National (1572)

Saturday, 25 September 2010 20:00

Don’t just communicate, connect

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Whether your audience is one or 1,000, there is more to successful communication than checking to see if your audience is listening. Expert communicators find ways to connect with the person or people to whom they are speaking. Connecting with an audience involves finding common ground, building a bridge to understanding and, most of all, putting the focus on everyone but the speaker. Leadership expert and best-selling author John C. Maxwell has spent decades honing the skills needed to connect with an audience. In this interview, he discusses his new book, “Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently,” and how leaders can make much-needed connections.

The idea that connecting is really all about others sounds simple enough. Why is it such a difficult point for people to understand?

First of all, we’re selfish. I’m selfish! The natural tendency is for all of us to say, ‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s just who we are as people. That’s why I think connecting has to be intentional, because connecting is not about me. It’s about others. As a young communicator in my middle 20s, it dawned on me that, for a period of time as a young leader, I was trying to get people to connect with me and catch my vision.

One day I realized, I’ve got to turn this around. I’ve got to get in their world. I’ve got to think about them and what they’re thinking about and what they need and how to help them. Every morning I ask myself two questions: Who can I add value to today, and how can I do it? And every evening I ask myself: Did I add value to someone today, and how did I do it?

The reason most people do not connect is they do not understand the focus and the intentionality that is required to connect with others. I’ve watched other people that connect well, regardless of profession, and I can tell you that this is 100 percent fact: It’s not a principle that usually works. It does work. Everybody I know that connects with people, they do so because they’re thinking of others first.

You mention that control is a barrier to finding common ground. What advice can you give leaders about relaxing the need for control?

They need to ask themselves a very simple question: Do I want to have my way, or do I want to have the best way? If I want to have my way, I need to power up and use control. What I’ve known about those types of leaders is the fact that the only reason people follow them is because they have no choice. Now, that’s not leadership and that’s not connecting. Compliance is certainly not leadership and it’s certainly not connecting. The best leaders, the best connectors, what they seek immediately is common ground.

If I were sitting down with you today and you and I were wanting to connect, I would find out as much about you as I could. I’d ask questions about you and I’d find out something that you and I have in common. What I teach in the book is very simple: If you want to take people to higher ground, you have to first find common ground with them.

When you and I have something with which we agree or that we both love or that’s important to us, I can build off of that. I can now begin to connect with you. But I’ve got to find common ground first. Many, many people make the mistake of finding their own ground and being comfortable with it. They’re not willing to go beyond their fence and they’re always trying to bring people into their yard and go find a yard in between the two of them.

Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently

By John C. Maxwell

Thomas Nelson ©2010, 288 pages, $25.99

Saturday, 25 September 2010 20:00

Building an awesome team

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Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t write about the importance of teamwork.

Growing up as a Jewish kid in Los Angeles, I wasn’t a big team sports player and really didn’t understand the team concept until I started my own company. As a self-centered entrepreneur, being a team member was a big enough challenge, and it took me decades to learn how to manage teams effectively. OK, the truth is I am still learning along the way.

I have come to understand the difference and value among a good, great or awesome team experience in the work environment. Based upon my original “Awesome Experience” philosophy, I break down the identification of the awesome team experience as follows:

A good team experience is when a team successfully tackles a problem that is given to it. The team can be trusted with a problem or task and can bring resolution without creating drama or difficulty. This team is dependable, for the most part, but primarily acts on a task-oriented basis. This sort of team works well together but doesn’t necessarily exhibit a strong sense of camaraderie. Team members engage for purposes of completing their task — no more, no less. As a company leader, I wouldn’t necessarily look to this team to tackle complex problems that require strong independent thinking.

A great team experience adds a dimension of entertainment to the process. Team members move past the goal and process and engage with each other. They actually connect with each other on a personal level and often create friendships that go beyond work. We often say these teams “have heart” because they seem to derive great joy not only from the accomplishments but the process itself. Great team experiences contribute to better productivity and retention, which is why employers expend great amounts of resources for team-building seminars and retreats. Oftentimes, these bonded teams will work harder with greater output since they enjoy spending time with each other.

An awesome team experience has to exceed the elements of being fun and productive. An awesome team will produce unexpected results that further a company’s growth and accomplishments beyond the original intent. Awesome team members have connected at a deeper level to create equality and synergy that allows them to be surprisingly creative in a relevant manner. This allows for a team that consistently achieves results far beyond the projected thinking of management. Ultimately, management relies on this type of team to grow the company and to point the way to its future success.

The challenge lies in creating an environment and understanding that fosters awesome teams. Multimillion-dollar entrepreneur, television expert and thought leader Amilya Antonetti has set the table for increasing the odds of an awesome team experience in her recent book “The Recipe: A fable for leaders and teams” (CorePurpose Publishing 2010). With a story set in a family-owned bakery, Antonetti demonstrates the different elements required for successful team building.

Antonetti has identified a number of factors in the story that were taken from her own experience in team building. Ironically, in the presence of Antonetti, one is nearly overwhelmed by her individual power and star quality, yet it’s her understanding and skill with team dynamics that has paved the way for her success in building businesses and bringing better products to today’s consumers.

“The Recipe” is wrapped in a delightful parable and is rich with processes that will help you take your team from good to awesome. Of all the valuable insights, the two standout concepts that have led to Antonetti’s success are diversity and parity.

Antonetti clearly outlines the need for different types of thinkers in a team. Often we look to work with people that think like us, because it makes for little conflict. Yet, it’s the differing points of view that accomplish more through healthy debate. With little or no conflict, ideas go unchallenged limiting the possibilities and creativity that can result from the process of challenge and resolution. Antonetti’s approach of having all perspectives represented in the conversation is refreshing and she makes a valid argument for leaving your doppelgangers behind.

Of course, working with diverse views and personalities can be a challenge. Getting everyone on a level playing field is critical for success. Antonetti emphasizes the need to connect on a more human level.

Here are questions to help examine your own teams that will stimulate action for creating awesome results.

1. How does your current team currently deliver the unexpected?

2. Are your teams set up for diversity or compatibility?

3. Do people work together because they want to or because they have to?

4. How does your company encourage open conflict with specific methods for resolution?

5. How do you allow individual humanity to shine in your company?

KEVIN DAUM is the principal of TAE International and the best-selling author of the Amazon No. 1 best-sellers “ROAR! Get Heard in the Sales and Marketing Jungle” and “Green$ense For the Home: Rating the Real Payoff on 50 Green Home Projects” both on bookstore shelves this month. He is also a speaker and marketing consultant. Reach him at Check out Kevin’s Quest for the Jewish Super Bowl Ring at

Thursday, 26 August 2010 20:00

Silicon Beach

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Miami has long wanted to be counted alongside the burgeoning technology centers of New York, Boston and, probably the most notable of all, Silicon Valley. For South Florida, the effort has been a series of lurches, quick sprints and dead stops, spurred on by a business climate that rewards entrepreneurs.

It is that entrepreneurial spirit that allowed the tech community here to continue to grow despite the South Florida economy suffering disproportionately more than other regions around the country. And it’s that same scrappy, bootstrap mentality that perhaps is holding the region back from realizing its ambitions.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Miami’s struggle to forge an identity for itself as a technology leader.

Various attempts have been made to brand the region under the moniker Silicon Beach, in hopes of stealing some of the gleam from the Valley and suffusing it with Miami’s sex appeal. Those efforts have consumed a lot of hours of debate without a lot of traction to show for it.

“This isn’t Silicon Valley, and that’s fine,” says Kevin M. Levy, who leads the technology and entrepreneurial company practice for the law firm Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart PA.

Levy echoes other business and thought leaders here who say that the region’s identity is still being forged and that the focus instead should be on fostering startups and providing resources.

On that front, progress has been made in the form of research institutes such as Scripps Florida, the University of Miami’s Life Science and Technology Park as well as UM’s entrepreneur and innovator resource center, the Launch Pad, and organizations such as Refresh Miami, the South Florida Technology Alliance and Social Media Club South Florida.

Where is the growth? It’s not in manufacturing chips and computers. There is a robust biotech industry in South Florida and homegrown consulting services that are making the region less reliant on imported expertise. Telecommunications, too, has been strong, with the NAP of the Americas and Spain-based telecom giant Telefonica providing enormous bandwidth and infrastructure to the hemisphere and further solidifying the area’s claim as a gateway to the Americas.

One recent evening in July, a few dozen entrepreneurs crowded into a Design District restaurant to hear a panel on patents and intellectual property moderated by Seth Elliott, who, along with Alex de Carvalho, co-founded Miami’s Startup Forum. The two men are in agreement that the diversity of Miami’s tech community — which ranges from bloggers and content creators to programmers, engineers and enterprises large and small — is one of the area’s main strengths. They see the struggle for identity as incidental to a culture change in Miami.

“You see many more people interacting with one another and sharing ideas [and expertise,]” says Elliott, who is a partner at the management consulting firm Apheleon Group.

He says the coming-of-age moment for Miami will be when the region produces its first $100 million technology phenomenon, such as social media darling Foursquare.

De Carvalho isn’t sure a tech phenom is necessary, though he says one of Miami’s main challenges is modifying the current competition-at-all-costs culture to one of cooperation or at least more cooperative cohesion toward shared goals.

That’s slowly happening, both men agree.

Ulises I. Orozco, a principal at Miami-based Ecient Group and promoter of the Silicon Beach brand, says he is proof positive of what Elliott and de Carvalho are espousing. With a background in corporate finance, Orozco decided to form a technology venture four years ago at a time when the Miami tech scene was hard to find.

“What I’m noticing now is that people are becoming more and more connected and meeting others with completely different backgrounds and skill sets, which is sort of refreshing because if you go to San Francisco, you don’t necessarily see that collaboration between like-minded people,” Orozco says.

William Plasencia is a longtime business journalist and communications and media consultant based in Miami. Find out more about Will on his website:

Thursday, 26 August 2010 20:00

Primed for growth

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At the most recent annual conference for the Women Presidents’ Organization, WPO unveiled the 50 fastest-growing women-owned/led companies in North America sponsored by American Express OPEN. All eligible companies were ranked according to a sales growth formula that combined percentage and absolute growth. From this list, the 50 fastest-growing were selected. To be qualified for the ranking, businesses were required to be privately held, women-owned/led companies in the U.S. or Canada and to have revenue of at least $500,000 by the first week of 2005 and $2 million by 2009. The top 50 generated a combined $2.3 billion in gross revenue and averaged 128 employees.

Through extended research with this group of 50 fast-growing businesses, it is evidenced that these business owners have come out of this economic gloom with new ideas, strategies and renewed potential. The research, conducted by Juanita Weaver, formerly at the Center for Women’s Business Research, found the following: “These women are tough and resilient. They are focused on reaching their goal of building a large and fast-growing business and are not deterred by things not going as planned. They really do believe that hard work and focus can overcome all obstacles. They have learned how to give up some control by delegating in order to keep their focus on the bigger vision of growing a business.”

Here are a few of the key findings from these 50 fast-growth companies:

Reasons for success

A commitment to high growth — 71 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their goal from the very beginning of their leadership of the company was to build a large company.

Inspiring leaders — 64 percent believe their “ability to motivate employees” is the most important characteristic for being a successful woman entrepreneur.

Surrounding yourself with a skilled team — 78 percent say “hiring the right people” was the most important action that contributed to their company’s growth.

Adapting to a changing environment — The strategy most frequently chosen (64 percent) to meet the challenge of the current economy is to “enter new markets.” Sixty-one percent said current economic conditions caused them to change their business strategies.

Toughest challenges

Lower sales — 56 percent say their biggest challenge in our current economy is “existing customers reducing purchases.”

Positive outlook

Doubling their work force — Nearly all (96 percent) plan on adding employees this year.

Boosting the economy and their communities — Their ability to create much-needed jobs is the greatest benefit of being a successful woman entrepreneur.

It is encouraging that these small businesses will be generating many new jobs. As Weaver concludes, their success “demonstrates that a well-run company can not only survive but grow in tough economic times.” It is also heartening that in a time when access to capital is limited, management skills and the ability to lead in a changing environment can override that difficulty and small businesses can continue to grow and thrive in spite of it. The conclusions from the research conducted with the 50 fastest-growing organizations are positive and should be considered by all business owners as we navigate a new and ever-changing economy.

The Women Presidents’ Organization has recognized the 50 fastest-growing women-owned/led companies in North America for the past three years and will continue to support women entrepreneurs in attaining the recognition they deserve for their business accomplishments. One of the most satisfying benefits of this listing is learning from these successful companies and sharing their strategies with others — which is, after all, one of the primary pillars of the Women Presidents’ Organization.

You can see the answers that these dynamic entrepreneurs and business leaders provided by going to

Marsha Firestone, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of the Women Presidents’ Organization, the premier global peer advisory organization connecting top women entrepreneurs who own multimillion-dollar companies. Reach Firestone at, (212) 688-4114 or

In September 2008, the global economy was on the brink of its historic collapse, about to slip from the precipice to the abyss. In September 2009, the financial challenges posed by that collapse ranked as the overwhelming top risk for businesses, according to several national surveys. And now, in September 2010, well, the inevitable recovery appears to have started and some sense of optimism has seeped back, but the risk that swirled just last year remains — heavy, ominous — for businesses large and small, for businesses like yours.

If you do not have a thorough risk management and business insurance plan in place now, you should start to develop one as soon as possible. After all, recovery or not, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the economy, and you should pay attention to and manage your risk. If you do not have a relationship with a risk management firm — or at least have an internal executive in charge of that department and those decisions — you need to pick up the phone now.

Because just as the economy has changed, so, too, has risk management.

“Over the last decade, risk management has really been maturing toward an enterprise or strategic approach to identifying, analyzing and managing risks,” says Deborah Luthi, vice president of the board of directors, Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc. “This approach really targets key risks, both insurable and uninsurable business risks, that most directly affect organizational performance.”

Those risks can include things like workers’ compensation, property insurance and general liability.

“The financial meltdown and the economic slowdown have really brought a heightened duty of care, disclosure and discussion regarding risk to the board level of organizations,” Luthi says. “So I think putting a strategic risk management process in place provides a framework for the board to consider risk and reward for balancing profit and risk against accomplishing the organizational mission.”

Plan and move forward

If you do not work with a risk management firm now, the first question is, of course, “Why not?” The second question is something along the lines of, “Do you really need to work with an external firm?”

Especially today, with revenue and profits just inching up — if they are increasing at all — and every dollar a precious commodity, would you really benefit more from bringing in more experts from the outside rather than turning to your own internal experts?

“You can keep this process relatively simple, and organizations that are farther down the road in terms of enterprise or strategic risk management have found that you can sometimes get wound up in the process and not get it linked into the planning,” Luthi says. “The response that we hear most often is, ‘Keep it simple and designed and customized for your organization.’ I don’t think any organization that practices risk management uses a cookie cutter. Everyone needs to customize it to their own organization.”

You might delegate the responsibilities to a team of executive leaders, with your chief financial officer or chief risk officer at the helm. As always, keep in mind that so many of your employees are already strapped for time each day and might be overwhelmed by additional tasks — especially one so important and intrinsic to the future of your business.

If you do work with an external firm, build a relationship with it as you would with any other business adviser. The firm is on or near the same level as your accountant, your attorney and your banker. The longer and more closely you work with the firm, the more your risk management will actually take effect in your business plans.

“We need to make sure we understand what their key business objectives are,” says Regina Spratt, U.S. national brokerage leader, Marsh Inc. “How are they measuring themselves? Is it growth in the near term? Is it cost containment? We need that underlying understanding of where they are today, the challenges they face, where they want to go. The next step is how to design a risk management or insurance program around that.

“Those two sort of key pieces of discussion really drive what comes next for that company. It’s about building the structure internally, and then, with the support of brokers or insurance carriers, building it in terms of other resources that can help meet their business challenges and those risks that have been identified.”

No matter which route you choose, you will likely want to listen to experts who recommend you chart and graph — yes, graph, just like back in geometry and physics — a framework to use in order to reach your decisions. Chart both insurable and uninsurable risks — your uninsurable is your brand and your reputation — in order to be able to make decisions and define your risks.

“It helps to get it down, so you can make some decisions,” Spratt says. “It’s also a tool businesses can use, in the years going forward, to take a look at their risk profile. They need to understand the profile of their business and their risk management. From there, they can design an insurance and risk management program that helps them today and as they attempt to grow in the future.”

Invest and remain active

At many businesses, risk management and business insurance were in that first batch of budget cuts back in late 2008 or early 2009. Everyone needed to cut costs, and a good chunk scaled back on insurance. But the commercial insurance market was soft in 2009 and has become even softer in 2010, making this an ideal time to either jump back in or invest even more.

But money is only one part of the plan to take advantage of your risk management and insurance. Talk with either your internal leader or your external firm and determine where you are and aren’t covered. Many businesses have invested heavily in product recall, privacy coverages, and employee health and benefits during recent months. The only way to keep track of all that is to remain involved on a regular basis.

“The clients we can help the most are the ones where senior leadership is actively and consistently involved in risk management — and I don’t just mean in the concept but in building the principles in the organization,” Spratt says. “You end up working as a provider with both kinds of companies, but the benefits and the returns for those companies are very clear when the leadership is actively engaged in the process. I suspect that’s not news, but that’s how we see that play out time and time again.”

You need to pay more attention to your risks and insurance now than during the best of times, and with the soft market still very much in play, you should probably continue to invest as much, if not more, in protecting your business for the future.

“I think it’s valuable no matter what size the company,” Luthi says. “All companies serve a purpose. They have stakeholders or shareholders, they’re there to provide a service or a product — and organizations often do this intuitively. But there’s something about having a process that facilitates, that documents, that gets this process down on paper or on the computer.”

Ron McPherson and his employees at The Antigua Group Inc. were gearing up to celebrate three decades of business.

The company had become a familiar name with followers of the PGA tour and sportswear consumers alike. Many employees were close to their 15 or even 25-year anniversary with the company.

Then, perhaps not so suddenly, hints of an economic crisis became too great for anyone to ignore. McPherson knew that the merchandising industry and, therefore, the company were in for a huge fight. 

“Our type of business, you know businesses that are based on disposable income of consumers,” the president says. “Buying a golf shirt at a pro shop or buying a shirt or a jacket at a retail (store) is a disposable income item.”   

Instead of panicking, he turned to his employees to come up with a course of action.

“The first thing is, you bring your team together, you know your key managers and you put together a consensus and get everybody on board as to what has to be done to ensure that the business continues,” McPherson says. “The first thing we did was get each manager to buy in; so that there wasn’t a manager that was out there going ‘This is wrong.’ We had everybody agree on the plan.”

Listening to your managers will help when reaching a consensus. Recognize that not everyone is going to think or work the same way.

“Trying to mesh all of those personalities together into a team is a challenge, so having the one on ones, listening as opposed to just talking to people and hearing what they need to do their jobs well has been successful for us at Antigua,” McPherson says.

Once everyone agreed in regards to what he or she needed to ease the pain of a recession, he made sure everyone knew how the plan worked.

“Unfortunately, we have to make ourselves a little smaller, we have to make inventory smaller, we have to work on significant expense reduction,” he says. “All those things a company does when there is a downturn.”

McPherson continues to talk with managers and employees to let them know how the plan is working.

“We have continued communication with the entire associate base, where we would bring groups into our main conference area and show them graphically where we are,” he says.

As a result, Antigua is emerging from the economic slump ready to secure an eagle. While many companies are still anxious about the future, McPherson and his team are looking forward.

Antigua celebrated its recent anniversary by signing with the PGA tour for another three years.

“We’ve been in business 30 years and those things are part of business. The peaks and valleys of business and the ups and the downs of the economy affect all businesses,” he says. “The good thing is that while it appears the economy is still a little tough we may have turned a corner a little bit.”

How to reach: The Antigua Group Inc., (623) 523-6000 or

Facing a severe and protracted economic downturn, chief financial officers are worried about controlling costs, sales executives are worried about retaining and motivating sales staff, and everyone is worried about declining revenues, customer defections and eroding market share.

To alleviate the concerns, seasoned sales executives dipped into their stash of proven recessionary tactics to set interim sales goals and revise compensation plans before hunkering down for the duration. Now that the economy is stabilizing, those recession-induced plans may yield unintended consequences such as over-rewarding lower-tier performers while shortchanging their hard-charging counterparts. Employers must take steps to recalibrate sales compensation programs and revise performance expectations to comport with 2010 market conditions.

“Companies don’t want to be stuck with a 2008 sales compensation program in 2010,” says Matthew Lucy, senior consultant with the Sales Effectiveness and Rewards practice at Towers Watson. “Companies are realizing it’s time to reassess their incentive plans in light of the new economy and build for growth.”

Smart Business spoke with Lucy about the hazards of latent sales compensation plans and the best ways to motivate and reward top performers in a recovering economy.

What should employers consider when reassessing sales compensation programs?

Start by reviewing your company’s revised go-to-market strategy and ensure sales rewards and compensation plans are aligned with the company’s current goals (as opposed to the goals of a few years ago). For example, companies may choose to scale back heavy discounting practices in order to bolster margins, after bowing to market pressures for nearly two years. Include profit elements in revised sales compensation plans to encourage representatives to raise prices and sell value over cost. And though there’s rarely a shortage of opportunities for competent business developers, expect increased competition for their talents in 2010. It will be critical to compare your company’s compensation plan against competitors to ensure you can stave off turnover or acquire additional sales talent to meet post-recession business objectives.

Which additional design elements drive performance?

Employers need to ensure that their plan mechanics (for example, thresholds and targets) are set appropriately for the new economy. Companies often lower bonus thresholds during a recession to motivate employees, or they link sales bonuses to company results in order to control costs. But those tactics may simply increase total compensation without increasing revenues and, worse yet, they may benefit poor performers at the expense of top performers. Additionally, payouts for meeting team goals or MBOs can fail to encourage personal performance, which is fundamental to healthy revenue growth. Consider modifying quotas or individual performance goals to benefit sales representatives at all performance levels without compromising plan integrity; use contests and spiffs to help fill the gaps if the recovery sputters.

How can sales managers establish realistic measures and quotas in an uneven economy?

Accurate quota setting is the most overlooked way to reduce costs. Simply setting accurate quotas may reduce overall compensation costs by 10 percent to 20 percent without altering plan designs. Use these tactics as part of a comprehensive quota development methodology.

  • Shorten time horizons. Setting quarterly quotas or allowing midterm adjustments on annual goals will enable more accuracy in a shifting economy.
  • Bottom-up quota development. Individual sales goals are often apportioned from full company objectives, which can lead to unrealistic targets. Quotas need to be a collaboration of top-down and bottom-up quota development. This process should uncover territories that can shoulder more of the growth burden as well as those that may be tapped out.

What’s the best way to use contests and spiffs?

Competitions are the perfect tool to launch new products and services, bolster eroding margins or ease the sting from a temporary setback in the economy. Contests should last three to six months and offer winners a modest reward, because they should not be used as a substitute for effective sales compensation plans and quota setting practices. In fact, set aside no more than 5 percent of the total incentive budget for contests and spiffs at the beginning of the year and consider limiting awards to representatives achieving most of their sales quotas or exceeding performance thresholds to reinforce the importance of meeting goals. Drive the point home by centralizing contests to keep renegade managers from offering rewards that deviate from the company’s core strategy or diminish fundamental sales achievement.

What other tactics drive sales performance?

This is the perfect time to revisit the productivity of your sales force. Finding ways to force sales personnel to decrease administrative tasks and increase face-to-face selling time and other revenue-generating activities is a sure method of driving sales. Companies may have eliminated sales support personnel during the downturn or delayed investments in tools like CRM software, mobile devices or lead databases, but it’s easy to assure the return on these investments as long as sales quotas are increased proportionally.

Matthew Lucy is a senior consultant with the Sales Effectiveness and Rewards practice at Towers Watson. Reach him at (310) 551-5603 or

Monday, 26 July 2010 20:00

The power of vision

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A visionary is defined as a person with unusual foresight and the ability to anticipate things before they happen. Whenever we are in a position of leadership, we carry the responsibility of being a visionary, whether we like it or not.

Smart Business is all about visionaries. In 1999, we hosted our first Innovation in Business Conference, which recognized leaders for their innovation and vision in business.

This year, the featured speaker at the conference is Jim McCann, the founder and CEO of Jim started with one flower shop in New York in 1976, and by 1986, had acquired the 1-800-Flowers number and changed his company name to match the phone number. By 1999, the company went public and added the dot-com to the name. Today, Jim sells more than $700 million in flowers and gifts annually. He anticipated the demand for quality products that could be delivered anywhere in the country and made moves to put his business at the forefront of that trend. When buying shifted to online, he was once again ahead of the curve.

Jim and others like him have the uncanny knack of knowing which direction their industry is headed before everyone else. The Innovation in Business Conference has been a smashing success because people want to learn what it takes to acquire these skills and apply them at their own business.

Failing to be a visionary will put you out of business. If you don’t have a vision, it will be hard to retain your top people. With no clear goals, they’ll see the company as stagnant and move on to more promising positions.

In the end, it’s all about accountability. It doesn’t matter whether you are running a $50 million company or a $1 billion company. It’s about the morale of the people, whether your top performers are being rewarded and whether everyone understands your long-term vision.

As the visionary for your organization, you have to keep everyone working toward that end goal that you set. You have to put back into the business as much as you take out. There are too many companies where the CEO is living good but no one else is.

Being a visionary isn’t easy, but if you carefully define where you want to go and how you are going to get there, you’ll already be ahead of most of your competitors.

For more information about the 11th annual Innovation in Business Conference held in Cleveland, Ohio, please call (866) 582-7011 or e-mail Caroline Calfee Zerbey at

Justin Nelson’s biggest challenge isn’t exactly a problem. His company, dash Carrier Services LLC, is growing — fast.

The provider of emergency and public safety services and wholesale voice solutions grew by more than 60 percent in 2009 to about $15 million in revenue. But that means Nelson needs to hire more employees — so he must attract and retain the right ones.

“Until maybe the last 12 months or so, we felt like we were underemployed,” says Nelson, the CEO. “We were struggling to bring on the people that would accelerate our growth.”

Nelson, now with about 25 employees, found the solution in an unlikely place: Denver’s nonprofits. With a community involvement program that rewards volunteer hours with paid time off and bonuses, he attracts and empowers the employees he wants to have.

Smart Business spoke to Nelson about how philanthropy builds a better business. 

How does community involvement attract good employees?

Typically, when you talk to [potential] employees about the community involvement plan, you can tell pretty quickly if they’re engaged and interested in that because they’ll, quite often, share what they’re doing outside of work. So we look for that as part of our interview process.

When employees talk about where they’re volunteering or where they’re spending their time, that’s an indication that they aren’t fully focused on themselves. In a company, people have to understand that there’s other people that they’re working with.

Honestly, I think it has helped us hire employees that we probably would struggle to bring on board. They look at all the aspects of employment: salary and benefits, etc. I think we’re competitive in the other aspects of employment, but we’re definitely a leader in community involvement and that’s helped us get employees who value that — and frankly, those are the employees we want.

When you talk about, ‘Not only are we looking to encourage you to hit your internal targets; we’ve got external targets and goals that we want to participate in,’ they see that we’re not just solely here to grow the company. We may not be bringing the perfect salary package to you or the perfect benefits to you, but when you look at the overall ecosystem of what we have, we’ve won candidates that way. 

How does community involvement tie back to the work environment?

This is almost the quickest way that you can get somebody integrated to your team. They’re going to, very quickly, be working and communicating with other employees outside of work, which carries over to work.

You build teamship because they’re interacting with each other outside of work. That’s when you get good communication between employees. It’s pretty interesting how stepping out of the office can lead to better communication. On a day-to-day basis, you get stuck in the rut of typical communication mechanisms between people you work with. People can often be nervous about communicating across that structure. By doing it in the community environment, it almost eliminates those barriers to communication. Our employees have been doing events where they’re participating with other employees … from different teams and different levels of management.

You get a sense of camaraderie from volunteering and giving back. I don’t think anyone walks out of a volunteer event without feeling good that they’ve done something. And that directly ties back into the company because employees feel like they’re making a positive change, both outside the company and inside the company. 

The core goal is community involvement and giving back. That drives employees that are interested in helping others — that’s the core value we want back in the company. In turn, you’re getting the benefit of them realizing ownership in the company because they know that we’re successful. We talk about how important it is to the company and how that helps us keep growing as a company because the culture is better.

How can you tie community experiences back into work?

The challenge is to try to put those in concrete terms. I’m a firm believer that it’s happening all the time, and we’re seeing the benefits and that’s why we’re successful. But to try to prove that to my board, it’s probably a little more difficult. There aren’t easy ways to track how that’s happening.

But one thing you can build on is that through those programs, we’ve seen people take more and more ownership. We started the program a couple of years ago. There wasn’t as much volunteering going on so, as a company, we decided, ‘Well, let’s tie it into the bonus.’ What you saw, over time, was that, because people are interacting with other individuals in the company and they’re building teams slowly, people sort of take ownership of volunteering. Our target is six hours [per employee] a quarter, and last quarter, the employee that did the most did 13 or 14 hours and we had 100 percent participation. We didn’t need 100 percent participation to get to our bonus. The target this year is 80 percent.

Often, an employee will say, ‘I have this volunteer event that I’m thinking about going to. Is anybody interested in participating?’ The employees are encouraging other employees to join in.

What that shows is that employees are taking ownership. And I think anytime employees take ownership — regardless of if it’s directly related to work — they’re going to take more ownership internally.

How do you encourage employees to get involved?

Start small. We started with a target of four hours per quarter and 60 percent participation two years ago. Starting with a low threshold … takes the pressure off people. If they don’t want to participate, they can choose to not do so.

Since we’re rewarding with PTO and talking about it as part of the bonus, these are all upsides for employees. Right now, one-fourth of the calculation of the bonus is determined (by meeting community involvement targets). So instead of making it mandatory or trying to push it down, we’ve given additional bonuses for participation.

That’s the way you avoid ostracizing employees that don’t want to volunteer. Make it flexible enough — especially when you start out the program — that people see that we’re not trying shove it down on them but we’re giving them an upside.

How to reach: dash Carrier Services LLC, (800) 815-5542 or

The training was a failure. All of that time, all of that

effort, all of that money, just gone, just out the window and gone. What other

explanation was there, after all, for drop after drop in the hard numbers from

a talented sales team in the wake of a training and development session?

It could have happened at any business, but for the purposes

of this story, it happened at a large technology company with headquarters in

the Midwest. The top executives, frantic for answers, called a corporate

training firm. “Our sales are down,” the executives said. “We need training.”

That technology company was part of a large percentage of

businesses that continued to invest in corporate training, education and

development during the last couple of years. Thousands and thousands of others

turned away from training, unable or unwilling to spend more money during the


But a panel of more than 30 industry experts and academic

professionals agreed that it would have been far better for businesses to

continue to spend on training during those tough times — to invest in their

employees and to show the extent of that investment, to improve the business

and keep it up to date, to be in a better position when the economy ultimately

turns around — than to tighten the budget. The same rule applies now, too.

“The question is not, ‘Where should I be training?’ but,

‘Where should I be spending my dollars on people in the organization?’” says

Alec R. Levenson, research scientist, Center for Effective Organizations,

Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. “In terms of

the choices you have, you can choose to pay people more, you can choose to

train them, you can choose to increase benefits.

“What is the return to you of increasing the ability or

abilities of the people you have?”

Make a plan

Members of the corporate training firm arrived the next day

and talked with as many employees as possible at the technology company, from

executives to engineers to those slumping sales representatives and everyone

else in between. They prodded and probed and asked questions. They were curious

about what, exactly, had happened.

They wanted to know, before they embarked on another

training session, whether another training session was actually necessary.

This is what you should do when you’re in the process of

determining whether to invest in training and development for your employees.

You should prod and probe and plan, because just as you shouldn’t approach a

new business venture without a model and a solid idea of what you want to

accomplish, neither should you approach training without thoughts of what you

need to tackle.

“What should companies focus on for their employees?” says

Newt Margulies, professor emeritus and associate dean, executive education,

University of California Irvine. “Companies are taking a harder look at their

strategy, and whatever flows out of that strategy becomes the areas they would

like to focus on for education and training.”

And even though those needs will vary from business to

business, from industry to industry, there are a number of common training

areas on which almost all businesses should focus.

“Every place

I go, I hear about five things, and the first is leadership,” Margulies says.

“Leadership means different things in different companies, but 90 percent of

what we do in those programs is helping people do an assessment of how they

lead. I also hear a lot about operations excellence. How do we improve the way

we deal with customers and how we respond to customers?

“The third is

management strategy. What is it and how do we formulate a management strategy?

The fourth is project management. How do you really manage an effective project

team? What are the elements that contribute to project success? The fifth is

really teams, in every sector. How do we become more effective? And how do you

make judgments about the effectiveness of teams?”

Open your wallet

Those members of the corporate training firm remained in the

offices for a couple of days. They wanted to follow every lead and turn over

every stone. They wanted to find out what had happened to the sales team after

that apparently disastrous training and development session. And the technology

company executives had no problem paying to keep them around. They wanted to

find out what happened, too.

Do you want to keep your top employees after the job market

opens again? Do you want all of your employees to be happy and to enjoy their

work right now? Investing in training and education is an important part of

helping you do just that. The average business spends about $1,060 on training

and education per employee per year, according to research by ASTD.

There are also effective ways to spend a little less, if your

revenue is still down or if you opt to not invest as much in training. Turning

toward local colleges and universities to design a custom program for your

employees is often less expensive than sending them to open enrollment courses,

as are distance learning and online courses. Some businesses opt to look within

for employees who are experts in a specific area and can train the rest of the


“This is a good time to begin thinking seriously about it,”

Margulies says. “Now is the time to ready yourself for the upswing, because the

upswing is coming. I can’t tell you that it’s coming in 2011 or 2012, but you

know it’s coming. Here’s the opportunity for you to help develop your internal

talent so that you’re ready. Whatever you want to do, how do you ready your

folks for that?”

Keep an eye on results

At last, an answer for our corporate training firm and our

technology company in the Midwest. That previous training session, as it turned

out, was not to blame for lower sales numbers. No, the culprit was instead the

fact that the technology company executives had recently installed a drastic

restructure of the compensation program. That program encouraged the sales team to try and sell only one of their

many products, and that is what

changed everything.

The training had not been the problem at all.

In fact, without that recent training session, the

technology business might have planted itself in more trouble because of the

new structure of the compensation program. The best money spent might well have

been the money spent on the training — and the worst might have been the money

that was about to have been spent unnecessarily correcting that training.

The only way to know where you are is to know where you were.

In order to receive a more relevant return on your investment, watch the

progress from the planning stages through the training itself, then during the

months, even years, beyond.

“The larger macroeconomic trends are both in

favor of and against training, paradoxically,” Levenson says. “The argument

against is that, when you have such high unemployment, it should be easier to

reach outside the organization and buy the capabilities you need in the

external markets. The argument in favor is that it almost doesn’t matter what

happens in the external market, that by investing in training, you’re showing

them you are investing in them, that this is a shared destiny for the

organization and the individual.”