When Calgon Carbon Corp. made Randall Dearth its new president and CEO, it was somewhat of an easy transition — the former Lanxess CEO had been a member of the Calgon Carbon board for six years.
“I knew a lot of the high-level issues, the potential emerging markets and a lot about the products and people here,” says Dearth, who in August 2012 joined Calgon Carbon, a 1,100 employee, $562 million global leader in the manufacture, reactivation and application of activated carbon, ballast water treatment, ultraviolet light disinfection and advanced ion-exchange technologies.
Dearth spent his first several months at Calgon getting to know the people, plants and processes, but wasted little time making some necessary changes in the company.
“One of the first things I decided we needed to do was focus on margins and margin improvements,” Dearth says. “Aside from learning the company, I also spent a lot of time trying to come up with programs to help improve the bottom line for our shareholders.”
In doing so, over the past year, Calgon Carbon has implemented a $30 million cost improvement program. Dearth looked at things such as headcount optimization, product rationalization and brought in consultants.
“We’ve done a lot to focus on how we can quickly and effectively improve our margins to give our shareholders a benefit,” Dearth says.
Here is how Dearth used his previous experiences to put it all together to improve Calgon Carbon Corp.
Make an assessment
What excited Dearth about coming to Calgon Carbon was the possibility of using some of his experiences at Lanxess, which helped turn that company around, to see if they were applicable at Calgon.
“Coming into this role I had my toolbox of tools, and the question was could I apply this to Calgon Carbon to help improve margins quickly,” Dearth says.
The biggest obstacle Dearth saw was the company’s culture. He didn’t want to shake things up to a point where the culture would be disrupted.
“You can’t underestimate corporate culture,” he says. “You can come in with a lot of ideas and techniques and be rearing and ready to go, but if you don’t take the time to understand the culture in which you’ve come into, that doesn’t work.”
Dearth was fortunate that he had an overview of the culture from a board perspective.
“It’s not a matter of having the right culture or the wrong culture,” he says. “It’s understanding that it’s different and trying to manage around that.”
Calgon Carbon has been around for more than 70 years. The foundation of the company is very solid, but sometimes that foundation can be the issue.
“When you are a company that’s 70 years old, sometimes you do get into that mentality of this is how we’ve always done it,” says Dearth, who also served as president and CEO of Bayer Chemicals Corp. from 2002 to 2004. “Part of what I’ve done over the last year of being here is really focus on trying new things to make our company better, our employees more efficient and ultimately bring more value to shareholders.
“The other thing I was able to bring to the table coming from both Bayer and Lanxess is a global perspective. As a smaller American company, Calgon hasn’t looked at global opportunities the same way that a bigger company would. I’ve spent a lot of time restructuring our businesses to focus on more global decision-making.”
A decline in gross margin percentage year-over-year, from 32.7 percent to 30.2 percent, had a significant impact on Calgon’s 2012 bottom line. Central to the effort to improve these margins was the company’s launch of a $30 million cost and profit improvement program.
“We have already completed the first phase, which will provide $10 million in annualized savings beginning in 2013,” Dearth says. “The second phase, already well underway, should result in another $10 million in annualized savings beginning in 2014. The third phase, which we have begun to implement, will provide an additional $10 million in annualized savings when completed.”
Cost savings obtained in phase one resulted from personnel reductions worldwide, manufacturing improvements, reduced R&D spending in 2013 and the closure of an idled manufacturing facility in China. Cost-saving opportunities for phase two are the result of product rationalization, global procurement and streamlining of operations.
In addition to these cost saving measures, Dearth decided to restructure the company’s business units, which took a lot of uncertainty out of the organization and had a positive impact on the culture.
“Calgon had previously been structured by function,” Dearth says. “So you had a sales department led by a VP of sales and a marketing department led by a VP of marketing. The regions were totally autonomous and did their own thing.
“Calgon Carbon is big in essentially four segments: municipal water treatment, industrial and food applications, specialty carbon applications and UV technology. So we took our sales people who are focused on these areas and our best marketing people in these areas, and gave them autonomy under the leadership of a business unit head to drive their business.”
Since implementing that change, communication has been much better, and there is a better sense of where the company’s challenges and opportunities are in its markets.
“People have a better sense of the purpose of what their job is and what they themselves can influence,” he says. “Customers like it because now it’s clear as to who knows their business and their markets. It has also increased accountability, and it’s clearer as to who is driving the ship.
“When everybody had a small piece of it and things went awry, there was really nobody who said I’ll fix it and drive it forward because it was only a piece of their responsibility. That’s what we restructured, and we did it early in my tenure here, and the next step is to take that global.”
Dearth’s success in making all these changes within his first year as CEO started with the team around him.
“First and foremost, you have to understand the team around you, because your team is going to make or break you,” Dearth says. “Are they understanding where we need to go? Are they qualified to do the job? That is critical.”
Secondly, Dearth created a vision of where Calgon needed to go and how it would get there.
“I not only need to buy in to those key people I just mentioned, but the employees, my board of directors and ultimately the investors who are putting their money into our company need to know where I believe this company can go and how I’m going to get them there,” he says.
Lastly, Dearth took the time to understand the organization and its businesses.
“I’ve spent a lot of time asking the right questions and putting task teams together to evaluate whether we are doing something the right way or should be doing it differently,” he says. “You don’t want to get too far into the weeds, because you lose sight of the bigger picture, but it is important to have a good sense of what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and it all ties into making the decisions to take the company to a different level.”
The next level
Despite all that Dearth has already accomplished to get Calgon Carbon on a better path, there is still a lot of work to do moving forward.
“We’re still dealing with the global economy that is at best a little shaky,” Dearth says. “That is one challenge we need to overcome. We need to constantly be looking at further optimization. China has become a big player in a lot of industries and activated carbon is no exception.
“We need to look at how they will affect our business going forward. Keeping one step ahead of the Chinese competition is a challenge to make sure we’re the best at manufacturing, marketing and have a global presence that we can compete in.”
Another aspect Dearth will continue to focus on is company culture.
“Company culture gets easier and easier once people get it and they understand there is a leader in front of them that they can trust and is taking them where they need to go,” he says. “That doesn’t happen in 10 months. It’s a long process to get everybody on board and that’s still a challenge I have ahead of me.”
Those few challenges aside, Dearth is looking forward to entering three new market opportunities. One is a water ballast treatment system — the U.S. Coast Guard will be requiring ships entering the U.S. in 2014 to have a ballast water treatment system to remove and treat the water going in and out of the ships.
The second one is mercury — all power plants in 2015 that burn coal will be required to remove the mercury, and activated carbon has been shown, and is being used, as the material that can take the mercury out of the smoke stacks when coal is being burned.
Third is related to Calgon’s municipal water business — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring that certain disinfection byproducts and certain species that are formed when chlorine is used as a disinfection need to be removed from the water, and activated carbon takes it out. Those municipalities that have this problem need to comply.
“On top of the fact that we’re improving the company’s efficiency, we’re also positioning ourselves for great growth.” Dearth says. “We have a very solid balance sheet and I’d like to expand our business. So we’re looking at both internal cap-x projects and outside investments that can grow our business.” ●
- Assess your business opportunities and areas in need of improvement.
- Implement changes to address those needs.
- Continue to focus on what will grow the company to the next level.
The Dearth File:
Name: Randall Dearth
Title: President and CEO
Company: Calgon Carbon Corp.
Born: Warren, Ohio
Education: Received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Hiram College and a master’s degree in polymer science and engineering from Case Western Reserve University.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I was a head lifeguard when I was in high school. That taught me a lot about leadership and being able to rally people around a cause. It was a great way to get a tan too.
What is the best business advice you have ever received? Always ask yourself, ‘Have I created value today?’
Who do you admire in business? I’m a huge fan of Harry Truman. In 1945 when Roosevelt died, here was a guy that was not supposed to be successful, came from humble beginnings and was not prepared at all. However, he let his instincts do what needed to be done and surrounded himself with the best people and things worked out. That’s kind of how I am. I’m given what I have — my training, experiences and background and I’m going to focus on doing the best I can.
What do you like most about Calgon Carbon Corp.? The fact that we’re solving environmental problems, not only for today’s requirements, but for the future.
Calgon Carbon Social Media Links:
Randall Dearth on LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/17PslhD
How to reach: Calgon Carbon Corp., (412) 787-6700 or www.calgoncarbon.com
I must confess that I was a skeptic of social media when it emerged in the early 2000s, but I’ve done a total turnaround on the topic, realizing the power of social media for communication, networking and knowledge sharing.
When used productively and with intention, social media can provide a wealth of benefits to business leaders and their organizations. Social media cannot be managed in a vacuum, it has to be integrated in the organizations overall marketing strategy. Plus, it has to be fun, creative, ambitious and impactful, while serving a purpose for your business and bringing value to your customers.
I propose the following five objectives to integrate into your social media strategy to make it a productive tool:
Follow, track and monitor your “ecosystem”
LinkedIn and Twitter allow you to easily follow critical players in your ecosystem. You can follow companies, connect with people and read the latest news they publish for free. You don’t have to check multiple websites; the information comes to you regularly and freely.
You can track your competitor’s and customer’s pages to find out what they are working on. In addition, you should connect with industry association experts who regularly share their knowledge through social media.
Find great knowledge at no cost
Most service companies, particularly consulting firms, publish white papers and research reports that are priceless. Lately, I have accessed some amazing reports from McKinsey & Co., BCG and Deloitte Research.
Business schools have great blogs that offer links to papers and other relevant essays. There is a wealth of knowledge available out there — get connected to what thought leaders are working on and discover potential trends and signals from other industries.
Develop your own network
The power of networking for business has been demonstrated over and over. LinkedIn and other similar sites are the best way to establish strong and long-lasting connections. I have used LinkedIn to target potential hires, to launch discussions on particular topics of interest, to run polls in specialized groups and to establish a network of more than 4,000 professionals.
Create a corporate brand, image and content
Social media managed with intention can help develop your corporate brand. Use social media to publish your content, create your image and complement your traditional marketing strategy. Create a small team within your organization that will manage digital marketing. Use it as a team-building activity and as an opportunity to bridge generations at work.
Use it as a productivity tool
This is probably the most attractive reason to use social media. I used to have a long list of websites to check every day. I have now streamlined this list and am using LinkedIn and Twitter to read news, find content and communicate with my ecosystem, saving me considerable time. Encourage your marketing team to be active in industry-relevant social media groups.
There’s no doubt times have changed. Technological development is going to accelerate and the next generation of workers will probably be the most connected and technology-savvy. So it is not a question of whether or not your organization should embrace social media, but when and how it should do so. ●
Stephan Liozu is the founder of Value Innoruption Advisors and specializes in disruptive approaches in innovation, pricing and value management. He earned his doctorate in management from Case Western Reserve University and can be reached at email@example.com. For more information, visit www.stephanliozu.com.
Follow Stephan Liozu on Twitter @StephanLiozu
Whether your company is large or small, staying profitable will likely depend on how prepared you are to innovate in order to advance your organization. A built-in, long-term effort to assess and monitor your technology investments involves the same time-tested tactics you use in everyday business planning.
Your success will depend on how well you can match technology needs to both current and future objectives. Here are some ways to achieve that:
Don’t get stuck in the past
How you did business successfully in the past may not have legs in five, 10 or even 20 years. Whether your company is young or old, it is important to ask, “How much do you actually work to keep your businesses up-to-date?” The answer may surprise you.
Business owners become too content when it comes to proactively seeking out new technology to stay competitive — the “if it ain’t broke, then why fix it” philosophy. And, when things go awry, it is hard to admit that it was the organization’s lack of forward-thinking leadership that let progress slip.
Understandably, with a business of any size, it is a struggle to just keep the doors open. It is easy to fall behind when the technology and tactics are totally different today than even two years ago. Regardless, you have to start with the basics.
Evaluate your website, social media and search engine optimization every year. Read every industry publication you can get your hands on. These are valuable resources because they can give you access to research and clues relating to what’s next in your industry.
Likewise, attending seminars and joining trade associations are not just for junior executives — you and your executive team need to take steps toward tomorrow. Progress requires a consistent commitment to the future.
Set clear goals and stay focused
While most companies have long-term goals built into their business plans, it is easy to get sidetracked in the here and now. Staying close to your ultimate objective is the key to making the right decisions about any investment of money and time, especially when it comes to technology.
With technology there’s the temptation to be responsive instead of proactive. If you are just keeping up with or mimicking your competition, you are not focused on your business — you are focused on someone else’s.
Take a look at your corporate goals and expansion plan, then identify where technology can play a role in your future. Your competition is using existing technology to be competitive today. You can gain the edge by focusing on building a company that will stay competitive tomorrow.
Invest in the people behind the technology
Don’t forget the faces and the real intelligence behind your business. Even the most advanced, progressive organizations can make the mistake of relying too much on technology. When budgeting for technology expenditures, remember to plan for ongoing education to keep your people trained and up-to-date.
Make ongoing employee education convenient and part of the job description. As with every part of your business, the technological tools of your trade are only as good as the talent of the people who use them. ●
Tom Gillece is founder and president of Gillece Services, a residential plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical repair and replacement company. Located in Bridgeville, Pa., it employs more than 100 technicians/field personnel, operational and support professionals. For more information, visit www.gillece.com.
To learn more about Gillece Services like its Facebook page www.facebook.com/GilleceServices and follow on Twitter @GilleceServices.
With Tom Gillece on LinkedIn http://linkd.in/1gsAflH
Twelve years ago, EY decided to go global with its Entrepreneur Of The Year awards and establish the World Entrepreneur Of The Year program — and the results have been, shall we say, an international success. The conference, held annually in Monaco, features Entrepreneur Of The Year country winners competing for the World Entrepreneur Of The Year title.
Assembling business leaders from around the world in one place to be honored is a huge accomplishment — the wealth of experience, as well as the variety of successful leadership styles, is outstanding.
Here are some thoughts from the collection of the world’s most accomplished entrepreneurs — innovators, futurists, turnaround specialists and problem-solvers — about leadership styles. ●
“I built the company based on people, not on experience from before. They were willing to learn and try anything. We had a bunch of people who had never done this before. None of us had run companies. None of us had worked in high levels of companies. None of us were from Fortune 500s. Chobani not only became a business that grew, but Chobani was like a school to us, including myself.”
founder, president and CEO
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 United States
2013 Entrepreneur Of The World
“Early on, the business was centered on me, and I had to make all the decisions alone. Now I share those decisions with my 10 main directors. If there are differences in opinion, I make the last decision.
The other thing is that I have had to ensure that the people who are invited to work here are people with principles, values, integrity, responsibility and passion. If I don’t see a person with passion, they don’t hang around the company very long.”
Lorenzo Barrera Segovia
founder and CEO
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Mexico
“I’m a very passionate person, which will never change. When you grow, you gain more experience and the kind of problems you face change. As you grow, you need to grow with your organization.”
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Argentina
“In the startup days, you have to be very innovative, hire and retain talent, refine your business as you deploy in the marketplace, and you learn things from it. Today, with a solid track record of business success, I can focus on what’s next and think more strategic and long-term than you’re allowed to in the early days. My style has evolved as the business has matured.”
Chevron Energy Solutions
“Entrepreneurship and leadership is about always having ideas, knowing that it is possible even though everyone says it is too difficult. Maintain the positive and always have new ideas.”
Mario Hernandez, founder and president, Marroquinera
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Colombia
“To keep the entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurship alive once you've got past the startup base, I think it is making sure people understand why they are there. There are always things you can do to improve your business. You should be rethinking and retooling it every chance you get. The key thing is to make sure everybody in the organization understands the story, where are you going — how are you going to get there? And the belief that you are doing the right thing —people want to know their purpose. Keep the energy going, keep a strong sense of purpose.”
Dr. Alan Ulsifer
CEO, president and chair
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Canada
“The skill sets of an entrepreneur involve understanding how to create business. Why not work with kids who need it the most and actually teach them and help them to be entrepreneurs? That’s what is going to grow our economy and create stability where otherwise we’re going to have a lot of social unrest.”
President and CEO
Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship
“I like to be involved. I want to know everything that is going on. But I have to delegate to my team. That was the biggest adjustment for me, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s that delegating to others, trusting them and reinventing yourself. Now that we’ve grown, I put more responsibility on my team and rely on my team more than I once did.”
President and founder
SME Entertainment Group
“If someone makes a mistake, what do you do? You laugh with them. You don’t yell at them. You laugh. It just keeps things light and lively and people want to do their very best. You let them know they screwed up, but you also let them know it’s OK.”
National Heritage Academies
Leaders often talk about how the traits of accountability and transparency helped make them who they are, but to retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for four years under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, leadership is quite simply how you listen, learn and lead.
It’s not just a coincidence that communication is as important in the war zone as it is in an organization — and that’s where Mullen emphasizes listening to what his team members have on their minds.
Smart Business talked with Mullen about the challenges of being in command:
Q. What do you see as the most important trait that any leader must possess?
A. Integrity. Be true to yourself, and obviously true to your values. The value of integrity intrinsically has been a driver for me since I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. It has served me exceptionally well.
Integrity encompasses being honest, truthful and consistent — both publicly and privately in leadership positions — and representing that in every situation. It is most evident in the toughest decisions you have to make.
Q. And how can you ensure integrity is present in leadership?
A. What I loved about command was the responsibility and authority that came with it. But more than anything else, the other piece was accountability — accountable leadership. That is not just having someone hold you accountable, but having enough strength yourself as a leader to hold yourself accountable.
I just found that even with those decisions that can be very unpopular, if you are true to that value of integrity, even if it may not seem to some to be the best decision, it [integrity] holds you in the best stead as a leader over the long term. And because of that, it becomes incredibly supportive of those very, very tough decisions.
Q. So what can help a leader make those tough decisions more effectively?
A. As a more senior leader, I learned to keep a diversity of views around me. The more senior I got, the more diverse the people, the recommendations and the discussions had to be in order for me to make the right decision.
I had people around me who were willing to say, ‘Hey, this is when you got it wrong,’ as opposed to the opposite, which is isolation, where nobody will tell the emperor [he] doesn’t have any clothes on.
Q. You’ve mentioned the importance of listening to others in order to help you become a better leader. How did you do that?
A. Everywhere I went, whether we had a town hall meeting or we could call an all-hands meeting, I would take questions from the audience. So, for example, when a young enlisted man would give me a question of which I didn’t know the answer, I said, “I don’t know the answer, but give me your email address. I will go research it and get back to you.”
I did that. I went back and looked at whatever their concern was. And some of those concerns generated significant changes in the military, or in the particular service they were in. For me, as chairman, that was a vital part of trying to understand what I was asking them to do, and then taking that feedback and trying to fix the problem that they raised — if it made sense to do it.
A good leader can make such a difference, and create something out of nothing, whereas a bad leader is unable to do that. The ingredient that makes a difference is leadership. ●
Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen served more than 43 years in the Navy, having served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, and as chief of naval operations from 2005 to 2007. He will be the keynote speaker at the Dec. 5 American Red Cross Hero Awards. Learn more about the Hero Awards at www.clevelandheroes.com.
Consider this business scenario: You’ve landed a big account for your company by converting a highly prized prospect into a valuable client. The new client has hired you to handle a specific scope of work and is counting on your team’s ability to deliver work that goes above and beyond.
While nothing is more important than delivering great customer service to satisfy the client, you may not realize that you’re probably overlooking unrealized opportunities to forge a stronger relationship with your customer.
In today’s business landscape, most large companies offer an array of products and services. More often than not, however, your clients use you for a specific service or skill set. And unfortunately, in this scenario, most companies focus solely on the task at hand — delivering what they’ve been contracted to deliver — failing to take ample time to think about the bond they’re creating with the client and what could be next.
In more simple terms, it is one thing to provide service that keeps a customer; it is another to keep that customer and expand the relationship to become a trusted partner.
Provide value in a deliberate way
The good news is that this is an easy fix. Establish a content marketing program that allows you to distribute thought leadership to your clients.
A content marketing program will help you provide value that other service providers may not, and when clients see you as an informational resource and partner, it will be easier to expand the relationship.
Take this example into consideration: You are an insurance provider and your main product is life insurance, therefore most of the communication you have with your clients surrounds that topic.
With a comprehensive content marketing program in place, however, you can educate your clients on the recent trends in the insurance industry and how that affects the individual. At the same time, you can give them an overview of your company’s wellness program and let them know that if they joined, they could reduce their monthly premiums.
As you can see, you’re not just providing your client with the original service, you’re also providing them with both your thought leadership — aka value — and additional offerings.
Personal connections payoff
Aside from providing value to the client with the content you distribute, a strong content marketing program allows you to showcase your brand’s personality. Clients will be able to connect with your brand on a more personal level.
Providing continually updated content through the right channels to the right clients enhances your day-to-day communications. Clients start seeing you as thought leaders and partners instead of just service providers.
It will help you expand relationships and, as a result, generate new business through more products and services.
Show them more than just what they see on the surface — show them how active you are in the community, or how much fun you had during a recent company outing. If may sound trivial, but your clients do similar things, and seeing you connect with the community and/or employees will help forge a more personal connection. You never know; you and your client may support the same charity, organization or team.
Open communication also will help strengthen relationships to the point where you can capture a premium price and eliminate price-jumping clients. Clients will pay more for a valuable relationship than simply look to get the lowest price elsewhere. ●
David Fazekas is vice president of marketing services for SBN Interactive. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (440) 250-7056.
You would think someone like Douglas Merrill would be a heavy multitasker, with multiple devices in hand, fielding several conversations — both real and virtual — simultaneously.
But you would be wrong.
Merrill, who was the CIO at Google until 2008, doesn’t like to multitask. He says that when you do it, you aren’t using your brain’s full capacity and aren’t as effective. He recommends focusing on one thing at a time.
Billionaire Mark Cuban has his own time management strategy. Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, says you should completely avoid meetings unless you are closing a deal. Otherwise, he says, they are a waste of time.
Both of these proven leaders have learned that how you manage your time is paramount to your effectiveness.
As a CEO, you are swamped every day with calls and emails from people wanting a piece of your time. Some are internal, some are charity requests, some are from friends or family members and others are from service providers.
To help wade through this sea of information, it’s important to have a system in place to help you free up time to think about your business and the things that matter most in life. These open times are what author Richard Swenson refers to as “margin.” They are the spaces between ourselves and our limits that are reserved for emergencies.
But for many business leaders, there are no spaces left.
The way out of this trap is to set clear goals and values for yourself and your organization. Once you do that, you will have a filter through which to evaluate everything. Everything will have an immediate yes or no answer, eliminating the “let me think about it” category completely.
The key is to establish what your goals are first and then prioritize what is important. With your priorities straight, you will find more time to put toward important things on your goals list, but don’t forget to leave time on your daily schedule. There is no way to foresee all emergencies, so by leaving yourself some margin, when something unexpected happens, you already have time built in to deal with it.
Once you have margin built into your life, you have to have the discipline to stick to it. There will always be the temptation to take every meeting or answer every email. But if you use your goals and priorities as a filter, those requests are easily either accepted or declined based on where they fall on your priority list.
If you want a life where you can experience more peace and joy and less anxiety, start looking at your priorities and establish some margin in your daily schedule. ●
Deny, deny, deny; fall, tuck and roll; or put your head in the sand?
The quick answer to this headline is none of the above. A leader, by definition, must do exactly that — lead, which means being in front of a variety of audiences, including employees, investors and customers. Not everyone is going to be a gung-ho supporter. Sooner or later you’ll encounter a naysayer who either has a point to prove or is on a mission to make you and your company look bad.
Many of these verbal confrontations come out of nowhere and when least expected. As the representative of your organization, it is your responsibility to manage these situations and recognize that sometimes a “win” can simply minimize the damage.
When under siege, it’s human instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Typically these behavioral responses aren’t particularly productive in a war of words. Engaging in verbal fisticuffs could simply escalate the encounter, giving more credence to the matter than deserved.
If you flee by ignoring the negative assertions, you’ll immediately be presumed guilty as charged. It’s hard to make your side of the story known if you put your head in the sand.
By freezing, you’ll appear intellectually impotent. Worse yet, pooh-poohing a question will only fuel the aggressor’s determination to disrupt the proceedings. You could use a SWAT-type police and military technique to elude a confronter by falling, tucking and rolling to safety, but that usually only works on the silver screen.
Perhaps the best method to manage unwelcome adversaries is to be prepared prior to taking center stage. This applies to live audiences or a virtual gathering when you’re speaking to multiple participants, which is common practice for public company CEOs during quarterly analyst conference calls.
Most gatherings of this nature include a Q&A segment where the tables are turned on the speaker who must be prepared to respond to inquiries both positive and negative.
Before any such meeting, it is critical to contemplate and rehearse how you would respond to thorny or adverse statements or questions.
A good practice is to put the possible questions in writing and then craft your responses, hoping, of course, that they won’t be needed. This is no different from what the President of the United States or the head of any city council does prior to a press conference or presentation. The advantage of this exercise is that it tends to sharpen your thinking and causes you to explore issues from the other perspective.
In some cases you’ll find yourself in an awkward or difficult situation where there is no suitable yes or no answer, or when the subject of the interrogatory is so specific it is applicable to only a very few.
The one-off question is easiest to handle by stating that you or your representative will answer the question following the session rather than squander the remaining time on something that does not interest or affect the majority.
The more difficult question is one that will take further investigation and deliberation, in which case the best course of action is to say exactly that. Answer by asserting that rather than giving a less-than-thoughtful response to a question that deserves more research, you or your vicar will get back with the appropriate response in short order. This helps to protect you from shooting from the hip only to later regret something that can come back to haunt you.
Effective speakers and leaders have learned that the best way to counter antagonism is through diplomacy. It’s much more difficult for the antagonist to continue to fight with a polite, unwilling opponent.
Finally, when being challenged, never personalize your response against your questioner; always control your temper; and don’t linger on a negative. Keep the proceedings moving forward and at the conclusion keep your promise to follow up with an answer. This will build your credibility and allow you to do what you do best, lead. ●
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at email@example.com.
My 7-year-old son Cole recently gave me a Rainbow Loom bracelet, which is made of linked rubber bands. It is today’s school-age children’s craze, and Novi, Michigan-based Choon’s Design LLC is churning out the kits at a record pace.
With more than 1 million units sold in the last 24 months, Rainbow Loom is the brainchild of Choon Ng, a former Nissan crash safety engineer who invented it while working on a craft project for his daughters.
And Rainbow Loom, it turns out, isn’t its original name. When it was created, it was called Twistz Bandz.
Timing is everything, and Twistz Bandz may have sounded a bit too much like Silly Bandz — the last “wrist” craze that swept the nation. Between November 2008 and early 2011, every school-age child in sight was wearing layer upon layer of Silly Bandz on their wrists. It was as hot a product as anything since Beanie Babies.
Twistz Bandz’s arrival, it seems, happened just as Silly Bandz ran into what every hot new product eventually faces: competition. Look-a-likes with similar-sounding names began flooding the market. They were cheaper, and you could buy them more readily at more retail locations. The core brand quickly diluted. So Ng did what any smart businessperson would: He changed the dynamics of the situation.
Thus, Rainbow Loom was born.
Enter social media
Within a few months, the product — which allows its young owners to custom-create bracelets — was gaining attention. Much of this was due to a full-tilt social media blitz, including videos on YouTube and an engaging Facebook page, where users could share their designs.
More recently, Ng has become vigilant in protecting his patent and U.S. trademark — battling all wannabe competitors from launching similar-sounding products and flooding the market to dilute his own brand.
His success — or failure — is yet-to-be determined. But his efforts will prove fruitless if he’s not already looking ahead to the next product. This is the dirty little secret to any hot toy craze and the core dilemma every business leaders faces: How do you remain relevant as consumers’ wants, needs and desires ebb and flow — sometimes as swiftly as the wind changes direction.
Get beyond being a fad
Success in business relies upon building a sustainable operation that will outlast any cyclical “must have” product explosion.
There needs to be the creation of an idea continuum — an innovation factory, if you will. Innovative leaders must review, measure and adapt a company’s products, services and solutions to the changing whims of the marketplace. You need to talk to customers, vendors and prospects. And you need to regularly take the pulse of the market.
If you haven’t taken at least some of the gains from today’s success and invested it into research and development for tomorrow, you’re already losing ground. Today is today, and just like the disclaimers for financial investing warn — past performance does not indicate future results.
In the end, the only thing that matters is this: Is your next big thing built to last? Or, like every other craze that’s every hit the market, will your opportunities to remain relevant long into the future fade away after the competition creeps in and dilutes your market? ●
Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (440) 250-7026.