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Learning to win Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

Steven Nero had more confidence in his employees than they had in themselves, and that had to change.

“The biggest challenge was to get people to understand and believe that we could not only compete, but win against competitors two, three or even 10 times our size,” says Nero, the president and chief operating officer of Star Trac.

The fitness equipment company would compete by outexecuting, outthinking and outmaneuvering the other companies in the industry.

“Bigger companies may have more resources, but they aren’t as flexible and dynamic,” Nero says.

The trick was to turn the pep talk into reality in the form of a motivated work force that could grow the business.

“There’s a whole confidence piece to this,” Nero says. “When you start believing you can win, you win more, and if you string enough of those together, you start believing you can’t lose.”

Nero’s plan worked at 550-employee Star Trac as it took in $190 million in 2008 sales.

Smart Business spoke with Nero about how to build confidence in your employees.

Talk to your people. You have to create a shared vision together. Take them out of the daily work framework and move them into a more strategic framework. Ask, ‘What do our customers really need? How are we serving their needs? How are our competitors serving their needs? What needs are not being served well, and how could we do it better?’

Talk about what are our strengths and our core competencies that we can leverage to better meet those needs. When you can get people in that framework and thinking and getting them out of that box and into the abstract space, it opens them up and there is a lot more understanding and growth that happens.

Don’t be afraid to learn. Be willing to be wrong and willing to challenge every assumption that you have about how to meet your customers’ needs better than anyone else.

No matter what you do, there is a tendency for a plan or an organization to get stale and to get fixed in a certain dynamic. So you have to perpetually come around to what’s changed in the world. What’s changed in our customers’ needs? How are we meeting them now and how can we better those needs? That dynamic really spurs creativity in the organization.

Be aggressive. Ask provocative questions and challenge people. Why do you believe that? Where is the data behind that? Both in one-on-one sessions and then we also bring the entire team together. We have each group present what they see as the needs and strengths and weaknesses and core competencies and the opportunity in front of the team and then we elicit responses and challenges from the team and create an open dialogue where everybody knows it’s not personal.

It’s about making better decisions and making the company better for the business. Challenge each other and make it an environment where it’s OK to be wrong and it’s OK to challenge anybody at anytime on anything. Once you come through that process, then you have to build a consensus and align everybody on that and move forward.

Get it on paper. As we go through our brainstorming sessions and we’re challenging one another, we have a concept in the company called the ‘vital few.’ It’s a one-page set of metrics.

When we come out of the meeting, we decide, ‘OK, let’s prioritize these opportunities that are in front of us. How do we want to change the vital few for the year? Who is going to own these new metrics? How is it going to be tracked? What’s the plan? What’s the follow up, and what are we going to not do in order to be able to do these things?’

There is no walking out of the meeting and saying, ‘Well, that was nice, but that will never happen.’

We walk out of the meeting with a change set of objectives and a change set of metrics and ownership and accountability throughout the process.

Empower leaders. The person that owns the metric has to have the desire and drive to do it. As the leader, my job is to try to align people’s self-interests with the interests of the company.

When you can do that, they are motivated and inspired and driven to make that successful. You can’t ask people to do things they haven’t bought in to or that they don’t really want to do. You have to find the people that have the strong desire internally to do that and take it on.

Make sure that the project or metric has a business imperative associated with it. It has to be clear to them and to the company why it’s important and how it will provide value. They have to understand that they have the ability and resources to do it, so you have to make sure they have the ability and resources to do it. Then you have to support them and give them the freedom to execute.

Keep building confidence. Have the detailed plan behind it, but even with that, people inherently have self-doubt. You have to create a whole bunch of small wins and disseminate those stories and build credibility until it becomes a tidal wave.

You create the big vision. Everybody sees it and wants it but doesn’t know how to get there. You develop the plan with management and leadership on how to get there. So now everybody sees there are steppingstones along the way.

Then you have to make the first few steppingstones very achievable. You have to achieve them and you have to disseminate those success stories and people start seeing success and building success and building momentum, and as you accumulate those successes and demonstrate the plan and demonstrate execution to that plan, people start to believe.

Create an environment where people can learn from each other. Make sure everybody understands the business needs, the customer needs and the organizational system. It can become a self-organizing organism that performs its own organ rejection when someone is not consistent with that.

How to reach: Star Trac, (714) 669-1660 or www.startrac.com