Contracts and legal agreements can play a key role in determining whether a company flourishes or flounders, but it’s easy to skip over the details when more urgent matters come into play. Those who don’t come back to those details when the fire has been put out, however, run the risk of bigger problems down the road.
But sometimes the perceived urgency to get the deal done becomes the driving force, undermining the effort, quality, judgment and scrutiny needed to pen a solid contract that’s in the company’s best interest. If the analysis and due diligence takes more time than anticipated, impatience grows and the decision may be made to just get it finished so you can move on.
With so much on the line, you can’t afford to do that. You need to do what it takes to ensure that every agreement is in the best interest of your company and that your rights are safeguarded for the agreement’s term.
Do you sign, or are you responsible for, the contracts your business concludes? Savvy leaders keep their focus on getting the right deal and then they watch for potential pitfalls and red flags in the fine print. They conduct reviews, ask probing questions, understand the terms and financial impact of the deal and are alert for liability issues and balanced termination provisions in the contract.
Here’s some advice that will help safeguard your company’s future:
Put all business dealings
Do this even with your partners, family and employees. When there are modifications or changes to your agreement, put them in writing so both parties are aligned. Not only will having a written agreement prevent issues and misunderstandings in the future, in certain situations, verbal contracts can be legally binding.
Clarify the scope of
What rights do you have? What can you do? And often more important, what can’t you do? Be sure the boundaries are very clear. Describe geography, markets, improvements and noncompete terms.
Define all of the important contractual terms
Be sure that performance criteria, metrics, timelines and detailed services required by both parties are set out clearly, as well as the consequences of nonperformance along with remedies. Define price, cost, volume by product, forecasting, payment terms, licenses or permits required, registration cost, etc.
Understand the legal terms and their implications
Don’t be embarrassed to ask your colleagues who negotiated the agreement or to ask your legal team the same question multiple times. As a check, ask an individual who hasn’t been associated with the contract to review it and point out potential areas of concern.
Don’t assume anything is obvious or clear
As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Include formulas, definitions and examples of calculations. Set out potential problems and disputes and how they will be resolved. Define it in a manner where someone not familiar with the business could fulfill and understand the terms of the agreement.
Define the duration of the agreement and the terms for early termination
All business relationships have an end point, so it’s critical that contracts between business entities or individuals make provisions for unwinding the relationship when all obligations are fulfilled. Carefully define each party’s rights and obligations after termination.
Monitor performance and fulfillment of the terms of the agreement
Make sure the company lives up to its responsibilities under the contract to protect its reputation and business relationships.
A solid contract answers all of the “what ifs.” What if the other company goes out of business or is acquired? What if your contractual partner doesn’t fulfill its obligations under the contract? What if there’s a truckers’ strike that prevents ground shipment of the raw goods you need?
Become practiced in setting out and answering all the “what ifs,” and you’ll find yourself among the gold medalists in the contract game.
Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. He can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or email@example.com.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is well named, as its aim is to make health care providers accountable for delivering better care. As a result, the reforms make skilled health care risk management even more vital.
“The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has initiated a fundamental shift in the manner in which health care providers are going to be paid,” says Ron Calhoun, managing director and national health care practice leader with Aon Risk Solutions. “We are beginning a transition from volume-based methodologies to outcome-based methodologies. Prior to this, we have been on a fee-for-service model, as health care providers were compensated for volume.”
Smart Business spoke with Calhoun about how risk management integrates with health care in an age of reform.
What effect is health care reform having on the health care delivery system?
One of the consequences is that reform is creating the need for delivery systems to more fully integrate and provide a broader continuum of services. To take a bundled reimbursement, as opposed to the old pay-for-volume model, health care providers will be compensated based on outcomes. That creates a need for them to more fully integrate. On the front end, they will need to build out their ambulatory capabilities, and on the back end, they will need to improve post-acute capabilities.
How will the shift to outcome-based compensation affect providers?
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has implemented a compensation mechanism called the value-based purchasing program for providers to measure quality. There are 12 clinical process measures and nine patient experience measures. This program, which took effect in fiscal year 2013, is about 70 percent weighed toward the 12 clinical processes and about 30 percent weighed toward the nine patient experience measures.
If health care providers have Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements in 2013, they can participate in this program. Then, those measures will have a real impact on their reimbursement thresholds. The measurements, plus the overall shift away from volume toward getting paid for outcomes, makes risk management programs even more critical than their historical place in patient safety.
How can a risk management program help with those measures?
Nationally, our health care delivery system does not have a standardized, systemic quality measuring process. When The Institute of Medicine issued its 1999 report, ‘To Err is Human,’ it started the patient safety movement.
Risk management has been proactive in patient safety since 1999, but we still have negative outcomes in our health care delivery service. After a six-year decline, we are starting to see an increase in the frequency of health care professional liability claims.
What factors affect the frequency and severity of health care liability claims?
From 2000 to 2006, there was a decrease in the frequency of health care professional liability claims, driven by three factors. One was the proliferation of tort reform. Second, there was an investment in patient safety systems at the provider level. Third, the provider community did a good job managing the perception of there being an availability-of-care crisis because of malpractice costs. Those have contributed to a downward pressure on health care professional liability claims.
From 2007 to the present day, there have been continued investments in patient safety initiatives, but we are seeing an increase in claims because of two factors. The first is tort reform erosion. In some states, tort reform bills have been either reformed or weakened. The second factor is economic stress.
There is an interesting correlation between the unemployment rate and an increase in health care professional liability and medical malpractice claims frequency. For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, there is a corresponding 0.3 percent increase in health care professional liability and medical malpractice claims frequency, with a three-year lag. We are starting to see the post-2007 unemployment rate as a contributing factor to increasing claims frequency.
Unlike claims frequency, claim severity has increased at a steady rate, 4 percent over the past six years. That is cause for concern.
What can be done to improve outcomes and reduce medical claims?
One of the biggest barriers to improving risk management and patient safety is the ability to measure outcomes and the speed with which outcomes can be measured. One feature of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is providing financial incentives to hospitals and physicians to further the meaningful use of electronic medical records (EMRs). The proliferation is dramatic, but it is still a fractured business.
There are three levels of sophistication in EMRs. The first level is simply making a paper file electronic. The second is computerized physician order entry, or CPOE. The third and most complex level is platforms with clinical decision support data. That third level will be necessary going forward to drive down the incidence of preventable medical errors.
More sophisticated EMRs will improve outcomes because physicians will have clinical decision support to help them adhere to clinical protocols at their fingertips. This is important because one of the biggest variables for integrated delivery systems to manage as they make the shift from volume-based to outcome-based methodologies is their ability to narrow physician practice pattern variation.
This technology comes with liabilities. If physicians have clinical decision support at their fingertips and depart from protocols, and an adverse event occurs, these errors could have a greater financial consequence than in the absence of such technology.
Ron Calhoun is managing director and national health care practice leader with Aon Risk Solutions. Reach him at (704) 343-4128 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insights Risk Management is brought to you by Aon Risk Solutions
Tax planning is especially complex this year given the turbulent political environment and a litany of tax laws due to expire at the end of 2012. From bonus depreciation to capital gains tax rates, if Congress fails to act and these provisions and others are allowed to expire, taxpayers could carry a significantly heavier financial burden in 2013.
“We know that tax laws are going to change, but we’re just not sure how,” says Cathy Goldsticker, CPA, member, tax services, at Brown Smith Wallace, St. Louis, Mo.
This year, more than ever, it is critical that businesses/business owners consult with their tax advisers as early as possible to discuss the what-ifs so they are prepared in December when we have a better idea of what 2013 tax law will bring, she says.
“All you can do with this level of uncertainty is plan, plan, plan,” says Robin Bell, CPA, member, tax services, at Brown Smith Wallace. Businesses and individuals should have several options depending on the outcome of the election.
Smart Business spoke with Goldsticker and Bell about tax provisions due to expire in 2012, and how business owners can best prepare and be flexible in light of the uncertain tax environment.
What measures can business owners take given tax law uncertainty?
Businesses that have not yet met their Section 179 threshold 2012 of $560,000 can invest in qualifying equipment and furniture so they can take the full write-off this year. Until the calendar year turns, the bonus depreciation of 50 percent still applies, and we’re not sure what will happen to this tax advantage next year.
Along the same lines, consider taking advantage of the current 15-year depreciation rate on qualified leasehold improvements, which fall into the three categories of commercial, retail and restaurant. This could roll back to the traditional 39-year depreciation tax write-off if the provision is not extended for 2013.
What could happen to the current low capital gains and dividend tax rates that are due to expire in 2012?
If nothing is done to extend current tax rates into 2013, the existing lower capital gains rate will expire. The 15 percent extended tax rate bracket changes to a 20 percent tax rate. Dividend income reverts from a 15 percent tax rate to a taxpayer’s ordinary income tax rate, which could be as high as 39 percent.
For business planning purposes, it may make sense to pay out dividends, if your corporation has accumulated earnings and profits, before the end of the year so those are taxed at the current 15 percent rate.
A potential capital gains and dividend tax rate hike could drastically affect retirement and investment planning, as well. Individuals may want to reconsider their investment strategy in dividend-paying stocks and choose exempt or fixed-income bonds, depending on projected rates of return.
What is known for certain about the 2013 tax situation?
Tax rates will not decrease, but it is not known how much they may increase or if possibly they may stay the same. That depends on how tax legislation shakes out at the end of 2012 following the presidential election and the decisions that Congress makes before new legislation starts during the lame duck session or afterward.
What we do know for certain is that the Medicare surtax is current law as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This 3.8 percent tax on net investment income will be imposed starting with the 2013 tax year on the lesser of an individual’s net investment income for the tax year or the amount by which their modified gross income exceeds the threshold amount that tax year — $250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married filing separate and $200,000 for all other filers. Essentially, this is a double tax that applies to individuals since this is a non-deductible tax.
Additionally, the 2 percent decrease to the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) rate that has been in effect for the past two years expires on Dec. 31, 2012, restoring the rate to 6.2 percent on wages and self-employment income. This will affect the take-home pay of all employees and owners.
For closely held businesses, it is important to consider salary management — look at payments and strategize the source of those payments in the most tax-efficient way.
Finally, the 3 percent ‘haircut’ for itemized deductions and personal exemptions is also set to expire in 2012. Bear in mind that itemized deductions and exemptions are phased out as income increases, so taxpayers will not get the benefits of all of their deductions as they have in the recent past. This calls for income management; if your income will increase in 2013, that may disallow some of your tax benefits and, theoretically, could put you in a higher tax bracket.
What additional tax provisions should individuals keep on the radar as they plan for 2012 and beyond?
For those taking advantage of the Refundable Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) credit, this is set to expire in 2012. Also, the $1,000 child credit will revert to $500 if the provision is not extended.
Beyond these provisions, there is a laundry list of tax law changes that could occur in 2013 if there is no tax bill passed in 2012 or early 2013. We know there will be at least some change. To know what these changes will be, we need to see how the tax structure shakes out after the election and final congressional session of 2012. That said, the best way for business owners and their families to prepare is to plan carefully, including working out several tax scenarios. Then, wait to act until there is a clearer picture of 2013 tax legislation.
Last but not least, remember, there is an opportunity to transfer significant family wealth without incurring gift tax before the end of the year, and those opportunities might go away if the estate/gift tax structure is not extended.
Cathy Goldsticker, CPA, is a member, tax services, at Brown Smith Wallace LLC, St. Louis, MO. Reach her at email@example.com or (314) 983-1274.
Robin Bell, CPA, is a member, tax services, at Brown Smith Wallace. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 983-1217.
Insights Accounting is brought to you by Brown Smith Wallace LLC
Whether employees smoked used to be a hands-off subject for employers; that was their own business. Today, however, a cultural shift is driving management to take on employee smoking as a way to reduce health care costs and increase productivity, and smoking cessation programs are increasingly being rolled out as part of an organization’s overall wellness program.
“The key is the culture within that employer’s organization — really taking a top-down approach, having the business owner or CEO promote, champion and buy in to the program,” says Steve Martenet, president of HealthLink.
Employers also need to take a long-term approach to the effectiveness of smoking cessation programs because it is difficult to quit, and payback on the investment won’t happen in the first year. Additionally, the program needs to be tailored to each organization’s unique needs.
Smart Business spoke with Martenet about how to effectively employ smoking cessation programs and how doing so can impact the bottom line.
Why should employers care if employees smoke?
First, they should care from a humanistic standpoint, as caring about whether your employees smoke gets to quality-of-life issues. Smoking is the cause of nine out of 10 deaths from lung cancer, three out of 10 deaths from all cancers, nine out of 10 deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, such as emphysema, and one out of five deaths from heart disease, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
From a business and cost perspective, there are very real costs in terms of health care and lost productivity as a result of having a work force that smokes. Each smoking employee costs an employer $1,000 per year due to direct medical claims, absenteeism and additional building maintenance, according to National Cancer Institute data.
And when compared to nonsmokers, the Mayo Clinic found in a seven-year study of 30,000 of its workers that the average health care costs of its smoking employees and retirees was $1,275 more per year than those of its nonsmoking employees.
How can employers encourage employees who smoke to quit?
There are steps employers can take to decrease the number of employees who smoke.
- Educate employees about the dangers of smoking.
- Create an environment that discourages smoking, which includes not allowing smoking in the building and/or on your property.
- Offer smoking cessation programs as part of a corporate health and wellness strategy.
What are some best practices for smoking cessation programs?
A number of tools can be used as part of a smoking cessation program, such as:
- Ongoing support and motivation.
- Personalized plans to quit.
- Rewards for participation and achieving milestones.
- Integrating cessation efforts with health care benefits, such as paying for nicotine replacement therapy.
- Having customized data that reports on the program’s effectiveness.
Each situation is different, depending on how big an issue smoking is for an employer and on the workplace culture, so use these variables to customize the program to meet your specific needs. With self-funded insurance, it is easier to create unique one-on-one lifestyle management programs. For fully insured employers, some insurance companies will offer — depending on state mandates — smoking cessation as part of wellness programs, either embedded into the basic offering or sold as an add-on or rider.
Many employees won’t quit in the first year, so be persistent. Every year, 17 million adults attempt to quit and only 1.3 million succeed, according to AllOneHealth Group. Smoking cessation programs require a three-year investment to break even, with benefits exceeding costs after five years when it has become ingrained in the culture of that organization.
Are cessation programs more effective than charging smokers more for health insurance?
There is a carrot-and-stick approach, and charging more is certainly a stick approach. However, a lot of employers combine the two approaches because it is easier to charge a smoker more if you are providing them with an opportunity to quit. Employers should consult with corporate attorneys before they differentiate what they charge for smoking and nonsmoking employees, as some state laws may prevent fully insured companies from doing this. In fact, the federal government thinks so much of the practice of differentiating that it is built into the health care reform act.
Smoking employees cost more and from an employer’s perspective, the ability to charge more could help offset that health care cost. Still, the addictive nature of smoking means such penalties are more of an incentive not to smoke than a reason to quit.
How does tobacco use impact employers’ costs?
Tobacco costs the U.S. $96 billion in health care expenditures and another $97 billion in lost productivity each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There is a huge opportunity for employers to find the right smoking cessation program for the organization. There is already incentive for many employees, as studies have found that 68 percent of smokers want to quit.
An example of the impact on cost is Illinois, which recently more than doubled its cigarette taxes. As a result, 72,700 Illinois kids will not become smokers and 53,400 adults will quit, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. In Missouri, voters will decide Nov. 6 whether cigarette taxes should be raised by 73 cents. HealthLink supports increasing the state cigarette tax, which is the lowest in the nation at 17 cents. Through the tax code, the health of the community will improve. Employers can do this on a smaller scale through an effective smoking cessation program.
Steve Martenet is president of HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 923-4474 or email@example.com.
Insights Health Care is brought to you by HealthLink®
On November 28, the 2012 Midwest Social Media Summit will be held at Executive Caterers at Landerhaven in Cleveland, OH. This one-day-conference will offer tips and insights from social media experts and top business leaders who will help you reconsider your strategy or validate your approach.
For more information and to register, click here.
And as a special bonus to our Smart Business readers, we're giving away five FREE tickets to the event! To enter the contest, simply do one of two things:
- Visit the Smart Business Twitter page and follow us. Then just send out a tweet that says, "I don't want to be anti-social. I want to attend the 2012 @Smart_Business Midwest Social Media Summit!"
- Visit the Smart Business Facebook page and like us. Then post to the page, "I don't want to be anti-social. I want to attend the 2012 Smart Business Midwest Social Media Summit!"
We'll draw the winners on Monday, Nov. 19.
For additional information, please contact Anne Hydock at firstname.lastname@example.org or (440) 250-7041.
A good board of directors can be a great support for a top executive regardless of company size. The most common type of board offers advice; however, other boards act as fiduciaries, which have legal liability for the company’s practices – and thus are much more actively involved in overseeing the company. In either scenario, before establishing a board of directors, a small business owner needs to be clear about why he or she wants a board and what the owner is prepared to do to get maximum value from a board.
These steps can help with developing your board of directors:
1) Get prepared. Write down what you want them do, how much time they will need to commit monthly, how long you want them to serve, where you and the company need the most advice, and what are you willing to provide as compensation to board members – if anything. Many nonprofit boards don’t offer payment beyond lunch, but for-profit entities typically provide a quarterly stipend or payment.
2) Choose broadly. Many business owners draft friends and industry colleagues to sit on their boards initially. However avoid picking carbon-copies of yourself. Look for board members with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It is useful to have board members from a wide range of fields, including legal, finance, accounting and marketing. Organizations such as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SCORE program of retired business executives and The Alternative Board can connect groups to potential board members.
3) Orient the board. While board members may be familiar with your organization or products, they may have only a broad understanding of your operations. Therefore, it may be useful to provide orientation for incoming board members to cover organizational structure, functional duties for each division and division head, a brief description of each product/program/service that includes its target market, as well as pie charts that display major revenue streams and expenses.
4) Share authority. Many entrepreneurs conceive and build a company according to their liking and their understanding of the customer. Owners and managers should run the day-to-day operations in alignment with the board policies. A good board will encourage the development of processes for rationally researching, analyzing and assessing all aspects of the company. Moreover, few board members want to give up their time to meet to essentially rubber-stamp every executive decision.
5) Reassess your board periodically. What you need today to help your business flourish may not be what you’ll need in three or five years. As you periodically conduct mid-term strategic planning, you should review the skills and resources presented by each board director in light of where you want to take the company. Don’t be afraid to disband and redesign your board.
Patricia Adams is the CEO of Zeitgeist Expressions and the author of “ABCs of Change: Three Building Blocks to Happy Relationships.” In 2011, she was named one of Ernst & Young LLP’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women, one of Enterprising Women Magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year Award and the SBA’s Small Business Person of the Year for Region VI. Her company, Zeitgeist Wellness Group, offers a full-service Employee Assistance Program to businesses in the San Antonio region. For more information, visit www.zwgroup.net.
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.“ W.H. Murray
Last month we discussed how to make the right choices in life and business. We talked of positioning ourselves as business leaders in such a way that we make good, solid choices.
This month, I would like to follow up that article with one concerning commitment and business. Will the two topics complement each other? I believe the answer is yes. In fact, I see the topics as dependent on one another.
Here is my premise: When we work through the process of making a choice and we lack commitment to that choice, ineffectiveness is sure to follow.
First, a few assumptions I hold related to commitment:
- Commitment is more than a head game.
- Commitment is positive.
- Commitment itself is a choice.
- Commitment flows from powerful leaders.
- Commitment is the driving force needed to push our choices into reality.
Now let’s fledge out each of these assumptions.
Commitment is more than a head game.
While our commitments start as a thought process, they cannot stay in our head. One way to state this is:
Commitment is a verb – it’s an action word.
Deciding to commit to a choice is only the beginning – now comes the real work. We must act on our commitment to that choice or, as I said earlier, ineffectiveness is sure to follow.
Commitment without action is worthless. When we have done the due diligence and made a right choice, we must act for that choice to have:
Commitment is so much more than a head game. It involves action.
Commitment is positive.
When business leaders decide to make a commitment to a goal, plan, strategy or new direction, they have made a positive decision.
Let me try to draw the timeline out a bit:
The leader has painstakingly worked through all the considerations needed in order to make a right choice.
The leader now makes a conscious commitment to that right choice and moves out in action related to the commitment.
The choice and the commitment are going to have a meaningful, powerful, results-oriented impact on the leader’s business.
That is positive. When we follow this series of actions, no matter what the outcome, the result is positive. This realization can help us as leaders to see our role and our work in a very different light.
Commitment itself is a choice.
This might seem obvious, but it is important for this reason:
Not committing to a choice that has been deemed “right” is a sure and certain way to open the flood gates of ineffectiveness in our business. Not committing is a choice we make to not do the right thing, the best thing, and the needed thing to move our business forward.
Simply put: committing or not – we make a choice – the difference is very important when it comes to good business.
Commitment flows from powerful leaders.
This is true, but the statement does not go far enough. In my estimation, real, powerful leaders are the ones that can make a choice, commit to that choice and take direct, intense action related to the choice.
This ability flows naturally from powerful leaders. It is second nature to the way they conduct themselves, their teams and their business. It is fun to watch it unfold.
Commitment is the driving force needed to push our choices into reality.
Each time we make a choice we are setting a goal that wants to be achieved.
As Mack R. Douglas reminds us that the good news is:
“The achievement of your goal is assured the moment you commit yourself to it.”
Commitment is the vehicle—the force—that drives our choices from concept to reality. The power of a simple commitment has transformed many leaders and their respective businesses. Without that power, I have seen business after business and leader after leader flounder and fail.
I think commitment is lacking in so many areas in our society these days. In developed and free nations, people are blessed with the ability to make choices, but often we lack commitment.
In business we are confronted with the need to make right choices on a minute-by-minute basis. Each leader and team member is charged with making choices as a significant part of their daily activities. Those choices then require a commitment. This is the game we play in the workplace and in life.
The process is really simple if you think about it: Make a choice. Commit to the choice. Act.
Are you ready?
DeLores Pressley, motivational speaker and personal power expert, is one of the most respected and sought-after experts on success, motivation, confidence and personal power. She is an international keynote speaker, author, life coach and the founder of the Born Successful Institute and DeLores Pressley Worldwide. She helps individuals utilize personal power, increase confidence and live a life of significance. Her story has been touted in The Washington Post, Black Enterprise, First for Women, Essence, New York Daily News, Ebony and Marie Claire. She is a frequent media guest and has been interviewed on every major network – ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX – including America’s top rated shows OPRAH and Entertainment Tonight.
She is the author of “Oh Yes You Can,” “Clean Out the Closet of Your Life” and “Believe in the Power of You.” To book her as a speaker or coach, contact her office at 330.649.9809 or via email email@example.com or visit her website at www.delorespressley.com.
Lois Kelly is the author of “Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing.” She offered her ideas about the top types of stories people like to talk about. If you’re pitching your company to investors, customers, partners, journalists, vendors or employees and you don’t use at least one of these storylines, you probably have a problem. And, most likely, you’re too close to what you’re doing, so you think that you’re uniquely “patent-pending, curve-jumping and revolutionary.”
1. Aspirations and beliefs. More than any other topic, people like to hear about aspirations and beliefs. (This may be why religion is the most popular word-of mouth topic, ever.) Aspirations are helpful because they help us connect emotionally to the speaker, the company and the issues. They help us see into a person or company’s soul.
2. David vs. Goliath. In the story of David and Goliath, the young Hebrew David took on the Philistine giant Goliath and beat him. It is the way Southwest Airlines conquered the big carriers, the way the once unknown Japanese car manufacturers took on Detroit and the way social media is taking on the media giants. Sharing stories about how a small organization is taking on a big company is great business sport. Rooting for the underdog grabs our emotions, creates meaning and invokes passion. We like to listen to the little guy talk about how he’s going to win and why the world — or the industry — will be a better place for it.
3. Avalanche about to roll. The mountain is rumbling, the sun is getting stronger, but the rocks and snow have yet to fall. You want to tune in and listen to the “avalanche about to roll” topic because you know that there’s a chance that you will be killed if caught unaware. This theme taps into our desire to get the inside story before it’s widely known. It’s not only interesting to hear someone speak about these ideas, but they also have the ingredients for optimal viral and pass-along effect.
4. Contrarian/counterintuitive/challenging assumptions. These three themes are like first cousins, similar in many ways but slightly different. Contrarian perspectives defy conventional wisdom; they are positions that often are not in line with — or may even be directly opposite to — the wisdom of the crowd. The boldness of contrarian views grabs attention. The more original and less arrogant they are, the more useful they will be in provoking meaningful conversations.
Counterintuitive ideas fight with what our intuition (as opposed to a majority of the public) says is true. When you introduce counterintuitive ideas, it takes people a minute to reconcile the objective truth with their gut assumption about the topic. Framing views counter to how we intuitively think about topics — going against natural “gut instincts”— pauses and then resets how we think and talk about concepts.
Challenging widely held assumptions means that when everyone else says the reason for an event is X, you show that it’s actually Y. Challenging assumptions is good for debate and discussion and especially important in protecting corporate reputation.
5. Anxieties. Anxiety is a cousin of the avalanche about to roll, but it is more about uncertainty than an emerging, disruptive trend. Examples of anxiety themes abound: 1.) Financial services companies urging baby boomers to hurry up and invest more for retirement: “You’re 55. Will you have your needed $3.2 million to retire comfortably?” 2.) Tutoring companies that plant seeds of doubt about whether our kids will score well enough on the SATs to get into a good college. Although anxiety themes grab attention, go easy. People are becoming skeptical, and rightly so. Too many politicians and companies have bombarded us with FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) with no facts to back up their point.
6. Personalities and personal stories. There’s nothing more interesting than a personal story with some life lessons to help us understand what makes executives tick and what they value the most. The points of these personal stories are remembered, retold and instilled into organizational culture.
7. How-to stories and advice. Theoretical and thought-provoking ideas are nice, but people love pragmatic how-to advice: how to solve problems, find next practices and overcome common obstacles. To be interesting, how-to themes need to be fresh and original, providing a new twist to what people already know or tackle thorny issues like how to get IT and marketing organizations to work together despite deep culture clashes between the two.
Here’s a good exercise for your team. Have them read this column and then answer the question: What storyline does our marketing currently use? Then, if you’re brave enough, ask the question: What storyline should our marketing use?
Guy Kawasaki is the co-founder of Alltop.com, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the web, and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki is the author of ten books including Enchantment, Reality Check, and The Art of the Start. He appears courtesy of a partnership with HVACR Business, where this column was originally published. Reach Kawasaki through www.guykawasaki.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The number of seismic changes in the way business is done during the past 10 to 15 years is unprecedented. Just ponder the magnitude of all that has occurred as you read this list: Cell phones became ubiquitous, and computers with 24/7 Internet access moved from the strident screechy tones and beeps of telephone dial up to today’s broadband connections that transmit huge amounts of data in seconds, resulting in virtually everyone being constantly connected.
Instead of getting the latest news at 11 p.m. and sleeping on it, we now receive a constant stream of information in real time. Reaction time has moved from digesting the myriad of hard copy reports that awaited you at the office each morning to now making decisions simultaneously with that first sip of morning coffee while reading data on a smart devise.
In addition, the era of easy money is also long gone, along with what seemed to be extraordinary and unlimited growth where the average company would do just fine, propelled by a rising tide of good times.
The tragedy of Sept. 11 jolted the world permanently, altering the way people live and think about the future. There are no more givens that one will grow up, go to school, get a job, have a family and live happily ever after. Two major wars have lingered beyond anyone’s worst expectations. Then came the economic meltdown of 2008 when the wheels came off the wagon and the music stopped playing while everyone frantically searched for too few remaining chairs. With the stock market crash and the banking/lending meltdown, even the most sanguine turned jaundiced toward their views of government, business and what the future holds.
Even those businesses naively ensconced in their fairytale cocoons realized it was no longer business as usual. What worked for years would no longer move the needle. Customers’ attitudes and loyalties could no longer be taken for granted as businesses acknowledged that future success and prosperity could well be the exception, rather than the rule.
Does this mean that everything that we’ve learned in the past has gone swirling down the drain, including basic business principles and practices that were sacrosanct?
There are no pat answers to deal with almost revolutionary metamorphoses, if you don’t change, you most certainly will become a victim of change.
Welcome to the new ‘now.’ If you’re leading an organization today, you must devote the majority of your time and efforts to looking ahead and trying to find the answers before your competitors even know the questions. Change has become how we must do business. What worked for your company previously is, at best, a fleeting memory overshadowed by the customers’ mindset of “What have you done for me today?” In short, there are no guarantees other than you’ll have to continuously get better or be gone.
A scary thought? It all depends how you approach this new reality. With changes come new opportunities, new ground rules and the ability to find a better way and deliver that better way more efficiently and effectively.
So how do you go about preparing for the future? Certainly use all of the new tools that are at your fingertips. Instant information on the Web is available to all of us with a few keystrokes directed at a growing number of sophisticated search engine. Data that took weeks and months to gather can now be gleaned in minutes or hours. While Americans are graying as the over-50 crowd mushrooms, don’t ignore the young who know only this new way of life. Does this mean you should add a few 14-year-olds to your board? Maybe not a practical idea, but be sure you’re at least talking to a couple of them on an ongoing basis. Ideas come in many forms, many times from the most unlikely.
You must retrain your team to challenge virtually everything and find a better way, envision products, goods and services that no one knows they even need yet, and create a strategy to deliver them compellingly and creatively.
Will there continue to be business casualties? You bet. Much more importantly, however, there will be many business successes for those companies led by visionaries who answer that morning wake-up call each day with an open mind to the new now.
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 email@example.com.
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If you’ve been running a business for some time, then I’m sure you know some CEOs who are struggling to keep their business going or have already closed their doors.
In some cases, the cause might be the economy. Maybe they were in an industry hit particularly hard and were crippled by the drop off in sales or maybe a large customer folded or took its business elsewhere.
The most troubling aspect in many of these situations is that the person in charge didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. The leader made all the right calls and did everything by the book but still ended up with a struggling business.
After you’ve been running a business for a while, you realize that even doing everything right doesn’t guarantee success. The harshest lesson to learn is that you can’t control everything and bad things happen to good people and good companies.
The real test for many begins not with how they deal with success but how they deal with setbacks. Most have never tasted defeat before, and it can be a difficult experience. One day they are the CEO of a successful and respected company, and the next day they are sitting at home wondering what they could have done differently. The experience can be depressing for some and overwhelming for others.
But there’s a saying that as one door closes, another opens, and that certainly holds true with business. If you find yourself in the situation of leading a struggling business, you need to approach it as a challenge. Don’t waste time lamenting what could have been; focus your energy on what could be. Maybe you need to tweak your business, or maybe you need to completely reinvent your company, but the key is to do something.
Take McDonald’s for instance. In the early 2000s, the company was distracted by multiple acquisitions, a massive expansion plan and a menu cluttered with items consumers didn’t necessarily want. The stock price dropped to $12. The company reinvented itself by returning to its roots, divesting of the distracting side businesses and revamping its menu and restaurants to appeal to consumers. The results changed the perception of McDonald’s from a restaurant in decline to the undisputed king of the industry with a stock price in the $80 range.
Another example is IBM. The company was saddled with low growth after trying to dominate the consumer and business hardware and software segments, and its stock dropped to $10. The leadership refocused the company on business software, a few key business hardware components and IT services. It now dominates the business IT services category and its stock commands almost $200 per share.
While you may not be as large as IBM or McDonald’s, the point is that business is constantly evolving. Sometimes it means getting back to your roots, and other times it means abandoning one line of business in favor of another.
Take a hard look at your company and think about what you could do differently. Are there some product lines that are better than others? What if you focused on your core products and did them better than anyone else? Can you follow the lead of McDonald’s or IBM to chart a new course?
If it’s too late for that, look at your current situation and find a new path to success. You led a successful business once, so you can surely do it again. Reach out to friends and colleagues to find out where the opportunities may be in the market and think about a way they could invest in your new venture. You never know who may be able to lend a helping hand. One door may have closed in your career, but with some entrepreneurial thinking, the help of some friends and prayer, another will open. The best is yet to come.
Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.