For Dan Roitman, much of business is science.
Since founding specialty Internet retailer Stroll LLC in his University of Maryland dorm room 13 years ago, Roitman’s career has consisted of an ongoing series of hypotheses, experiments, data analysis, adjusting of hypotheses and formulation of theories.
Roitman’s scientific approach to business-building has developed a highly entrepreneurial culture at Stroll, in which team members are encouraged to share ideas, innovate and test their assumptions. It’s a mentality that has helped the company sustain a period of rapid growth — 80 percent in 2008 and 50 percent in 2009, followed by a year-over-year 100 percent growth margin from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, the company surpassed $80 million in annual revenue for the first time.
But maintaining a forward-thinking mindset throughout the entire organization isn’t something that just happens. It requires CEO Roitman to hire, train and empower his people to achieve the desired results. It’s something that was driven home to Roitman during the recession, when he had to suspend the growth of the company for a year due to a lack of additional financing from Stroll’s bank.
“That was my biggest concern, because we had always been a growth company,” Roitman says. “Then, due to circumstances beyond our control, we had to put a specific order volume cap on the business.
“It really became more about communicating that this is the challenge, everybody knew what was going on in that environment, you had a lot of economic hardship, you heard a lot about layoffs that were going on elsewhere. I have to imagine everyone was happy that we were doing well, but frustrated that we couldn’t do better.”
Through it all, Roitman has had to focus on motivating his employees, maintaining a sense of transparency, while still encouraging open thought, experimentation and the scientific mentality that had made Stroll a success in the first place.
Embrace best practices
It’s easy to say you embrace best practices as an organization. Actually discovering, selecting and implementing best practices from another entity are another ballgame. Even if you are able to discover and select an outside idea that you think will help your business, there is a good chance you wouldn’t implement it — at least, not in the form in which you discovered it.
“I once heard a speaker talk about the idea of cloning best practices and how most people don’t have a so-called cloning gene,” Roitman says. “If I told you, right now, the secret to making a million dollars in 90 days and if you followed my instructions exactly, you’d make a million dollars; most people wouldn’t be able to follow it exactly. They’d start to think about how to improve upon what you’re telling them.
“Sam Walton would go into any competitor’s store, and even if it was a really shoddy store, he’d find something they were doing better than he was doing. Through that process, through a million little optimizations, he became a formidable competitor and then an industry leader.
“So if someone is doing something better than you are, you should at least recognize that they are and be willing to try it in your business as well.”
But it is a double-edged sword when it comes to adding new policies and processes to your organization. You don’t want to corrupt the external idea, because it was successful elsewhere for a reason, and that is why you want to on-board it at your company. But you also want to give your people an opportunity to think of ways they can improve upon the idea or alter it so it better fits your company’s specific situation.
For Roitman, that is where the need for a culture that utilizes a testing-based, scientific approach becomes critical. His team members at Stroll can propose new ideas and changes to existing ideas, but they have to back the proposals up with supporting data.
“If you have a constant, iterative testing philosophy, the barrier to testing is very low,” Roitman says. “So if somebody is doing something on, say, the marketing side, you ask yourself about the probability of something similar working in your business. What is the probability of this one idea being more successful than another?
“Ultimately, you have finite resources for your various departments, so you do have to have a mechanism for prioritizing — some kind of filter for what you believe the contribution or change will be.”
Roitman ran into a best-practices testing scenario when he and his leadership team noticed marketers in his company’s space were having success with video marketing initiatives. Through testing and quantification of the results that Roitman’s team believed Stroll could expect, the company was able to implement its own video marketing initiatives.
“Since then, we have won two major awards for our video marketing,” Roitman says. “That is an example of us taking a best practice from outside and utilizing it in a way that betters an area of our company.
“In another area, we’ve also brought in an industry expert to advise us on our shipping costs. It led to us having a 30 percent reduction in our shipping costs (in 2011), and we should have another 30 percent reduction (in 2012).
“We didn’t directly adopt a best practice from somewhere else in that case, but the insight from the industry expert that we brought in allowed us to take things to the next level in that area, and it’s information we wouldn’t have gotten any other way.”
Learn from mistakes
Another aspect of having a culture that is focused on experimentation and learning by doing is a willingness to accept mistakes and failure as part of the process. That is, as long as the failure is part of the process and not a part of employee underperformance.
With entrepreneurship as a key building block of Roitman’s culture at Stroll, often he is willing to take new products to market, and let the market determine whether the idea was good or not.
“Obviously, it depends on what level you’re talking about making mistakes,” Roitman says. “But if you inherently have a testing culture, you know you’re going to have failures, and it’s simply going to be a part of the experimentation process.
“But there are failures of concepts or improvements, and there is failure of performance, which is an entirely different category. The performance category isn’t just a matter of experimentation. It’s a matter of setting up support structures so that people don’t set themselves up for failure. You have to work with them to define goals up front that are realistic and all the general management concepts around that.
“Once you’ve defined the goals, you need to check in with your people to make sure they are on track and setting up workable project plans.”
If you’re working with your people to set achievable goals and realistic project plans, it becomes much easier for you and your leadership team to separate a bad idea from a bad performance.
“It’s all in the mechanics around your execution, which you need to have in your processes,” Roitman says. “If someone just isn’t performing, there is an issue there. But if it’s an idea itself that is failing, but everyone thought it was worthwhile to pursue and a reasonable move to make at the outset, there is no problem in that case. And you have to cultivate that mentality within all layers of management.”
To help guard against large-scale mistakes that could have wide-ranging implications for your company, Roitman says you should put platforms in place that allow you to test new ideas on a smaller level, then scale the successful ideas to larger projects involving more people.
It is a tactic that allows you to commit fewer resources to a project initially, while still getting a sense for whether the idea will work — which is a critical factor as many companies are still struggling with resource management in the wake of the recession.
“That can definitely be something you’re doing; we’ve done that ourselves,” Roitman says. “For instance, in our call center, we’ve rolled out a small-scale test in one area, see how that does, then roll it out on a larger scale.
“In some other areas, we’ve broken down into teams across different areas of the company and tried different things in each area. That allows us to gain some insight into how we can work with different needs and different management methodologies.”
As you go through these processes, you have to keep in mind that your role as the leader is to serve as the traffic cop who ensures that the right type and right amount of resources find their way to the right areas of the organization, into the hands that can best use the resources to produce the ideas and product that turn the highest profit.
“Everything is interrelated,” Roitman says. “Departmental activities roll up to the company at large. So my job is to make sure the plan we have communicated is clearly on track, everybody knows the most important things we have to focus on, and there are no other distractions. We have a lot of ideas flying around, which is a good thing, but we still have to maintain focus. As far as the direction you are going, you have to define what is in and what is out — you have to define both.”
How to reach: Stroll LLC, (215) 701-3300 or www.stroll.com
The Roitman file
founder and CEO
Education: International business and German degrees, University of Maryland
First job: Unofficially, I mowed lawns and shoveled snow. Officially, I had an internship with the Department of Defense after my first year of college.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
The earlier you can establish the elements of a strong culture, the higher the probability of success of the organization. It starts out with just getting revenue and having a business in the first place, but after that, you need to have a vision and clear goals around that vision, and the right people on board with the proper motivation. Having the right operating conditions helps that immensely.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
One thing that we really focus on in our organization is transparency. After that, you need to be able to develop a really strong vision that influences the organization years into the future. People have to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
What is your definition of success?
Success comes at a couple of different levels. On a micro level, it’s accomplishing something meaningful within the organization. On a macro level, one of the greatest forms is giving back to the community and creating jobs. As we all know, our economy needs sustainable, productive jobs today.
In the aftermath of major disasters like Hurricane Sandy, renewed focus on planning for catastrophic incidents can actually undermine effective preparedness for more likely events and distort perception of risk in a way that makes businesses more vulnerable.
In a spectrum of risks, high-severity, low-frequency events are major natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes. On the other hand, there are high-frequency, low-severity disasters, such as human errors, computer crashes and power outages. Disasters such as fires and floods fall somewhere in between.
“We often focus on the catastrophic risks, those at the far right end of the spectrum,” says Mike Maloney, vice president, Comcast Business Services. “We assume that preparing for the worst-case scenario automatically includes preparation for all lesser risks. But, it hardly makes sense to initiate a full-blown disaster recovery plan every time the business experiences a minor deviation in operations. That is too expensive and cumbersome.”
Smart Business spoke with Maloney about how preparing for everyday disasters can keep your company — and its technology — on track.
Why is it especially important to prepare for everyday disasters?
If you prepare for the everyday disaster, you will also be ready to address the more serious and less likely threats. For example, power outages commonly occur on a standalone basis, such as brownouts during the summer months with peak air conditioning usage, but power outages also follow more serious threats like hurricanes.
How can you guard against human error?
Human error is the most common form of disaster. Of course, the best way to address this is to ensure proper staff training and good management practices. But, you will also need a strategy to mitigate cost when error does occur, such as on-demand, user-generated data backups and clear recovery procedures.
What’s the best strategy for preparing for equipment or third-party failures?
By making good vendor selections and following proper equipment maintenance procedures, you reduce the frequency of occurrence. Also, build in redundancy for when those failures will occur and have extra equipment in inventory.
Third-party failures are the failures of service providers needed to deliver products and services like telecommunications. The basic strategy is to invest in due diligence to make wise choices for third-party vendors to entrust with your critical services, negotiate appropriate service guarantees and support, and build in redundancy to cope with failure when it occurs.
How is planning for environmental hazards extended to more severe threats?
Environmental hazards are conditions that displace staff and could be as trivial as a water pipe bursting and flooding the office. So, plan for human safety and assure the technology is in place to enable temporary remote operations. This concept is extended for fire, natural hazards and sabotage, which pose more severe threats to safety and longer periods of remote operations.
Once you’ve established your planning framework, what’s next?
The next step is to identify the business’s key assets, which may sound simplistic but is not necessarily obvious. For example, a small software development company insured its property, so after a fire, it was fully reimbursed for the replacement costs of office furnishings. But its critical asset was its intellectual property, embedded in hundreds of thousands of lines of software code. The company had failed to back up the software and subsequently went out of business. If it had a severe budget constraint, as start-ups often do, it would have been better served to forfeit insurance on physical assets and invest in off-site secure data backup.
In addition to determining how best to protect the business, this provides insights as to how to better manage the course of normal operations. Several years ago, a disgruntled systems administrator of the city of San Francisco refused to relinquish key passwords to computer systems controlling, among other functions, employee payroll. A little due diligence to understand the key processes, assets and functions of operations might have revealed this vulnerability.
Mike Maloney is a vice president at Comcast Business Services. Reach him at email@example.com.
Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Comcast Business Class
Businesses are continuously challenged to deliver products or services faster, at higher quality, and to bring new items or issues to the forefront. Finding the time to address all of the issues businesses face daily is often a challenge in today’s fast-paced environment.
However, planning for continuous improvement is critical, says Robert S. Olszewski, a director in the Audit & Accounting group at Kreischer Miller, located in Horsham, Pa.
“Nothing can be achieved without hard work,” says Olszewski. “However, a successful company has the ability to balance between managing today’s challenges and planning for the future. A structured business improvement process, discipline and accountability lead to the development of systems and strategies that leverage the future and foster the true value of a business. Improvement involves assessing the now, where and how.”
Smart Business spoke with Olszewski about the business improvement process.
Are there stages in the business improvement process?
Most people are aware the first step in a business improvement process is to get the structure right. The right structure means the right customers, products, cost to manufacture and people. They don’t realize that once the structure is mostly in place, they should move to the next stage, which is to get the waste out of the structure.
There are seven primary areas of waste: defects, waiting, motion, storage, overproduction, transportation and processing. The identification of waste can be achieved by interviewing personnel, utilizing intellect and flow-charting a process. Identification of waste is the easy part. Businesses must implement a strategy to reduce waste and continuously monitor results.
The time frame for addressing structure and waste is normally a two-year period. However, the final stage of the business improvement process -— changing the belief system of people — can span over a time period of up to five years. One of the significant factors limiting the attainment of change is the degree to which people believe that they are in control of their own destiny.
What is the most difficult part of the business improvement process?
Most companies can respond quickly when asked where they currently stand in the business environment. The difficulty is revealed when a business is asked where it wants to be and how it plans to get there.
The key to addressing the where and the how is defining your sustainable competitive advantage (SCA). The clear definition of SCA is the baseline for developing specific strategies in marketing, operations, innovation, human resources and finance that will generate results in the business improvement process.
What issues do you see in making improvements and implementing change?
One of the greatest obstacles is the acceptance of the status quo or the historical norm. However, being successful in the past is not a sound indicator for predicting future success.
Most successful process improvements involve a vision, a plan and surprisingly, dissatisfaction. Providing insight into the positive elements of change will create dissatisfaction with the status quo and motivate others to adopt the change. Companies that can clearly demonstrate why and how the change will have a positive impact, leading to dissatisfaction, have a higher probability of effective change.
How can you tell if changes are actually improvements?
Key performance indicators must be established from the inception of the business improvement process. Although some things are difficult to measure, specific items need to be quantified and supported by data. Keep it simple, visible and meaningful to everyone involved in the change process. Sharing the goals and making the results readily available to those involved is often a key element to success. Visibility of the common goal and success to date will enhance the efforts of the team.
Something NEW has arrived for private companies! Introducing the Center for Private Company Excellence, a community created by Kreischer Miller. Learn more at www.privatecompanyexcellence.com.
Robert S. Olszewski is a director, Audit & Accounting, at Kreischer Miller. Reach him at (215) 441-4600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insights Accounting & Consulting is brought to you by Kreischer Miller
Disputes between adjoining landowners can be bitter. Landowners, whether they be businesses or individuals, want to “protect their turf.” Landowners upset with their neighbors will often rush into court with a spare-no-expense resolve.
“But that can be foolhardy, because they often don’t realize the magnitude of the expense,” says William J. Maffucci, of counsel with Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC in Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
Smart Business spoke with Maffucci about ways businesses that own real property can avoid and economically resolve disputes with neighboring owners.
What types of disputes arise between adjoining owners?
I would put them in five categories.
First are traditional disputes about the location of a boundary. Resolving these disputes almost always requires a survey. Sometimes the parties agree to be bound by a single survey or by the opinion of a single surveyor. More often, the parties each retain their own surveyor. And the surveyors don’t always agree. A boundary dispute is often a ‘battle of the surveyors,’ with a court or other arbiter deciding which surveyor prevails.
There is a different type of boundary dispute that isn’t resolved by surveys. A claimant may instead be relying upon the doctrine of ‘adverse possession’ or on the related doctrine of ‘consentable line by recognition and acquiescence.’ Both flow from the principle, recognized by the courts, that an open and notorious use of property continuously over a long period (21 years in Pennsylvania) by one who does not hold record title to it but who nevertheless acts like its owner, putting up a hostile front and fighting off competing claims of title, effectively becomes the owner of the property.
Next are easement disputes. These are disputes in which your neighbor acknowledges that you own the property but claims a right to use it, such as to drive across it. Many of these claims are based on either ‘prescription’ or ‘implication.’ A ‘prescriptive easement’ is acquired in the same way title is acquired by adverse possession: through open and notorious use continuously over a sufficient period. But a prescriptive easement doesn’t prevent the owner from using the property, too. And it doesn’t result in a change of ownership; it results only in the right to continue the use perpetually. An ‘easement by implication,’ by contrast, is based upon logic. The law recognizes, for example, that when the obvious consequence of a sale or subdivision is to leave lot owners with no access to a public road other than by passage over the land conveyed or subdivided away, the owner of the landlocked land has an ‘easement by implication’ to travel over the other land.
Then, there are disputes over whether an owner is using his or her own property for an improper purpose. These are usually resolved under local zoning law or under the law of ‘nuisance.’ The latter recognizes that even a use that is permitted under the zoning ordinance may be enjoined if it is inherently offensive to neighboring properties.
Last are encroachment disputes, whether the encroaching items be artificial (buildings, parking areas) or natural (tree branches, roots). Your neighbor’s building or tree’s branches extend onto your property. Here the law usually gives you the upper hand; the courts generally require that a proven encroachment be removed.
Once a lawsuit is filed, is it likely that the case will proceed all the way to a formal court trial?
No. Most cases are eventually settled. They don’t settle quickly, because they begin with so much bad blood. But litigation between neighbors can be very expensive. It could easily cost more than $100,000 in legal fees to take an adjoining-neighbor dispute through trial.
And the expense will often escalate as trial approaches. So even litigants who began with a ‘spare-no-expense’ approach are often forced to undertake a cost-benefit analysis. Winning the case could cost more than the property is worth.
William J. Maffucci is of counsel at Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC. Reach him at (267) 620-1901 or email@example.com.
Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC
All companies that own, rent or lease a building may need flood insurance, regardless of whether the business is near a body of water or it is a requirement of a lender.
“Even if your business has a low risk of flooding, it’s wise to obtain a quote on flood insurance. Twenty-five percent of all flood claims occur in areas that are considered low to moderate risk,” says Linda Cook, vice president, Personal Insurance Division at ECBM. “Flooding can result from sources such as broken water mains, runoff water, storms, melting snow and other natural causes.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many property owners were unsure of how their flood policies would respond.
Smart Business spoke with Cook about what you need to know about flood insurance, including what is covered and not, to take back control.
What’s the National Flood Insurance Program?
The NFIP was established to provide a means for property owners to financially protect themselves against flooding in participating communities. A participating community agrees to adopt and enforce ordinances that meet or exceed FEMA requirements to reduce the risk of flooding.
Why do you need flood insurance, especially if there’s federal assistance?
Most homeowner and business property policies do not cover flooding conditions or floods. A flood policy can be purchased through your insurance agent or directly through NFIP. All rates are set by FEMA and do not vary from one insurer to another. The premium for a flood policy averages about $700 annually, with maximum limits of $500,000 per nonresidential building and $500,000 for nonresidential contents. The maximum limit under a residential flood policy is $250,000 per building and $100,000 for contents. If higher limits are needed, they may be purchased under an excess flood insurance policy.
As for federal assistance, most forms of assistance are only available after the president declares an area a disaster, and less than 50 percent of all flood incidents are declared official disasters. In addition, most federal disaster assistance to businesses comes in the form of a loan.
How is property-flooding risk assessed?
There are several factors involved in assessing the degree of risk, but a prominent one is the flood zone of a property. This is an area that FEMA has defined according to varying levels of flood risk. An elevation certificate, acquired through a licensed surveyor or engineer, will be able to provide information on the flood zone, the base flood elevation of an area and how a building is elevated. For a favorable flood insurance rate, the building insured should be elevated above the base flood zone.
If you rent commercial space, does that mean you don’t have to do anything?
No. You will need to purchase flood insurance in your business name to provide coverage for your contents. The building owner should have a separate policy to cover the building and whatever contents he or she needs covered.
What else do you need to know when buying or using flood insurance?
A flood policy only provides coverage for direct physical loss by or from flood. Losses are paid on actual cash value (ACV), not replacement cost value. So if, for example, the cost in today’s market to replace your contents is $80,000 but the ACV may be determined to be $50,000, you may only receive the ACV amount, or $50,000.
One particular area where contents coverage is limited is in the area under the lowest elevated floor, which may be a basement, finished or unfinished, as well as an elevated area with lattice or walls. It is important to read your policy.
Some important items that a flood policy does not pay for are:
- Loss of revenue or profits.
- Loss of access to the insured property.
- Loss of use of the insured property or location.
- Loss from interruption of business or production.
- Damage caused by mold, moisture or mildew over a period of time.
A list of excluded items is available from a licensed agent or consultant.
Linda Cook is a vice president, Personal Insurance Division at ECBM. Reach her at (610) 668-7100, ext. 1288 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insights Risk Management is brought to you by ECBM
How often do you go to market without a solid business strategy? Probably never, right?
The reality is that if you’re like most organizations, then you’re doing this right now — and you don’t even know it.
That’s because most organizations do not have a well-thought-out marketing strategy. Instead, most are doing what somebody told them they should do. This includes creating a mobile website, engaging in social media and advertising.
All of these are “smart” marketing initiatives. But if they’re done in a vacuum, there’s no way to measure what results those initiatives are intended to accomplish. Worse, you’re chasing tactics instead of delivering results.
There is a significant difference between marketing tactics and marketing strategy. Marketing tactics are ways to bring channels to life. This could be a new website or a mobile-optimized version of your site. Or it could be creating new sales collateral. Tactics should be used to bring your brand message and value proposition to life.
Unfortunately, if they’re not tied to a cohesive strategy, you will not achieve the results you desire.
A marketing strategy, however, allows you to understand the results you should achieve. It also keeps everyone aligned with what you’re trying to accomplish and where you are in the process.
As an example, there are three main reasons for a website: to verify your organization’s brand message to potential customers, to deliver your value proposition and conversion.
Conversion can mean different things for different industries. In retail, it might mean picking out a product, putting it in your shopping cart and making the purchase. In business-to-business, conversion might mean picking up the phone to contact the company, providing a name, email and phone number, or signing up to receive a newsletter.
Without understanding how consumers behave, you may be selling your marketing efforts short. You might not be providing enough information to clearly articulate your brand message or value proposition or you might not be offering users an easy experience that allows for conversion. So how do you ensure that a consistent brand message, value proposition and the ability to target customers converts across all marketing channels?
First, understand who the target consumer is and their needs, attitudes and behaviors. This can be discovered through research, including focus groups or through industry-based segmentation.
Then, conduct a deep dive to understand your business goals and objectives. In retail, this might be the number of sales you want to drive. In B2B, it could be increasing the numbers of prospects in your pipeline.
Finally, evaluate your company’s existing marketing tactics — your website, marketing collateral and overall brand message.
Only then will you be well-equipped to evaluate your overall tactics and compare them to marketing best practices and the competitive landscape. This results in recommendations that include expected business results and return on investment.
Prioritize these by measuring the highest impact against investment levels, and then create a timeline to implement them over a one- to two-year period. Share this strategy throughout the entire organization so everyone understands what will be accomplished and what the expected results are.
Without strategy, and an understanding of everything that goes into it, any money you pour into tactics tends to be money poorly spent. Done correctly, your marketing strategy suddenly becomes your organization’s key driver and leads to tangible and measurable business results.
Dave Fazekas is director of digital marketing for Smart Business Network. Reach him at email@example.com or (440) 250-7056.
What is the best way to motivate employees? Some successful CEOs treat employees as friends, while other equally high-achieving leaders regard employees as merely hired hands, giving them a day’s pay for a day’s work and nothing more.
What’s the best approach to produce the best results for the company, the employee and the employer? Much of the issue lies with one’s definition of a friend and the culture of the organization. Many companies boast that their employees are like family. This sounds great, but can it work?
If either party crosses the fine line that separates the difficult-to-define business and personal space, both employer and employee can become disenchanted or worse. One way to think of it is that friendship is more unconditional. We accept a friend for what he or she is or isn’t. On the flip side, the reality is that most bosses embrace or reject employees for what they do on a consistent basis.
The military has its own way of handling fraternization between officers and the enlisted by making it a possible court martial offense. This stance is predicated on the belief that socializing between these two levels is “prejudicial to good order, discipline and partiality.” It is well recognized that business relationships without boundaries can produce too much drama.
Perhaps what we need is a new definition for a nonemotional, congenial, enjoyable and productive day-to-day relationship between leader and follower. This moniker could be employee-friend, or “e-friend” for short. “E-friend” isn’t an app but would describe an employer/employee relationship where there is mutual respect and a genuine appreciation of one another, underscored by an understanding, albeit perhaps unspoken, that when the time for talking is done, the boss has the final word on matters that occur between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Using these ground rules, both sides can have it both ways by using good judgment and treating each other as they would want to be treated if their roles were reversed.
The employee should expect from the boss that, when the chips are down, either on a business basis or when the employee has a personal problem, he or she knows that the boss will be there for him or her, providing understanding and advice and, when requested, helping the employee maneuver through rough patches. From the employer’s perspective, the employee would be someone who, through thick and thin, is there for the company and can temporarily put personal needs aside when there is a business issue that can’t be postponed.
The e-friend boss should know as much about the employee as the employee wants the boss to know, which can include sensitive professional problems or even family or medical issues. In a good relationship, the boss could certainly know, as one example, what the subordinate’s kids are up to in their lives and be the first to say to the employee that it’s more important for him or her to go to an offspring’s ballgame or play, rather than putting in extra time on the business project du jour.
Instinctively, employees know if a boss truly cares or is just going through the motions to be politically correct. They know if the head honcho is sincerely concerned about them as a person, not just another set of hands.
Not everything and everyone in the workplace are created equal. There will always be a pecking order; however, there is nothing wrong with truly enjoying the people with whom you work every day and sharing meaningful experiences, all of which lead to a more fulfilling role for both the employer and the employee. The best criterion to avoiding problems is using generous doses of plain common sense. There is a much-quoted line from the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” starring Michael Douglas as the ruthless tycoon Gordon Gekko, who proclaimed, “If you want a friend, get a dog.” This provoked both laughs and sighs, but in the real world, this attitude makes for a very lonely Ebenezer Scrooge-type life for the boss and a shallow existence for employees who must spend more than half, at the very least, of their Monday through Friday waking hours working.
At times, people can be difficult, both to work for and with. However, it’s the people who make the company and relationships that combine respect and a form of e-friendship that can make the real difference.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Richard Branson is full of big ideas. The man who founded six companies that each rake in more than $1 billion annually dares to think big. For him, it’s all about the experience, making a difference and not doing things the same way as the competition. An idea captures his imagination and he sets out to turn it into reality.
For him, it’s not about the money. It never has been.
When he sees a situation where he thinks he can make a difference in people’s lives, he looks for a way to make a difference. He understands that “why” he is doing it is more important than the “what” or the “how.”
Author and consultant Simon Sinek agrees (see video link). He explains that Apple is wildly successful at what it does not because it can build computers better than anyone else but because it understands “why” it is doing so. It’s not that the competition doesn’t know what it is doing or that it doesn’t have talented people creating good products. It’s just that Apple understands why it is in business and focuses its message on that instead of what it does — which is build electronic devices.
Sinek says that people like to do business with people who believe what they believe, so they buy more on the “why you do it” rather than what you are actually doing. Notice that profits are secondary. If you do things the right way for the right reasons, profits come naturally.
You might already have a big idea for your business, but it will most likely never reach its full potential unless you understand why you are doing it. Have you ever stopped to think about why you are in business or why you are doing what you are doing? It can be an enlightening exercise.
With the demands of daily business, we seldom stop to think about the reasons behind our actions, and if we do think about it, the answer is often “to turn a profit.” But to what end?
When you understand why you are trying to make a profit and the answer goes beyond simple wealth, then you are getting to the heart of what differentiates a good business from a great one. Maybe the reason why is a social issue, such as eliminating hunger, or maybe it’s a medical issue, such as curing a disease. But it doesn’t have to be grand. The “why” can be something like “making computers easy for everyone to use.” The important part isn’t the scope; it’s understanding your business’s basic reason for existence.
When you’ve taken the time to understand that, your business will have the potential to do great things because employees and customers alike can unite around a common understanding.
It’s why Apple is a great company and it’s why Richard Branson is wildly successful. If you’re already doing it, you’re on your way. If not, take the time to think about it.
Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or email@example.com.
No matter what size your business, your employees probably rub elbows a bit in their workspace. It’s both a fact of life and of space limitations. If you create the right company culture, they’ll become more like a functioning family than a bunch of bickering siblings.
But even the most collaborative colleagues will wrestle with pet peeves from time to time. Whether it’s impromptu office social hours that are too close for comfort or phone chatter happening at a few decibels too many, noise pollution tops the list of many workers’ gripes about their neighbors.
At Petplan, we’ve tackled this topic head-on, as our employees share an open workspace that encompasses a call center, claims adjusters, a marketing and creative team, a sales force and managers alike (not to mention our four-legged office mates).
With so many people working for so many different facets of the business, it takes a delicate balance of tolerance and consideration to keep varying noise preferences in check. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned — loud and clear — about sounding off at work.
If you love them, set them free
Setting up your staff so everyone has the option to “go mobile” will help ease tensions when exuberance reaches intolerable proportions for quieter folks. At Petplan, all of our employees have a laptop they can take to less high-traffic areas, such as meeting and conference rooms, if they need some serenity during the day.
Carving out a few quiet places within the workspace gives your employees the option to retreat when they need to nix the noise and get down to business.
Open Pandora’s Box
Streaming music or white noise can greatly reduce the stress of a noisy co-worker and help increase focus and concentration, so we’ve adopted a permissive policy regarding headphone use by employees.
Drowning out the distraction is sometimes enough to manage the situation and keep frustrations in check, and studies have shown that music in the workplace can actually boost motivation and increase productivity. If bandwidth is an issue and you need to block Pandora or other music-streaming sites, radios (with a headphone jack), iPods and CDs can still do the trick.
Communication is key
Create opportunities for regular social interaction among your employees, across all departments. At Petplan, we host a handful of employee outings throughout the year, but we also encourage everyday mingling, with perks like picnic lunches and Friday cupcakes.
Fostering friendships — or at least friendly acquaintance-ships — can help workers manage differing noise preferences themselves. After all, it’s much easier to ask someone you’re friendly with to keep it down than someone you don’t know well.
Practice strategic eavesdropping
At Petplan, being able to hear everything has at times been beneficial. Our marketing department overhears our sales force answering common questions, which has helped shape some of our prospect communications. Our claims manager can hear our “happiness managers” servicing policyholders with pending claims, which has given her better insight into the customer experience.
Never underestimate the power of strategic eavesdropping — mining the melee for useful information can often turn up gold.
As the saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time, so no matter how you try to accommodate your employees, there are bound to be issues around noise levels in every office. Acknowledging and making allowances for varying preferences can help solve some of the discord, but if all else fails, consider adopting an officewide noise management policy.
As part of an overall approach to providing a positive working environment, an official policy can help make sure everyone’s noise concerns are — ahem — heard.
Natasha Ashton is the co-CEO and co-founder of Petplan pet insurance and its quarterly glossy pet health magazine, Fetch! — both headquartered in Philadelphia. Originally from the U.K., she holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.