absorption of what’s really being attempted to be communicated. That’s not a natural skill. People typically default to being better at transmitting than receiving. You can see that in a variety of ways, but one way you can see that is when a discussion of reasonable intensity is going on and one party is communicating to another, you can almost see that other party stop listening to start formulating what their response is going to be on what they’ve heard so far.” — Carlos Sepulveda, President and CEO, Interstate Batteries

“Communicate early and often. You can almost overcommunicate. Make sure you’re sharing the vision — that it’s not just that there is a vision, there is a strategy behind this. …You overcommunicate and begin to share capabilities and really point out the most important thing to both cultures, and that is we’re a client-first organization. I try to compare it to something the group has been through before, if it’s possible. It’s not always possible, but if you can compare it, make it relative; I do find that to be helpful in many ways.” — Jeff Markham, Regional Managing Director, Texas Region, Merrill Lynch

“I don’t have a PR agent. I’m probably the easiest CEO in America to find and e-mail and get ahold of. It’s more efficient and takes less time to deal with things directly via e-mail than it does for someone to go through your e-mails and not know what you’re missing and then have them communicate to you and you communicate back to them. The time it takes for you to answer an e-mail or hit the delete key, if it’s not worth responding to, is probably about 20 percent of the time it takes to go through one, two, three assistants. I go into Hollywood and I see four assistants sitting outside somebody’s door, and I’m like are you [expletive] kidding me?” — Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks Owner and HDNet Chairman, President and CEO

SUMMARY

  • Emphasize the importance of listening.
  • Don’t cocoon yourself with intermediaries.
  • Hit the nail on the head; repeat as necessary.

Published in Dallas

Chip Perry, President and CEO, AutoTrader.com
“I have an idea.” The words are music to a CEO’s ears. In the business world, new ideas are lifeblood; they’re the engine that drives companies forward. And the converse holds true too, unfortunately. Slow down the flow of ideas, and stagnation starts sprouting like mold. A decline in the number of quality suggestions being brought forward can turn a gravy train into a ghost wreck seemingly overnight. So to build a business and make it thrive, executives must develop ways to turn on the idea spigot and keep it flowing full blast. To that end, here, from the recent pages of Smart Business Atlanta, are some thoughts from business leaders on how to do just that. These gentlemen have some ideas.

“One of the hallmarks of successful companies is being open-minded and receptive to ideas for improvement from the employees, who are closer to the work than the executives are. It’s kind of built into your DNA. Either you are or you aren’t receptive. You have to be curious and receptive and then be willing to work with it. Then you need to set up a pattern and a tempo of consistency on this topic. If you do it once, and it goes away — a flash in the pan idea — it becomes not effective. If you do it every year, you’ve been doing it for 10 years, people come to expect it, and it becomes part of the culture.”  — Chip Perry, President and CEO, AutoTrader.com

“I created an [employee] innovation award. The way it works, very simply, is anybody in the company is encouraged — and this is on our website — to submit innovation ideas which benefit not only their particular location — so for example if it’s our Dallas manager or a Dallas sales associate, it may benefit their individual location — but it will also benefit the company as a whole. Through this program, we came up with some great ideas as to things we could do to reduce overhead, and ultimately to maintain jobs. Because our team on the front line are the ones who see this day in and day out — where the opportunities are — better than we do here at our support center.”  — Gregg Paradies, President and CEO, The Paradies Shops Inc.

SUMMARY

  • Be receptive to ideas for improvement.
  • Foster a collaborative environment.
  • Reward employees who suggest innovations.

Published in Atlanta

When Rob Hillman speaks about the needle, the president and general manager of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana isn’t talking about a shot in the arm.

Rather, it’s about efforts to move the needle on key company performance metrics that measure how well employees are building relationships with customers and how well customers are relating to Anthem.

“When we are talking about a high-ticket item like health care and how personal it is, relationships are very important,” Hillman says. “Things work so much better when you focus on the value of the relationships and not the value of the transactions.”

While companies are putting more emphasis on communicating with customers and employees through ever-developing means, it still boils down to the best ways to develop personal interaction.

“Maybe I'm old school, and there are a lot of this social media out there today, but relationships are very important,” he says. “We spend a lot of time with our associates, talking about the value of our relationships and how important an asset our relationships are with the broker community, with our customers, with our medical providers in the community.”

The results? Anthem is growing its footprint in the marketplace in terms of customers served, and the percentage of customers sticking with Anthem year after year is above the industry average ? typically in the high 80s to low 90s as a percent range.

Here’s the prescription Hillman uses to build relationships to help push the needle upward for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana.

Diagnose the situation

To understand the role of relationships, the first steps are to study your core values and look for common threads among them. Draw conclusions as you examine them. It often means taking a look at the basics and factoring in what will make the relationship thrive.

In terms of core values, companies can’t go far off track if they set customer service and integrity at the top.

“What we sell every day are sheets of paper that have promises written on them,” Hillman says. “When all you do is sell promises, customer-first and integrity are No. 1 and No. 2.”

But tangible and intangible products both share a promise ? a manufacturer or organization will stand by what they deliver. The recipe is the same for both types of companies.

“The customer is first, and if you meet or exceed their expectations, you have delivered on your promise,” Hillman says. “Any company that does this consistently, no matter what it is they sell, builds brand loyalty, repeat business and referrals. They are well-positioned for success.”

Do some thinking about your promises. Stick by the ones that you will deliver, whether they are merchandise or services listed on a sheet of paper.

“If it is adhering to the language of a contract, the performance of a product or delivering on your commitments, they all have the same effect ? you build credibility, trust and confidence in your company,” Hillman says.

The benefits you sell to your customers are the same benefits you provide to your associates. This indicates that you believe in your product.

“If you don’t believe in it for your own employees, then don’t try to sell it to your customers,” he says.

“You have to make sure that the way that your contracts are written and the benefits that you have sold are the promises that you can deliver,” Hillman says. “If you can't deliver, if there has been a miscue, and if you have a promise that you sold to someone that seemingly you can't deliver on, you have to make sure that you make it right.”

Remember in your analysis that there is only one occasion to make an initial impression, and doing that correctly will go the distance in establishing a relationship.

“Try to do it right the first time,” Hillman says. “If you mess it up, make sure the second time you do it right.

“Everything has to be tied together in terms of your systems, your people, their focus, to make sure that they know what to note in those promises that you sold and that you are delivering on the promises.”

Examine as well the localness of your product or service.

“Make sure that you are providing the type of value that the local market wants and needs,” Hillman says.

Evaluate the role of the customer. He or she is more than just that. You want to create loyalty, that the person will be a return customer and that the interactions the customer will have with the company will leave him highly satisfied.

If you have been mindful and put the customer first, operate with integrity, and hold employees personally accountable for excellence in everything that you do, those are the common threads that over a period of time will allow you to retain the local touch.

“Customers are folks that you define as more than just people you send a bill to and they send a check every month,” Hillman says. “By virtue of that fact, they are customers. But the thing that can be attributed to success is how you define customers based on the relationships that you have with them personally.”

When it comes to considering how to build successful relationships across the widest possible segments, expand your definition of customer. Anyone who expects you to deliver at some level qualifies as a customer, ranging from the traditional definition to the level of subcontractor to consultant.

“When there is that expectation that you’re going to deliver, however that’s defined by any one of those constituencies, regard them as customers,” Hillman says. “So the key is, it may be a cliché, but you need to deliver what you promise. If you do that basic blocking and tackling, you’re going to build relationships over the years.”

Examine how it is beneficial to keep your focus on your pledge over the long term. Concentrating on short-term gains disregards the consequences that may happen and can give a distorted picture.

“Customers may leave, but they will always come back if you’ve dealt with them with integrity and delivered on your promise,” Hillman says. “And if you don’t, some customers are very difficult to get back.

“If you bat with a good average of delivering on your promises and value those relationships that build because of that, whether it’s internally or externally ? brokers, customers or the folks you work with every day at the company ? that’s a pretty good recipe for success over a long period of time.”

Learn the value of metrics

If you are going to focus on evaluating relationships, performance metrics can help a company compare its operation against customer requirements and the value created. In short, metrics can help keep the company on track and ensure consistency.

In an organization the size of Anthem with 5,000 employees, metrics are part of the core value of continuous improvement. In order to maintain a competitive position, a company has to strive to better itself.

“There are all kinds of activities that end up impacting either your service level, your ability to grow your business and ultimately whether or not you are able to produce a successful bottom line,” Hillman says. “Every input or activity that can impact any of those three, measure it. If it moves, measure it.”

For instance, WellPoint’s member health index measures more than 40 areas of the quality of care an individual has received, some of which were developed using national standards and others which were developed by WellPoint’s clinical experts.

There’s a unique connection that Anthem uses, as do the other divisions of parent organization WellPoint Inc. They directly link improving the health of members to the compensation of every associate in the company. Improvements in members’ health index are used to help calculate employees’ annual bonuses.

“These could be things like were we able to move the needle along the percentage of women who had mammograms,” Hillman says. “Were we able to move the needle on individuals who have reached a certain age needing other types of preventive measures and scans?”

Another indication of how well a company is doing in terms of growth is an analysis of its market share.

“When you couple market share with the fact that you’re growing at the same time that you’re losing some percentage of your business (in part due to the economy), that means that your value proposition for those folks already on board is resonating with those who are just deciding to do business with you,” Hillman says.

Metrics are not only important in helping gauge a company’s performance with its customers, but for its employee-management relations, as well.

Conduct an annual employee survey to measure strengths and weaknesses between both parties. The goal is to nurture continuous improvement.

“Tie every manager's performance review to some degree to associate survey results,” Hillman says. “It is something to take very seriously. Benchmark yourselves not only within the industry but outside the industry to what's considered best in class as well as to what is the average across the entire organization.”

If you are clear about the mission of the company, what the core values are and the level of seriousness that is given to employee engagement, you will obtain positive results.

Watch for threats

Relationships that stand the test of time are those that have received consistent care and feeding ? and that have survived challenges. A company that continually monitors them is in a position to prevent derailments.

Complacency ranks as one of the top concerns that can sink a relationship. It can prevent a company from seeing it needs to change and grow.

“Don’t take any success that you're having for granted,” Hillman says. “Take your eye off the ball, the train leaves the tracks, and it's a bumpy road to get back on. When that happens, you lose customers.

“You lose credibility. You jeopardize relationships.”

Promises made but not kept are often at the root of failed relationships. Going hand-in-hand with keeping promises is the proper attitude toward standardization.

“A second threat is not maintaining discipline in your decision-making ? deviating from the kinds of types of decisions that have helped you become a success and just becoming less disciplined,” Hillman says

While inconsistent discipline is equally a threat as complacency, its effects are different. Sticking to the standards that are ethical and morally right is a desirable quality. Human nature sometimes lets discipline slide just at the moment it may be needed the most.

“Being less disciplined is sort of moving the edges of what are acceptable decisions and non-acceptable decisions out a little bit,” Hillman says.

A third major threat is losing touch with your customers. It’s often said that the longer a company is around, the greater the danger it has of losing customers. Maintaining a personal connection comes down to building relationships, building trust, keeping promises and delivering.

While maintaining a connection can be a time-consuming process, it is necessary part of a disciplined approach to your business.

“You have to stay connected with your customers,” he says. “You have to understand what issues they’re dealing with. You can’t allow a competitor to come in and drive a wedge between you and your customer.”

How to reach: Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana, (317) 488-6000 or www.anthem.com

Takeaways:

Customer service and integrity should be top priorities

Measuring performance ensures consistency

Complacency is a top threat

The Hillman File

Born: I was born in Shelbyville, Ind., and I grew up in a small town called Fairland, now the exit off I-74 for Indiana Live Casino, which growing up in a rural farming community, I thought would never happen.

Education: Purdue University, with a bachelor of science degree in management

What is your definition of success?

Delivering on my promises, the ability to deliver on our promises, to our customers, to our sales associates, to our shareholders, staying true to the company’s mission and our core values.

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

You can only lead from the front. There are many people who think they can lead from the back of the pack. To lead from the front, you must lead by example in all that you do. That’s a full-time effort. It’s not a part-time thing because your customers, your fellow associates or whomever you do business with will see through that in a second.

The second advice is you can’t fall off the floor, which has always been to me courage and conviction in your decision-making. If you’re confronted with a challenge, you have to make a tough decision and have the courage and conviction to make that decision, particularly if you are the leader of the organization because that is your job.

What was your first job?

It made me not want to be a farmer ? it was baling hay and detasseling corn. I was probably 10 years old, and it’s hard to detassel corn when you are only 10. [I wasn’t] tall enough. It was $1.55 an hour. I would have rather been paid by the tassel.

Published in Indianapolis

It amazes me that corporate America still hasn’t learned not to manage people. That’s just one practice blocking the path to effective leadership.

Why are so many managers afraid to hire people who are smarter than they are? I suppose it’s human nature to be afraid of the comparison, and fearful of being seen as less astute, less creative, less experienced and less … managerial.

In reality, shouldn’t your job be to hire people smarter than you are? Isn’t it easier to supervise people who don’t need a lot of managing?

Think of it this way: If the owner of the company hires managers less smart than he or she is, and each of those managers does the same, pretty soon you have a pretty “dumb” company. I call it “dumbing down” the organization.

Does your organization have a culture of “defer-up” when decisions are to be made? If you are making way too many decisions in your organization, even having the last word on smaller decisions that mid-level managers and employees themselves could be making, something’s wrong with the culture in your workplace.

A “defer-up” culture absolves people of making decisions ? and keeps them from getting results. The people that will be dealing with the issue should absolutely have the most say in solving the matter.

Build your dream team

A more evolved idea is to hire the smartest people you can find. In fact, build your dream team ? with the folks that have the strengths you may lack, and have each manager do that down the line.

So if you or anyone in management gets hit by a bus, the organization will be just fine.

Verne Harnish, an author I enjoy, said it best. “A business is simply people doing activities. You lead people and manage their activities. You don’t manage people.”

Most bosses don’t really get this simple rationale behind effective leadership.

As I said earlier, it astounds me that corporate America still hasn’t learned not to manage people. One manages his or her environment, manages equipment maintenance, or manages a budget, but one cannot effectively or realistically manage people.

Why don’t bosses get it?

Maybe it’s because we label so many positions as “managers.” These “managers” frequently resort to bossing, pushing or the worst offense, managing by intimidation.

People don’t like to be managed. Just as teenagers bristled under parental management, as adults, they hate it more.

Instead of thinking of managing people, consider improving equipment, processes, work environment, benefits, human resource programs, etc. Then hire great people. The rest will take care of itself.

Herb Kelleher, the famous CEO of Southwest Airlines once said, “I’d rather have a company bound by love than by fear.” He’s absolutely right.

And then mentor …

There’s nothing like being a mentor or a coach to your employees. I think it’s the icing on the leadership cake.

When you help an employee achieve a goal or coach them to be better, you are giving far more than your time or experience. You are paying your time and experience forward and establishing trust and personal connection. I have found employees appreciate this above almost everything and anything else you can do as a manager.

For example, an employee came to me a couple of years ago, embarrassed that she had never had a checking account. She was a single mother with three kids. Impressed with her frankness and desire to learn, I took her to the nearest bank where she opened a checking account. While we were there, we also talked about establishing credit, and she decided to take the additional step of applying for a credit card.

I’m excited to say in the last few years she bought her first car and then her first home. I can’t tell you how rewarding this process was to watch unfold and knowing you played a small part in it.

Mentoring can most certainly extend to helping someone achieve their career goals, even if that means they end up leaving your organization.

David Harding is president and CEO of HardingPoorman Group, a locally owned and operated graphic communications firm in Indianapolis consisting of several integrated companies all under one roof. The company has been voted as one of the “Best Places to Work” in Indiana by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Harding can be reached at dharding@hardingpoorman.com. For more information, go to www.hardingpoorman.com.

Published in Indianapolis

Sue Horn and her brothers Michael and David Held knew for some time that their company’s logo had an old-fashioned look to it. But updating the logo for Old Trail Printing Co. brought up the question: If you design the logo, why not go for a total rebranding strategy, as well?

Founded in 1928 in Columbus when Main Street was also known as the Old Trail, the company was purchased by Horn’s father Bernie Held in 1964. He designed the logo to include a stagecoach as a symbol of the company’s early beginnings.

Old Trail Printing had become a $25 million commercial printer, and it was time to enter the 21st Century with a new look and new strategies.

Horn, co-owner and principal, and her brothers started the rebranding project with the familiar business planning method of a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

“One of our weaknesses was not enough exposure with our logo and our brand,” she says. “The logo was definitely a weakness, and we wanted people to see that we are a more forward-looking company than we were back in 1928.”

Horn felt it was important to take a fresh approach to how the company was being marketed to current and prospective customers. The company hired an experienced marketing director as an effective way to ensure the campaign got a good start.

“The first thing that our marketing director did when he came on board was to put together the strategy we were going to have to move forward, and part of that strategy was changing our logo,” Horn says.

While the 92-employee company was approached by customers who offered to redesign the logo, the marketing team that was assembled to shepherd the project chose to use internal talent to develop a modern logo better reflecting what printers do.

“We were fortunate to have some people in-house that were very creative,” Horn says. “But I don’t think every company in America has that talent in-house. That’s where they would want to reach out to an agency that specializes in branding.”

While doing the SWOT analysis, Horn incorporated the company’s strengths into the campaign. For example, in addition to promoting the company’s services, she promoted the fact that Old Trail Printing had the latest technology, used green manufacturing processes and was the largest woman-owned commercial printer in the Midwest.

Another aspect Horn felt was important to advance was the company’s commitment to continuous improvement.

“In today’s business environment, being successful is to be constantly looking for ways to be more efficient,” Horn says. “Sometimes it can be difficult to create an atmosphere to encourage employees to think outside the box, but through leadership, you’ve got to encourage them to find how they can do their job the most efficient way and to be continually thinking about that.”

Old Trail’s website got a facelift and an added bonus — a social network link with Twitter. The company hired an individual familiar with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to help it move forward. The new animated logo is prominently featured on the website home page and adorns promotional materials that help generate enthusiasm about the company.

“Make this an exciting time at your company,” Horn says. “Show your solid base of customers that you are committed to bringing more value to them.

“Listen carefully to what they are telling your and respond with a solution that exceeds their expectations.

“Exhibit your company at events like business expos as one more component of your marketing strategy,” Horn says. “You have a great story to tell while meeting new businesses and having a conversation about how you can contribute to their own success.”

How to reach: Old Trail Printing Co., (614) 433-4852 or www.oldtrailprinting.com

Networking for business

While a company’s new marketing initiatives often focus on ways account executives can generate more sales, the plans shouldn’t leave out the contributions other employees may be able to make.

“My line of thinking has always been that everyone in a company is a sales representative to a certain degree,” says Sue Horn, co-owner and principal of Old Trail Printing Co.

The company recently went through a rebranding effort that featured the first new logo in 47 years and new marketing efforts focused on creating brand awareness and generating solid leads for its sales team.

One initiative to involve more employees in the sales process is through an employee referral program for new business.

Basically, it involves a networking approach. Employees may have friends, relatives and other contacts who may be potential customers. They can use their connections to create a win-win situation for themselves and the company.

“If they bring us a new account opportunity and if we land that account, we actually pay the employee part of the salesman’s commission for the first year,” Horn says. “We’ve had employees step up and bring us some opportunities, which has been pretty exciting.”

Employees can also contribute to sales efforts in an indirect manner.

“Everybody’s a sales representative, and everybody needs to have a positive attitude because when customers visit and prospects tour the facility, they can tell whether you have a happy work force or not,” Horn says.

It is often said that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and if a potential customer sees contented workers, if often leave a favorable memory and creates a better chance to make a sale.

“We’ve had a number of people visit and comment about our plant, and I think it goes back to the pride that the employees have in this company,” Horn says.

How to reach: Old Trail Printing Co., (614) 433-4852 or www.oldtrailprinting.com

Published in Columbus
Monday, 06 June 2011 16:09

Solutions 101

One of my favorite entertainment genres is the adventure where the protagonist finds him or herself in an improbable situation. Sometimes this comes in the form of a traditional mystery or detective story, but I also enjoy those that contain a supernatural twist.

In these tales, the “hero” faces two seemingly herculean tasks: Figure out what the heck is going on, and develop a viable solution to the problem.

This genre is intriguing for several reasons.

First, I prefer entertainment that’s an escape from reality. Second, these escapes must contain some sort of mystery that lets me follow along and ponder potential solutions. And on both counts I’m willing to accept a step through the looking glass to areas that are, for lack of a better term, “out there.”

In the business world, I’m drawn to similar stories, of course, minus the supernatural bent. (Though it would make for a great story if a CEO mentioned her biggest challenge was that her employees kept turning invisible.)

It’s always interesting to hear from entrepreneurs and CEOs who, when faced with declining sales, a waning product market or tough competition, recognize that their first course of action must be that deep dive to get below the surface of the problem. These leaders know they need to push past the symptoms to find the root cause — the “What the heck is going on?”

During these journeys — just like in those of the fictional stories — there is almost always a transformational process that follows the aha moment. And it’s that transformation that allows the CEO to take a sudden 90-degree turn and attack the problem with a different type of solution.

Understanding a problem isn’t always as simple as it seems. Just like in entertainment, initial impressions can be wrong. The real problem can be masked, and figuring out what’s really going on so that a true solution can be developed requires stepping back and taking a hard look at the bigger picture.

I recommend thinking like a mystery writer — anticipate the twists and turns that will exist. If you don’t take the necessary time to figure out if those declining sales are due to lack of sales activity, a poor product or simply a competitor that is working harder and smarter to steal your clients, you could end up focused on the wrong thing. And when that happens, you’ll never solve your own personal mystery.

Contact Publisher and Executive Editor Dustin S. Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

Early in my career, I worked for a CEO who was fond of pontificating about how one doesn’t need to always project an image of being the most brilliant, sophisticated businessperson and that this power image could actually be a detriment in certain circumstances. He would conclude his mini-sermon by flashing a smirk and reciting his favorite old German saying: “The dumbest farmers grow the biggest potatoes.” I was in my mid-20s in those days, and in hindsight, I most likely didn’t fully appreciate my boss’s words of wisdom because I had assumed the best tactic was never let them see you sweat, although under your outer layer you were consumed by fear and soaking wet.

Today, that farmer’s adage now rings true with me. I have seen executives over the years who, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, have invariably put their foot in their mouths. These pundits, most always, come across as very slick, certainly articulate know-it-alls who are so impressed with themselves they frequently miss the forest from the trees. Another trait of these self-anointed moguls is that they are usually afraid to ask the questions for which they need answers because they don’t want to diminish their image and have those with whom they’re working or negotiating think they might not be perfect.

Not seeking the truth or failing to discover the underlying facts can, and often does, play into the hands of the “farmer type” my former mentor idolized. Instead of systematically working to flush out a concept that passes the important “smell tests” or probing to actually determine what works either economically or functionally, the high and mighty will simply wing it because they really think they are smarter than everyone else.

I love negotiating with these types because they never bother with the details, thinking, “who cares,” that will be handled by the “little people.” This fixation on image and sacrificing substance for form typically results in a lot of money being left on the table primarily because of blinding hubris.

Meanwhile, the mild-mannered farmer with that “aw shucks” persona, who is by no means average, gains the upper hand by asking many different questions and sometimes the same questions, using different words, and doing it more than once. Each inquiry produces a better understanding of the issues and opportunities and how to turn them to his or her favor. While this grunt work is going on, our boy- or girl-wonder is too busy hypothesizing and contemplating about this or that and is only available to hear him or herself speak.

At the end of the meeting, the too-slick-for-their-own-good, buttoned-up types with every hair in place, go off, normally without a clue that they’ve been had and that the enemy was really themselves.

The old TV cop show “Colombo” and its more modern-day version “Monk” are indicative of how to underwhelm the other side. These detectives on the surface seemingly unaware, a bit disheveled, somewhat babbling and incessantly asked the same question a zillion times in different ways until they get the needed answers to solve the mystery.

How can you use this low-key approach to outwit the competition? First, always do your homework. Give the opposition the benefit of the doubt by assuming they are very good at what they do, and don’t underestimate them. It’s better to be over prepared and overestimate an opponent’s abilities than find yourself on the short end of the discussion because you’ve failed to fully prepare. And, never ever be afraid to ask any questions. My view is the only dumb question is the one you never ask. So what if the other smart guys snicker at what they perceive as your sophomoric questions? Many times, shrewd businesspeople ask questions even though they know the answer just to learn if the other people in the room know their stuff. Finally, don’t be too quick to volunteer information. It’s much better to be a good listener and learn as you go, than to be a fast talker.

When you harvest your next crop, be sure you produce the biggest potatoes by knowing what you don’t know and being smart enough to understand how and when to ask the right questions. Doing this will produce an abundant yield more times than not.

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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Also available wherever books and eBooks are sold, and from Smart Business Magazine and www.SBNOnline.com. Contact Dustin S. Klein of Smart Business at (800) 988-4726 for bulk order special pricing.

Published in Akron/Canton
Monday, 06 June 2011 14:58

Put it in writing

If you had the chance to share with your peers a great way to handle a particular business problem, would you do it? Most of us would say yes, because most people like to help others and share their successes.

For instance, Michael Feuer, the founder of OfficeMax and our longtime columnist, has a book available this month that shares more than 40 business lessons he has learned while taking his company from a startup to more than $5 billion in sales. He covers everything from getting through the startup phase to selling a business. No matter what phase of business you are in, there are best practices that you can learn from someone who has already been there.

I’m proud to say that this book is from our book division, where we help top leaders translate their ideas into print.

These books aren’t about bragging about successes — they are about helping others learn lessons that can be slow and difficult to learn without guidance. Think of them more like business textbooks where you are the professor, helping people eager to learn or grasp complex issues.

Even longtime CEOs of highly successful companies are always on the lookout for new ways to handle old situations. Maybe you could be the one that teaches Jack Welch something new about how to handle employees, but that can only happen if you attempt to share your ideas with others.

Books can also be a great way to share your broader leadership concepts with your employees. When you have hundreds or thousands of employees, getting all of them to understand your strategy can be difficult when it’s in the form of short e-mails, videos or town-hall discussions. A book is a great way to explain the intricacies of your strategies and share lessons learned with your junior executives so they don’t repeat the same mistakes you did when you were coming up through the ranks. You can teach them firsthand how to navigate negotiations, difficult employees or tough customers, all without ever leaving your office. What better way to educate employees about your company than to explain in detail your rationale for how you go about making decisions and how you develop strategy? If getting employee and customer feedback is important to you, you can illustrate the book with examples of how to effectively do it so your managers can carry the message throughout the company.

Employees aren’t the only ones who can benefit. Longtime customers might be interested to know how you think so they can better craft solutions and products that fit your vision. When they better understand where you are going, new partnerships might open up opportunities for both of you.

A lot of CEOs think about writing a book, but few ever get around to it. The No. 1 reason is a lack of time. But when you have someone else helping you shape your general ideas and guiding you through the process, it doesn’t take as much time as you might think. It’s like any other transaction — when you have someone helping you through the process, it moves much faster than trying to figure it all out on your own.

Michael Feuer took the time to pen the secrets to his success, and the result is an outstanding collection of tips that even the most experienced CEO can learn from. It’s not only an entertaining read, but it will also help you run your business better. I highly recommend it.

If you’ve ever dreamed of putting your ideas to paper to help others find the same road to success you’ve found, why not make a commitment to doing it now? We’ve been helping CEOs convey their best ideas to the business world for more than 20 years now in various media. Shouldn’t you be next?

For more information about how the Smart Business Book Division can help you, please call (440) 250-7026.

For more information on Michael Feuer’s book, “The Benevolent Dictator,” go to www.thebenevolentdictator.biz.

FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or fkoury@sbnonline.com.

Published in Akron/Canton
Thursday, 31 March 2011 16:01

Business activity hits February freeze

Deal activity among both strategic and financial buyers dropped off significantly in February.  This slowdown in deal volume was due in large part to the rush to get deals done by the end of 2010, which was driven by the fear of tax changes that never occurred.

Strategic buyers led the way in the second month of 2011 by focusing on smaller deals. The Euclid Chemical Co. bought LaFayette, Ga.-based PSI Packaging Inc., which has annual sales of approximately $6 million. Euclid Chemical is a Cleveland producer of micro and macro fibers for the ready-mixed and precast concrete market and subsidiary of RPM International Inc. The move is expected to add a complementary product line and boost manufacturing capacity and expertise for Euclid Chemical.

Cleveland-area Hartland Payments Systems Inc., the fifth-largest payment processor in the country, sold a small portfolio of merchant customers to Sage Payment Solutions, which furthers Sage’s strategic growth goals. I.D. Images LLC, the Brunswick-based and industry-leading producer of variable information printed labels, closed its third strategic acquisition in the last 18 months and expanded its presence in the Southeast with its purchase of Heather Label Inc. of North Carolina.

In a move to continue its transformation and portfolio repositioning, Cleveland-area PolyOne Corp., a premier provider of specialized polymer materials, services and solutions, sold its stake in Sunbelt Chlor Alkali Partnership to Olin Corp. for $175 million. In addition, Smart Business Network Inc. acquired Cleveland-area Wise Group to further expand its Smart Business Content Marketing Division.

As the inventory of quality targets increase later in the year, look for more strategic buyers to come off the sidelines, rested and ready to make quality acquisitions.

Private equity firms were also active in February, although not nearly at the same level as they were in the fourth quarter of last year. Chicago-based private equity firm Pfingsten Partners, LLC acquired Independence-based TPC Wire & Cable Corp., a leading distributor of industrial wire and cable, from private equity firm Premier Farnell plc for approximately $43 million.  Pfingsten Partners investment in TPC is aimed at capitalizing on TPC’s market opportunities and growth potential.

James M. Hill is a director on the ACG Cleveland board.  He is also executive chairman, a partner and the chairman of the private equity practice of the law firm of Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff.  For more information about the Association for Corporate Growth, visit http://chapters.acg.org/cleveland.

Deal of the Month

February’s deal of the month is Mayfield Heights-based Linsalata Capital Partners Inc.’s purchase of NeuroTherm Inc., a leading manufacturer of interventional pain management products. In addition to marking Linsalata’s fifth platform company acquisition in the last 13 months, the purchase of NeuroTherm is Linsalata’s first platform investment in the health care field. Congratulations to the Linsalata team on embarking into the health care sector.

Published in Cleveland
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