Some CEOs are reluctant to discuss failure, but Barry J. Lipsky has a strategy for dealing with it. If you’re going to fail, says the president and CEO of Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc., fail quickly. There’s a lot of competition out there, and the market is changing rapidly so if your plan isn’t working, you need to move on and seize the next opportunity, he says. Lipsky has spent 22 years at Franklin and has guided the company to fiscal 2007 revenue of $52 million. The company, which designs, develops, publishes and distributes electronic information on handheld devices, is also known for its electronic translators and dictionaries. Smart Business spoke with Lipsky about how doing strategic planning is like packing for vacation.
Recognize your strengths. While we were working on our strategic plan, we did an exercise called ‘packing the suitcase.’ Say you’re taking a trip, and you only have one suitcase you can take. What would you definitely pack, what would you pack if you can fit it in, and what would you leave home?
All these were related to the business, of course. Like, we want to continue in the education market, so that’s going in the suitcase. We’re not sure whether we want to design our own processing chips anymore which we’ve always done so maybe that’s something that if we have room, we’d like to take.
Then you have the business units that were not only underperforming, but the categories of the products have sort of run their life. Like organizers before palms and BlackBerrys, people used to use electronic organizers to keep phone numbers, calendar entries; that was a business that we were in we still are, but that might be something that you don’t pack.
Execute that plan. One thing about the planning process is when you get through with it, you think, ‘Whew, I’m glad this is over.’
But it’s not over. That’s just the beginning now you’ve got to do it. Now you’ve got to deliver it, and that’s the more difficult part.
We set up metrics, started measuring stuff every quarter, measure how you’re doing against the plan. We’re now in the process of doing another one.
You learn from every experience in business. We did some things right, and we did some things wrong. The world has changed around us, especially being in the technology business. We’re in the process of redoing it differently.
For example, we make products that appeal to both native English-speaking Spanish and native Spanish-speaking English.
It’s hard for us to measure because when someone goes into Best Buy and buys this product, we have no idea whether they’re a native American-speaking student wanting to learn Spanish or vice versa. Now, we get some info through registration cards, and we know what we believe it is, but it’s been harder to measure.
Fill gaps with your hiring. You generally hire to fill a position. You want a new person because someone left. Look at the skill set around that person. Look at the core team that person is going to interface with we want to fill those gaps.
So, say you have a great salesman, but he’s terrible with numbers. You ask him to make a spreadsheet, but it takes forever and it’s wrong.
Now, you can try to teach him to do a spreadsheet better, but it’s not his thing he doesn’t have a knack for it. Or, you can make sure other people on that team have that strength.
Make sure when you’re hiring people to fill positions that you look at the positions around them and you look to fill the gaps. Having lived through both sides of it, we’ve had situations where a senior manager, a manager and the next person down all share the same weakness.
They were all very good, but they all shared the same weakness. That creates problems, so you have to make sure you’re filling that gap.
Every individual has their own skills. People have their own comfort zones, what they like to do, what they have a passion about and like doing. Now, you don’t want someone to just be in a comfort zone and only do those things.
You want stretch goals, but you have to feed the frenzy that burns inside someone. Then you have to take away some things they don’t do that well or cover them.
Connect your employees to the plan. One of the challenges I want to overcome is that some people no matter how involved they are they still don’t feel part of it.
If their opinion wasn’t used, that’s a tough one to overcome. But I can if I can do this other part, which is broader: I have to make sure that every employee knows how that plan works, what it means to them, what’s their role in meeting it.
So even a guy in the receiving department understands that he’s connected to the plan.
Find solutions, not more problems. No one wakes up in the morning to fail. But there are people who are very talented, yet sometimes their baggage or issues, they don’t let go.
You try to work with them, but you might have to exit them from the company if they’re becoming the 80-20 rule, and they seem to be on the 20 side but seem to be creating enough bedlam that it affects the company and affects other people.
I want them to come to me with solutions, not problems. Don’t send me an e-mail about somebody else and ask, ‘What do you think?’ I want to know what you think.
I’ve been trying to do more of telling someone, you try to pose things more as questions rather than telling them, ‘Go back and tell them such and such. Did you think about something like this?’
I try to help people get there. Motivating is about letting them win, letting them have successes that they really feel are their own. People talk about empowerment a lot, but when you’re empowered, I have very high expectations that they’re going to meet what they say.
HOW TO REACH: Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc., (800) 266-5626 or www.franklin.com