Mark G Scott
It’s been 34 years since the United States shocked the world and beat the Soviet Union in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. The “Miracle on Ice,” as it came to be known around the world, was completed two days later when Team USA beat Finland and captured the gold medal.
Everyone on the team was praised for the achievement, and the victory still resonates as an example of what can be accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
But it might never have happened at all without the unwavering commitment from the team’s coach, the late Herb Brooks, to go against the wishes of the U.S. Olympic Committee and build the team his way.
Don’t be afraid
As portrayed in the 2004 hit film, “Miracle,” Brooks explained to the USOC that a new approach was needed in order to beat the Soviets. The committee responded with concern that the team might be embarrassed trying to make such a big change less than a year before the competition. Brooks’ retort was that the team had already reached that point.
Now, if he had not reached his players, if he had been unable to convince them to put in the time, effort and commitment to becoming the best team they could be, Brooks would be a mere footnote in Olympic history.
But he had complete confidence in his plan, and he was willing to put his reputation on the line to see it through. It’s not something that all leaders are willing to do. The fear of failure overshadows the vision of success and the plan often is never allowed to see the light of day.
History is filled with examples of leaders who were willing to take a chance and go after an idea that those around them believed would never work. Thomas Edison and the light bulb, Henry Ford and the assembly line, John D. Rockefeller and his oil business, Steve Jobs and the iPhone.
Each of these individuals had plenty of critics who thought the idea was crazy. And each of these people, and many more throughout history, proved those critics wrong and changed the world as a result.
Why not you?
The cautious approach will only get you so far in life. Sure, there are times when you need to be a little bit more conservative and think about what could be at stake if you’re wrong.
But sometimes, in order to grow, you have to stop trying to collect that elusive final and convincing piece of data and just go for it. And who is to say that your idea won’t be a game-changer that transforms the way we live or work?
If you believe you have a solid idea and you have a plan in place to make it work, it’s time to give it a shot. Summon the courage that enabled you to be a CEO and build the business that you now lead. If you’ve done your homework and gathered the information to reach this tipping point, it’s probably OK to rely on your instincts to take the next step.
As Brooks often repeated to his team as they prepared for their moment of truth, “You can’t be common. The common man goes nowhere. You have to be uncommon.” ●
Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Los Angeles. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Los Angeles, please send an email to MScott@sbnonline.com You can also follow us on Twitter at @SmartBiz_LA.
Rick Fezell gets it. Why else would he jump into the icy waters of Lake Michigan in the middle of January? As the new managing partner for EY’s Midwest Region, Fezell wanted to show everyone that there was another side to his personality than just being the boss. He was willing to step out of his comfort zone and do something that a lot of people think is completely crazy.
But as much as his polar plunge got everyone talking, it’s the more subtle actions taken by Fezell that demonstrate his understanding of what it means to be a strong leader in today’s fast-paced world.
While he was born and raised in Pennsylvania, he had spent most of his career working in California. It was there that he and his wife raised their family and built a life. The move to Chicago in 2012 was a great opportunity, but it was also a huge adjustment for his family. Fezell understood that if he couldn’t help his family adapt to their new home, it wouldn’t matter how successful he was at EY.
So he worked hard to build relationships with his new colleagues and other key people he would be working with. But he also managed his schedule so he would be home in the evenings as often as possible to have dinner with his family. There wasn’t much time to rest, but Fezell understood his leadership responsibilities both at work and at home.
It’s easier than ever to stay in touch with your work these days, but that often makes it harder than ever to disconnect from the office and have a little down time. The problem is if you try to go too long without taking those moments to step away, you risk burning yourself out.
But you also risk setting the wrong tone with your people. Everyone understands that you’re the boss who makes the key decisions that shape the direction of your company. But being the boss doesn’t mean you have to be distant and aloof and project an image that you’re different from your employees.
It could be as simple as sitting with a group in the lunchroom — or maybe just stopping by someone’s cubicle in the afternoon to talk about family or the big game last night.
If you’re really bold, maybe you’ll find an opportunity to jump in the lake in the middle of winter. But the point is that you find some way to relate to your people so they see you as a man or woman who has some of the same challenges and obstacles in life that they do.
Still the leader
A brash action doesn’t chip away at your authority. You’ll still be the leader and command the same level of respect even if you take your jacket off for 10 minutes and shoot hoops in the parking lot with your customer service team.
But when you leave a little early one day to watch your son play T-ball, and let your employees do the same thing, you’ll also send the message that family is just as important as business. And what better message could you send about what your company stands for than that? ●
Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Chicago. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Chicago, please send an email to MScott@sbnonline.com You can also follow us on Twitter at @SmartBiz_CHI
There is a big difference between the Green Dot Corp. Steve Streit leads today and the one he thought he would be leading when the company launched in 1999.
“We thought this was a card that kids would use to buy things online because their moms and dads would never let them use their own credit cards,” Streit says. “I thought I had invented what I called a credit card for kids. But everybody was buying them but kids.”
When Streit learned that his prepaid debit cards were attractive to consumers who had bad credit and couldn’t get checking accounts or credit cards, he decided it was time to change direction.
“I thought that’s a way better idea than kids buying stuff online,” says Streit, the 2,000-employee company’s founder, chairman, president and CEO. “So we changed the packaging and it caught on much bigger.”
Green Dot now has a presence in more than 90,000 retailers across the country. It allows consumers to buy an FDIC-insured back account right off the rack.
“It’s a productized version of a checking account without the person behind the desk who enrolls you,” Streit says. “But once you have it, it’s just a bank account.”
Streit was a panelist in November at the EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, Calif. He spoke about being a disruptor, growth and keeping the customer front and center.
What is the value of constant disruption in business?
You need to make sure you’re always bringing in new, modern people who say, ‘Hey, that was really stupid. I know you thought it was really cool five years ago, but it’s not cool anymore.’ You need to make sure you’re open to that, to make sure new thinking always dominates the room while not upsetting the apple cart where you make all your money today. You have to be forward looking.
Disruption is a big thing. We’re always looking at new services and new features. Remote capture deposit is the ability to take a photograph of your check and the risk officer will say, ‘Hey, that’s risky.’ The answer is, ‘I know, getting up in the morning is too. But you still do it.’ So this is what consumers want. The question is not whether we’ll do it. We will do it.
The question is how do you do it in a way that is compliant, safe, thoughtful and responsible. As the company gets bigger, you have this built-in resistance to change. It’s a really bad word and people freak out. But it’s important to have that mindset.
How do you find the right people to keep growing?
We’ve really found a sweet spot of recruiting very senior executives who are frustrated with their current big company because the entrepreneurial energy is sucked out of them like a vacuum.
So you say you’re really bright and you’re really thoughtful and you want to get something done. Wouldn’t it be awesome to work for a company that cares about customers and is mission-based? You can actually do it and have that access to senior management to get it done instead of being pushed down.
How do you maintain customer focus?
You have to help your people understand you’re not doing a function. If you mess up at your job, a single mom may not have been able to buy Enfamil for her child at a retail store because you missed a line of code that made their card non-transactable.
This is about a customer. Everything we do is about a customer. If you can just keep that customer focus, pictures of the customers, visits to the office, everybody is mission-based. I don’t care if you’re running internal audit routines for the Federal Reserve or you’re a salesperson.
We certainly take big, bad competitors seriously. But the love of customer and the power of focus is what has helped us succeed. ●
Learn more about Green Dot Corp.:
How to reach: Green Dot Corp., (866) 795-7597 or www.greendot.com
Stefan Richter is not one to hold back when it comes to offering an opinion on just about anything. Take his view on the fame he has gained from being a contestant on the Bravo reality TV series, “Top Chef.”
“It’s the same story every day,” Richter says. “It doesn’t change. They come in and they want to talk about ‘Top Chef.’ ‘Oh my God, Stefan, this episode was cool.’ People walk in all the time, and it’s the same story. For them, it’s the first time they have talked to me, but I’ve already told the same story 700 times. You have to have enough patience to deal with it.”
Richter, described on his website as a “larger-than-life personality and world-renowned chef,” loves the adrenaline rush he gets by competing on shows like “Top Chef” and by owning restaurants like Stefan’s at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica, Calif.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” says Richter, who also owns and operates three restaurants in his native Finland, as well as Stefan F. Richter’s European Catering. “It comes with pros and cons. I love people and the good thing is, I’m very hyper. I love people, and I love new clients and new faces. I love them. But somebody who is not as hyper and as social as I am, it’s a bit of a hard time. It takes so much energy out of you because you have to talk to people every day.”
Fortunately for Richter, he really doesn’t mind answering the same questions over and over again.
“It has helped my career tremendously,” Richter says of the show’s influence on his life. “Without ‘Top Chef,’ I wouldn’t have what I have.”
Richter was 13 when he left home to begin a four-year apprenticeship for a chef in southern Germany. His mother played a big role in inspiring him to become a chef, spending time with him in the kitchen after school beginning when he was 5 or 6 years old.
“I went to my mom’s work, and I would spend some time there,” Richter says. “I always enjoyed the whole idea of the restaurant business. It was always healthy stuff. Not weird healthy, but it was always from scratch. It could have been fried, but it always was good stuff made from scratch.”
Being a chef, says Richter, is the kind of profession that is not open to just anyone who wants to do it.
“When you’re a chef, you have to be creative, and you have to have talent,” he says. “It’s about talent. I know people, and they want to be chefs so bad, but they have no talent. If you love fixing cars, you’re probably going to be a good mechanic. But if you hate cars, and you’re only being a mechanic because you have to, you’re going to do a (expletive) job fixing cars. You’re not going to care. It’s all about how much love you have for what you do and how much talent you have.”
Richter doesn’t have one particular kind of food that he likes to cook more than any other.
“Cooking makes me happy,” Richter says. “It’s my happy place. It could be fish; it could be meat; it could be anything. I don’t love one more than the other. I love it all. Let’s face it. A great taco is a great taco. It just has to be done well.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between cooking in your kitchen at home and cooking for customers in a restaurant, especially one that has your name on the front door.
“You have to find good people and train them,” Richter says. “You have to find people who have that passion and enjoy doing it, not the ones who are doing it for a paycheck. And you have to give them the ability to be creative. My cooks are allowed to do specials. I taste them before, but they can do specials. Otherwise, they are going to walk away and create their own. So I’d rather keep them happy and let them cook a bit.”
Don’t be late
Richter is admittedly hyper, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what the future will hold. But one thing that does stick in his craw is people who are late. It’s one of the reasons that his watch is always 15 minutes ahead of the actual time.
“In 15 minutes, I can fix a lot of stuff,” Richter says. “A lot of people, they don’t think about that. What bugs me most about business is when people will say, ‘Hey, let’s have a meeting to talk about whatever and whatever.’ So you say, ‘OK, let’s meet in the restaurant at 11.’ Then they call you and say, ‘Hey, sorry, I’m stuck in traffic.’ Dude, you’ve lived in L.A. for 12 years now. You should know better. If you’re not on time, I’m not interested. You’re wasting my personal time.”
Looking to the future, Richter says he’d like to have a child someday and take a motorcycle trip through Russia and Europe. Other than that, he plans to continue opening restaurants a few at a time.
“I don’t want to go crazy because I’m not greedy,” Richter says. “People get greedy after they open one after the other, and they spread themselves so thin that they can’t produce a good product. I’d rather stick with what I know.” ●
Learn more about Stefan Richter:
How to reach: Stefan’s at L.A. Farm, (310) 449-4000 or www.stefansrestaurants.com
Count on Bob Lacy to be one of those business leaders who won’t be trying to calculate the hours his employees spend away from their work as they track their brackets or sneak a peek at the March Madness action on their computer, smartphone or tablet.
“It’s fun to do and it’s a good thing for the culture,” Lacy says, referring to activities such as bracket wagers, Super Bowl squares and fantasy sports.
“It’s just another form of camaraderie. Nobody is forced to participate. Much like our run club or the company employee lunch we do every month or our sporadic happy hours, those things are all good for morale and for encouraging employee communication.”
Lacy, who is vice president of operations at InStep Software, says he has no concern that his employees can have a little fun without skipping a beat in their job responsibilities.
“I think it causes people to be more productive because they don’t want to let their co-workers down,” Lacy says. “There is an awful lot of camaraderie and respect for each other that comes out of working and playing together. It increases communication and collaboration and ultimately, I’m willing to bet the productivity is higher. So the customer experience is also very good as a result.”
A popular pursuit
If you take the time to crunch the numbers of the people who participate in these kinds of sports-related contests, the results are often staggering at first glance. At the beginning of the 2013 football season, Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. released a report that estimated the cost of fantasy football to corporate America at $8.3 billion.
That figure was reached by taking the estimated 23 million people who play fantasy football and multiplying it times the average hourly wage for a non-farm, private-sector employee, which at the time was $23.98. Multiply that by the 15 weeks of the fantasy football season and you get $8.3 billion.
The findings are “total conjecture,” points out John A. Challenger, CEO at the outplacement consulting firm, since no one knows exactly who is and isn’t playing fantasy football or how much those who do earn for their work.
And while he adds that a company’s Internet bandwidth could be affected as fantasy players monitor their teams, leaders who seek to ban such pursuits in their companies do so at their own peril.
“An across-the-board ban on all fantasy football or sports websites is likely to backfire and cause a drop in morale, loyalty and ironically, productivity,” Challenger says in the report. “The end result could be far worse than any loss of productivity caused by 10 to 20 minutes of team management each day.”
Another thing leaders should keep in mind is the fact that few, if any employees are capable of spending every minute at the office completely focused on their work.
“Employees will talk about things like the Super Bowl or March Madness or the presidential election,” says Michael Gibbs, a clinical professor of economics and faculty director of the Executive MBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“But if they are not talking about March Madness, they are probably going to be talking about something else to some extent. If anything, having something fun or positive for people to be thinking and talking about may be a nice thing during times of pressure.”
Tough to measure productivity
Gibbs, who studies the economics of human resources and organizational design, says it’s fairly easy to measure productivity at a macro level, but notes that it becomes more difficult when you narrow your focus.
“Companies spend an enormous amount of time and hire more managers than they otherwise would just because of the difficulty of evaluating performance,” Gibbs says. “Part of that is a lot of performance is intangible. A lot of what employees do, you just can’t observe while they are doing it. You can’t look at their inputs. You have to try to figure out what their outputs are. When they are intangible, that’s difficult.”
Technology is helping companies break down some of those barriers and giving rise to workplace analytics. But Gibbs is skeptical of any leader who sees college basketball, fantasy football or Super Bowl squares as key factors in his or her company’s failure to reach its goals.
“As far as I know, there is no academic study of this kind of thing,” Gibbs says. “I’m skeptical that there is any real loss in productivity. I think it’s pretty harmless.”
Gibbs also points out that these kinds of extracurricular activities are not unique to the United States.
“I teach students all over the world, and I have to tell you, the same thing happens in London and Singapore,” Gibbs says. “European executives and employees are always talking about the soccer games or the World Cup. This is not a U.S. phenomenon at all. In fact, in Europe, I think they talk about soccer more than we talk about sports here.”
Get some fresh air
As Lacy looks at the employee turnover rate at InStep, he sees it coming down every year. He gives much of the credit to that progress to the software company’s workplace culture that focuses on more than just watching sports.
The company’s running club came together to participate in some of Chicago’s charity races that are held throughout the year, including the J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Mad Dash to Madison.
“People that are going to participate in those events prepare ahead of time, so that contributes to their physical health being a little better than it would be otherwise just by getting ready,” Lacy says. “They add to the social nature of the workplace. People can argue that there are some inefficiencies that come from it. But I would say the camaraderie and satisfaction with being part of the team increases as a result of these activities.” ●
Learn more about University of Chicago Booth School of Business at:
Learn more about Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. at:
John Ireland read the notice advertising for a newspaper carrier and just had to show it to his 11-year-old daughter, Kathy. He knew exactly what her reaction would be.
“He kind of gently shoved this newspaper ad under my nose,” says Kathy, flashing back to one of the defining moments of her childhood. “The ad read, ‘Newspaper carrier wanted. Are you the boy for the job?’ Dad knew the kind of reaction that was going to get from me. I wrote to the paper and said, ‘I’m not the boy for the job. I’m the girl. I can do it just as well as any boy.’ And 30-plus years later, I’m still the girl with the paper route.”
Fans know her for her appearances in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue in the 1980s and 1990s. But as she says, she’s “still the girl with the paper route” and that girl, with an endless supply of determination and dedication, has built a $2 billion design and marketing empire.
“The modeling industry — that was not part of my path,” says Ireland, speaking in November at the EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, Calif. “But it was a wonderful opportunity. I believed it could be a chance for me to pay for college or to start a business. I’m a slow learner. The entire time I worked in the modeling industry, I tried and failed at many businesses. I look at failure as an education — in that respect, I’m very well-educated.”
When she started the business now known as kathy ireland Worldwide, Ireland says she was “an aging, pregnant model at my kitchen table.”
“I was 29,” Ireland says. “I never felt comfortable earning my paycheck based on how somebody else felt that I looked. I didn’t see the sustainability there. I was always more interested in designing for the red carpet than walking it. It just took me a while to get there. Had one of those earlier ventures taken off, the modeling never would have gone on as long as it did.”
Today, Ireland is the founder, chair, CEO and chief designer for a firm that offers designs in fashion, weddings, home office and other areas. The business bears her name, but that wasn’t done out of vanity.
“It was available to register and protect and it did open some doors of curiosity,” Ireland says. “They just weren’t the correct doors for us. There are some doors even today that are opened simply because of curiosity and my ideas as CEO are not necessarily taken as seriously as they would be had I not had that long ago modeling career.”
In an interview conducted on stage at the EY event by Forbes’ Moira Forbes, Ireland spoke about the obstacles she overcame, the ones she still faces today and the importance of treating people with love and respect.
Growing the right way
Some would look at the product Ireland used to launch her business and say it wasn’t very glamorous.
“I was an aging model and someone offered me an opportunity to model a pair of socks,” Ireland says. “It was a small budget and things were getting a little rough out there, but it was a job. It was a time when not a lot of job offers were coming my way. I thought it would be an interesting place to start our brand, something basic.
“What could our team bring as far as innovation in utilizing wonderful fabrics and textures? If women embrace socks, I might be on to something.”
Ireland says many accuse her of being a control freak, using the fact that the company is named after her as an example. But she reiterates it’s never been about her own personal glory.
“I wanted to bring something to the table and have our team be involved,” Ireland says. “I wasn’t interested in putting my name on a product. I get accused of being a control freak, but I prefer to think of it as passion. I’m very passionate about what I do. I want to make sure we do it with integrity and do it the right way.”
Ireland’s father worked in labor relations and was an inspiration to his daughter in terms of the proper way to treat people.
“How people are treated is much more important than the green stuff in the bank,” Ireland says. “I love listening to people. I believe in that so much. I have problems in my life, and I like to hear other peoples’ problems and how they reach solutions. That’s what our brand is about. We began with a mission to find solutions for families, especially busy moms. We expanded it to finding solutions for people in love and for people in business.”
The socks were a hit with consumers, but Ireland remained cautious as she plotted the future and her business began to grow. That wariness of growing too fast has always been part of the thoughtful mindset that guides every aspect of Ireland’s life.
“In the early days, I grew too slowly because I was so afraid of growing at a pace where we couldn’t control the integrity of what was going on,” Ireland says. “One of the reasons we remained a private company is because it gives us the privilege to make decisions that are not based on a 90-day Wall Street Journal chart. We don’t have those responsibilities and accountabilities to show on paper what we’re doing.
“We can make more long-term plans that many would say are going to kill your business, but for me, it feels like the right thing to do.”
There were plenty of people who thought Ireland was crazy when she made the decision to end her company’s relationship with Kmart and work through an independent channel.
“People said, ‘That’s crazy, you can’t start in mass retail and go to the independent channel. That’s never been done,’” Ireland says. “It’s never been done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. We’ve got to turn down that noise and negativity.”
When financial performance sunk, there were moments when the decision looked like a mistake.
“We were in debt and starting all over,” Ireland says. “I found myself in that situation. When you’ve got payroll and the money is not coming in, you have a choice. You get inspired and you get innovative or you give up. There was never any quit, and I’m very blessed to work with an incredible team.”
Ireland admits that balancing her work life with her three children and husband back home and the many philanthropic causes she has become involved with over the years is a huge challenge that she doesn’t always manage effectively.
“It’s something I struggle with daily,” Ireland says. “Oftentimes, I’m really out of balance. People often ask, ‘Can women have it all?’ I think we can, but not all at once. I really believe that our lives come in seasons, and in each season of life we have to prioritize our time. It’s important for individuals to figure out their own values and their own priorities. Put barriers in place to protect them because they will be challenged.”
One issue that is particularly close to Ireland’s heart is human rights and the fact that there are so many people, particularly women and children, being used as slaves around the world.
“It’s the fastest growing illegal business and human beings can be sold again and again,” Ireland says. “And that terrifies me. What I’ve learned, is that as we grow, we have more leverage. When we’re smaller, we bump into a funky situation when we call them out. ‘Hey, you broke our human rights contract.’ They say, ‘Well, don’t work with us.’ When you have some leverage, you have a much better chance.”
Something that has helped Ireland in all aspects of her life is the ability to take challenges or take criticism that comes her way and use it to get better.
“It’s the importance of asking powerful questions,” Ireland says. “When someone says no, I ask why. When someone says yes, my question is how. ‘How are you able to manufacture these socks at such a great value? What’s going on at every level? What’s going on in the factories?’ Asking those questions is powerful.”
But one of the most transformative moments of Ireland’s career was when she fell flat on her face in her driveway while fooling around on her son’s wagon.
“I was a mess,” Ireland says, referring to her broken nose, cracked teeth and other injuries she sustained in the fall. “One of my girlfriends, I didn’t ask her to do it, but she took it upon herself to put construction paper over every mirror so I wouldn’t see myself. Our son thought it was wonderful I could scare his friends.”
The transformative part of the injury was the fact that her business experienced its largest surge of growth during her recovery.
“No one could attribute it to my appearance because I was a mess,” Ireland says. “No one could attribute that growth to what I did for a living the last century. I still have a scar on my nose and makeup usually covers it. But it’s a wonderful reminder of the turn our company took.” ●
- Find your opportunity.
- Believe in yourself.
- Treat people with respect.
The Ireland File:
Name: Kathy Ireland
Title: Founder, chair, CEO and chief designer
Company: kathy ireland Worldwide
Ireland on Elizabeth Taylor: She mentored me before I met her through reading and learning about her. She caused me to look at life, philanthropy, business and jewelry with a whole new set of eyes. In the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was just coming around, she was so frustrated that nothing was being done. She said, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything?’ She looked in the mirror one day and said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m somebody. I can do something.’
When she called her friends and asked for help, they hung up on her. Her business associates pleaded with her, ‘Just leave this thing alone. This is not going to be good for you.’ She was getting death threats. But what I love about Elizabeth is she did not let any of that stop her. She believed in what she was doing. You have to have that passion.
Ireland on entrepreneurialism:When I was younger and people got out of college, they had to find a job. Today, people have to invent one. Entrepreneurial skills are more important now than ever before. Whenever we face times of uncertainty or economic challenges, entrepreneurial skills are critical.
When I’m able to connect with entrepreneurs, I learn from them far more than I can teach them. Selfishly, it’s a blessing for me when I’m able to have those experiences. I look for them as often as possible. We help each other.
How to reach: kathy ireland Worldwide, (310) 557-2700 or www.kathyireland.com
Mark Silverman has fond memories of Sept. 1, 2007, the day Big Ten Network went live to TV viewers for the first time.
“We had been working nonstop to get the network ready,” Silverman says. “I started in December (2006), and most people didn’t come on board until April and May 2007. Flipping the switch, going live on air and watching Dave Revsine, our host, do his open for BTN, it was definitely the most memorable moment I have in our history.”
It was an instance of great accomplishment. But the work of turning BTN into the successful business venture it is today, with more than 300 affiliates and a presence in more than 52 million homes, was still a long way off when Silverman and crew came into work the morning after that glorious day.
“Launching a cable network is never an easy challenge,” says Silverman, the president of Big Ten Network, a joint venture between the Big Ten Conference and Fox Networks.
“We weren’t available everywhere and people were hearing frustrations from their family and friends that the games weren’t on.
“Financially, we weren’t able to bring in the revenue we had hoped to that first year. The schools were not happy to hear from their alumni and season-ticket holders that they couldn’t watch the games. There were just a lot of overall challenges from a management standpoint that we had to work through.”
Silverman felt the pressure, but he did his best to not let the criticism get to him or his employees. He was confident in his plan to build the 120-employee network and satisfy everyone’s concerns. It was just going to take a little time to make that happen.
“I needed to make sure everyone was focused on doing their job and not focused on everything else,” Silverman says. “They could not allow that to get in the way of creating a network. When people did see it, it needed to be a network they would want in their homes, one that they would talk about with their friends and say, ‘This is great; you should get it.’”
One of the first steps Silverman took to get BTN on an upward trajectory was to embrace his critics.
Meet criticism head on
Silverman didn’t have to look far to gather opinions about what BTN was doing right or wrong in those early days. In the case of Big Ten schools, university presidents and athletic directors, as well as the people who wanted to watch the network’s programming in their own homes, he felt a high level of accountability.
But Silverman was confident one of his best plays in helping the network meet its goals was to reach out to a different group.
“I wanted to meet the chief critics,” Silverman says. “We contacted the major bloggers as opposed to just reading negative stories about the network from people who really didn’t understand it. I spent a lot of time trying to discuss what was going on with these major influencers in our area.
“I had long conversations with these bloggers who tend to be very opinionated and very strong in their views. I got some of them to understand our point of view.”
Whenever you’re trying something new, you’re going to have skeptics. While you can talk and talk about why you believe it will all work out in the end, it’s often easier to earn support when you have other people willing to stand by your side and back up your claims.
“It’s a lot more credible than when you’re doing it yourself,” Silverman says. “For me to talk about the benefits of the Big Ten Network, of course I’m going to do that. I run the network. But if you can have famous alumni or media who are impartial in theory and just want to give their true opinion, that can really help.”
So Silverman went on talk shows and met with bloggers and editorial boards and did his best to answer questions and shift public opinion about what was happening at BTN.
“It just required a lot of hands-on direct communication with people who I think up until that point didn’t get much respect,” Silverman says. “I don’t think you saw many presidents of networks talking to bloggers. It was 2007 before they got to be more mainstream media like they are today.”
His goal wasn’t to ensure every story about his network in the future would be a glowing endorsement. He just wanted coverage to be fair.
“A satisfied customer is the best way to measure your company’s success,” Silverman says. “If you can attach your brand to something that is really meaningful and important to your fan base, or your customers, and then have others see the benefits, you can really utilize that to grow your company.”
Keep your goals in focus
The Big Ten schools represented another group that Silverman had to work hard to satisfy. Early on in the network’s life, a show was produced that listed the top 20 sports icons in Big Ten history. It did not get a good response from those within the conference.
“The conference was very reluctant to order certain schools over other schools,” Silverman says. “There is always this feeling in the conference that all the schools are equal. We need to do everything equally. But what we decided to do, which I felt was more appropriate for the network, was rather than be equal, we need to be fair.
“If a school is going to compete better than another school in a certain sport, they have earned the right to have more of their games on our air than the team that is not going to win as many games.”
Silverman had to find a way to manage these concerns about treating everyone the same with his professional responsibility to produce high-quality programming that recognized the excellence that the conference was producing.
“To lead an organization, you need to be willing to hear negative commentary on your business,” Silverman says. “Not everything we do is right or perfect. The first step is to be candid and to be aware that you could be doing things better. You want to take input from everyone, but not everyone’s input is right.
“We’ll hear certain ideas from the schools. As the leader of the network, I need to tell them, ‘Look, I hear you. But that’s not really in your best interest because of this.’ Or, ‘That’s a great idea, let me look at it and see what we can adapt.’ You need to be able to filter through the recommendations. Everyone has an opinion, but they may not always be right.”
This is where it becomes critical to have clear goals of what you want to be.
“You need to be very candid, but you also need to lead and sometimes people are very content to just do what’s been done the previous year,” Silverman says. “You need to be able to push through what you believe is right for the company whether or not everyone is on board.”
When the scandal at Penn State University with legendary football coach Joe Paterno leapt into the headlines, Silverman was faced with a critical decision.
“Up to that point, we had been very reluctant to say anything at all that wasn’t categorized as positive about our schools, our coaches or our conference,” Silverman says. “In light of covering that situation, the network really grew up, and we had to cover it the way our analysts truly felt.
“They were encouraged to just say what they really thought. We needed to cover it if we were going to really be a network. It was us gradually becoming more confident in what we do as a network and not being so worried about what the schools or our conference or our fans are going to think; do what we think is the right thing to do. That’s something that came about over time for us.”
Try new things
Silverman and his team are continuously looking for new ways to strengthen the BTN brand. In 2012, the network launched the BTN Big 10K race in downtown Chicago. About 4,000 runners signed up for the inaugural race, followed by 15,000 for the second race in 2013.
“We’ll take a hard look at ourselves at the end of each year and note what we did well and what we could do better and come up with a plan of what we can do next year to keep advancing,” Silverman says.
If your business hasn’t experienced any failures while trying new things, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough.
“You want to be better at limiting your failures, but you don’t want to limit the experimentation,” Silverman says. “Put failure within a decent constraint. You’re going to invest X amount of dollars and if it doesn’t work, it was worth it. It’s like research and development.”
The key to being successful at branching out is to know what you can handle.
“No matter how big your organization, you typically only have a limited few key people, and it’s their resource or bandwidth that you can allocate on so many projects,” Silverman says. “If something is going to happen, it typically needs a lot of company focus and priority and working together to make it work.” ●
- Don’t let people panic.
- Develop clear goals.
- Don’t fear failure.
The Silverman File:
Name: Mark Silverman
Company: Big Ten Network
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Attended UCLA and received a bachelor’s degree in economics; earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan.
What led you to a career in media? There were two things I found fascinating in my local newspaper, The Journal News, when I was growing up in West Haverstraw, N.Y. One was the top 20 TV ratings. I would delve into the shows that were the highest-rated shows on the three major networks at the time. I just found that whole idea of measuring these top shows fascinating. I also checked the top 10 movies of the week and what their box office grosses were. That just really piqued my interest from a very young age.
What fascinated you about it? You have ratings and movie grosses, which is a mathematical judgment, and you’re applying that to things you really enjoy doing — watching TV and going to the movies. It was the marrying of those kinds of things that gave me the thought that you could actually have a career in something you find interesting and entertaining as well.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? Personally, I would have to give credit to my parents. I get my work ethic from my father and most of my personality from my mom. It’s the combination of those two. And of course my wife of 20 years, Vicki.
If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? Jesse Owens. We profiled Jesse Owens as a Big Ten icon. Someone who endured what he endured as an African-American at the time, going to Munich for the Olympics at the time he was there, representing Ohio State. Gaining his perspective would be very interesting.
Learn more about Big Ten Network at:
How to reach: Big Ten Network, (312) 665-0700 or www.btn.com
“They’ve totally changed what they are,” says Thomas Leaper, partner in-charge of the Franchise Services Group at RBZ, LLP. “The ones who are successful know what they don’t know.”
The franchise model allows frustrated baby boomers — not yet ready to retire — the chance for a fresh start. But as they take on this new opportunity, it’s easy to lose sight of the financial details that are the lifeblood of any solid organization.
“The franchisee may not know how to manage the financial end or may use the excuse, ‘I don’t have the time to do that report. I have to go out and sell,’” Leaper says. “It’s a disconnect that can lead to trouble.”
Smart Business spoke with Leaper about how to help new franchisees build a more sustainable business model.
Why are so many baby boomers looking at franchise opportunities?
Baby boomers have lost confidence in the real estate and securities markets. They look at them as being volatile in terms of investment and have become cynical about the motives of corporate employers. They are being driven to look at business opportunities that present a solid investment vehicle for their interests and allow them to control their own destiny.
There is also the availability of capital. It really dried up during the economic downturn and paralyzed the franchising industry, both on the franchisor and franchisee side. Franchisors were no longer selling franchises because people didn’t have the capital or risk tolerance to invest in a franchise opportunity.
And existing franchisees were hit very hard at the unit level, especially in the retail sector. But confidence is growing in this area. A good sign of this confidence is the number of financing options now available specifically for individual franchisees. The Small Business Administration has a lot of money that it’s trying to deploy. Beyond that, there are a number of private banking institutions that are increasingly interested in funding the franchise sector.
It’s the firm’s responsibility to demonstrate that accounting is as important as legal, sales, marketing and operations to the health of their business. Teaching proper accounting procedures is integral to any franchise training and on-boarding process, and illustrates the importance of working with professionals that can help newer franchisors deliver the message. ●
When California Pizza Kitchen head G.J. Hart arrived on the scene in 2011, he found a number of issues he wanted to address.
One of the first items on his list was the structured approach his team took toward serving guests in the restaurants.
CPK developed a series of steps for servers that started when they seated guests until it was time to deliver the check. It removed all the guesswork from being a server. But it also created a dining experience that lacked a personal touch.
Hart discovered that guests typically received the same experience, whether they were a couple out for a romantic evening or a family with young, screaming children. The reason is the servers were following a script.
In most cases, when someone tells you that you sound “scripted,” it’s not meant as a compliment. The general inference is that you’re not putting much thought or emotion into what you’re saying. You memorized what you needed to say, you said it and that was it.
But even in a profession where you need scripts, such as acting, your goal is not to come off as if you’re reading lines. You want your audience to think you’ve become this character, and the depth of your role goes beyond just the words coming out of your mouth.
Unleash your talent
The same rules apply in the world of customer service.
Companies that provide the best support to customers are those that empower employees to assess a situation and actively seek the best way to respond. So if you’re a server and you notice that your next guest keeps looking at his watch, you know to skip any witty banter and try to get him seated, served and out the door quickly.
Hart didn’t want his servers to be robots. He wanted them to be real people who could interact with guests and customize their service to each situation — and he quickly discovered that his employees were thrilled to shed formality and give guests the best experience the servers could provide.
Take care of business
As you look ahead this year, think about what your company can do for customers and think about skills or talents you might be underutilizing. How much do you know about these people you’ve hired? And considering these people are on the front lines dealing with customers daily, how much more guidance do they need to make your customers happy?
Every strong company has core values that it prizes. But if you’ve communicated them to your employees and you’re confident your servers understand what you expect, what other reasons do you have to keep your employees reined in?
Just take it from Amber Cox, a bartender at the CPK in Canoga Park.
“People go places because they like the service,” Cox says. “Guests love the way we can be ourselves and take care of them in the fashion they want to be taken care of.” ●
Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Los Angeles. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Los Angeles, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever made a promise and failed to keep it? Of course you have, you’re human. That doesn’t make you a bad person, assuming it was not your intention to deliberately deceive the person or people to which you made the promise.
But sometimes in our zest to please others, we don’t always think through all the details before we open our mouths. We just push forward believing that we can make it happen. In the event that we can’t live up to the promise, we apologize and try to learn from our mistake.
Aligning commitment with a promise
Andrew Berlin makes a promise with every employee he hires at both Berlin Packaging and the South Bend Silver Hawks, the Class AA minor league baseball team he owns in South Bend, Ind. Berlin puts a great deal of thought and analysis into this promise to ensure it represents something he can live up to.
He promises to pay his employees top dollar for their efforts and to give them every opportunity to grow and advance in the company. He guarantees that they will have strong, supportive leadership and an organization that will be there for them when they run into personal challenges.
Regular training opportunities will also be offered and while he stops short of guaranteeing their job forever, he does promise that they won’t have to work in fear.
In return for making this promise, Berlin asks for a strong commitment from his employees. He expects profitability, productivity and innovation. Points are not awarded for working hard if there are no results to show for it. In these situations, Berlin advises employees to actively seek better ways to turn their energy into productivity. The stakes are high on both sides, but the results — a packaging company topping $800 million in revenue and a baseball team that offers its fans a great ballpark experience — offer proof that Berlin is on to something.
Think before you act
It’s OK to make promises to your employees if you’ve put thought into what they represent and concluded that you have the means to support them. These assurances can build confidence and trust and empower your people to give maximum effort in their work. You show them what their hard work can lead to, and they’ll go above and beyond to make it happen.
But a failed promise can do exactly the opposite to morale. It could be a raise or bonus that you can’t deliver on, or it could be something less tangible such as a more active role in shaping your product or service.
If you open the door to your people and encourage and empower them to put their creative thoughts and ideas on the table, and then you reject them in favor of your own plan, you’ll quickly lose their support.
Employees will probably understand if you have to break a promise due to circumstances you couldn’t foresee. But they will not be as forgiving if they believe they were deliberately deceived.
Berlin has found success by being upfront about expectations and making promises he can keep. All he asks is that his employees make the same commitment to him. When you have an organization that has such strong commitment at all levels, it’s hard not to find success. ●
Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Chicago. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Chicago, please send an email to email@example.com.