Orange County (1091)

One of the signs of a boom — or at least a boomlet — is that companies start wanting to drive their competition crazy. This occurs when “survival” is no longer an issue and optimization or maximization can become a goal. However, the desire to do things to the competition can lead a company astray — or drive it to even greater heights.

Companies go astray when defeating the competition becomes more important than taking care of customers. When companies become obsessed with the pursuit of excellence, by contrast, they often reach new levels of greatness. Here’s how to avoid the former and achieve the latter.

1. Know thyself. Before you can drive your competition crazy, you have to understand what your company stands for. Otherwise, you’ll succeed only in driving yourself crazy. For example, Apple stands for cool technology. It will never represent a CIO’s safe bet, an “enterprise software company,” or service and support. If it decided it wanted to drive Microsoft crazy by sucking up to CIOs, it would drive itself crazy — that is, if it didn’t perish trying.

2. Know thy customer. The second step is to truly understand what your customer wants from you — and, for that matter, what it doesn’t want from you. One thing that your customer seldom wants to do is to help you drive your competition crazy. That’s in your head, not your customer’s. One more thing: A good company listens to what a customer says it wants. A great company anticipates what a customer needs — even before the customer knows it wants it.

3. Know thy enemy. You cannot drive your competition crazy unless you understand your competition’s strengths and weaknesses. You should become your competition’s customer by buying its products and services. I never truly understood what it was like to be a customer of Microsoft until I bought a Sony Vaio and used Windows. Sure, I had read many comparisons and competitive analyses, but they were nothing compared with hands-on usage.

4. Focus on the customer. Here’s what most people find surprising: The best way to drive your competition crazy is to succeed because your success, more than any action, will drive your competition crazy. And the way you become successful is not by figuring out what you can do to the competition but for the customer. You succeed at doing things for the customer by using the knowledge that you’ve gained in the first three steps: understanding what you do, what your customer wants and needs and what your competition doesn’t do. At the intersection of these three factors lies the holy grail of driving your competition crazy. For most companies, the key to driving the competition crazy is out-innovating, out-servicing or out-pricing it.

5. Turn customers into evangelists. There are few things that drive a competitor more crazy than unpaid customers who are evangelists for a company. Create a great product or service, put it out there (“let a hundred flowers blossom”), see who falls in love with it, open up your arms to them (they will come running to you), and then take care of them. It’s that simple.

6. Make good by doing good. Doing good has its own, very sufficient rewards, but sometimes you can make good and do good at the same time. For example, if you own a chain of hardware stores, you can help rebuild a community after a natural disaster. You’re bound to get a lot of publicity and create bonds with the community — this will drive your competition crazy. And you’ll be doing something good!

7. Turn the competition into allies. One way to get rid of your competition is to drive it out of business. I suppose this might be attractive to you, but a better way is to turn your competition into allies. My favorite author of children’s books is Tomie DePaola. My favorite DePaola book is “The Knight and the Dragon.” This is the story of a knight and a dragon that train to slay each other. They are smashingly unsuccessful at doing battle and eventually decide to go into business together. Using the dragon’s fire-breathing ability and the knight’s salesmanship, they create the K & D Bar-B-Q. For example, if a Home Depot opens up next to your hardware store, let it sell the gas barbecues, and you refill people’s propane tanks.

8. Play with their minds. If you’re doing all this positive, good stuff, then it’s OK to have some fun with your competition — that is, to intentionally play with their minds. Here are some examples to inspire you:

  • Hannibal once had his soldiers tie bundles of brush to the horns of cattle. At night, his soldiers lit the brushwood on fire, and Hannibal’s Roman enemies thought that thousands of soldiers were marching towards them.
  • A pizza company that was entering the Denver market for the first time ran a promotion offering two pizzas for the price of one if customers brought in the torn-out phone directory ad of its competition.
  • A national hardware store chain opened up right next to a longtime community hardware store. After a period of depression and panic, the store owner came up with a very clever ploy. He put up a sign on the front of his store that said, “Main Entrance.”

Guy Kawasaki is the co-founder of, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the web, and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki is the author of ten books including Enchantment, Reality Check, and The Art of the Start. He appears courtesy of a partnership with HVACR Business, where this column was originally published. Reach Kawasaki through or at

Monday, 03 December 2012 16:28

Giving back: How much charity is enough?

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While attending an event we put on with a local charity, I was impressed with the difference that seemingly minor things can make in someone’s life. I was proud of the contribution and effort that our employees put into the event and the dedication the nonprofit showed for its mission.

The event made me think about the business community and all of the wonderful things companies do for those in need. Take the recent destruction from Hurricane Sandy as an example. Businesses have pledged more than $90 million in assistance, two-thirds of which was monetary donations to organizations like the American Red Cross.

While companies give back in as many ways as possible, even during these difficult economic times, I was wondering if there wasn’t more that could be done in our local communities. Not every effort has to always include a financial component.

Here are some nonfinancial ways to give back in addition to what you already do for the community:

  • Give more time. Some organizations have a greater need for man-hours in addition to financial backing. Your business may already give generously on the financial side, but maybe your favorite charity could use a labor boost as well. Nationally, about 35 percent of companies have some sort of formal volunteer program. Consider donating employee time to help out with a big project or basic cleaning and organizing.
  • Offer advice. You probably already serve on one or more boards for a nonprofit, but there is always another charity out there that could use your help. You don’t have to become a full-fledged board member, but you can offer advice as needed to help the existing members navigate through a problem that plays to your strengths. If the nonprofit is looking for a board member and you don’t have the time, help it find the right person by making a recommendation or referral.
  • Hire nontraditional employees. One way of giving back to the community is helping others help themselves. There are many skilled employees with either physical or mental disabilities that could be a great addition to your company if given the chance. When you have a job opening, make sure you are considering all candidates, including those from nontraditional backgrounds.
  • Do pro bono work. If you can provide a service that a nonprofit needs, consider donating it. Marketing, printing, IT services — basically anything an office needs is probably something a charity could use. Find out what the nonprofit could use, then figure out a way to help out. Even if your company can’t help, maybe you know someone else who can.

In this season of giving, it’s not hard to find a worthy cause. There’s also no question that you and your company have most likely already given a lot, assuming you are in a position to do so. But there’s an old question that asks, “How much charity is enough?” The answer is easy: Just a little more.

Take the time to evaluate whether you can do just a little more than what you are already doing to make an even bigger difference.

If you are in search of a worthy cause, consider donating to The Pillar Fund, a donor-advised fund administered through the Cleveland Foundation. For more information, contact Dustin Klein at

Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson — the methods they use to run their businesses are so unusual, so against what we typically expect from a CEO, that exposés on their leadership style make for pretty good stories.

But recently, I’ve found it odd that the behaviors of CEOs warrant entire articles. After all, I talk with business owners and managers every day who exhibit what would be considered unconventional traits. More than ever, CEOs are beginning to break the stuffed-suit stereotype for a chance to create a business culture that one day might also be emulated.

Of all the business fads and leadership traits I’ve seen go in and out of style, I am particularly fond of the following three:

Leaders who know when to be led.

It might sound counterintuitive, but people who run businesses have a reputation for being a little thickheaded and stubborn. I’m sure you’ve had a boss in your career that no matter how many times they asked people for advice, they never actually took it. People like having their opinions confirmed. So if the sought-out advice conflicts with that opinion, it tends to get ignored.

And that’s a shame because a real leader should know that there is a time to lead and a time to be led. The managers and employees of a particular department were hired because they brought a certain level of expertise about the department to the business.

When a CEO asks for feedback, they need to actually take what is said into consideration.

Managers and CEOs who give their employees a bit

of breathing room.

Our social media manager likes to let her employees have a bit of downtime while on the clock. For her, it’s important that they have some time to rejuvenate their minds as blogging requires constantly producing new and interesting content.

That downtime can be spent scrolling through Reddit, checking out their Tumblr dashboard, cleaning out their Gmail accounts, whatever they want to do, as long as the time is spent on something that isn’t work.

Typically, having that bit of time helps them break out of routine and ruts that can result in bad writing. The same can be said for those in less creative positions.

For example, someone in sales could get a little too used to saying the same thing over and over again. Suddenly their pitch starts to sound scripted, even if they never had a script to go off of in the first place. Potential clients can pick up on how stiff their speech is, but a quick break away from work to recharge their batteries can help loosen them up.

Leaders who help employees have a life.

There are always things you can do to make your business more profitable — really leaning on your employees to increase their sales, for example, might bring in a little bit more money. But it ends up sacrificing their peace of mind if you push too heavily. Employees will begin to dread coming into work. And when they are at work, they will be a frayed ball of nerves.

In order to achieve long-term success, business owners need to remember that they have to hold onto reliable employees. If businesses have a high turnover rate and are constantly training and retraining people, they’ll never have a chance to grow. Once again, things will stagnate, and that can spell the death of a company when sales inevitably slump.

There are still entrepreneurs who hold onto the old ways, believing that an iron fist and a crazed obsession with perceived profitability will lead them to success. This may be true in the short term. But the resulting turnover and general attitude of their employees will eventually be their downfall.

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation, an online filing services company that specializes in incorporations and LLCs. Find her online at and on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.

Sage North America was a company in hiding — or at least its name was.

When Pascal Houillon was appointed president and CEO of Sage North America in 2011, the specialty software solutions company was known to the North American marketplace by many different brand names. But “Sage” wasn’t one of them.

Depending on which of Sage’s products or services you used, you might have known Sage by any number of names — and your experience as a customer might have varied greatly from brand to brand.

Houillon, who had led various global regions for parent company Sage Group PLC since 1997, knew Sage North America would never leverage all of its resources and realize its full potential under such a fragmented setup.

“In my vision, I wanted to bring this group of brands together as a singular company with a consistent customer service experience and a consistent way to go to market,” Houillon says. “The flag that I’ve tried to focus everyone on is the Sage flag, the Sage brand. Right after I took this position, we dropped all of the product brands, which we have become known for throughout North America, and merged everything into one master brand called Sage.”

But it wasn’t as simple as a name change for the 3,000 employees working for Sage in the U.S. and Canada. To sow the seeds of change and allow them to take root, Houillon needed to define what the unified Sage brand would embody, the vision for the company moving forward, and then communicate that vision in a manner that would create belief and buy-in across the entire Sage North America footprint.

Houillon recognized from the outset that it would be no small task.

“It’s a big transformation when you’re taking a group of companies with their own specific products and characteristics and merging them together,” he says. “You’re trying to form one company with one common customer service experience.”

Define the brand

As a veteran leader within the Sage organization, Houillon had spearheaded branding initiatives in other countries and regions. Apart from an emphasis on the Sage name itself, the other main component lacking in Sage’s North American branding approach was a focus on customer solutions.

Because Sage had become so fragmented, the company had aligned along product lines. Each segment of the business was driven by the production, promotion and sales of a particular product.

In a commodity-driven business, that approach works. But in the solutions-driven, customer-focused business that Houillon wanted to create, it missed the mark.

“We believe the Sage brand should mean we give our customers the freedom to achieve their visions for their own businesses,” Houillon says. “It is not about software or technology. It is not about the product by itself. Our customers are often small and midsized businesses that don’t have their own IT departments, so the Sage brand has to be a customer brand.

“It is not about promising that we are going to change the world with our technology. It is that we are going to give our customers the means to achieve their own goals and ambitions.”

Houillon and his leadership team pared Sage’s 11 North American business units down to four product lines, all focused on delivering customer solutions instead of promoting and selling a particular product.

“The first line is small business, the second one is midsized business, the third one is our credit card processing line, and the fourth line centers on verticals of a specific area or industry, such as IT solutions in the construction industry,” he says. “That was an important step in moving the focus from products to understanding the needs of our customers.”

Changing the field of play was a critical initial step, because the following steps focused on shifting the mentality of several thousand employees, who had been cultured to sell product, not find solutions.

“In a product-focused organization, you focus on developing your products, and after that, your salespeople focus on selling the product as it is,” Houillon says. “When you move to an organization and a vision that is more focused on marketing and customer solutions, you’re not developing a product and then figuring out how to sell it.

“You’re first analyzing the customer’s needs, then you move into the product development phase. Then you focus on the types of services you’re going to develop around that product. That is why this type of process takes time. We’ve been on this journey for well over a year.”

Manage the process

To help redefine the Sage brand, Houillon needed to redefine his company’s connection to the marketplace in North America. Shortly after Houillon took over, he helped initiate a series of projects aimed at defining a new beginning for the company.

“I asked Sage employees from different levels in the organization to work on different projects, and in the end, we would select the three to six different projects that we would ultimately work on and move forward with,” Houillon says. “In total, about 150 people were involved in the different projects, along with others who gave some inside information about their department to our project teams. It was really incredible how people stepped up and invested their time in these projects.”

Houillon and his management team ultimately selected four projects out of the 11 total projects. Sage North America focused on those projects as the initial steps that would redefine the brand.

By involving employees in the projects and initiatives that would shape the future of the company, Houillon spurred the new Sage brand off the boardroom table and into three-dimensional reality.

For several thousand employees, the idea of a new, unified Sage brand began to move from an abstract concept to something living and breathing. It was a critical step that, in many ways, served as the ignition switch for the entire process, as employees took a sense of ownership in what Sage would become.

“In the beginning, I think you have a lot of nostalgia,” Houillon says. “People are hesitant to drop the name and the brand that they have been working for and possibly have been working for over a long period of time. I’d say, for the first six months, people were excited by the change but also afraid of the change.

“Everybody wants to change, but nobody wants to have to deal with the consequences of the change.”

Houillon realized he needed to give his people an opportunity to express their thoughts and concerns over the elimination of the product brands in favor of a unified Sage brand. He couldn’t minimize how his people felt, but at same time, he couldn’t allow nostalgia and a fear of change to derail progress.

To Houillon, it wasn’t a matter of neutralizing the emotional attachment employees felt toward the old brands. It was a matter of taking that emotional attachment and moving it to the Sage brand.

“People have to have the ability to speak up and express themselves, because it is normal that they’d have an emotional link to the previous brand,” he says. “Having that emotional connection isn’t a bad thing. It’s a matter of viewing that emotional connection in a new way, with a focus on the Sage brand. I wanted to take those emotions and move them to Sage.”

As the initial rebranding projects began to bear fruit, the new, unified Sage brand developed an increasing profile with the company’s customer base. As customer feedback started to filter in, Houillon used it to deepen his employees’ connection to the new brand.

“After a bit of time, the employees start to see that the Sage brand awareness is rising, they see the feedback from customers, and they see that the customers like the change,” Houillon says.

“Previously, customers had to deal with several product brands, and now they’re dealing with a single brand for everything. The customer adapts to it, the employees see that, and they see it is a positive reaction.

“I remember getting some emails from customers who told me it was about time that Sage reorganized under one brand. They were tired of having all these different products with different names. When an employee sees that type of reaction from customers, it is much easier for your people to see the company is moving in the right direction.”

Keep communicating

Once employees started buying in to the concept of a unified Sage brand, Houillon needed to keep the momentum going through his communication strategy. To help strengthen the effort, he hired an internal communication specialist, eventually developing internal communications into a department of three.

The internal communications department has become responsible for developing messages that are initially rolled out at the local level, at each of Sage’s offices throughout North America, and then combined with large-scale communications from Houillon and his team at the North American headquarters.

“In our meetings, every quarter, I will speak, as will some of my colleagues,” Houillon says. “We’ll have about 20 different locations where everybody participates from their own location.

“It was critical for us to change the way we have internal communication, because it used to center on a single product line and now it is more of a global company communication. It is critical for me to explain the vision, explain where we are and ask for feedback from Sage employees. I wanted to be genuine and transparent, because a lot of the time, it is about what people see.”

Houillon also used his communication opportunities to focus people on the value proposition of the Sage brand — in other words, explaining why it is advantageous to customers and, in turn, to Sage to remake Sage as a unified brand.

Sage’s leaders had previously tried to straddle the fence between maintaining the product brands and moving toward a unified brand, but old habits are hard to break.

“About three or four years ago, we had a product called Peachtree, which is accounting software,” Houillon says. “We renamed it to Sage Peachtree, but after a while, everyone just went back to calling it Peachtree.”

The leaders at Sage quickly discovered it was necessary to completely rename the product under the Sage brand, and it was relaunched as “Sage 50.”

“What we have done is to redefine the global value proposition, and by doing that, what we have done is analyze all of the product brand value propositions and move them to a Sage brand value proposition,” Houillon says. “It adds more value to the Sage brand, and it helps us explain how all of our employees play a big role in this new connection and this move to a new brand.

“We want our customers to see excitement about the move. We don’t want them to call up and get a sense of resistance from the employees they encounter. If the customers see a sense of excitement among the employees, they’ll see that the change is a good thing.”

However, Houillon acknowledges that performing a fundamental branding change often means taking a step back to clear the path for a leap forward, and all that you can do as the leader is continually reassure your people that you’re making the right move for the company.

“This isn’t a linear progression,” he says. “Embedding a new vision with employees is a process that will create fear and expectation at the same time. Most of the time, things won’t improve right away. In fact, things will often get worse at the beginning. But things can’t get worse forever, and once you’ve reached that point, you try to build success.

“That’s why you need to be transparent; you need to explain exactly what is going on and what will happen. If you let your people believe that everything is going to be better simply because you’re changing, that is a big mistake. You have to be flexible and pragmatic in a time of transition and let your people know that when things go wrong and mistakes are made, it’s a normal part of the process.”

How to reach: Sage North America, (866) 996-7243 or


The Houillon file

Pascal Houillon

President and CEO

Sage North America

Born: Lyon, France

History: Houillon joined Sage in 1989 in sales and held a number of management positions as a regional director and sales director before leading the Sybel business when it was acquired by Sage in 1995. In 1997, he became CEO of Sage France, and in 2005 he also took on responsibility for Sage in Belgium, Brazil, Switzerland, and Morocco.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Being patient, which is sometimes not one of my qualities, I will say. As a leader, you tend to be very strong-willed, which means not only do you know where you want to go, you can get upset if it’s not exactly the road you want to take. That’s why you need to show some degree of patience with others. You need to be clear about where you’re going, but flexible about the road taken.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

You need to always have a mentality where you’re willing to question the work you have done. You have to be a bit of a paranoiac in that you’re never satisfied with the work you have done, that you’re always looking at your work with a critical eye. You always want to do things better, and that has to be a constant in the way you think.

What is your definition of success?

When our customers say we’ve had an impact on their company. If we can make a positive difference to our customers, at the end of the day that’s success to me.

The costs of litigation can quickly escalate, especially if you’re facing a motivated and well-funded plaintiff who seems intent on aggressively pursuing litigation. Dealing with litigation can create a big burden upon management to respond, collect documents and be available to give a deposition, testimony or consultation.

“If you have experience with lawsuits, then you understand the cost and time pressures associated with them,” says Stephen L. Ram, Attorney with Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. “That’s why attempting to come to a resolution with the other party ahead of reaching the courts makes sense for both parties.”

Smart Business spoke with Ram about resolving disputes without litigation and the legal protections that exist around conversations undertaken to come to an agreement outside the courts.

What are kinds of disputes do companies become aware of before a lawsuit is filed?

There are a number of common disputes that can come from vendors, contractors and shareholders that stem from some dissatisfaction with your business relationship. Most often, a company is made aware of them through a demand letter sent from counsel, or, as with many vendor disputes, a sales representative will be aware that some looming frustration is becoming more than a trifle and should be a concern for the company.

How do you approach a solution when one or both parties are emotionally charged?

It’s common to have a powerful initial emotional response to a dispute when it arises, particularly when a party makes substantial or possibly outlandish monetary demands. Understand that emotional reactions are natural, but consider what is best for the company and its shareholders and find a suitable resolution. Recognize that the other side has different pressures and emotions to which it’s reacting. Step back and be dispassionate and objective because a measured, discerning approach makes it easier for you to facilitate a resolution. Also consider the applicability of any insurance coverage and notify the broker or carrier after receiving a demand.

What needs to be considered when unequal information is causing or adding to the dispute?

Disputes generally arise because one party speculates the other has done them wrong or has done something suspicious. While there may be a grain of truth to the gripe, the other party’s speculation is usually accompanied by a lack of information or a misunderstanding regarding what actually transpired. Naturally, you will undertake your own formal or informal investigation into the basis for the dispute. There is an opportunity before this dispute boils over into a lawsuit to be open to what the other side needs and wants from you, and you can consider your willingness to share information from your own internal inquiry. Being open to this type of dialogue makes it easier to work toward a resolution.

When should a representative begin talking with the other side?

The decision of when or how to open a dialogue is unique to each situation. Most times, the initial dialogue should be between counsel to ensure confidentiality protections and avoid a blindsided attack. The first step is to gauge and engage the other party, which involves acknowledging the other party’s monetary or other demands. However, you also need to be clear that you do not intend to cave to those demands to manage their expectations, but state your willingness to work with them to reach a fair resolution.

Next, establish parameters for future dialogue. If the other side is requesting information or you would like to voluntarily provide information to correct misunderstandings, legal counsel can assist in determining what documents to provide, what level of detail to share, or perhaps to make a company employee available to tell the story of what happened or answer questions.

If you are going to make a member of management or another company employee available, the third step is preparation. Preparation involves understanding the parameters for the dialogue, understanding of the relevant facts and your story, and that person’s ability to bring back conversations that go astray, or refrain from going beyond the scope of the conversation. This conversation can be as simple as a phone call or as structured as mediation.

Are you putting yourself at risk by engaging in this type of dialogue?

There are legal protections for communications that are undertaken for the purpose of reaching a settlement of a dispute. These protections, available under state and federal law, dictate that what you say during these resolution conversations is not admissible in court to prove liability. This means you can share information that might legally amount to admitting to a breach of a contract, for example, in an effort to reach a compromise.

To invoke the protections of these statutes, you just need to tell the other side you are having the conversation in order to resolve the dispute. But for added protection, talk with outside counsel about what you’re planning, that you’re serious about reaching a resolution, and ask for a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement. Convince the other side to put this protected dialogue in place, as well. The confidentiality under these statutes and a binding agreement offer comfort to both parties and help facilitate conversations. Still, there may be situations where it’s not advisable to share or only share limited information.

If a resolution cannot be reached, how should  you proceed with management of a lawsuit?

Keep an open dialogue and don’t entrench yourself in an emotional reaction or overly rigid position. Allow the other side to see that you’re serious about defending or prosecuting, but hopefully cooler heads can prevail and a resolution is reached, especially if there is an ongoing relationship. An early resolution is usually far less costly and disruptive than one reached after protracted litigation.

Stephen L. Ram is an Attorney with Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. Reach him at (949) 725-4102 or

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth

In today’s world, few things change as quickly as technology. Add to this the fact that technology change is usually toward greater complexity, and it becomes easy to see why some executives throw up their hands in exasperation when attempting to manage technology. Technology, however, is a key driver in execution and in maintaining your company’s competitive advantage — it can’t be ignored or delegated.

“One of the keys to managing technology is to not lose sight of the fact that it is a means to an end, not an end itself,” says Kirk O’Hara, vice president, consulting services at Executive Career Services.

“Executives need to understand the essential purpose of technology in their business, be able to incorporate it into their strategic plan and know how to easily and efficiently adapt new technology into business systems and operations,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with O’Hara about what executives need to know about integrating technology into their companies.

What should executives understand about technology and using it to execute business functions?

Leveraging technology starts with an understanding of how it can be used as a strategic resource. Every strategic plan should have a section devoted to technology and its role in driving the mission. This means that the IT department needs to be integrated into the company’s mission and not seen as an ad hoc department to go to when there are problems. In this respect, IT can be seen as going through the same sort of transformation that human resources did a couple of decades ago. Prior to that, HR was typically called ‘personnel’ and was seen as a necessary evil to avoid problems. Today, HR is viewed as a valuable strategic partner and talent management is a major concern of most executives. It is time for IT to be elevated to the same position.

Most executives do not need to get into the details of how technology works, but they should be familiar with the basic input, throughput, output cycle. For example, what data need to be collected for the input of business systems such as accounting, inventory control and customer relationship management? Remember the IT adage ‘GIGO’ — garbage in, garbage out. Collecting the data necessary to run a business is essential to maintaining a strategic advantage.

How involved should executives be with a company’s technology?

Executives should be intricately involved in the output. What reports are needed to properly manage cash flow, maintain optimal inventory levels and keep an eye on customer relationships? Part of the value of technology is that it can spew out a tremendous amount of information. In this regard, it is easy for executives to request too many reports and get lost in the information overload. The same can be said of business unit leaders and departmental managers. Monthly and quarterly reports accumulate over time and may never be used to make business decisions. Executives may want to try this simple technique. Occasionally discontinue a report and see if anyone notices it is missing. If no one complains, it is a safe bet that the report isn’t necessary.

Should a company make sure it has the latest hardware and software?

Throughput considerations will typically involve matters of technology, such as hardware and software upgrades. While it may seem wise to always have the latest and greatest technology, this isn’t always the case. Software updates often have bugs and new hardware may have higher failure rates. Unless your company is very technology dependent, it may be wise to put off updates until they have proven themselves in the business world, and only then when it is clear that the upgrades will have material benefit.

Leveraging technology isn’t all about systems. Executives also need to be sure that they are using personal technology efficiently and effectively. Smartphones and tablets are quickly replacing laptop PCs. Text messaging is replacing voicemail and email is a ubiquitous part of everyone’s work life. In addition to ensuring that technology is used as a strategic resource for the company, executives need to be sure that their personal use of technology is efficient.

How much should a company rely on technology to do business?

Above all, executives should ensure that in-person face-to-face communications aren’t lost in the crush of today’s workload. In-person meetings are essential when forming new teams, creating and nurturing new relationships and/or discussing areas that are emotionally laden or when intended messages can be easily misinterpreted. Email notes have their advantages, to be sure. They allow for a wide distribution where everyone receives the same message and they serve as historical records for documenting what was said.

Too many managers, however, try to manage through email, and this is poor technique. In particular, some executives will rely on an email note to convey a difficult message, for example, to address a conflict. A good executive will never opt to use email when a personal conversation is indicated.

Technology has pervaded — some will say invaded — virtually every aspect of our professional lives. We don’t need to get tangled up by it, however, if we keep the focus on how it can be used as a strategic advantage and never allow it to replace interpersonal interaction.

Still having trouble getting your head around technology? Find an IT liaison who speaks your language. After all, they are people, too.

Kirk O’Hara is a vice president of consulting services at Executive Career Services. Reach him at

Insights Human Capital Solutions is brought to you by Executive Career Services

Friday, 30 November 2012 19:40

How to keep your IT department up to date

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Many organizations have in-house IT staff that has been around for a long time. However, if the organization has not invested in employee skills, there is a tendency for complacency and stagnation, says Lou Rabon, Cal Net Technology Group’s information security practice manager.

“This stagnation comes in the form of believing that solutions the in-house IT people are providing are the best ones out there based on their experience,” Rabon says. “For loyal IT staff, their experience is usually only in one environment, and if no new education or experience has been acquired, then an element of risk is introduced into the organization. Not only will the organization be getting outdated and inadequate service and solutions, but the risk introduced may prove to be fatal to an organization’s data, as well.”

Smart Business spoke with Rabon about how to spot IT staff stagnation and what steps to take to address the problem.

How critical is the need to update IT skills?

Information technology experiences paradigm changes over very short periods of time. New, disruptive technologies are appearing all of the time, sometimes in as little as months. In information security, this trend is even faster, where minutes and seconds can separate effective solutions from completely inadequate, and expensive, defenses.

What are signs that IT staff might have stagnated?

If your IT person has been doing the same thing since 2007, you can be assured that there are going to be problems. Large and small companies should take stock and ask:

• Does current IT staff/policy favor convenience over security?

• Are there direct remote connections to machines because a virtual private network or remote access solution was considered too complicated or not possible?

• Are there passwords that are not complex or do not change?

• Do easy-to-remember — and therefore easily crackable — administrative passwords exist that have access to sensitive data?

• Is there a lack of visibility on the network?

• When problems occur, is root cause rarely determined and downtime frequent?

• Is there resistance to change?

• Are overly technical and confusing answers given when approached for advice or questions?

These are just some of the more obvious ways to determine if your current IT staff might need a knowledge refreshment or replacement. Unfortunately, most internal IT staff will believe everything is being done right, despite evidence to the contrary. This is what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect, ‘in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average.’

What steps can be taken to address this problem?

The first might be to look at how staff is managed. Maybe the reporting structure should be changed. In many growing organizations, IT will typically be CFO-led. Ideally, IT staff should fall under a COO or, better yet, a dedicated CIO who can look at the big picture of where an organization is headed and drive this strategy.

Another option is training. Incompetence of any staff might be a failing of the organization itself to properly invest in its work force. Picking the right training can be a challenge, but there are a number of solutions. Vendor training is an option and can typically be obtained at a reasonable cost, especially if the organization has used one vendor’s technology over a long time and can leverage fidelity for a reduced training cost. New vendors also can be looked at to displace existing technology and they may throw in training as part of a purchased bundle. Many specialty organizations offer training such as A+. For security, the SANS Institute has an excellent Security Essentials Boot Camp, which can start to embed some of the basic tenants of security for any staff working with sensitive information or information technology. Finally, continuing education at a local university and even some of the free courses released by institutions such as Stanford might be a good way to stimulate critical thinking and encourage the staff to refresh its skills.

Another solution, which could be the easiest, is to augment the staff with outside talent. Bringing in an outside consulting firm can give an internal IT department a kick in the pants. Personnel will respond differently to this, with some seeing it as a threat and others embracing the help. Both perceptions can be helpful. An outside firm will help you navigate the technology, but more importantly, a good outside firm will help you identify who in the organization you should keep and who should go.

What about outsourcing all IT work?

Some organizations are much better off going in this direction, depending on what internal resources are available. IT, in and of itself, is a business, and, if you’re a small to mid-sized company, you might want to ask yourself, ‘What business am I in?’ For those organizations that prefer to concentrate on their core competency, outsourcing is a great solution. Doing so can help dramatically reduce costs, increase efficiency and productivity, and increase the security posture of an organization. A good IT outsourcing company is continually investing in its team, and because it sees many different IT environments, it is in a unique position to see what works best and provide those best practices to its clients.

Risk in any organization must be managed and mitigated as much as possible. Continuing to employ or engage unskilled or inadequate IT resources introduces an unacceptable level of risk. Your first step is to take a hard look at your organization, and evaluate whether or not you need to invest in IT skills or bring in external resources to best manage the information assets of the organization.

Lou Rabon is information security practice manager for Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at (818) 721-4414 or

Insights Technology is brought to you by Cal Net Technology Group

While executives generally recognize the need for a good accountant or lawyer, they often overlook the importance of a strong banking relationship. A bank not only provides the banking services and funds needed to grow, experienced bankers can provide expertise and the financial solutions you need to stay ahead of the competition.

“Your banker can provide a competitive advantage for your company by being a valuable resource for financial expertise,” says Pamela Campbell, senior vice president and San Diego regional manager for California Bank & Trust. “An annual checkup is a great way to see what you could be missing.”

Smart Business spoke with Campbell about the benefits of periodically evaluating your banking relationship.

Why is it important to evaluate your banking relationship on a periodic basis?

Professional bankers can identify potential barriers to success and proactively recommend a customized range of solutions before the need arises. They anticipate your needs as a result of taking time upfront and on a regular basis to meet with you to understand the specifics of your business. They tap into and share industry knowledge and ideally are given the opportunity to analyze your financial position through receipt and review of financial statements. For instance, if your goal is to market products overseas, your banker should, first, understand your goals and, second, suggest appropriate international banking services that will help make your strategic transition into new markets more effective. The relationship you build with your banker today can eliminate uncertainty and assist in achieving your immediate and long-term goals. This forward planning eliminates unnecessary stress and will yield dividends down the road.

What should executives consider when evaluating their banking relationship?

It’s critical to consider not only your business’s current needs, but also its future aspirations by asking these questions:

Is your banker responsive and knowledgeable? Do you have someone at your bank you can rely on when your banker is not available? Your banker, along with the support of his or her team, should return your calls, texts and emails, and take responsibility to answer any questions or solve problems that may arise. He or she should not only understand your industry but also be able to identify appropriate solutions and take a hands-on role in helping you solve your business problems through referral to professionals within your community.

Is the senior management team local and accessible? The fate of your loan may reside with a group of distant strangers. Having the ability to meet the local management team and share your business plan is an important part of building a solid banking relationship.

Is your banker willing to invest time in building a relationship? Does your banker engage in an ongoing dialogue with you? Is he or she willing to meet on a regular basis or whenever the need arises? It takes two willing parties to have a productive relationship.

Can your banker explain the bank’s lending philosophy? If your banker cannot do this, he or she won’t be as effective in serving as your advocate during the loan approval process. A seasoned banker, within a reasonably short period of time, should be able to determine whether the bank will be able to support your company’s lending needs. Their ability to review a transaction upfront and identify the strengths, and mitigate any potential weaknesses, will save your company time and provide the clarity to plan for the future.

Is your banker invested in the local community? They will then not only understand the market and economy but also be committed to the success of their clients.

What would executives hope to uncover or discover during this evaluation process?

The evaluation should reveal whether your bank’s vision, policies, philosophy and staff align with the strategic direction of your company. Determine whether your bank possesses the credit appetite, expertise and services to grow with your company. For example, some banks may not be a good fit because they cater to a specific industry niche or maybe don’t offer the services you need to sell your products online or overseas. Your evaluation should reinforce your decision to stay or highlight the need for change.

What shows that changing banks is warranted?

First, do you have a banker assigned to your relationship? Your banker should be someone you can count on to solve problems, respond to requests in a timely manner, offer guidance, and even refer you to additional resources like attorneys, accountants and/or consultants who can help you develop and/or execute on a financial forecast or a business plan. Your banker should be part of a team of professionals you can rely on for support. You should consider a change if your current banker is unwilling to spend time with you, is nonresponsive when you have a request, or can’t explain the pros and cons of various loan or deposit products or what you need to do to qualify for them. If your bank can’t deliver when opportunities arise, you may need a different bank.

What should executives consider when selecting a new bank?

Certainly services and fees are important, but also consider the bank’s niche, its structure, and chemistry with the management team and staff. A community-oriented bank familiar with your industry may be the best bet for small to mid-sized companies because it is committed to helping the region thrive. This understanding of the local community combined with access to banking professionals who support your company with personalized service and proactive solutions will help you achieve your goals. A solid banking relationship reduces stress and helps you focus on the execution of daily activities. There’s no need to settle for a transaction-oriented bank when it’s possible to gain a competitive advantage through relationship banking.

Pamela Campbell is senior vice president and regional manager for California Bank & Trust. Reach her at (858) 623-1930 or

 Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by California Bank & Trust

Friday, 16 November 2012 16:09

The importance of empathy in the workplace

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Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experience of others. Empathy is more than simple sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity.

Simply put, empathy is the ability to step into someone else's shoes, be aware of their feelings and understand their needs.

In the workplace, empathy can show a deep respect for co-workers and show that you care, as opposed to just going by rules and regulations. An empathic leadership style can make everyone feel like a team and increase productivity, morale and loyalty. Empathy is a powerful tool in the leadership belt of a well-liked and respected executive.

We could all take a lesson from nurses about being empathetic. Time and again, nurses rate as the most trusted profession. Why? Because they use proper empathy to make patients feel cared for and safe.

Over the years I have discovered that most people who score high on assessments for empathy have no idea why. They do not completely understand what it is they actually do that makes others see them as empathetic. They can only express that they:



  • Like people.



  • Enjoy working with and helping others.



  • Value people as individuals.



In order to facilitate a deeper understanding of the importance of empathy in the workplace, I will pose four questions regarding the nature, role and benefits of empathy.

1.    Why does it matter for us to understand the needs of others?

By understanding others we develop closer relationships.

The radar of every good executive just went off when they read the word “relationships.” This is not a bad thing since most people understand the problems that happen when improper relationships are developed in the workplace.

This being said, the baby cannot be thrown out with the bath water. In order for a team of workers and their leaders to work powerfully together, proper relationships must be built and deepened.

When this happens through empathy, trust is built in the team. When trust is built, good things begin to happen.

2.    What traits/behaviors distinguish someone as empathetic?

Empathy requires three things: listening, openness and understanding.

Empathetic people listen attentively to what you’re telling them, putting their complete focus on the person in front of them and not getting easily distracted. They spend more time listening than talking because they want to understand the difficulties others face, all of which helps to give those around them the feeling of being heard and recognized.

Empathetic executives and managers realize that the bottom line of any business is only reached through and with people. Therefore, they have an attitude of openness towards and understanding of the feelings and emotions of their team members.

3.    What role does empathy play in the workplace? Why does it matter?

When we understand our team, we have a better idea of the challenges ahead of us.

To drive home the above point, further consider these:



  • Empathy allows us to feel safe with our failures because we won’t simply be blamed for them.



  • It encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind poor performance.



  • Being empathetic allows leaders to help struggling employees improve and excel.



Empathy plays a major role in the workplace for every organization that will deal with failures, poor performance and employees who truly want to succeed. As leaders, our role is simple—deal empathetically with our team and watch them build a strong and prosperous organization.

4.    So why aren’t we being more empathetic at work?

Empathy takes work.



  • Demonstrating empathy takes time and effort to show awareness and understanding.



  • It’s not always easy to understand why an employee thinks or feels the way they do about a situation.



  • It means putting others ahead of yourself, which can be a challenge in today’s competitive workplace.



  • Many organizations are focused on achieving goals no matter what the cost to employees.



Each of these reasons can be seen as true.

Let me ask a question though: What distinguishes average to mediocre leaders from those who excel?

In my opinion, the distinction comes through the ability of the leader who actively works against all the so-called “reasons” and incorporates an attitude of empathy throughout his or her organization. That type of leader will excel.

By spending more time learning about the needs of their employees, leaders can set the tone and approach taken by their employees to achieve their organization’s goals.

When writing about empathy I am reminded of the famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

This is a truth that has long stood the test of time. It is true for our relationships in and out of the workplace.

DeLores Pressleymotivational speaker and personal power expert, is one of the most respected and sought-after experts on success, motivation, confidence and personal power. She is an international keynote speaker, author, life coach and the founder of the Born Successful Institute and DeLores Pressley Worldwide. She helps individuals utilize personal power, increase confidence and live a life of significance. Her story has been touted in The Washington Post, Black Enterprise, First for Women, Essence, New York Daily News, Ebony and Marie Claire. She is a frequent media guest and has been interviewed on every major network – ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX – including America’s top rated shows OPRAH and Entertainment Tonight.

She is the author of “Oh Yes You Can,” “Clean Out the Closet of Your Life” and “Believe in the Power of You.” To book her as a speaker or coach, contact her office at 330.649.9809 or via email or visit her website at

Roadblocks abound in business. Most business owners have been told, “No, we won’t fund your great invention.” Most executives have been told, “We’re not ready yet” to enter that wide-open, new market. But how they respond to those obstacles, the “no”s that are inevitable, is often a good indicator of who will ultimately succeed.

The first step is to step back and assess the causes of the opposition. That likely requires asking probing questions to get insight about the reasons and reasoning behind the rejection. The banker who rejected your idea may have valuable insight into your industry sector, information that could affect how you choose to proceed.

While data gathering, also probe for guidance on how to make your proposal stronger, when to re-pitch your proposal and who else may have decision-making or decision-influencing authority.  The goal should be to identify possible avenues for future appeals.

Armed with the new information, it’s useful to then take a look back at where you are in relation to your goals for the project. Review and celebrate your successes. It will give you the energy to continue onward. But measuring your results, as well as who helped you accomplish the past results, also may shed light on who may be able to guide or assist you in your next steps.

Now, modify your strategy. Every rejection should be viewed as an opportunity to improve. Your planned adjustments should be listed and scheduled. Then, as you progress in making changes, you will be able to see your accomplishments and have a record of how you responded to different scenarios for future reference. It also will give you a clear return on investment in time and energy spent and keep you centered on progress.

Patricia Adams is the CEO of Zeitgeist Expressions and the author of “ABCs of Change: Three Building Blocks to Happy Relationships.” In 2011, she was named one of Ernst & Young LLP’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women, one of Enterprising Women Magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year Award and the SBA’s Small Business Person of the Year for Region VI. Her company, Zeitgeist Wellness Group, offers a full-service Employee Assistance Program to businesses in the San Antonio region. For more information, visit