Michael Feuer

Wednesday, 31 August 2011 21:01

Prepare or perish

It is a given in the academic world that for a professor to succeed, he or she must publish or perish. In the business world, the admonishment must be prepare or perish. This should be a given, but we all periodically need a mandatory refresher. Consider this it.

We’ve all been there, seen it and, as much as we hate to admit it, done it. The “done it” in this case is when we’ve tried to wing it with little or no preparation and found ourselves in that proverbial prone position, face down with our noses buried in the carpet realizing that the jig is up.

As a leader, you must require your team to take the time and effort to prepare for anything of value — be it a sales call or a major presentation. This doesn’t mean dredging up worthless minutia about what is to be discussed. Instead, preparing means getting the basics down cold, so that whatever is pitched can be done so effectively and convincingly because the presenter had sufficient background on the prospect. There is nothing more annoying than a presenter turning glassy-eyed, with perspiration running down his or her forehead, while he or she grapples to answer a simple question, such as, “Tell me what you think your company can do for mine and what you think of our products.” Without preparation, there are usually three utterances from the presenter in rapid succession: “Uh, uh,” and a final “duh.” The translation is that the presenter didn’t do enough homework and now looks like a fool and, worse yet, made your company look just as bad.

Here is a tale of two cities that I recently experienced. Tale No. 1: A very close business acquaintance and good friend called and asked if his long-lost college roommate could have a 15-minute conversation about how his business might help me. I told my friend, it’s all a matter of who does the asking, and of course, I would speak to his former roommate. At the appointed hour, the call came in, and right off of the bat, once we got past two sentences on the weather, it was obvious the caller had no clue about what my company does. But, because the caller was a friend of my friend, I politely — well, maybe not so politely — told him if he expected to take the conversation past the climate, he would have to do some homework, all the while I was thinking, “This guy is a big time-waster.”

The homework could have been accomplished in no more than 10 minutes by simply going to Google and typing in the name of my company and seeing a complete description of the business. This wannabe super salesman would have then had enough information to get at least to first base with me. Instead he struck out and embarrassed his friend to boot.

Tale No. 2: I received a telephone call from another friend who asked if I would spend a few minutes talking to a recent graduate about job opportunities with my organization. Normally, this is something I avoid like the plague. However, I realize friends are hard to come by, so I consented to the call. A few days later, a young lady reached me and immediately proceeded to tell me about the attributes of my company, how she saw us positioned and what she thought she could do for us. Best yet, she even skipped the two-sentence preliminaries on the weather and current barometric pressure, which saved us both time.

How did this 20-something person not only get my attention but also motivate me to pave the way for her with our HR director? She was well prepared and ready to talk business, unlike the other friend’s bozo college roommate who, though 25-plus years older than the newbie, had no clue of what to say once we got past the temperature.

The tools to prepare are at everyone’s disposal today and are simply phenomenal. With a few clicks of the computer mouse, one can become informed on almost any subject matter in a matter of minutes. God gave us Google and its competitors, and it’s your job to be sure your team uses these types of tools. Make it mandatory that your people be prepared, and make it known that if they aren’t, their career with you may also perish.

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. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

A unique new book with an unorthodox, yet proven approach to achieving extraordinary success.

What does it take to grow rapidly and effectively from mind to market?

This book offers an unconventional philosophy for starting and building a business that exceeds your own expectations.

Beating the competition is never easy. That’s why it requires a benevolent dictator.

Published by John Wiley & Sons. AVAILABLE NOW! Order online now at: www.thebenevolentdictator.biz

Also available wherever books and eBooks are sold, and from Smart Business Magazine and www.SBNOnline.com. Contact Dustin S. Klein of Smart Business at (800) 988-4726 for bulk order special pricing.

How many times have you been disappointed because one of your employees or associates didn’t produce as promised or as you expected? How many times when this occurred did you merely chalk it up as a black mark against the offender? If this is a recurring theme with those who work for you, then perhaps you should look in the mirror as the problem may be with you — not them.

The fact is that most employees want to do it right. Most actually work diligently at doing what they believe is expected. The best of these employees aggressively make that extra effort to take their performance to the next level.

In order for employees to deliver and excel, it is your job to first thoroughly explain what is expected of them on every major new effort. Failures come in all sizes and shapes, but there is typically one common denominator underlying the miss. It usually starts with a failure to communicate, including defining the key elements necessary to effectively accomplish the goal. Secondly, the necessary check points probably were not established from the get-go to prevent the project from straying off course. Finally, the person doing the work may not have been told the importance of the assignment, and that he or she must ask for help if problems were to arise. Human nature is to “whistle in the dark” and forge ahead even if there is that nagging sense that all is not right.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. If you want something done and done correctly you must take the time and make the effort to simply explain the task and provide the pertinent details. If the people undertaking the work understand the purpose and the expected benefits, they’ll be more deliberate in producing an appropriate finished product. Understanding the goals dramatically increases the odds of success. If people don’t know why they are being told to do something, it’s not realistic to expect them to even care.

Too frequently, bosses think that employees will understand what must be done and think this will come about through some magical process or by osmosis. This would be nice, but it just doesn’t work that way. Many times you won’t get feedback on the task’s progress because too many people believe it’s a sign of weakness to report in or to ask questions. There is an easy fix to that problem; if you’re not getting a sense of the status of what’s happening and it’s an important effort — you go to them. When you lose touch with the evolution of a significant project, your people could sense this as a sign that it’s not important to you.

Too frequently when an effort results in disappointments, everything hits the fan. This causes various degrees of angst on numerous fronts and, most important, radically reduces productivity, leads to missed deadlines and, even worse, may result in a costly lost opportunity.

If a project goes south it’s mandatory that you find out why. Many times it’s too easy and convenient for the boss to say, “handle it,” without explaining what “it” means. The combination of those two words, followed by the assignee stating, “I’m on it,” without having all the blanks properly filled in, makes it a good bet that the end results will not be pretty.

Clearly, not every undertaking requires a detailed explanation or a well-documented work plan, but even the simplest task needs to be articulated clearly and requires an answer to this question: Is this a “down and dirty” job or do you need near perfection? Also you must provide a deadline. If you don’t give one, the employee can’t prioritize his or her work.

The much-quoted statement dating back to the War of 1812 proclaimed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Business is tough enough as it is; make sure you’re not the enemy contributing to a failure because you didn’t communicate what needs to be known by all involved so there are no surprises. The first rule of being a leader is to provide explicit directions to those who must follow you. If the employee fails, you’re not the only one who will be disappointed — he or she will be, too.

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. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

A unique new book with an unorthodox, yet proven approach to achieving extraordinary success.

What does it take to grow rapidly and effectively from mind to market?

This book offers an unconventional philosophy for starting and building a business that exceeds your own expectations.

Beating the competition is never easy. That’s why it requires a benevolent dictator.

Published by John Wiley & Sons. AVAILABLE NOW! Order online now at: www.thebenevolentdictator.biz

Also available wherever books and eBooks are sold, and from Smart Business Magazine and www.SBNOnline.com. Contact Dustin S. Klein of Smart Business at (800) 988-4726 for bulk order special pricing.

Thursday, 14 July 2011 11:52

How best to motivate your team

The simple answer to the age-old conundrum of how to motivate depends on the organization’s culture, the leadership style of management and current circumstances, including the economic environment. Since early childhood, we were taught that our actions have consequences. Do something good that exceeds expectations and get something good in return. Run afoul of what’s acceptable and be penalized. This positive/negative balancing act sets the tone for our lives from cradle to grave.

Does your company have a “take no prisoners” mentality when it comes to competition and winning? If so, the organization probably focuses more on the stick to motivate, paying albeit meaningful rewards for significant achievements that exceed goals. In this environment, it’s expected that winning is the norm and that missteps will receive high visibility. Typically, younger companies drive results this way because of the scarcity of money, the pressures on time, and the realization that mediocrity and too many misses can prove lethal.

In established organizations, a lighter collegial style is more common, as is the frequent use of the carrot. As an example, telephone call centers are noted for celebrating just about everything. A rep receives a relatively unremarkable compliment from a customer and bells go off and high fives fly. Everyone in this type of facility expects to be named Bugs Bunny for a day and to get a carrot on a regular basis. When infractions occur, the supervisor will have a chitchat with the offender, though the talk will likely be punctuated with an abundance of “warm fuzzies.”

Many type-A personalities wouldn’t be productive nor enjoy a purely “carrot patch” workplace. Go-getters tend to get a high from the pressure always on them to produce. They covet the rush of the thrills and chills of getting the tough job done. Many do their best when they are under the gun, fearing that if they slip and fall they may not get up again. “F of F,” or fear of failure, is their hot button, as perverse as it may sound. Sure, the carrot does motivate, too, but it’s the challenge of the chase, having someone with a stick on their tail that pushes them into overdrive. Can a company thrive with only type-A employees? Absolutely not, because it’s probable that this would create a constant state of anarchy.

Every business needs plenty of the Steady Eddies who can be counted on to consistently do the job day in and day out. This type thrives on predictability and the gratification of periodic attaboys. If the boss was to approach him or her with a stick to make a point, it would scare the bejesus out of him or her.

In between the top and bottom rungs of your corporate ladder, there are dozens of iterations of what it takes to get people to do their best. The skill is in figuring out what size fits each individual category. Creating the appropriate environment for your type of business will set the tone as to how people will respond. A utopia for overachievers could become a living hell for those who prefer a setting in which they can do their jobs where the only excitement is watching paint dry and grass grow. It takes a variety of all types to build an organization, and when all are carefully mixed together in the proper proportions, the team will jell, and that’s what gives a company its unique personality that works.

As people grow and mature, what worked in the past may have to change and the formula may need to be reconfigured to fit a company’s evolving needs. Also, when economic circumstances outside of your personnel’s control deteriorate, smart companies know it’s time to lighten up a bit and use more carrots, primarily because the stick can’t change the reality of a negative business environment. Much like beating that dead horse, it won’t do any good, and it will harm a company in the long run, as employees won’t forget how they were treated when the chips were down.

To most effectively craft your company’s motivation techniques, you must listen to what your employees are saying and then translate their words into what they really mean.

Learning when and with whom to dangle the carrot, use the stick, or add thrills and chills to the work environment will help drive your company’s sustained success.

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. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

A unique new book with an unorthodox, yet proven approach to achieving extraordinary success.

What does it take to grow rapidly and effectively from mind to market?

This book offers an unconventional philosophy for starting and building a business that exceeds your own expectations.

Beating the competition is never easy. That’s why it requires a benevolent dictator.

Published by John Wiley & Sons. AVAILABLE NOW! Order online now at: www.thebenevolentdictator.biz

Also available wherever books and eBooks are sold, and from Smart Business Magazine and www.SBNOnline.com. Contact Dustin S. Klein of Smart Business at (800) 988-4726 for bulk order special pricing.

Early in my career, I worked for a CEO who was fond of pontificating about how one doesn’t need to always project an image of being the most brilliant, sophisticated businessperson and that this power image could actually be a detriment in certain circumstances. He would conclude his mini-sermon by flashing a smirk and reciting his favorite old German saying: “The dumbest farmers grow the biggest potatoes.” I was in my mid-20s in those days, and in hindsight, I most likely didn’t fully appreciate my boss’s words of wisdom because I had assumed the best tactic was never let them see you sweat, although under your outer layer you were consumed by fear and soaking wet.

Today, that farmer’s adage now rings true with me. I have seen executives over the years who, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, have invariably put their foot in their mouths. These pundits, most always, come across as very slick, certainly articulate know-it-alls who are so impressed with themselves they frequently miss the forest from the trees. Another trait of these self-anointed moguls is that they are usually afraid to ask the questions for which they need answers because they don’t want to diminish their image and have those with whom they’re working or negotiating think they might not be perfect.

Not seeking the truth or failing to discover the underlying facts can, and often does, play into the hands of the “farmer type” my former mentor idolized. Instead of systematically working to flush out a concept that passes the important “smell tests” or probing to actually determine what works either economically or functionally, the high and mighty will simply wing it because they really think they are smarter than everyone else.

I love negotiating with these types because they never bother with the details, thinking, “who cares,” that will be handled by the “little people.” This fixation on image and sacrificing substance for form typically results in a lot of money being left on the table primarily because of blinding hubris.

Meanwhile, the mild-mannered farmer with that “aw shucks” persona, who is by no means average, gains the upper hand by asking many different questions and sometimes the same questions, using different words, and doing it more than once. Each inquiry produces a better understanding of the issues and opportunities and how to turn them to his or her favor. While this grunt work is going on, our boy- or girl-wonder is too busy hypothesizing and contemplating about this or that and is only available to hear him or herself speak.

At the end of the meeting, the too-slick-for-their-own-good, buttoned-up types with every hair in place, go off, normally without a clue that they’ve been had and that the enemy was really themselves.

The old TV cop show “Colombo” and its more modern-day version “Monk” are indicative of how to underwhelm the other side. These detectives on the surface seemingly unaware, a bit disheveled, somewhat babbling and incessantly asked the same question a zillion times in different ways until they get the needed answers to solve the mystery.

How can you use this low-key approach to outwit the competition? First, always do your homework. Give the opposition the benefit of the doubt by assuming they are very good at what they do, and don’t underestimate them. It’s better to be over prepared and overestimate an opponent’s abilities than find yourself on the short end of the discussion because you’ve failed to fully prepare. And, never ever be afraid to ask any questions. My view is the only dumb question is the one you never ask. So what if the other smart guys snicker at what they perceive as your sophomoric questions? Many times, shrewd businesspeople ask questions even though they know the answer just to learn if the other people in the room know their stuff. Finally, don’t be too quick to volunteer information. It’s much better to be a good listener and learn as you go, than to be a fast talker.

When you harvest your next crop, be sure you produce the biggest potatoes by knowing what you don’t know and being smart enough to understand how and when to ask the right questions. Doing this will produce an abundant yield more times than not.

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. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

A unique new book with an unorthodox, yet proven approach to achieving extraordinary success.

What does it take to grow rapidly and effectively from mind to market?

This book offers an unconventional philosophy for starting and building a business that exceeds your own expectations. Beating the competition is never easy. That’s why it requires a benevolent dictator.

Published by John Wiley & Sons. Coming June 7th. Pre order online now at: www.thebenevolentdictator.biz

Also available wherever books and eBooks are sold, and from Smart Business Magazine and www.SBNOnline.com. Contact Dustin S. Klein of Smart Business at (800) 988-4726 for bulk order special pricing.

Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

Stop problems before they start

We’ve all read or heard the perennial favorite old English nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty who fell from that darned wall, was irreversibly damaged and could not be put back together again. In business, we spend a lot of effort fixing what has been broken, rather than preventing the breakage in the first place. Think of your own organization and recall how much effort went into trying to fix that last big problem that could have been critical to your business and, ultimately, sales and earnings. No doubt that once the issue reared its ugly head, you went into fire drill mode, barking out orders to get to the bottom of the problem and fix it immediately, as measured in hours and days, not weeks and months.

Stop and think about the cost, the interruption factor and diversion of effort this “pick up the pieces” exercise inflicted on the organization. Key people had to drop everything and scramble, not to make a penny but to stop the loss. Of course, every business periodically hits a slick spot and has to maneuver quickly to regain control; it comes with the territory.

Wouldn’t it have been easier, however, to prevent the crisis before it became one? Just ask BP about its oil spill last year and what it cost in hard dollars (or pounds), not to mention the almost irreparable harm to its reputation and perhaps long-term future. This is a dramatic case of failing to take the necessary steps to avoid the oil damage itself, as well as the near cataclysmic peripheral stumbles made in handling communications. The amateurish PR efforts are what really pushed BP’s Humpty Dumpty, aka the Gulf of Mexico Deep Water Horizon spill, off that proverbial wall. What actions can your company take to ensure you don’t encounter your own Humpty Dumpty?

Sure most companies have risk management programs, which involve assessing potential dangers, working to prevent them and determining the costs if the unimaginable does occur. Unfortunately, too many companies apply the risk management thought process only to issues that are most associated with accidents. The Humpty Dumpy theory has to be extended to all areas of a business, from customer service to employee productivity and everything in between.

It starts with paying attention and sweating the small stuff and taking action when the first whiff of a problem occurs. It’s almost a gut feeling that surfaces when good executives encounter something that just doesn’t seem right. Call it a sixth sense, but it can happen at any time and in some of the most unusual places.

As an example, you’re reviewing an internal report on an important new project, and as you study the material, something just doesn’t seem right. The numbers add up, but nonetheless you know that all the dots aren’t connecting as they should — you’re just not sure what’s wrong. You pause and put the report down for a few minutes, and then it hits you. Kaboom, a subtle yet critical step was omitted from the plan. Now that you’ve found the missing piece, you make a few calls and a potential problem that could have easily morphed into a big issue is squelched.

These same gut feelings apply to “reading” people, not necessarily by what they say or do but many times by what they don’t say or do. Here’s another scenario, your biggest vendor normally touches base with you like clockwork, sometimes if only to say hello. One day you realize you’ve not heard from this supplier recently. You wonder what’s up with this? However, you’re busy and the thought quickly passes. Big mistake. You should have picked up the phone, found out what the story was, and if there was an issue brewing, fixed it then and there.

It all gets down to trusting your instincts and recognizing when your Humpty Dumpty might be leaning too close to the wall’s edge. That’s the same wall from which anything can topple and shatter beyond repair. Preventing that from occurring requires paying attention, looking for telltale signs of change and then being perceptive enough to know that there is something that needs scrutiny — even if you can’t pinpoint exactly why or what.

The risk in your own little kingdom is that when your Humpty Dumpty falls you may not have enough of the King’s horses and men to put the pieces back together again.

As an executive, do you walk down the hall of your office, store or factory with your head down, lips sealed and eyes riveted to the floor? If you do, you’re creating a barrier that is sending signals that say, “Don’t speak to me, I am not approachable, and I don’t care about your opinion or ideas. I’m the head honcho; I already know it all.” Conversely, if you traverse the halls and byways of your facility with your head up, a smile on your face and making eye contact with those you encounter, you’re telling employees, “Talk to me, tell me what you think, suggest how can we do it better.”

Nonverbal communications speak volumes about your style of management and how receptive you are to new ideas without worrying about who comes up with them. The best CEOs are the ones who know their people’s first names, a little bit about their personal life and their jobs. They also regularly communicate with their associates by asking questions and seeking suggestions. If you don’t want to speak to anyone, just don’t look at them, and they’ll get the message, but you’ll run the risk of ignoring that low-hanging fruit that is always there if you just look for it.

Many good ideas come from people who spend their time in the trenches, building the product, dealing with your customers, or listening to their concerns and complaints. The best ways of turning negatives into positives are first understanding the problems and then discovering alternatives to prevent them in the future. No one knows these issues better than the people in your organization who have to deal with them every day.

To get your people to open up, first you have to get out of your own office and become visible. When you’re visible on a continuous basis, you become accessible. Accessibility leads to innovation as well as creating solutions to issues from the mundane to the complex. Once you start walking about on a regular basis, you also have to learn how to ask questions when the opportunity arises. Certainly, it’s fine to ask someone, “How are you doing today?” Not only is it polite, but it also reflects that you care about the individual. However, combining that inquiry with one of more substance that deals with known problems can lead to effective solutions or put you on the right path to solving the problem by getting input on the circumstances that may have caused it in the first place. Most everyone has an opinion, and all of us want to have a sounding board. If that sounding board is a top executive or the CEO, that’s even better. Asking relevant questions engages employees and encourages give-and-take communications.

Try this technique the next time you walk through your facility. Before you get up from behind your desk, ask yourself what the problems du jour are and what do you need to know so that you can solve them. As a simple example, if there is a known bottleneck in the shipping and receiving area, instead of just reading a memo about the problem from the supervisor, take a stroll over to the loading dock with a couple of questions in mind. There is no law that only good ideas have to come from you and your management team. By asking those involved with the process why there are problems, you might just get an answer or two that spawns the fix you need. Listening is a skill that all of us have to develop and nurture. But, before you can listen, you have to be sure that your people are willing to talk to you and with you.

It’s almost guaranteed that if you have an exaggerated sense of your own importance, you’ll not only stifle new ideas but you might never find answers to nagging problems. One little gem, one golden nugget of information can translate into bottom-line improvement. An ongoing string of these gems can help make your company an industry leader while enhancing your employees’ sense of importance and ownership in the process. These methods also show you value employees’ opinions and you expect them to have opinions on how to do their job better. Tomorrow, leave your ego at home and start your discovery process, then watch your business grow.

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, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in late spring 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Monday, 28 February 2011 19:01

Michael Feuer

It’s happened to all of us. One night you go to sleep without a thought in your head, and inexplicably, you awaken at 3 a.m. and find yourself sitting straight up in bed with an idea in your head that you think could change the world and make you a legend in your own time. You may have no clue where the idea came from, but at that moment, you are energized with the possibility of fame and fortune. In a panic, you scribble your thoughts on a bedside pad of paper in fear of losing them. You then pause for a few minutes before your somniferous state overcomes you, and you fall back into la-la land.

Fast-forward about three hours and you get up feeling a little restless, not totally recalling the epiphany you experienced earlier. Then it comes back to you as you find your notes. You begin to sort out the elements of your Holy Grail discovery and begin to apply logic to your revolutionary concept. Then it hits you. Perhaps, what you thought was an earth-changing breakthrough might just be more of a jumble of fragmented elements that no longer pass the smell test. You just experienced the inevitable second thoughts.

This reconsideration is completely normal, very necessary and a part of the discovery process. Second thoughts are critical and invariably occur with just about everything we do in business, but it all comes down to the sequence and timing. Second thoughts are good most times, except in situations where you’ve already made a commitment, made your idea public or, worse, promised to do something. They are particularly bad after the wedding vows conclude with the obligatory “I do’s” or after you decide that you can beat that train at the crossing and then change your mind as you hear the “thump, thump” of your tires rolling over the railroad ties as the freight train’s bright light shines in your eyes.

In business, second thoughts should be your standard modus operandi when you or one of your charges come up with that possible big idea. It’s important to use that time between an idea’s inception and the launch of implementation using a simple discipline that can help ensure you’re not off on a wild goose chase.

When you have your next revelation, begin the process of evaluation, knowing full well that you may have second thoughts, and either bag your little gem completely or fine-tune it further after it has been time and stress tested.

First, flesh out your original notes and prepare a basic outline of what it is you may attempt, what it will do, and how and why it could pay off. Don’t waste time on form; just drill down to substance. Secondly, sleep on it, either literally or figuratively. Think about the idea for a night or two before you drift off to dreamland. Alternatively, put your narrative in your top drawer for a day or so. After this mandatory timeout, pull out your notes, read them thoroughly, thinking of the ramifications and nuances, and then, if it all still makes sense, take your thoughts to the next step, which can include discussing the idea with a colleague, friend or significant other.

This simple respite in your race for success can give you the opportunity to bag the idea and move on, concluding your concept was nothing more than the result of a little too much indulgence of food or drink before you hit the pillow on that fateful night. However, if you make the decision to continue to proceed, the rest will come naturally as you more fully flesh out the concept during the ongoing discovery, fine-tuning and testing stages.

New ideas are almost always an iterative process, often with the finished product emerging dramatically different from the initial idea when lightning first struck. Creation is one of the most exciting, yet challenging, aspects of building a business, but without following the vetting process, it’s almost guaranteed that inertia will set in and your concept will drift into oblivion.

Second thoughts are an integral safety valve for success. Taking an idea from mind to market is all a matter of sequence and timing, and when done right, it can be satisfying and very lucrative.

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, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in late spring 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Friday, 30 September 2011 21:01

The other guys down the street

The other guys down the street, across town or in another state are ubiquitously referred to in boardrooms and management meetings in public companies, private businesses, nonprofit institutions and locker rooms from coast to coast.

So who are these other guys? They are the competition. I’m involved with a number of companies and sit on boards of directors for both corporate and nonprofit institutions. Virtually without exception, at every meeting the other guys surface not once or twice but three or more times without fail. What is even more unusual is that no one ever dares to actually mention the other organization by name. It’s as if one is watching a Harry Potter movie in which everyone fearfully refers to the story’s antagonist and evil-doer Voldemort as “He who shall not be named.”

Something about not uttering the name of the other guys makes them less credible and renders them not quite as powerful or threatening. It’s probably much like whistling in the dark — if we hear ourselves whistling, we won’t hear the scary sounds, and therefore, there is nothing to fear.

As a business leader, how can you use these other guys or the people down the street to marshal your team, taking it to new heights? In my office for 15 years, I had two baseball caps mounted on the wall emblazoned with each of my two biggest competitors’ logos. Each hat also had an arrow running through one side to the other. This display sent a strong message to every visitor that I was focused on “my” other guys.

Let’s face it, competition, as unpleasant as it may be at times, is not only here to stay but also forces your company to strive to be better, provide greater value to your customers or constituents and basically continuously rise to the occasion.

The other guys can be very useful as a benchmark to measure your organization against on just about every metric. I’ve always felt that a hidden advantage of competition is that everyone needs someone to blame for something, and you’re much better off having your team blame the other guys for their intermittent woes than blaming you, which proves that in every bad situation there is always some good for someone.

Smart operators know more about the other guys in many respects than they know about themselves. There must be a biological factor in business that makes management secretly think that the competition is smarter, more efficient and does a lot more things right than they do. What most companies don’t realize is that the other guys across town are probably sitting in their conference room talking about you and how smart your company is, of course without saying your name, and how you always do it better and that they need to get their act together before you eat their lunch. It is almost ironic because the competition, in many cases, makes a company much better than it would have been otherwise and serves as a catalyst to take that extra step. Leaders deep down inside should be thankful for the impetus that these other guys provide their company or institution.

Those rare organizations that don’t worry about the guys down the street are probably the companies that just don’t get it and that think they’re invincible. Inevitably they trip over their own hubris and take a bad, sometimes fatal, fall.

Give me a good fight any time, a tough competitor and someone I can use to rally the troops against, driving them further and faster, based on their competitive need to beat the other guys and prove their self-worth. An added benefit of competition is it also tends to keep a company’s ego in check, because just when one company thinks it found the greatest widget of all time, another company comes down the pike that one-ups it.

As much as we hate to admit it, those guys down the street, across town or in the next state keep our blood boiling and energize our creativity. At the end of the day, we are probably better off fighting the competition, lest we start fighting even more with ourselves internally. Because of a worthy opponent, the customer wins, employees stay on their game, and it certainly makes life interesting. That’s what the other guys can do for you — all you have to do is learn how to use them to your best advantage.

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. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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Thursday, 17 February 2011 13:45

What is more important, the icing or the cake?

Everybody wants to have his or her cake and eat it, too.

When a presentation is made to a board of directors or a group of company outsiders, it needs to be right. The presenters always want to appear to have their act together and project an aura of all-knowing. It’s part of being human. However, what about important, yet more run-of-the-mill, presentations to smaller groups on nonearthshaking matters? Is the cost of preparation worth the return?

For the last few months, each time I attended a meeting, either within my own company or for other companies and organizations with which I’m involved, I’ve asked those responsible for the preparation how many hours they invested in producing the final show and tell. Almost without exception, I’ve been taken aback by the amount of energy expended. This begs the question: What other, more important activities, providing a better return, didn’t get done because of this diversion?

Perhaps more startling was the number of hours spent on “dress rehearsal” run-throughs, particularly for internal meetings.

I have no problem with the amount of work it takes for big meetings, particularly with outsiders, who can cause you untold grief if one looks amateurish, indecisive or, worse, a fool. If someone who works for me committed this near-fatal sin of lack of preparation, he or she would receive a quick trip to the proverbial woodshed. On the other hand, I’m a big believer of certain types of less formal presentations that include brainstorming components that are more impromptu, with fewer constraints on form and sharper focus on substance. I’m always pleasantly surprised with the golden nuggets, representing new thinking and ideas, that surface when participants focus on making creative contributions rather than obsessing on what others may think.

So, how do you, as a leader, foster creating acceptable presentation guidelines that will make your people more productive and also communicate to them that not all assemblies are equal? Let’s take the work involved for major outsider confabs for investors, bankers, important vendors and customers off the table, while recognizing you’re not going to risk taking only half measure just to spare a little work and a few extra dollars. Internal presentations or meetings with external consultants, however, are a different matter. For these types of sessions, the top-of-the-mind methods used by improvisational comedians extraordinaire, such as Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld, can be more productive, more fun and produce much better results.

To get your team pointed in the right direction, start asking after each meeting how much time was put into preparation. This simple exercise will reveal if you’re getting the appropriate return on the investment. Next, working with your team, create a template that is acceptable for each type of presentation. One size doesn’t fit all. A high-powered gathering of movers and shakers requires whistles and bells versus a much more simplified presentation for an intimate get-together of your inner circle. Provide flexible guidelines, including the type of handouts to be utilized and the form of graphics used from very elaborate presentations that would put a Las Vegas chorus line to shame to basic easy-to-prepare flip charts and PowerPoints that more than suffice and make the right impression.

Before any presentation is launched, always ask, ‘Who is the audience, and what are the intended results?’ By doing this, you will quickly determine if the costs are commensurate with the expected results. There is a difference between an all-hands-on-deck undertaking and a few scribblings on a legal pad for a smaller session’s talking points. When you follow this protocol, your people will gain respect for you because it shows that you understand that their time is money and you have an appreciation for what it takes to get the job done.

A long-ago favorite Burger King television commercial portrayed kitchen workers belting out the lyrics, “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us,” with the payoff tagline, “Have it your way.” Special orders in the form of elaborate presentations that don’t fit the audience should definitely upset you because of their costs. Instead, have it your way by substituting the “burger” with a “cake” topped with a not too rich but still sweet and easily digestible icing.

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, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in late spring 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Saturday, 25 September 2010 20:00

How can a teaspoon improve your training?

The song “A Spoonful of Sugar” holds the key to training your employees. As the lyrics explain, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” Add a bit of sugar and the teaching becomes a bit more palatable.

Billions of dollars are spent every year on training, and although executives don’t like to admit it, much of these efforts are for naught.

How many times have you sat through a session and walked away with barely having retained more than a few key points? Today, we live in a society of immediate gratification, combined with the fact that many people are afflicted with attention span deficiencies. Either we get it in a few minutes or lose interest and move on to something else or forget the material entirely.

Smart phones are the biggest distraction in business training. Rather than listeners being riveted on every word a trainer utters, too many times minds wander as attendees divert their focus to e-mailing on PDAs, which are not so subtly hidden in their laps.

The problem is too many companies develop elaborate training that includes classroom sessions and PowerPoint presentations that are mind-numbing.

For training to be effective, it’s mandatory that the information be easily digestible, memorable and entertaining. When the lesson is not learned, not only are the cost of the training and the time it takes wasted, but more important, the benefit from learning the new information is not put into practice.

There are a number of telltale signs that the message that is being conveyed in group gatherings is falling on deaf ears.

Watch for the frantic “highlighters” in the audience, with marker tightly gripped and their hands moving rhythmically from left to right underlining every word in the speaker’s handout. A fluorescent yellow pen is their weapon of choice. If you’re sitting next to one of these pen fiends, expect that one of your major takeaways from the training will be the indelible ink stains on your shirtsleeve.

What session would be complete without the obsessed “note taker”? This too common breed writes down every single word the speaker utters, much like a third-grader who is kept after school and made to write 500 times on a blank piece of notepaper, “I will pay attention in class.”

My least favorite in a training session is the “poker.” This is the participant sitting next to you who periodically jabs you in the ribs and makes insipid comments, just to prove that he or she is listening, even though, of course, he or she is not. This can be not only painful but also annoying, as your own daydreams are interrupted.

All of these types have one thing in common: They’ll never again give the topics presented another thought the second they leave the session.

There’s a simpler and better way to engage employees and teach them what they need to know. Start by having the speaker use open-ended questions and ask the students to select the correct answer for each question from multiple choices.

One choice might be utterly ridiculous, another downright funny, a third choice is close to correct, and finally, there is the answer that is on target.

I call this “teaspoon” teaching. Small doses of salient information mixed with a bit of sugar (humor) to make the process easier to swallow. In follow-up teaspoon doses, the participants’ supervisors later quiz, on a very casual basis, the people being trained as they subsequently go about the day’s proceedings or during their daily tasks over the ensuing couple of weeks. Results have shown that retention scores will skyrocket versus those of more traditional and less entertaining methods. There are dozens of iterations of this training method. Just use your imagination and, no matter what, don’t be boring.

In many respects, learning is about seeing it done, doing it oneself and then teaching it to others. Hospitals have employed this teaching technique very effectively for years.

Being a successful leader requires being a good teacher. When you are not the actual teacher, it is still your job to approve the curriculum.

Manageable doses of knowledge packaged correctly can help guarantee that not only the message is getting through, but it is also being applied outside of the classroom and on the job. Add a little sweetener and the job gets even easier.

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, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in early 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.