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Stirring things up Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

Ron Fugate respects the history of Alacer Corp. He respects the steps past leaders took to build the company and its brand of nutritional drink mixes, such as Emergen-C.

But just because you respect the history of your company, you can’t be afraid to try something new.

“It comes down to building on the legacy rather than threatening it,” says Fugate, the company’s president and CEO. “There was certainly a history and heritage of how the business was viewed. The approach we took was not to challenge or to denigrate that history.”

Instead Fugate and his team set out to ask questions, learn about themselves better and learn about their customers more. He also wanted the company’s 164 employees to put their creativity to use and come up with ideas that would help the company do even better.

Smart Business spoke with Fugate about how to improve your business and be a better leader.

Put the time in. There’s not a shortcut. A leader needs to have a fact-based, data-driven plan. Without it, living on hunches and history is a recipe for wasting opportunities and spending money on marketing that doesn’t drive growth.

We approached it as a blank piece of paper and we said, ‘Let’s really go out with the objective of casting the net wide enough with the consumers that we research. We’ll identify who our current users are and who our future users are without narrowing it to prove a point or to prove the hypothesis we had at the beginning.’

It really boils down to being unbiased and having an open mind. Approach it from a spirit of discovery. There’s nothing more fun than finding a surprise as you go out to mine data and find guidance for directing a business and its path forward.

The approach was to ask fresh questions. Create an environment where employees and team members are encouraged to challenge the status quo. Ask new questions that would open up growth opportunities.

Put the right people in place. Assemble management teams that have a diversity of thought. Respect their views, their history and their understanding of the world. It helps guide you away from allowing your own biases to direct action. It’s really about bringing a group of people together who will challenge your biases.

Devote a great deal of time to communication and to alignment so that everyone understands what direction the company is taking and what their role is in that process. Have them very much engaged in the planning process, the execution of the public relations and the actual product development stages. It really comes down to carving out the time and being accessible and creating a cycle of scheduled regular sessions to align the activities to the team.

Keep it fresh. Work to add new team members who, in addition to filling some technical or process gap in the organization, really will set the example. They will be players who when added to the team are going to engage and put their ideas on the table and seek to draw their peers and teammates into that dialogue.

Rather than putting me in the position of being the sole coach on team input, I’m very mindful of how team members added to the group can bring that capability. They can set the example, not only from their technical competence but set the example for being alert and intellectually curious and providing their views and insights to that leadership team.

I spend a great deal of time with the finalist candidates for any new position, especially any senior leadership position. If we are at all able to add that team member as a consultant for a period of time before bringing them into the group, we do that.

If not, it’s just devoting an extensive period of time for myself with the new team member and with other senior members of the team to spend hours and hours with these folks in a variety of settings to allow us to draw that element of them out.

Set the example. Ask challenging questions and engage in open dialogue and the sharing of ideas. Take that risk as an individual to ask those questions and reveal that I don’t have all the answers in every situation and draw their input into the process.

Praise and reward and acknowledge when people take personal risks to share an unpopular view or different opinion. Set the example by asking questions, being passionate and upbeat yourself and drawing people into conversations. It can make the team a dynamic one that welcomes open sharing.

We’re building something special here, and I remind people of that every day. We’re not going to show up and punch the clock and go through the motions. This is our choice every day to make something special happen here.

To make that possible, they need to offer all of their ideas and thoughts and contribute all their talent.

Gradually learn to step back. There is a very deliberate process of moving from the early days where every question is being asked by the CEO and the meeting is being driven by the CEO.

Prepare the group over time, increasing the role of the leadership team to come to those meetings as the topical expert and stimulating a discussion among the group about a business issue.

Ask the right questions and get the business moving in the direction you need to and then begin a gradual withdrawal from that role and add team members who have the capability and can set the example for the rest of the group.

Begin to hand off responsibilities for driving the business process in those meetings. Move more into a coaching role and one who sets the meetings and helps shape the agenda but allows the team to drive the rest of the process.

How to reach: Alacer Corp., (800) 854-0249 or www.emergenc.com