Michael Feuer

Most everyone in business has been indoctrinated with an emphasis on the bottom line. Ingrained in the psyche of corporate America is the demand, “Show me the money.” If a public company misses analysts’ profit estimates, its stock is summarily trashed, and the investment community sometimes even calls for the CEO’s head.

In business we’re reminded every day that public companies’ chieftains are paid the big bucks for bottom line performance, not perspiration. Their brethren in the private sector are instilled with this same mindset.

There are exceptions. Creating value is not always about generating immediate profitability. Recognize either of these names: Tesla Motors and Twitter, just to name a few? These two companies, as an example, simply don’t make a dime in profits, yet their stocks have performed better than their most well-endowed, bottom-line counterparts.

Why? Because they’re building something for tomorrow. They sacrifice short-term profitability for innovation and market share. They’ve captured investors’ imaginations of what might be, not what is.

 

The value of the trade-off

How should privately held small-, medium- and even large-sized businesses look at the trade-off between profitability and investing heavily on the “if come?” 

The quick answer is that it depends on the industry, the products or services, as well as the depth of the private company’s pockets. Forget about traditional banks as a source of funding for the unprofitable business, unless the owners want to personally guarantee a bank loan. The reality is banks take a dim view of companies that lose money. Banks need certainty, which includes a high degree of strong assurance that the borrower will more than likely pay them back at the prescribed time.

There are a number of alternatives for these budding companies that are pushing the boundaries to make it big, but whose founders were not fortunate enough to have been born with that proverbial silver spoon to feed their passion. These include big and small private equity/venture capital firms, which have the money, mindset and stomach to take chances on the unknown. Some are relatively conservative while others are always ready to double down based on instinct and experience.

Many companies are not of the right size, or don’t have the sizzle or just may not know how to package their story to attract traditional private equity. There are always wealthy angel-type investors, however, who have already made their big money and want to do it again vicariously on someone else’s sweat and tears, or because they just like being in the game. 

 

Take heart; be strong

No matter which type of investor a company chooses to romance, the cornerstone of getting the needed capital is understanding the old cliché that “Money talks and ... Oh well, the other stuff walks.” Companies must be weary of wasting their time on the later. So what’s an entrepreneur to do?

Colors can paint different pictures. Take the smash hit TV series last year titled “Orange is the New Black,” about a gal who finds herself in a women’s prison wearing the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit. 

Marketing yourself as the company for which “red is the new black” and attracting necessary capital takes a strong stomach and no fear of rejection. Most importantly, you need a decent idea with a practiced ability to deliver a compelling pitch to sell it, backed by thoughtfully researched assumptions.

Never forget, however, that just like the tagline in the oil filter TV commercial, when you take OPM, aka “other people’s money,” you have to either “pay them now or pay them later” regardless of how you color your story.

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

We all know what traditional chief operating officers do and what characteristics typically make them tick. There is another type of COO that every company needs — whether they admit it or not — who shares the same initials as the former, but who has diametric responsibilities.

This person is a chief opportunity officer, although the title sometimes varies because the word opportunity conveys the wrong message to the less pragmatic.

The characteristics of this rare bird were probably honed when he or she was a small child. Most parents didn’t talk much about this offspring’s special traits outside the home.

 

High-energy personalities

We have all seen these kids in action. They have too much energy, are in perpetual motion and feel compelled to touch everything in sight.

They also ask questions and make statements that can shock or antagonize even the most understanding adult.

When they go off to school, they’re the ones who neglect to raise their hands when answering questions, but instead blurt out their responses. And most of the time they’re right, which tends to further aggravate teachers.

At their first job, they continue to be in constant motion, questioning everyone, everything and sometimes ignoring the chain of command. At the same time, however, they seem to discover previously unthought-of alternatives to thorny issues.

If they’re lucky, a more senior manager spots the hidden talents of this potential COO and begins instilling a little, much needed, discipline and tutoring on the realities of being politically correct to get things done.

In short order, this heretofore rogue player begins to climb the organizational ladder, scoring a series of meaningful and unique accomplishments. This garners heightened recognition and a reputation as someone who can think outside the box and isn’t afraid to take well-calculated risks.

 

Making waves comes easy

Many of these iconoclasts’ ideas seem at first blush to be prosaic — the idea so obvious and simple it leaves everyone in the organization scratching their heads asking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Other times, what initially seems to be an off-the-wall concept suddenly takes shape and emerges as a breakthrough.

We all know the names of innovators who have excelled and possessed the characteristics  described. Some are famous business rock stars, such as the legendary Steve Jobs of Apple or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Others are unknown hidden gems within the ranks of America’s most admired, successful companies.

Many times companies don’t parade them in public, due to the commotion they invariably cause — the same reasons their parents exposed them sparingly to outsiders.

This type of innovator devotes his or her energy to looking for low-hanging fruit, or that special something that can transform a business from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Their techniques are non-conventional and they frequently ruffle feathers. Usually for them to succeed, they must work in an organization that recognizes the fact that not everyone has to be cut from the same cloth.

Every once in a while, these one-time outcasts emerge as the leader of the enterprise with the letter “E” replacing the middle “O” in their earlier title. After that occurs, the newly minted CEO will deny to the death that he was ever the kid whose parents were reluctant to take anywhere.

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

 

Maybe you’ve seen the popular AT&T television commercials promoting the theme, “It’s not complicated,” for high-speed Internet services. In these vignettes, a moderator sits at a child’s table in a playroom with some of the cutest kids on the planet and poses an innocent question, such as, “How high is up?” And then, out of the mouth of babes, come the humorous and insightful morsels of an answer that are smack on target.

Too many times in business and government, “Mountains are made out of molehills.” Ask a simple question and frequently we get an obscure answer that simply raises more questions. The problem is most people either over-think the issue, are too concerned about responding without in-depth analysis, or fear they might appear shallow by speaking the obvious.

 

Clinton's folly

Equally unproductive is that a simple question can too frequently evoke the most bizarre and meaningless answer. At the top of my list is the now infamous question that contains the verb “is” in a sentence that was posed to an otherwise articulate, silver-tongued politician about a touchy subject. His response was, “It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” This should have made him consider entering a monastery and taking a vow of silence, among other things.

I’ve often found that in brainstorming and kicking around ideas with others the first comment ultimately proves to be the best and most meaningful answer. It’s been said that close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing. I would add to this list that a speedy answer also, many times, gets the job done.

Certainly an off-the-top-of-the-head response might not be 100 percent correct, but in most situations 70 percent or so right is much better than the completely unequivocal, unabridged data points that might take a day or two, maybe even longer, to obtain. One does, however, need to weigh the ramifications of not being able to provide complete commentary, but typically zero variance is meaningful only in reading brain X-rays or perhaps calculating coordinates for a drone strike.

As a leader, you must communicate parameters for quick responses and assert a standing caveat that if the responder later determines that more information came to mind or was discovered, he or she must provide that amplification to those involved.

 

Go out on a limb

You must also create an environment that fosters team members to venture further out on the proverbial limb in order to keep a discussion moving forward. Most times when people are reluctant to give it their best shot, it’s your fault because you’ve not communicated the value of, and your appreciation for, the practicality of providing relevant information that serves the purpose at hand. When a particular team member or members consistently hesitate in responding extemporaneously, it’s time for you to reset the ground rules that will give them the comfort they need to become effective contributors and communicators.

Analysis paralysis can become the scourge of any organization, as it breeds indecisiveness, and hampers innovation and quick solutions to the most common problems and opportunities. For good or bad, success today is often measured in hours, days or weeks, instead of months and years, based on speed to market.  In many respects, this is due to living and working in the digital age where immediate gratification is expected.

It’s not complicated, and simpler and faster is usually better. Thanks, Ma Bell, for the entertaining reminder.

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

First, a quick refresher. The term red herring is derived from the practice of training hounds to follow a scent, or distracting them with a different smell, during a fox hunt. In a story it can be a clue that leads the reader towards a false impression or conclusion. Not to muddy the waters, but this term also refers to a preliminary prospectus sometimes used for an initial public offering (IPO) that intentionally provides only a portion of a company’s vital data.

A red herring can also be a diversionary tactic used in business to make an argument, or raise a concern, that is not relevant to the central issue, but appears initially to be plausible. 

Has the tide turned?

Here’s an example: You have been working on an acquisition and finally the other side has agreed to a face-to-face powwow on your turf to seal the deal. After months of sweet-talking, playing nice and being on your best behavior, you think you can make this transaction finally happen.

Then out of the blue, a few days before the visit, you start to get not so warm and fuzzy emails from the other side referencing the offer price. Your touch-base calls suddenly go unreturned and you get that sinking feeling that the tide has changed.

What gives? First you must take a step back and retrace everything that has transpired since the tone began changing. Once you’re sure it’s not you, rather than improving the deal, you move to a watch and wait mode.

On the appointed day your guests arrive, you rush into the room, hand extended with a big smile on your face, but they signal indifferent expressions and reciprocate with wimpy handshakes.

To avoid making a huge tactical misjudgment, you must immediately move to detective and interpreter mode. The detective portion of this persona requires you to look beyond the obvious, not accepting circumstantial evidence as gospel, learning to think like Sherlock Holmes — assessing information and searching for real meaning from scraps of random comments and innuendos.

Part and parcel of this is also the need to function the same as a United Nations-type, interpreting words and body language to translate what is said into what is really meant. Effective managers instinctively can read between the lines to drill down to the lowest common denominator to get beyond red herring statements that merely become diversions to solving the real problem.

Playing a bargaining chip

Fast forward to the end of this dramatization and we learn that the visiting team was simply trying to put you on the defensive by employing a “big chill” technique to cause you to second guess your economic offer.

Their real objective was to gain a bargaining chip to get you to agree to allow them to keep their existing titles so they could save face in the community. This is right out of Red Herring 101.

Red herrings might provide some direction but, more frequently than not, they can send you down the wrong path.

With a little practice, a degree of healthy skepticism and a resistance to jumping to conclusions, red herrings can be readily spotted once it’s understood how people use them, either intentionally or inadvertently. A good starting point is to remember that red herrings, just like their real life namesakes, don’t pass the smell test.

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

What would it take for a company to succeed if its leader could effectively do only one of the following: innovate, instigate or administrate? We all know that an innovator is the one who sees things that aren’t and asks why not? The instigator sees things that are and asks why? The administrator doesn’t necessarily ask profound questions but, instead, is dogged about crossing the “t’s,” dotting the “i’s” and making sure that whatever is supposed to happen happens.

Ideally, a top leader combines all three traits while being charismatic, intellectual, pragmatic and able to make decisions faster than a speeding bullet. Although some of us might fantasize that we are Superman or Superwoman, with a sense of exaggerated omnipotence, the bubble usually bursts when we’re confronted simultaneously with multiple situations that require the versatility of a Swiss army knife.

Business leaders come in all shapes and sizes with various skill sets and styles that are invaluable, depending on the priorities of a company at any given point in time.

Every business needs an innovator to differentiate the company. Without a unique something or other, there isn’t a compelling reason to exist. Once those special products or services that distinguish the business from others are discovered and in place, it takes an instigator to continuously re-examine and challenge every aspect of the business that leads to continued improvements, both functionally and economically. It also takes an administrator — someone who can keep all the balls in the air, ensuring that everyone in the organization is in sync and delivering the finished products as promised to keep customers coming back.

As politicians and pundits of all types have pounded into our heads in recent years, “It takes a village to raise a child.” All who practice the art and science of business have learned that, instead of a village, it takes a diverse team working together to make one plus one equal three.

On the ideal team, each member possesses different strengths, contributing to the greater good. The exceptional leader is best when he or she is an effective chef who knows how to mix the different skills together to create a winning recipe.

In many companies, however, leaders tend to surround themselves with clones who share similar abilities, interests and backgrounds. As an example, a manufacturer may have a management team comprised solely of engineers, or a marketing organization could have salespeople who came up through the ranks calling all the shots.

If everyone in an organization comes from the same mold, what tends to happen is, figuratively, one lies and the others swear to it. This builds to a crescendo of complacency and perpetual mediocrity.

There is a better way. Good leaders surround themselves with others who complement their capabilities, and savvy leaders select those with dramatically different backgrounds who will challenge their thinking because they’re not carbon copies of the boss. This opens new horizons, forges breakthroughs and leads to optimal daily performance.

Strange bedfellows can stimulate, nudge and keep each other moving toward the previously unexplored.

To have a sustainable and effective organization, you can’t have one type without all the others. While everyone on the team may not always agree, each player must always be committed to making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

The single most important skill of the leader who has to pull all the pieces and parts together is to have the versatility of that Swiss army knife — selecting the precise tool to accomplish the objective at hand. ●

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

 

Deny, deny, deny; fall, tuck and roll; or put your head in the sand?

The quick answer to this headline is none of the above. A leader, by definition, must do exactly that — lead, which means being in front of a variety of audiences, including employees, investors and customers. Not everyone is going to be a gung-ho supporter. Sooner or later you’ll encounter a naysayer who either has a point to prove or is on a mission to make you and your company look bad.

Many of these verbal confrontations come out of nowhere and when least expected. As the representative of your organization, it is your responsibility to manage these situations and recognize that sometimes a “win” can simply minimize the damage.

When under siege, it’s human instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Typically these behavioral responses aren’t particularly productive in a war of words. Engaging in verbal fisticuffs could simply escalate the encounter, giving more credence to the matter than deserved.

If you flee by ignoring the negative assertions, you’ll immediately be presumed guilty as charged. It’s hard to make your side of the story known if you put your head in the sand.

By freezing, you’ll appear intellectually impotent. Worse yet, pooh-poohing a question will only fuel the aggressor’s determination to disrupt the proceedings. You could use a SWAT-type police and military technique to elude a confronter by falling, tucking and rolling to safety, but that usually only works on the silver screen.

Perhaps the best method to manage unwelcome adversaries is to be prepared prior to taking center stage. This applies to live audiences or a virtual gathering when you’re speaking to multiple participants, which is common practice for public company CEOs during quarterly analyst conference calls.

Most gatherings of this nature include a Q&A segment where the tables are turned on the speaker who must be prepared to respond to inquiries both positive and negative.

Before any such meeting, it is critical to contemplate and rehearse how you would respond to thorny or adverse statements or questions.

A good practice is to put the possible questions in writing and then craft your responses, hoping, of course, that they won’t be needed. This is no different from what the President of the United States or the head of any city council does prior to a press conference or presentation. The advantage of this exercise is that it tends to sharpen your thinking and causes you to explore issues from the other perspective.

In some cases you’ll find yourself in an awkward or difficult situation where there is no suitable yes or no answer, or when the subject of the interrogatory is so specific it is applicable to only a very few.

The one-off question is easiest to handle by stating that you or your representative will answer the question following the session rather than squander the remaining time on something that does not interest or affect the majority.

The more difficult question is one that will take further investigation and deliberation, in which case the best course of action is to say exactly that. Answer by asserting that rather than giving a less-than-thoughtful response to a question that deserves more research, you or your vicar will get back with the appropriate response in short order. This helps to protect you from shooting from the hip only to later regret something that can come back to haunt you.

Effective speakers and leaders have learned that the best way to counter antagonism is through diplomacy. It’s much more difficult for the antagonist to continue to fight with a polite, unwilling opponent.

Finally, when being challenged, never personalize your response against your questioner; always control your temper; and don’t linger on a negative. Keep the proceedings moving forward and at the conclusion keep your promise to follow up with an answer. This will build your credibility and allow you to do what you do best, lead. ●

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Most weeks I get on a plane and attempt to have an out-of-body experience to deal with all the hassles of flying as I travel from point A to point B. When flying, I have a few simple rules. One, I almost never eat the food. Two, I attempt to talk to no one other than obligatory hellos. Three, I never argue with or say a cross word to flight attendants.

One other very important practice I follow on land, sea and especially in the air is that I constantly scan my surroundings for potential troubles and new ideas.

On a recent flight, upon boarding, I quietly and obediently proceeded to my assigned seat.

As I began to sit down, a gentleman asked if I would mind trading seats with him so that he could sit next to his wife. Like most seasoned travelers I try to accommodate reasonable requests. In this case it seemed a no-brainer to agree to move.

 

Notice the details

As I started to settle in and fasten my seat belt I noted that my new seatmate was very hot. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I mean she seemed to be flushed and radiating heat, ostensibly from a high fever. I’m thinking, this is not good, plus it proves the age-old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

In the next minute I had an epiphany, which happens frequently as I believe that many problems come disguised as opportunities.

I rang the call button and, when approached, asked the cabin attendant to please bring me two cloth napkins. I stated that the purpose was to construct a makeshift face mask by tying the two pieces together to prevent possibly contracting some dreaded disease.

I feared that my intentions could be misinterpreted if I were to don a mask without an explanation; this could cause a well-meaning passenger to drag me to the floor thinking I had nefarious motives.

The stewardess smiled, nodding approvingly of my plan. She then summoned all her co-attendants to my seat and proceeded to whisper what I was attempting. Otherwise, she explained, they, too, could misunderstand my appearance and cause me bodily harm.

As founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a health and wellness retail and marketing chain, I’m always looking for that next special something to share with my team. Therefore, while burying my now masked face in a newspaper so as not to frighten or offend the sick seatmate, I began dictating a memo to my merchandise product group proudly asserting that I just had another “aha!” moment, for which I am well-known, among my colleagues. For full disclosure, however, I am sometimes known for being a bit “out there” on occasion — but no one bats a thousand.

 

Turn an idea into a product

This particular predicament gave me the idea to develop a product kit that we could sell to weary travelers in our stores and in airports. I suggested a handful of complementary products, including a mask, a disinfectant spray and, if all else fails, relief remedies. I also noted that it probably would be prudent to include a cigarette pack-type “Black Box” warning stating that the mask is not what some suspicious flyers might think, but instead it’s for prevention of disease only. I even proposed we market these kits directly to the airlines to dispense as an emergency prophylactic for passengers exposed to airborne (pun intended) pathogens.

 

Fleeting thoughts have value

A key role for business leaders is teaching a management team to use fleeting thoughts as a springboard, to pair common problems with sometimes-simple solutions.

Just because it is a simple fix, though, doesn’t mean the idea couldn’t be a lucrative breakthrough.

When something sparks an idea it needs to be taken to the next level before being pooh-poohed. Most likely the vast majority of these inspirations won’t see the light of day, but that’s OK. Just think — what if one transient idea translates into the next Post-it Notes, Kleenex or bottled water?

The next time you sit by a masked man on a plane, it most likely won’t be the Lone Ranger. Instead, you might be witnessing the incubation of the next best thing since sliced bread. ●

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013 02:34

F.U. or else!

Calm down … those two letters in the headline are not what you might be thinking. However, it got your attention, for this leads to an important subject.

When you, or those with whom you work, don’t follow the principles of these two letters, problems occur. Not doing what these initials represent can be the difference between success and failure, cost big money, create disappointment and actually ruin relationships.

Hopefully by now you’ve figured out that F.U. stands for Follow Up. This skill is central to achieving objectives, supporting your people or customers, and maintaining your credibility. Too many people just don’t get it and consistently fail to make F.U. a part of their business regimen.

Words are cheap, but it’s action that makes the difference. Many promises are made every day such as: “I’ll get the answer and return your call soon,” or “My person will call your person so that we can get together.” Good intentions aside, if one does not make note of it, the call just might never happen.

Fortunately, only a relatively few get hit by locomotives because trains are big and people see them coming, but many are stung by bees. That’s the same with following up. Virtually no one would forget to pick up the big order, or neglect to attend a huge meeting, but too many let the smaller, yet important, matters slip through the cracks. This not only affects the person who didn’t receive what was promised, but also could significantly impede productivity.

As an example, an associate is to provide needed information first thing in the morning. Breakfast comes and goes and as the lunch hour approaches people along the line are sitting on their hands waiting. Do the math; count up what that could cost your business day in and day out. Frantically, and with a high degree of disgust, you track down the tardy offender and are appalled by the response, “Oh, sorry, it just slipped my mind. I forgot to write it down.” Sure, this can happen once but by the second or third time it becomes a pattern and the credibility of the perpetrator can be lost.

Following up is a reflection of respect. When people don’t have the courtesy of doing what they say, you begin to wonder if they can ever do it. In my companies, all those with whom I work quickly become aware of my sacrosanct F.U. policy.

Essentially after every meeting, whether a one-on-one or with a group, I assign a date for my own purposes of when what was discussed is to take place. If it was a task of significance, the date would be agreed upon with those who had to do the work.

When new employees receive a memo from me, with the unexpected “F.U.” initials in the bottom left-hand corner, many are initially stunned, thinking I’m giving them a crude ultimatum or don’t think much of their work. Fortunately, those with a modicum of common sense quickly realize that these two letters are not a pejorative as they are always followed by a numeric string that even a newbie can figure out represents a date.

I remind my team that I do not want to be their father or their baby sitter. Instead, when I ask that something be done by a certain date, and everyone involved agrees, it must happen.

Alternatively, the person assigned the task could always come back and say he or she can’t meet the deadline, don’t know how to do what was being asked, need help with the issue, or had figured out a better alternative. What could not happen is for the person assigned the task to pretend that no follow-up was required, or worse, that the covenant was never agreed upon.

Because so few follow up as promised, this presents your business with an outstanding opportunity to rise above others and create a rock-solid reputation for saying what you’ll do and then doing what you say. All it takes is a little discipline and respect for those with whom you work. It’s better to carry around a little string for your finger than run the risk of finding the proverbial rope around your neck as a result of errors of omission.

 

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. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

One of my favorite business books, which also made it as a Broadway play and a big-screen movie, is “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” written by L. Frank Baum in 1900. My hero in this story is not the young orphaned Dorothy, nor the Cowardly Lion, the desperately in-need-of-some WD-40 Tin Man, nor even the Scarecrow in search of a brain.

Instead it is the Wizard. To understand why the dubious Wizard is my favorite character, one must get past the portrayal of him as scheming, phony and at times nasty.

To appreciate the man behind the curtain, recognize that he is a very effective presenter, though at times this ex-circus performer behaved a bit threatening. OK, he was a jerk, but the point of this column is to take you down the yellow brick road on the way to the enchanted Emerald City and corporate success.

From this tale there is a lesson that one can say all sorts of things, not be visible, and yet still have a meaningful impact.

Another takeaway is that playing this role provides plausible deniability. This absence of visual recognition is particularly beneficial in negotiating when you, as the boss, use a vicar, aka a mouthpiece, to speak on your behalf. This allows you to have things said to others that you as the head honcho could never utter without backing yourself into a corner.

Another plus is you can always throw your mouthpiece under the bus if necessary, of course, with his or her upfront understanding that sometimes there must be a sacrificial lamb. This is not only character-building for your stand-in, but also many times presents an unprecedented opportunity for him or her to learn in real time.

Perhaps the Wizard was the first behind-the-curtain decision-maker, but today this role is used frequently in business and government. In a similar vein, the “voice” of Charlie from the well-known 1970s TV series “Charlie’s Angels” was always heard, but he was never seen.

Frequently there is much to be said for using anonymity to float a trial balloon just to get a reaction. Think about a son having his mom test the waters by talking to dad before the son tells him he wants to drop out of junior high school to join the circus. Maybe that’s even how our former circus-drifter-turned-Wizard-of-Oz got his start.

In the negotiating process it is important to have a fallback when the talks hit a rough patch by instructing your vicar to backpedal, saying that he or she has just talked to the chief and the benevolent boss said, “I was overreaching with my request.”

This also serves to build a persona for the boss-behind-the-curtain as someone who is fair-minded and flexible. All the while, of course, it’s the boss who is calling the shots and maneuvering through the process without getting his or her hands dirty.

The value of using this clean-hands technique is that it enables the real decision-maker to come in as the closer who projects the voice of reason, instead of the overeager hard charger who at times seems to have gone rogue.

It actually takes a bigger person to play a secondary role behind the curtain rather than always be in the limelight. It also takes a hands-on coach and counselor to maneuver a protégé through the minefields to achieve the objective.

However, accomplishing the difficult tasks through others is true management and the No. 1 job of a leader who must be a master teacher.

After you have guided a handful of up-and-comers a few times through thorny negotiations, you will gain much more satisfaction than if you had done it yourself, while engendering the respect and gratitude of your pupils. They in turn will have learned by doing, even though they were not really steering the ship alone.

The final step is to let the subordinate take credit for getting the big job done. This will also elevate you to rock star status, at least in his or her eyes. Soon those who you’ve taught will emerge as teachers too, and the big benefit is that you will populate your organization with a stellar team of doers, not just watchers.

So, forget about the Wicked Witch of the West and move backstage for the greater good of the organization. 

This is no fish story. Instead, this column is about one of the most important roles an owner or CEO must fulfill on an ongoing basis.

Leaders spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the issues du jour. These range from managing people, wooing and cajoling customers, creating strategies, searching for elusive answers and just about everything in between. These are all good and necessary tasks and undertakings. Too frequently, however, these same leaders delegate this effort to others or ignore it altogether. To be “in the game,” you have to know when to fish or cut bait.

Successful fishermen know that to catch a fish they have to sometimes cast their lines dozens of times just to get a nibble or bite. The first bite might not result in reeling in that big fish. Frequently, a nibble is just a tipoff as to where the fish are swimming.

The same applies to reaching out — casting a line, if you will, to explore new, many times unorthodox, opportunities for your organization. These opportunities can be finding a competitor to buy, discovering an unlikely yet complementary business to partner with or snagging a new customer from an industry that had heretofore gone undiscovered.

All of this takes setting a portion of your time to investigate unique situations, as well as a healthy dose of creativity and the ability to think well beyond the most obvious.

Too many times even the most accomplished executives lack the motivation to look for ideas in unlikely places. Some would believe that it’s unproductive to spend a significant amount of time on untested “what ifs.” Just like sage fishermen, executives can also cultivate their own places to troll.

Of course, networking is a good starting point, particularly with people unrelated to your business, where sometimes one may fortuitously stumble onto a new idea that leads to a payoff.

Other times, a hot lead might come from simply reading trade papers, general media reports and just surfing the Internet. The creative twist is reading material that doesn’t necessarily apply to your own industry or to anything even close to what you do. New ideas come disguised in many forms and are frequently hidden in a variety of nooks and crannies. This means training yourself to read between the lines.

Once something piques your imagination, the next step is to follow through and call the other company or send an inquiry by email to state that it might be worth a short conversation to explore potential mutually beneficial arrangements. This can at times be a bit frustrating and futile. That's when you cut bait and start anew.

However, reaching out to someone today could materialize into something of substance tomorrow. The often skipped but critical next step, even after hitting a seemingly dead end, is to always close the loop with whomever you made contact. Even if there is no apparent fit or interest at the moment, it’s easy and polite to send a short note of thanks and attach your one-paragraph “elevator” pitch.

That same person just might be casting him or herself, be it in a month or even a year later, and make contact with a different organization that’s not a fit for him or her, but recall you because you followed through and created awareness about your story.

This just might lead the person with whom you first spoke to call you because you had had the courtesy to send that note. Bingo — you just got a bite all because of continuing to cast your line.

Good CEOs and honest fishermen also have one other important characteristic in common: humility. They know that when a line is cast it won’t result in a catch every time. But if nothing is ventured, it’s guaranteed there will be nothing gained. Don’t let that big one get away. Just keep casting.

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