The topic of succession planning had been on the table for quite some time for Andy Morrison and his fellow co-founders at Market Strategies International. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the clock really started ticking.

“We started to understand, really around 2000, that as we matured in the business, it was time for us to start thinking about who would be our successors, really under the condition that we wanted the firm to remain independent,” Morrison says. “That is when we started to think about a succession plan and a succession strategy for our positions.

“But in 2006, we acquired a private equity partner, Veronis Suhler Stevenson, and that was really the second stage of succession planning because now we had an outside partner and a board of directors.”

As a component of the partnership, Veronis Suhler Stevenson mandated that Market Strategies look for add-on acquisitions, particularly companies that had younger leadership.

“That was a main part of the criteria for any acquisition, that we find young-but-seasoned management who would be in the business for a considerable period of time and could potentially become companywide leaders once they joined our organization,” Morrison says.

In 2007, Market Strategies acquired Doxus, a marketing and product strategy consulting firm, bringing Rob Stone into the fold. Morrison and the leadership team quickly identified Stone as someone with high growth potential in a leadership role and began grooming him in an executive vice president’s role.

In February, Morrison — the company’s CEO since 1994 — decided to step down, effective March 31, transitioning into the chairman’s role. Satisfied with Stone’s development, the leadership team offered Stone the CEO’s position, which he readily accepted.

That’s the short version. In reality, it wasn’t as simple as Morrison stepping down and Stone stepping up. Over the course of many months, Morrison and Stone worked together, along with the rest of Market Strategies’ executive team, to develop and execute a detailed succession plan that fell in line with the overall goals of the market research and consulting firm and to communicate it to everyone in the company.

Lay the groundwork

A good succession plan is a road map. It shows you where you need to go and what possible routes you can take to get there, so that you and your team can plan the safest and most prudent route for your business.

The preparedness of the leadership team is something that made an immediate impression on Stone when he joined Market Strategies in 2007.

“That is one of the factors that worked well in our favor,” Stone says. “Andy and the entire cohort of founding managers have always been very transparent in the company regarding what their plans are, what the timelines are — because it is critical for people to understand what the road map looks like so that these sorts of changes don’t come as a surprise.”

The transparency is the result of an ongoing dialogue among the top managers in the company. The communication among the members of the management team gave Stone and George Wilkerson — who was named president at the same time Stone was named CEO — an opportunity to have a voice in the decision-making process as the future of the company took shape.

“There is a level of unnecessary surprise that can mar succession planning,” Stone says. “The communication process, which allowed myself and George to be completely invested and present in the key strategic decisions that the company has been making, helped remove that. It also has helped us to be more available and present to the staff at large.

“It has always been clear to our people as to who has an ongoing voice in the management of the company, who were the people on the executive committee and who were the people authoring the strategic three-year plans.”

Even though Stone and Wilkerson were involved as members of the leadership team, their consideration for the top spots in the organization wasn’t automatic. Market Strategies conducted a lengthy search that narrowed the field down, first to an internally focused search, and then specifically to Stone and Wilkerson.

Morrison and his team initially looked at candidates both inside and outside the organization. They wanted their ideal candidates to possess a number of qualities, including areas of expertise that Morrison’s team didn’t possess, such as experience with international markets.

Developing a list of essential qualities that every leadership candidate must have is a critical component to the hiring process. Along with international experience, Morrison and his team constructed a list of other qualities needed to successfully lead Market Strategies, which generated $75 million in revenue during 2011, Morrison’s final full year as CEO.

“On the established leadership team, we knew we had to think about who the replacements might be, and that was very much spurred by the integration process,” Morrison says. “We knew we wanted to add younger businesspeople who had played a big part in running their own companies. They knew how to meet a payroll, they knew what it takes to manage a business.”

However, along with the valuable experience and skills comes baggage. Incoming leaders learn how to manage according to the rules of their previous company, and assimilating them can take a certain amount of deprogramming and reprogramming.

“The baggage manifests itself in a number of different ways,” Morrison says. “Their own track record can work against us. They might have had to sign significant noncompete agreements that create major barriers to them holding a management role at another firm.

“Age was another factor. Some other people we talked to had a similar age to myself and those of us who were already leading the firm, which meant there was no real advantage in terms of bringing them aboard in a successor capacity, since they were probably looking at retirement as well.”

Morrison never hired a third-party search firm, but he and his team did work with a consultant on an informal basis. The consultant helped Morrison refine the criteria for evaluating a leadership candidate, which ultimately led to a focus on internal candidates.

“He is a trusted industry adviser and ran one of the largest firms in the industry at one point,” Morrison says. “He helped give us the final insight regarding what he saw as the advantages and disadvantages of internal succession planning candidates versus external.

“When you add all of that up, it really did lead to the fact that we did have candidates internally who were going to be as well-qualified and well-positioned as we could have hoped for. That is what convinced me that we would be fine selecting from the people who were already managers in the organization, as opposed to people who were on the outside.”

Step into the role

The transition occurred at the end of March, but soon after Morrison and his team zeroed in on Stone as their CEO candidate of choice, they began to train him for his role. One of the chief responsibilities Stone needed to master is that of communication.

It’s perhaps the biggest difference between a leader and an assistant. The leader needs to oversee the entire organization, not just a piece of the pie. An assistant coach in football or basketball might only take charge of the offense or defense. He might manage a section of the playbook. But the head coach has to bring every player on the roster together and unite all of the players around a common set of goals.

That means the head coach, much like a CEO, has to know how to communicate effectively to a large audience.

In the six months prior to their formal appointments, Stone and Wilkerson ramped up their interaction with the entire Market Strategies workforce. It was a job with an added degree of difficulty due to the acquisitions the company had made in recent years, which meant a portion of the company’s employees weren’t originally members of the legacy company — including Stone and Wilkerson.

“That was one of the concerns for the people here who had been a part of the legacy Market Strategies for quite a while,” Stone says. “They wanted to know what this means, if anything, for our culture because the people now leading the company at an executive level are not the people who founded it and led it for the first couple decades of its existence.”

Stone’s primary location was another area of concern for employees. Stone is based in the Atlanta area and decided at the outset of the transition that he had no desire to relocate to the Detroit area. He would, instead, visit the company’s Livonia headquarters on a regular basis while primarily operating out of Atlanta.

“We had to ask ourselves if that really matters anymore,” Morrison says. “Does it really matter if all the C-level officers live in one place? We’re a smaller firm, but I had to ask myself how a Ford Motor Co. operates when their leadership is literally worldwide, with senior officers on every continent. In this day and age, if you haven’t learned to communicate worldwide, you’re in trouble from the get-go. You need to be able to effectively communicate worldwide.”

With modern communication technology, you can effectively run a business with executives, managers and employees in different locations. But it also creates an added set of challenges for someone in Stone’s position.

Most critically, if you aren’t there in person each day to promote the vision and strategy of the organization, someone else needs to be communicating in your place. Otherwise, you run the risk of complacency setting in.

It’s something that Stone has worked at tirelessly in the months since he’s taken over the CEO’s role and something that he’ll continue to work at as he fine-tunes his approach.

“That’s the danger in an internal transition, particularly if you’re running an organization with several lines of business,” Stone says. “To answer that, George and I are continually ramping up our communication, particularly to the next group of leadership candidates that we hire. We want to impart the best practices that we would hope leadership candidates would abide by. Their first priority upon accepting their new role is to get out there, talk to people, be present and available.

“It’s easy to get complacent. If you’re transitioning into a new role from another place within the organization, you can kind of become complacent yourself. You can take it for granted that people throughout the company know you, that the people on your team know you.

“That’s why, when you are assuming a new role like this, you need to put as much attention and care as is possible into reaching out to your people, getting your message into all of your various offices and locations.” <<

How to reach: Market Strategies International,

(734) 542-7600 or

The file

Andy Morrison, chairman, Market Strategies International

Rob Stone, CEO, Market Strategies International


Morrison: Doctorate in mass communications research and bachelor's degree in English and journalism with a teaching certificate, University of Michigan.

Stone: Doctorate in cultural studies, Columbia University.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Morrison: Constant communication, which includes both talking and listening. Everybody emphasizes listening nowadays, but you also have to be an effective talker.

Stone: You have to be absolutely dedicated to the success of your clients and colleagues. It seems like one of the simplest lessons to learn, but it is one that is seldom learned.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

Morrison: You need integrity in every sense of the word. You need to be open and transparent in your communication, and deliver on the promises that you make to clients and employees. I also admire decisiveness. Make a decision and set in motion the steps you need to get to the result you want. That is something that is critical to me.

Stone: I would add that you need to convey passion for what you do. That is a big part of our job as leaders, to constantly convey the passion and excitement we feel to all of our teams.

Published in Detroit
Sunday, 30 September 2012 20:00

Leslie Braksick: Tough transitions

One of the toughest transitions for any organization is succeeding the founders. “Founders” could mean those who started the company, those who created a visionary product, those who worked tirelessly to prove a new concept or those who gave birth to a corporate initiative that transformed the organization.

Regardless of whether it’s the entrepreneurial brains and energy behind starting a company or the creative ideas of an exceptional employee or team, making the handoff between initiator and executor is pivotal — and very difficult to do well. Just ask any venture capitalist what worries him or her the most about his or her investment. Or ask any CEO of a large company why he or she suffered through failed product introductions — or why the CEO is navigating the next program du jour.

What is it that makes the handoff so perilous?

The short answer is the relentless sense of ownership by the founder, or founders, for ensuring success and all of the behaviors that go along with that. Those who give birth to something become intertwined with its success or failure. It is part of how the founders become defined and known and they work tirelessly and do whatever it takes.

But given that the ultimate success and sustainability in nearly all cases is achieved by nonfounders who implement the ideas, strategies or organizations they inherit, how can we improve the likelihood of the baton not being dropped in the handoff? Here are some proven ways that go beyond the obvious.

Ensure that the person hired to implement has passion for the cause. Even the most talented leader can’t fake “love” — and nearly all entrepreneurs are in love with their creation and will do whatever it takes to ensure its success.

Often it is the passion and energy of the leader that infects others inside and outside the organization with excitement and motivation to go above and beyond.

Ensure the successor has the skills and credibility to lead. Would you have a smoker implement your health and wellness strategy? Would a leader who drives a large SUV be your pick to lead a “go green” initiative?

A leader may have important skills, but if he or she lacks visible loyalty to “the cause,” employees will see that and be negatively impacted. There is no substitute for the leader walking the talk when no one’s looking.

Arrange for the new leader to receive mentoring from or continued access to the founder. Boundaries on both sides need to be respected, of course, but founders can provide invaluable history and counsel. They may be the one person who truly understands what that leadership role entails and uniquely help the new leader accordingly.

Require the successor to replicate before he or she innovates. Too often there is a rush to “put my stamp on everything.” But if it wasn’t broken when you got it, don’t break it — yet. Learn quickly by replicating what worked under the founder.

Then channel the observations, learnings and new capability to leapfrog the product/organization forward — benefiting from a base of deep understanding and infusion of new insights and capabilities.

Plan for succession from the outset. The biggest test of a start-up company or a new initiative comes when the founders move on. It is really successful only when it is led/championed by those who didn’t launch it.

So, don’t treat succession like it’s the elephant in the room. Treat it as though the future depends on it.

Leslie W. Braksick, Ph.D., is co-founder of CLG Inc. and author of “Preparing CEOs for Success: What I Wish I Knew” (2010) and “Unlock Behavior, Unleash Profits” (2007). Braksick advises top executives, their leadership teams and boards of directors on issues of strategy execution, leadership effectiveness and organizational performance. She can be reached at

Published in Pittsburgh
Sunday, 30 September 2012 20:00

Becoming a change monster

Randy Dobbs advocates that CEOs become “change monsters,” a mythical, business beast capable of transforming even the direst business. To rejuvenate and transform a company, you can’t be intimidated by change or what may be necessary to right the ship.

As the former president and CEO of U.S. Investigations Services Inc., Philips Medical Systems North America and GE Capital, IT Solutions, Dobbs, who is now a business leadership consultant, knows what it takes to transform a company.

“My view is that transformational leadership is the key ingredient for organizational success,” Dobbs says. “Most of the businesses that I’ve run have had two very common ingredients — the first one is they are missing their financial portfolio significantly; the second one is they’ve had organizational chaos.”

As the author of “Transformational Leadership: A Blue Print for Real Organization Change,” Dobbs recently spoke at the ASLON Leadership Forum in Cleveland where he discussed advice from his book and his career for best ways CEOs can be transformational leaders.

Find your success factors

To understand how to change your business, you have to know where your success factors lie. The inverted triangle is a great tool for understanding the value of the customer and how your company serves them.

“When I go in to talk to CEOs of $100 million, $500 million or $25 million companies, the first thing I ask them is, ‘What are your success factors in your business? What are your business objectives?’” Dobbs says. “They say, ‘Well, I want to grow revenue 10 percent this year. I want EBIDTA to grow faster than my revenue. I want to get my growth’s margin up three points.’

“I look at them and say, ‘That’s not a business objective. That’s an outcome.’ Your success factors in your business are those things you want to do to drive that outcome. It could be that I want to get premium price for my product in the market. I want to grow my market share, and I want to take a share within my geography. I want to go into adjacent markets. I want to leverage my existing assets. Those are success factors.”

When you define what that success factor is, you then have to look at your strategy for accomplishing that goal.

“Even if businesses have a success factor, what I find is they don’t have strategy,” he says. “At GE, we used to have five-year plans for strategy. Jack [Welch] came in and blew that up. He said, ‘Don’t have a strategy more than 18 months.’ The world changes too much in 18 months. As every business designs and defines its success factors, it needs to have an 18- to 24-month strategy.”

If you identify your success factors and develop the right strategy, you should find gaps within your business.

“There should be a gap between where you were and the strategy it takes to get there,” he says. “If you don’t have a gap when you get through that process, then you don’t have a good plan. You’re doing something that you really haven’t defined well enough in your business solution.”

Drive change

To close this gap you have to use the sides of the inverted triangle — people and processes. Dobbs uses Southwest Airlines as an example to prove his point.

“They were trying to be the low-cost provider in air transportation and they were trying to be the fastest and the simplest,” he says. “They built a strategy that said, ‘We’ll have a spoke and a hub, we’ll use the same airlines, we’ll be very quick with maintenance, we’ll have a quick turnaround time, and we won’t assign seats.’

“With the right processes and the right people and through all this financial turmoil, they’re the only airline to remain profitable. They had good business success factors, they had a great strategy and they continue to work on processes and executing.”

Think about this relative to your business. This is where you have to be a change monster in order to truly make transformation happen.

“To close the gap you have to be a change monster, and that’s really what transformation is all about,” he says. “A good transformational leader is somebody that has overcome one failure and learned, one failure and learned and kept moving through life.”

You have to get people to a comfort level where if you’re going to transform, they believe in the leader to do the right thing.

“What really drives transformational leadership is that ability to never give up and to see where you’re going,” Dobbs says.

“And be that leader and take the organization there when everybody is standing against you and saying that it can’t be done and you have the belief that it can and you keep driving to that point and keep having that vision and keep overcoming those failures.”

Create a transformational environment

Dobbs notes that five key things are important to create a transformational leadership environment.

“No. 1 is building a culture of change,” Dobbs says. “Businesses fail for two reasons: They fail early on because they run out of cash or they fail long-term because of their inability to change. No. 2, you’ve got to improve and grow the spirit of the team or the esprit de corps.

“No. 3, you have to have very strong communications. No one wants to hear about what happened yesterday. They want to hear about where we were and where we’re going.

“No. 4 is you have to change the financial results. You can be a great speaker, you can build a great team, you can have a wonderful environment of change, but at the end of the day, the scoreboard is going to tell the real story about you and that’s how you’re going to get evaluated.

“The last thing is you’ve got to build a cadre of transformational leaders who can run that business when you’re gone.”

Building a culture of change starts with recognizing your current culture and communicating how you plan to change its structure and character.

“One of the critical things is to create a shared need,” he says. “That’s why communication is so important. Most of the people in your organization, until you explain to them why you need to change, don’t get it. When they start to get it, they’re afraid of it.

“You have to continually develop that movie in your head where this business is going. Know where you’re going to be in 18 months and start selling it every day. You have to keep selling it and selling it and selling it until, all of a sudden, people just get it.”

Driving transformation starts with people and processes on top of a vision, mission and supporting strategies. Being a change monster will help you close the gap of where you want to go.

“As a transformational leader you wear a lot of hats,” Dobbs says. “At the end of the day, your primary job as a transformational leader is to be a change agent. You are that change monster and that’s how people see you if you really want to transform.

“For me, there is no better feeling in the world for a true leader than to really try to change and see a business transform and see the people in it be successful and then see the financial results be successful.”

How to reach: Randy Dobbs, or

Published in Cleveland

As a 26-year-old with long hair and sideburns that merged into a mustache, Bob Weltman asked his father if he could be put in charge of the collection department of his law firm. His father trusted his son’s work ethic and belief that he could run the department much better than it had been, so he said, “Yes.”

From that day on, Weltman has been leading people by example at Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., a law firm with more than 1,200 employees and annual revenue of more than $100 million. He has always prided himself on working harder and longer than anyone else to stay on top.

“My leadership style is one by example,” Weltman says. “I never ask my employees to do anything that I could not do. I always got to work before my employees. I always worked as hard as my employees and I always worked longer than my employees. I was totally dedicated to my job.”

Ever since Weltman held a job bagging groceries as a youngster, he has maintained his work-hard-to-be-successful attitude throughout college and into his professional career.

“My background in working hard was something that I adopted a long time ago,” Weltman says. “If you’re going to accept the responsibility, do it with all your energy and give it all the time that’s necessary to succeed.”

Today, Weltman has lost the long hair and his sideburns, but the mustache and work ethic remain strong. Here is what Weltman has learned in his 50 years of business.

What have been some of your biggest challenges over your career?

The challenge of running a business — profitability. That is always a challenge. Even though we’re in the service business and we’re lawyers, making a profit at the end of the day is a challenge. When you attend any meeting in this law firm and you didn’t know what we were, you would think we manufactured widgets. The meetings we have are all business-driven with business ideas.

I don’t know how you can exist in today’s world in business without taking business courses. If you’re thinking of being a doctor or a lawyer, a businessman, an accountant or anything in the business world, you’ve got to take business classes.

No. 2 is the management of people. Everybody who works here has their own set of problems. You’re trying to merge together a whole bunch of different people with a whole bunch of different problems into one and to motivate them to give their job the best.

If you get too involved in an employee’s personal problems, it can drag you down and distract from what your primary focus is. So being able to merge together people from all different types of backgrounds into one is very, very important.

You have to try to create a team effort. A team is only as good as the weakest link. You’ve got to set the bar high. Saying it can’t be done is not acceptable. I’d rather you try something and fail than say it can’t be done. Don’t be afraid to fail. When you decide to make a decision, measure the chance of success versus the chance of failure.

Don’t do something that can be fatal to the organization. If there is a higher degree of success than there is failure, measure what happens if there is failure because if the failure is detrimental to the organization, then you don’t want to make the decision. You have to learn from those failures.

You take the failures that you have had and try to build them into something that is positive. You want to teach your employees to also take some degree of risk to what they’re doing.

Throughout 50 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in business?

I was a very, very rough employer. I demanded perfection. Even though I knew perfection could not be obtained, I demanded it. I was very rough on the people who worked with me. Some stuck around, and others went other ways.

I remember that I ran into a friend of mine who worked for me at one time and had left. We were reminiscing about the old days, and he told me a story about something I did to him that interfered with his personal life. I knew he was going out one night, and I gave him a stack of files to work and have ready to review the next day.

I don’t remember if I did it intentionally, but he said he had to skip his social event to work on them. I went back to the office and told my son the story. My son said, ‘You know what I would have done? I would have quit.’

There has been a shift from the job meaning everything to you to balance in life. We went from people who worked because they had to work to put food on the table to a period of time where people started making more money and a balance of life became almost as important to being dedicated to the job.

Another change in the industry has been what the clients focus on. Originally, clients came to you because you could give them the best results. Giving good service to the client along with good results used to be the motivating factor.

After 9/11, the client’s focus became security. Now we have security badges, security entrances. In some of our offices, we have security cameras. The clients became very security conscious.

More recently, since the 2008 recession, compliance is bigger. Now they want to know the procedures you’re following to keep us out of trouble. Now the focus isn’t so much on performance; it is how well you’re treating the customer. The emphasis has gone from performance to security to compliance, and those organizations that will be in compliance will get a higher rating than those organizations that have better performance quantitatively.

How important has relationship building been to you?

I feel that when a client comes to me with a problem, they’re coming to me for help. I feel honored to represent a client and help them, and I want to give them something back in return.

I treat clients like friends. I try to establish a personal relationship with them and make a connection with them and a bond so that they can come to me for help, and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to help them. Once they come to me for help, I want to work my hardest to make sure I achieve a result.

You have to make the connection and gain the confidence of that person. You’ve got to get the client or the person to believe that what you’re doing is in their best interest. You’ve got to put their welfare ahead of any other selfish or personal motivation that you may have. You have to give the client the impression that you’re working for them to achieve the best result and that making money is secondary.

I’ve said many times to a client when they come to me with a challenging collection problem and they say, ‘How much are you going to charge me?’ I say to them, ‘I don’t want what I’m going to charge you to stand in the way of me getting you the best result. Pay me what you think I’m worth when it’s done.’

You have to let them know that money and the profit motive is not the main motivation of why you’re doing it.

When clients come and present me with their problem, I tell them, ‘You’ve now given me this problem. You have to walk out of this room and dismiss it from your mind, because if two of us worry about the problem, there’s too much energy being wasted at solving the problem. Once you come to me with a problem, I want you to divorce yourself from that problem and allow me to handle it and try to get you a solution.’

Where did your hard work ethic come from?

There was a book called ‘Bounce,’ and it was the question as to whether greatness is genetic or something you have to work hard to achieve. The theme of that book was that hard work is what makes you good at what you do. I worked very, very hard at what I do, and I still work very hard.

My day starts at night when I take home boxes of files, which I work on until 10 at night. I get to work at 6:30 in the morning, so my day is 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. In order to be good at what you do, you have to put a lot of hours in. It’s not something that just comes your way. It’s something that you got to devote a lot of hard work and a lot of time to.

With all your great athletes, people say they were born with greatness, but from LeBron James to Jimmy Brown, they worked very hard at what they did. Mark Spitz didn’t just jump in a pool and win gold medals. He worked endless hours to achieve greatness. You have to stay focused.

I’m always focused on the job. I have blinders as to anything else that’s going on around me. It’s like a sporting event — when you’re on the basketball court, you have to be able to separate yourself from the rest of the world. Or it’s like a relief pitcher in baseball — when you give up a hit or give up a home run, you’ve got to go out on the mound and separate yourself from what happened in the past because you can’t let it be the driver for what happens in the future.

What have you done to keep up with the industry as it has grown? 

Reading, listening and attending lectures is very important. When I attend seminars, I don’t necessarily go there to learn what the message of the seminar is; I go there to learn what the problems are in the industry. I try to figure out solutions for those problems. As a result, that created different departments in our firm and different ways of handling things.

If you don’t do these things, you’re missing out. When I read a newspaper, I look at what’s in that article that can help further the organization. Is that a marketing opportunity? Is that an opportunity for business? I try to always transfer what I see and hear and read into how I can incorporate that at our firm to make the firm a better organization.

I’m big on sports, so I’ll look to sports to see how management decisions are made. I look at how players are treated and the education of players and how they learn what the game is all about. It’s all about the ‘Bounce’ theory — are you given the job at the time that’s necessary to be the best at what you can do?

What have been some keys to keeping the firm a leader in its industry?

I’ve been a visionary in running the firm. We were one of the first law firms in our field to have more than one office. We were the first law firm to have a probate collection department.

I like to be the first at what we’re doing, and the reason why is if you’re the first, there is no measure of competition. If everybody is talking about it, then it’s too late. That’s why, when you go to conferences, you listen to what the underlying message is and not what is being said.

I’m also the kind of person that when I come up with an idea, I want to implement it immediately and get started on it. All of us are very busy and none of us are sitting here waiting for the client to call us or walk in the door, but when you’re presented with something new, you have to be able to start working on that problem immediately without losing any concentration on what your daily task is. A lot of people are very slow at appropriating something new. When you think of something to do, you have to start it.

How to reach: Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co. LPA, (216) 685-1000 or


- Give 100 percent to your current job.

- Build relationships with your clients.

- Be a leader and focus on solving problems.

The Weltman File

Bob Weltman

Senior partner

Weltman, Weinberg and Reis Co. LPA

Born: Cleveland, Ohio

Education: Received a BBA and a master’s in finance from the The Ohio State University and a JD from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law

What was your very first job and what did you take away from that experience?

I got a job working in a grocery store. I used to bag groceries and take them to people’s cars and then run back to beat the others in line. The average tip was a quarter. That was one of the first experiences where I realized how easy it was to be successful; you just had to work hard.

Who is someone you look up to?

My favorite baseball player is Lou Gehrig. He never missed a day of work.

What are a few of your favorite sports memories?

I went to Cal Ripken night when he set the record for most consecutive games. I was there for the Indians game when Kenny Lofton scored from second base on a passed ball. I attended the Ohio State championship game against Miami where it went into overtime at the Fiesta Bowl. I attended the World Series in 1995 and 1997 for the Indians.

What has been one of your proudest moments over your 50-year career?

It was going to my father and asking him if I could run the collection department and him having enough confidence in me to do it.

If you could invite three people to dinner, who would invite?

George Steinbrenner, Bill Gates and Thomas Edison. Innovative, creative people.

Published in Cleveland
Sunday, 30 September 2012 20:00

Donna Rae Smith: Reading the signals

A client called me in a heightened state of frustration. Her business group recently made major decisions regarding strategy and future direction. While she was enthusiastic about what lay ahead, her team members weren’t. They were exhibiting signs of dissatisfaction and sowing the seeds of subversion. She needed to act quickly, but she didn’t know how.

Without knowing anything more, I could already guess the root of the problem: the team hadn’t felt included in the strategy-level decision-making. As I dug deeper, my suspicions were confirmed. Leadership had a history of asking for input and then stifling open and honest dialogue.

Another client recently went through a major restructuring. In the process, the company left employees in the dark by failing to communicate what was happening and why. By the time the client called Bright Side, it was facing a debilitating backlash. 

Whether it’s leadership consistently disregarding (or failing to solicit) employee feedback or neglecting to communicate significant changes — the result is always the same: Employees end up feeling disrespected and devalued. Resentment simmers and eventually boils over.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know that not every decision can be subject to employee feedback. But, all too often, leadership loses sight of the organization’s most valued asset: its people. With a single-minded focus on the bottom line, leaders make the mistake of treating employees like automatons rather than people.

In the rush of getting the job done, leaders must remember these core truths: All people want to feel valued and respected for the work they do, to know that their contributions matter and to feel heard. When we overlook these principles, employees become disheartened, discouraged and disengaged. One way or another, the discontent manifests itself and everyone suffers.

The solution is to stay connected. Stay connected to your employees daily by cultivating honest person-to-person (rather than person-to-object) relationships, where respect and communication are the cornerstones. Demonstrate through your words and your actions that you value their work, that their input matters and that you believe in transparency. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you won’t at times make decisions that they don’t agree with. It means that the conversation will have happened — they’ll have spoken, you’ll have listened, and no one will be in the dark.   

Create opportunities daily to demonstrate that employee feedback is valued. How? For starters, listen more and talk less. A good way to do that is to ask more questions. If you don’t like what you hear, don’t get defensive. A defensive reaction will only shut the conversation down and signal that you aren’t really interested in what others have to say. Instead, ask more questions to clarify and don’t take disagreement personally.

Intentionally seek out viewpoints that are different than your own. If you only talk to people who agree with you or tell you what you want to hear, then you’ll create a false sense of reality.

Lastly, be transparent. I can’t emphasize this enough. So many problems arise when leaders fail to be transparent in their decision-making. Don’t leave people guessing about important matters that impact them.

Resolve to actively practice these behaviors in meetings and routine interactions. Ask team members to follow suit. By doing so, you’ll demonstrate your willingness to learn and to be engaged. Morale will improve and you’ll head off unnecessary revolts and insurrections. <<

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, please visit or contact Donna Rae Smith at

Published in Akron/Canton
Sunday, 30 September 2012 20:00

Exploring real-world opportunities

On Oct. 30-31, more than 700 advanced energy industry leaders will convene at the Greater Columbus Convention Center for Ohio’s first statewide Advanced Energy B2B Conference & Expo. The event, produced by NorTech and presented by Advanced Energy Economy Ohio, is the largest conference and exhibition focused on the companies, technologies and researchers driving progress in Ohio’s advanced energy industry.

The business-to-business expo is also geared toward companies interested in entering the industry, supply chain manufacturers with an interest in advanced energy opportunities, national collaborators and value chain partners interested in doing business in Ohio or with Ohio partners.

“We are at a critical point in the growth and evolution of Ohio’s advanced energy economy,” says Dave Karpinski, vice president of NorTech. “The Advanced Energy B2B Conference & Expo provides a critical platform to share ideas for developing new, innovative advanced energy technologies, network with leading industry decision-makers and capitalize on common synergies for future business opportunities.”

Advanced Energy B2B 2012 builds on the success of Advanced Energy B2B 2011, which was geographically focused in Northeast Ohio and attracted more than 450 attendees. As a result, the footprint for Advanced Energy B2B 2012 has been expanded to bring together advanced energy stakeholders from across Ohio. Developing connections that will accelerate the growth of the state’s advanced energy industry is a key priority of the event. 

“It is important advanced energy companies, researchers and investors convene to discuss opportunities and challenges in the industry, as well as solutions to foster innovation and economic growth,” said Michelle Murcia, executive director of Advanced Energy Economy Ohio. “We have assembled industry-leading experts from across Ohio and the nation to share their insight and knowledge with conference attendees as they formulate their own business strategies for the advanced energy market.”

The program, which includes a slate of state, national advanced energy experts and thought leaders, will highlight Ohio’s strengths in several major sectors of advanced energy as well as policy, business and regulatory issues that could impact the industry in Ohio. Compelling examples of success stories and best practices in several sectors or projects will also be featured.

Ohio’s shale play will be featured as part of the B2B program. Utica Shale in Ohio is believed to hold a significant amount of “wet gas,” which contains natural gas liquids that are used by makers of plastics and chemicals. Experts will explore downstream opportunities for the polymer and chemical industries as a result of the shale gas boom, the economic effects of shale gas and if it will be revolutionary or evolutionary in nature.

Energy efficiency is also another important topic that will be covered. Given Ohio’s strengths in manufacturing, the energy-efficiency industry could be a significant economic opportunity for the state. Up until now, there has been very little focus on how Ohio manufacturers will play in the energy efficiency industry and the impact it can have on the economy. Advanced Energy Economy Ohio (AEE Ohio) will share the results of a statewide energy-efficiency road map that will highlight the energy-efficiency products and services being provided by Ohio manufacturers, the specific players and areas of critical mass they represent, and priorities for the state and its regions to target for growth.

Energy policy experts will preview what is on the horizon for innovative state policy approaches, the short- and long-term scenario for federal initiatives and opportunities for the Buckeye State. Attendees will gain an understanding of the policies needed to continue to build Ohio’s advanced energy industry.

Companies that have deployed some of the most significant advanced energy projects in Ohio will share their experiences with getting advanced energy projects launched, as well the challenges, successes and the outlook for initiating similar projects in Ohio.

The conference program will be complemented with a robust exposition hall, showcasing innovative companies, researchers and technologies in Ohio. More than 120 companies and organizations are expected to exhibit. A new addition to this year’s event is the Technology Showcase, which will feature short presentations by companies and researchers who are seeking collaborators, project/demonstration resources and partnerships for funding.

An exclusive online social networking tool, called “B2B Connections,” will be used to facilitate networking among conference participants. This online tool provides attendees, exhibitors, sponsors and speakers the opportunity to connect based on matching interests, enabling them to communicate and schedule one-on-one business meetings with targeted prospective individuals and companies. Attendees are encouraged to register in advance at

Published in Cleveland

Emma Dickison knows a good business model when she sees one. As a former executive of both Blockbuster and Sylvan Learning Center, Dickison is now leveraging her business expertise to focus on growing the franchise brand of Home Helpers.

While at Blockbuster during the company’s heyday, Dickison helped grow the brand from 150 stores to 8,800 worldwide in her 14 years there. She also helped fuel similar growth at Sylvan Learning Center.

So when Home Helpers Founder and CEO Gary Green recruited Dickison to join the provider of one-on-one companion care and in-home services in 2007, he knew she would be able to help develop a strategy to grow the Home Helpers franchise.

“Gary and I started talking about Home Helpers because of my experiences and where he wanted to take the company,” says Dickison, president of Home Helpers. “I really saw it as a great opportunity to take a company that had done well and make it even better and continue to drive and build it. I think of Blockbuster and how that growth happened and I thought I’m young enough to still do it again.”

Home Helpers has more than 600 locations and has more than doubled its revenue in the past five years for 2011 systemwide revenue of $79 million.

“Home Helpers was a great company and they had just celebrated their 10-year anniversary, but in franchising, the first few years in any concept is really a strong learning curve.”

Here’s how Dickison used her past experiences to develop strategies that would allow Home Helpers to reach new heights.

Change is good

In any business that has the objective to grow its operations, change has to be a necessity that is embraced by the company and everyone in it. Dickison had to find out where to take the business next that would help it in its growth.

“After 10 years, obviously we had a foundation underneath us,” Dickison says. “Home Helpers was started as completely nonmedical services, and it did what was known as companion care, which meant serving as a companion to a client who needed meals made for them or maybe to help getting to and from the doctor.

“About two years before I joined, the industry started to transition into what is called personal care. Personal care is where you’re physically working with a client whether that’s transferring them from a wheelchair to a bed or helping them bathe, it’s hands-on care.

“From that, a year ago, we transitioned to yet another phase out of a strategic decision to continue to be able to provide a broader continuum of care to the client so they aren’t dealing with multiple agencies. We now have our offices in a position where they can provide medical services as well.”

The company then supplemented that with its Direct Link brand, which is vital sign monitoring, medication management and personal emergency response systems to allow clients to remain at home for as long as safely possible.

“So from where I started with largely a companion care business, we’ve now transitioned over the last five years into an organization that allows families to utilize one agency to be able to keep mom, dad, an ill spouse or a sick child home longer than what would otherwise be possible,” she says.

No matter what industry your business is in, change is a difficult thing to grasp and implement.

“We are all creatures of habit, and to have a bold result, you have to make bold decisions,” Dickison says. “For us, that has been strategically to be able to say, ‘What additional services do we need to provide so that families can feel comfortable about their family member?’ Change on any system is a challenge.

“There is a book by Tom Feltenstein and it’s called, ‘Change is Good, You Go First.’  There is a quote in that book that I think is powerful that says, ‘If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a lot less.’ The reality is you have to provide a product or service that the consumer wants or needs and is willing to pay for, and that’s kind of where we are.”

The services Home Helpers provides are needed, and the company has to continue to change as the industry does and as its consumers do to stay relevant.

“We’re a strong believer in testing and listening to our consumer and our franchise offices and then making the changes, and we’re changing first because we think we need to remain relevant,” she says.

Changes in your business can’t be made without a strong reason for making them.

“You have to have a great understanding of the industry you’re in and where it’s going and how you want to position yourself in it,” Dickison says. “Secondly, you have to take risks. The alternative to not doing something can be fatal.”

Dickison compares risk to a baseball player at bat — you never want to be called out not swinging the bat.

“Some things are going to be a great success, and there’s probably going to be a few things that are not, but you can’t be afraid to fail,” she says. “You have to be willing as a leader to take that risk and step up. Then you have to be accountable for whatever the results are. I take very seriously my role in that the decisions I make as a leader impact thousands of families, and I can’t take that lightly because I know they are depending on us to be that leader.

“I also have to think of the brand and lead us into the future and know that will require and has required us to take risks to figure it out, to make it happen and to move the system forward.”


The changes that Home Helpers makes are part of forming a strategy to move the company forward. These plans have to be carefully thought out and the right people have to be involved in the process.

“The end users, which are our offices, those who deliver every day a core mission to the communities that they serve, have to have a part in shaping strategy,” Dickison says. “We are very strong in seeking feedback from our franchise offices.

“We survey them twice a year formally. We get feedback after every training session and at our national conference. We get feedback on everything, and then we take that feedback and we review it very seriously to say, ‘What is the direction we need to go?’”

Having your stakeholders, which is your staff as well as your franchise offices, have a voice in shaping that strategy is key because then you can get buy in.

“You’re never going to please 100 percent of the people all of the time,” she says. “I have to make decisions as a leader as to what’s going to benefit my brand and the majority of my franchise offices. So having them be a part of that is critical, and we’ve done that in the five years that I’ve been here.

“Our positioning to move into medical services was as a direct result of focus groups and feedback we had done with our franchise offices who were concerned long term that based on where the industry is going, that if we did not make some changes in that direction, we were going to be at a competitive disadvantage.”

Franchise business models are unique in that franchisees don’t actually work for you but with you, which can make strategy implementation tough sometimes.

“The uniqueness of it is if you’re an organization that’s not franchise-owned, it’s easier to make that strategy and communication known and carry it through,” Dickison says. “It has to be a very collaborative effort and everyone has to buy in to the direction you’re going to. That’s why it’s not as simple as it is for some organizations where we decide the strategy, we tell you what it is and you deploy it.

“In franchising, there has to be a collaboration between the staff, the owners and management to work together to realize that strategy and deliver it.”

While everybody has the opportunity to have a voice, you’re going to make some decisions that are unpopular.

“It becomes a matter of showing the value — the features and benefits — of what you’re introducing or eliminating, in some cases, as you move the system forward,” she says. “It really comes back down to including stakeholders in the decision-making process, communicating, gaining buy-in and executing against it.”

Grow your franchise

In a franchise business model, it is crucial that franchise owners are aware of the business strategy and are involved enough that they want to contribute and generate ideas to help grow the company.

“We get those ideas every day, and I’m grateful,” Dickison says. “Our franchise owners give us feedback on ideas that they think could benefit the operating system daily via email, live conversation, surveys, national meetings and any communication style you can imagine. If they could send us smoke signals, they’re willing to share. That’s the great part for me.

“Every time I go out into the field, they are just so passionate about what our mission is and the work we are doing. They are eager to support our growth and our operating system.”

To get your company employees or franchisees involved in the business, you have to make sure you are communicating to them and that they understand what it takes to grow the business.

“It comes down to communication, communication, communication — aligning the strategy, communicating it and allowing them to be part of it,” she says. “I did, when I first got here, a series of town-hall meetings. I traveled all over the country and we talked about where we were and where we wanted to go. I made it clear from that moment that we wanted feedback.

“Not only did I communicate it, I demonstrated it in my actions. Many of the changes that we have seen today are as a result of very incredibly bright business owners who live and work in the trenches every day serving hundreds and hundreds of communities that have been willing to serve and provide feedback.

“Not only did I tell them it was important, I demonstrated it because I took action on the feedback that was given.”

With a strong strategy in place to deliver on what the industry and the company’s clients are asking for and a smart and devoted team of franchisees, Home Helpers is growing to that next level.

“We’re a brand of 15 years into growth,” Dickison says. “We are in 42 states today, which means we still have markets available for owners to come in and be able to build a strong business and serve the communities that they have.”

The keys to this growth have been a couple of points.

“No. 1, it’s selecting the right franchise owner,” she says. “Are they going to have the skill set, the expertise, the working capital to be able to realize their dreams of owning a small business that we can help them support? Selection of those that you are awarding territories is key.

“Then backing them up with a great operating system and a proven operating system that can help support their growth is critical. Then it’s having the right staff in place to ensure that.”

Since Dickison has been at Home Helpers, the staff has grown by about 40 percent and has done so because the company has grown and supported that expansion.

“It comes down to four things: having the right strategy, selecting the right owners to come into the system, giving them a terrific operating system that stays relevant to the industry, and then providing them great support,” she says.

With those four helping Dickison lead the company to that No. 1 spot in the industry, she is able to focus on the future.

“We want to continue to maximize our opportunities here domestically,” she says. “We are going to continue to explore those opportunities that allow us to stay on the cutting edge and remain as a strong competitor in our industry.”

How to reach: Home Helpers: (800) 216-4196 or  


-          Embrace change; understand where you want to be.

-          Form a strategy to get you were you want to be.

-          Communicate changes and strategies.

The Dickison File

Emma Dickison


Home Helpers

Born: Ashland, Ky.

Education: She received a bachelor of arts in history and has a minor in secondary education from the University of Florida.

What was your first job and what did you take away from that experience?

My dad, in the recession of 1972, bought a small, independently owned hotel in Florida. That was going to be my parents’ retirement. They took a huge risk, invested everything they had, borrowed more and bought this hotel. At the age of 10 I was a maid. I cleaned rooms, I helped paint, I helped clean the pool and scrubbed the lounge. I learned from that experience to have an incredible work ethic and know that nothing was going to be given to me without me working hard for it.

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

Business is truly about relationships and how you interact with people. It’s really the golden rule — treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s true of your staff, franchise owners and vendors.

Who is a leader you admire in business?

The best leader I ever worked with is a woman by the name of Eileen Terry. She was an executive with Blockbuster. She was the first woman at the time in that role, and I believe there hasn’t been another who has held the title of executive vice president. She was incredibly gifted. She had very high standards, but she was such a great mentor. Today she is at Panda Express.

What are you excited about within the health care industry?

I’m excited about the role Home Helpers will play. Everything I read says we’re all going to need some level of care and so for us to play a part of that, culturally it’s important. Not just from a business standpoint, but how are we culturally going to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. The fact that we get to play such a significant role in that is exciting.

Published in Cincinnati

Standard business VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) sales are increasing as business owners become more aware of the technology and how it has matured over the years. Business IP phones are no exception, and improved features are impacting business efficiency.

“Five or 10 years ago, early adopters were willing to accept poor quality to be on the cutting edge, but now, the quality has caught up with the demand,” says John Putnam, vice president of direct sales at PowerNet Global. “Today, you have low cost, good quality and a lot of features that people with older phone systems didn’t have and are now necessary in order to be competitive in the marketplace.”

Smart Business spoke with Putnam about how business IP phones can improve all areas of your operations, from customer service and communications to sales force activities.

What are some recent feature improvements with business IP phones?

Unified communications, a big buzzword within the industry, combine email, fax and voicemail into a centralized location. Within your email inbox, faxes are converted to emails through E-Fax, and with IP-based phone systems, voicemails are converted to a WAV file and emailed to you. Then, faxes and voicemails can be saved in the relevant customer file. By integrating the phone and computer technology, employees are able to retrieve information quicker.

Phones and computers can also be used more efficiently. A phone call brings up the caller ID and relevant contact information — if that person is in your contact management software — on your computer screen before you answer. You can also open your contact records, click a button and dial the phone. From a contact management standpoint, you now have a record of incoming and outgoing calls in your system, including missed calls that didn’t leave a voicemail.

The next big thing is cell phone integration, in which mobile employees can push a button on their phones or cell phones to forward calls from the office to their cell phones.

How can these advances help employers run their businesses more productively?

Businesses with sales organizations are routing calls to the company first and then bouncing them out to the sales force. As a result, the company directly owns that relationship, while calls still get out in an efficient manner. Then, if a salesperson leaves the organization, you can easily reroute those calls to his or her replacement or manager within, maintaining the client relationship.

Business IP phones give companies options in terms of employees who aren’t located in the office by routing calls to either an IP-based phone or a cell phone. This allows employees to telecommute, so you don’t have to have square footage to house them in your bricks-and-mortar location.

Some business owners have closed their office space entirely and have all employees working remotely. Customers never know they are calling into someone’s house through auto-attendance and IP-based phone systems, and employers aren’t paying rent or any of the other costs associated with having a bricks-and-mortar location.

Routing calls works well with a sales force but also for others such as lawyers who often travel between their offices and court. Travel time becomes more productive for those who have meetings outside the office. Not only can those employees receive calls, but it can be easier for them to retrieve voicemails. They see the caller ID, date, time and duration of voicemails on their cell phones, and then choose what to listen to based on priority, improving your company’s response time.

Additionally, the ability to easily transfer calls to a different location provides better disaster recovery options. For example, if there is a problem in the work space, such as a loss of power, you can take your VoIP handsets and relocate to a place where there is Internet connectivity and power to get the company back up and running as quickly as possible.

How else can business IP phone features improve customer service?

By having remote employees across the country, businesses can extend their hours. For example, an organization can take advantage of the fact that 5 p.m. on the West Coast is 8 p.m. on the East Coast, allowing office hours or support line hours to be extended without paying overtime.

Companies that have teams dedicated to specific clients can bounce calls between offices so that only someone who is on the team is dealing with that important client. This skill-based call routing is possible because there is flexibility not only within offices but also call routing between branch offices.

How do these phones make communication more efficient in an office?

With unified communications, you have a centralized location for voicemail, email and faxes so employees aren’t spending their time chasing down and sharing information. Communications are saved in a shared folder on your network and multiple people can retrieve them more quickly.

Digital recordings also can be used for training purposes, such as for customer service in terms of coaching — the customer was angry and here is how the account manager defused the situation and addressed the client’s needs. Your sales manager can refer back to recorded conversations, and say, ‘Here’s what you said in this situation. Maybe you could have tried this or addressed it differently. Next time, why don’t you try saying this?’ This allows salespeople to more easily take advantage of each others’ experiences.

In addition, recorded conversations can be used as a part of contract negotiations or for a dispute on the collections side. Recorded calls and digital voicemails also create an easily transferred reference if someone else is working that account because of turnover or employee absence.

Business IP phones create more flexibility and accountability, which, in turn, increases your company’s efficiency and productivity.

John Putnam is vice president of direct sales at PowerNet Global. Reach him at (866) 764-7329 or

Insights Technology is brought to you by PowerNet Global

Published in Cincinnati

To attract and retain top talent, it is critical for a company to have a strong benefits plan in place. In today’s uncertain environment, employee benefits represent a significant portion of the financial security employees are seeking, and they are demanding jobs in which those benefits meet their needs.

To ensure that employees are satisfied with your company’s current health care plan, it is important to solicit their feedback. Then, based on your findings, it may be time to consider searching for a plan that is a better fit for your employees.

“Companies should look at a number of benefit plans to determine if the designs and structures could better meet the needs of their work force,” says Stephen Slaga, chief marketing officer of Total Health Care.

Smart Business spoke with Slaga about how to identify the right provider for a business’s employee population and how to ensure a smooth transition when changing plans.

How can employers assess whether changing providers would benefit their company?

Typically, employers look at overall satisfaction with their current provider to determine if a change is needed. Cost, quality of coverage, accessibility, flexibility and the impact a change may bring both to the employer and the employees are some of the components that are measured to make this determination.

Seeking employee input is also important. For many employers, the No. 1 objective in offering benefits is to retain employees. However, those benefits must not only meet the needs of employees, they must also meet the monetary constraints of the employer.

Determining which carrier can provide the best care at the most efficient price and matching coverage options to what employees are looking for is critical. When possible, use benchmarking data to compare the offerings of different providers. Employers should also review coverage options and contribution strategies that their direct competitors are deploying.

Because the cost of benefits can have a large impact on employees’ paychecks, strong health care coverage and benefits are an important piece of the overall job package. In many cases, a small percentage difference in salary is secondary to the type of health care coverage available to employees.

What questions should an employer ask when seeking potential providers?

It is important to be thorough and to ask the right questions when searching for a potential provider. How many years has the provider been operating? Is it financially stable? What kind of reputation does it have? Inquire about the provider’s different types of benefit plan offerings and the service area. Also investigate historical rate trends in order to gain a better understanding of what to expect in terms of future premium increases.

Finally, be cognizant of customer service criteria. It could be worth the extra premium for the business owner to have the peace of mind of knowing that he or she is dealing with a reputable company that is looking out for the employees.

What common mistakes do employers make when changing providers?

Employers don’t always ask the right questions and, as a result, they may not fully understand the product they are purchasing. In the rush to implement a change in providers, employers sometimes do things that could result in the disruption of services to their employees.

Another common mistake is that employers assume that lower rates will equal a lower cost, which may not necessarily be true when they factor in the possibility of higher deductibles and coinsurance being passed on to their employees.


What steps can employers take to help ensure a smooth transition?

Make sure that adequate time is given to implement all changes when moving to a new provider. Communicate the changes to all employees and allow enough time so that any questions or concerns they have may be addressed. Conduct employee meetings to explain the changes and how they may impact employees. Also explain the overall value that employees are receiving by creating total benefit statements, which includes salary, benefits, workers’ compensation costs, vacation time, etc.

How can a benefits provider assist with the transition?

Transitioning to a new benefit provider requires significant planning. Employees should be told as early as possible about the changes and be provided with written benefit information explaining those changes. The benefits provider should conduct open enrollment meetings to answer any questions that employees may have. Benefit material should also be made available so that employees can review it on their own time.

How should the change be communicated to employees?

Communicating changes to employees requires adequate time and planning. The most common form of communication is done during the open enrollment season. Often, open enrollments are conducted and led by an agent or broker hired by employers to assist in administrating their employee health care benefits.

Benefit meetings should be scheduled around work so that employees are able to attend to ask questions about the new plan. Providing this education to employees is critical, and there are a number of ways to make information available, including health care plan websites, newsletters and direct mail pieces. Through the use of multipronged education programs, employees will have a better understanding of the changes, which results in better customer satisfaction.

Stephen Slaga is chief marketing officer of Total Health Care. Reach him at (313) 871-7810 or

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Total Health Care

Published in Chicago

Over the past five years, layoffs have become an undeniable fact of life for millions of Americans, and even today as we slowly recover from the great recession, layoffs continue. For example, in June, there were 4.3 million total separations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And as painful as they may be, layoffs are sometimes necessary to allow a business to reorganize or restructure to remain viable. If they are not handled correctly, however, a reduction in force could be devastating to the future of a company. Research done after the economic downturn in the 1990s found layoff survivors had high levels of distrust and lower levels of motivation. In addition, absenteeism increased and productivity decreased.

“The keys to effectively managing a layoff are planning, communication and treating people with dignity,” says Jerry Miller, vice president, marketing, at Executive Career Services. “Your goals should be to preserve morale and the intellectual capital of the organization and to avoid litigation.”

Smart Business spoke with Miller about how employers can mitigate the negative effects of layoffs when they become necessary.

What role should planning play with managing layoffs?

Planning encompasses numerous areas, so you need to first understand the reasons for having the layoff in the first place. What do you hope to accomplish? You need to determine what the company will look like going forward — post-layoff.

Then you’ll need to decide which positions are going to be eliminated and why. Also, how much notice will be given and what type of severance packages and other benefits will be provided, including outplacement assistance? While you don’t want the legal department to drive the layoff, you need to know the relevant laws and understand all the legal ramifications. Some of the more important laws to be concerned with include The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) and laws dealing with age and other forms of discrimination.

Finally, and very importantly, you’ll want to formulate your communication strategy, both during and after the layoff. Once the planning process is complete, move swiftly. Don’t drag things out. Word travels fast in an organization and you want to stay ahead of rumors.

How does a good communication strategy look during a reduction in force?

Once the implementation phase begins, communication should be wide and frequent. A critical component of this phase is the notification meetings, which should be conducted by the immediate supervisor or department head, and if the meeting is expected to be especially sensitive, a representative from human resources. This is not a time to delegate. It is critical that these managers, particularly if they have never delivered a layoff notice, be coached in how to conduct the notification meetings. If you are using an outplacement firm, it will be able to provide this type of coaching.

What do managers and department heads need to keep in mind during a notification meeting?

Information packets should be prepared in advance with all the necessary information. Expect that impacted employees will likely be in a state of shock after learning of the job loss and much of what is said afterward will not be heard or understood. They need information to take with them to read when they are finally able to process the bad news. Notification meetings should be private and take place as early in the workday as possible on a day that is not immediately prior to a weekend, a holiday or a planned vacation.

The impacted employees must be treated with dignity and respect. They will share their experience with survivors, and if they are not treated appropriately, it could have a very negative impact on those remaining. Managers should imagine themselves on the other side of that table and treat their exiting employees as they themselves would like to be treated. Be brief and direct in the notification meeting. Anticipate emotional reactions and be prepared to deal with them. Don’t engage in small talk or allow your anxiety to cause you to say something to ease the immediate situation that can’t be lived up to. Explain that positions, not people, are being eliminated. You want to be sensitive to the employee’s situation but direct and firm, making sure he or she knows the decision is final and non-negotiable. Tell employees how much you appreciate their work and thank them for their contributions. Finally, direct them to the next step in the process.

How should an employer handle the remaining employees?

Oftentimes a company is so focused on the layoff itself that it loses sight of the impact on the survivors, but doing so can cause significant problems later. This is where leaders need to lead. Meet with the remaining employees to discuss the layoffs in an honest and forthright manner. Share the latest company news with them and commit to keeping them informed. Acknowledge their emotions and give them time to deal with them, but not too much time — don’t allow them to engage in endless carping or complaining. Work must go on. Managers should lead by example. Be positive but also realistic. Discuss the workload and how it will be distributed, perhaps even asking the team what they would recommend. Keep lines of communication open and check in regularly with individuals. Above all, be available to remaining employees. Don’t spend time in your office with the door closed.

Remember, how you treat people matters, to those impacted as well as to those who remain. If you plan effectively, communicate openly and often, and treat people with dignity and respect, a layoff can be done with minimal disruption and little or no negative impact on the organization going forward.

Jerry Miller is a vice president, marketing, at Executive Career Services. Reach him at (949) 251-5600 or

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Published in Orange County