A culture of innovation: key factors can make the difference between stagnation and success

Far too often, companies hope for an “aha” moment — viewing innovation as a sort of magical event that occurs out of thin air. However, in reality, innovation is often the result of a long, costly and painstaking process.

Additionally, if a company relegates innovation to its research and development department and wonders why R&D is not having the success hoped for, that company is not alone. This is a common mistake, and it can be made worse if R&D has little direct interaction with customers or prospects.

Smart Business spoke with Christopher F. Meshginpoosh, Director of Audit & Accounting at Kreischer Miller, on creating a company culture of innovation.

What can a company do if it has committed time and energy, but has not seen results? When companies stagnate, it is often the result of tunnel vision. Sometimes it can be difficult to approach a common problem from a new perspective. One way to combat this is to engage team members from unrelated functions or lines of business. By doing this, the teams will not be as heavily influenced by current habits and are more likely to achieve breakthroughs.

If a company does not have multiple lines of businesses or functions from which to draw, it should consider bringing in an outsider, and not shy away from one who knows nothing about the industry.

Engaging someone who is unencumbered by longstanding assumptions can lead to game-changing insights.

How can companies engage other employees in the process? 

For those who really want to create a culture that fosters innovation, innovation cannot be a part-time job.

Innovation takes time and energy. If employees are always up to their eyeballs with other responsibilities, a company will most likely fail. To be successful, an organization needs to provide time and space for employees to focus on products, services or processes. This may mean allowing key employees to spend as much as 10 to 15 percent of their time trying to come up with the next big idea.

Are there other ways to overcome stagnation? Many times, innovation simply comes from observing something in a seemingly unrelated field and connecting or associating that observation with the problem a company is trying to solve. As a result, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is simply to leave.

Taking a vacation or getting away not only recharges team members, but also provides them with the chance to see things — products, services, or processes in other industries or geographies that could result in breakthroughs in the industry. Additionally, leaving the confines of the office to get out and observe customers in action can help personnel challenge assumptions and generate new ideas.

What other approaches stifle innovation? Those companies struggling with a lack of quantity or quality of new ideas, should consider how the organization reacts to failure. If failure typically results in negative outcomes — poor performance evaluations, lower raises, embarrassment or dismissal — culture may be the problem.

To create an environment where employees feel safe sticking their necks out, a company should celebrate the effort and accept the fact that for every 10 ideas that fail, one idea may be the groundbreaking idea that was sought.

Are young people better at innovation? The press tends to celebrate youthful innovators, so it’s assumed the best innovators are young. However, if that were the case, why is the average age of a Nobel Prize Laureate well over 50?

While industries such as technology tend to have many more young disruptors, the skills necessary for innovation in many other areas come from years of experience and observation. So if a company’s goal is to create breakthroughs, make sure it includes some people with gray — or no — hair.● 

Insights Accounting & Consulting is brought to you by Kreischer Miller 

G.A. Taylor Fernley – Why your people need to be reminded of your core values at every turn

G.A. Taylor Fernley

G.A. Taylor Fernley, president and CEO, Fernley & Fernley

It is all well and good to have organizational values. That’s the easy part. How do you keep them alive? How do you position them to be a living, breathing part of your company’s DNA? That’s the hard part.

Organizational values can provide a moral foundation for taking the high ground in tough times or when temptation comes knocking. They reflect and reinforce organizational culture. Put another way, they are the anchors of your business.

Many organizational leaders spend countless hours coming up with an explicit set of values that reflect the beliefs and aspirations of their company. Often, they are inspirational, professing integrity, leadership, teamwork and collaboration. When asked about organizational values, it is often determined that the executives are enthusiastic and supportive of them. Why? Because they were instrumental in their creation.

Although there may be a lot of energy put into selecting the perfect set of values for your organization, don’t get trapped into thinking that once they are communicated everyone will remember and abide by them. Simply put, they won’t. Mistakes and misinterpretations will be made, but as an organizational leader, you can increase your chances of having your values front and center by adopting four basic principles:

Principle No. 1: Keep them memorable

Long drawn-out lists containing complex descriptions are a thing of the past.

In today’s world, people don’t read and are even less likely to remember. Make the list brief, two to four values max, and make the descriptions simple so they are memorable, aim for six to 10 words max. Print them on business cards and post them around the office in strategic locations. Keep them front and center in the eyes of your associates.

Principle No. 2: Lead by example

Make sure that you personally keep your organizational values in the forefront of the decisions and actions you take. Refer to them liberally at company meetings and acknowledge your associates who have “lived” them.

Don’t be reluctant to ask for regular feedback on whether your firm is in proper alignment.

Principle No. 3: Build your values into every message

At the expense of being redundant, when you are speaking with others in your organization, refer to those values to make your case. Give examples of how you’ve observed employees embodying those values. Tell stories about how they are being followed in other areas of your company.

Connect the dots for employees about how following the values make your workplace and your company better.

Principle No. 4: Observe when values aren’t being followed

Provide timely feedback to those who have strayed and remind them of the specific value(s) they’ve strayed from. Let them know what impact this has on you, others and the organization.

Keep your organizational values alive and in the forefront of each and every one of your actions. Make sure you are modeling them and expect the same from your associates by infusing them into your communication, recognition and feedback process. And then, sit back and relax. Watch them bring energy and commitment to your organization’s culture and future success.

G.A. Taylor Fernley is president and CEO of Fernley & Fernley, an association management company providing professional management services to non-profit organizations since 1886. He can be reached at [email protected], or for more information, visit www.fernley.com.

Jay Colker – How to engage from the inside out to avoid retiring in place

Jay Colker, core faculty, Adler School of Professional Psychology

Jay Colker, core faculty, Adler School of Professional Psychology

Read this quote and think about whether it sounds like something you have heard before:

“Stay under the radar. Do enough just to get by. Don’t make waves. Get the most out of your benefits such as sick time. Do only what you’re asked to do. If you are asked for more, do just enough to meet minimum expectations.”

This is an employee who is completely disengaged. Instead of leaving the organization, which might be a blessing, this employee will “retire in place.”

Employees who retire in place substantially impact the bottom line, as well as the satisfaction of other employees. One bad apple, if not addressed, can spoil the bunch.

Stand up

There are ways to counter such an attitude, however, and even turn such an employee into a highly engaged, stellar performer. The research on engagement highlights a number of actions that can help employees feel more connected and motivated, and avoid “retiring in place.”

These include the following:

  • Aligning employees with the goals and mission of the organization
  • Regularly sharing information from top leaders, and being sincerely interested in employees
  • Providing opportunities for employees to improve skills and abilities
  • Offering regular feedback on performance
  • Allowing input into decision-making
  • Encouraging innovative thinking, and an acceptance of risk
  • Building and sustaining a positive relationship between the manager and each employee and within teams.

Consulting firm Towers Watson, formerly Towers Perrin, has highlighted a number of characteristics demonstrated by engaging leaders. The first is high emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman, in his book “Emotional Intelligence,” noted that individuals with high emotional intelligence are skilled in understanding, interpreting and responding to emotions. They effectively deal with social and emotional conflicts and appropriately manage emotions to achieve best outcomes.

Additional characteristics of engaging leaders include great communication skills, a coaching/involvement orientation, the ability to inspire others and demonstrating authenticity and humility.

Use more than one approach

At the same time, employing engaging actions alone is not sufficient. Leaders cannot approach all employees in a cookie-cutter manner and assume that they all will respond in the same ways, or even perceive leadership actions as having the same intent and meaning.

The key to more effective engagement is looking from the inside out — how and what employees perceive is their reality. What is encouraging to one person is discouraging to another.

One person’s recognition is another person’s discomfort. What is motivating to one is demotivating to another.

The role of perception

The reality is that the value of an employee’s relationship with a leader, a manager, peers, and the organization itself is based on many factors. The most critical is the role of perception.

Organizations can do a much better job of managing perceptions. In his article “Coming to Grips with Organisational Values,” Vijay Padaki noted that a consistent set of practices over time are the organization’s values. Interrelated values that are internally consistent are the organization’s value system, he wrote.

If leaders at all levels take a sincere interest in employees and understand their perceptions, these leaders can do a better job of connecting personal needs and values with those of the organization. Leaders often have best intentions, but employees can be left feeling not heard and unappreciated.

Without understanding the context of what employees believe and feel, leaders run the risk of misaligning and discouraging employees. Without leaders consistently demonstrating their values, employees will perceive a different reality than possibly intended.

Jay Colker, DM, MBA, MA is core faculty for the master’s in counseling and organizational psychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. He also maintains a human capital consulting practice and may be reached at [email protected] or at (312) 213-3421.

Deborah Sweeney – Three tips to help you enjoy your summer, and get the work done too

Deborah Sweeney, CEO, MyCorporation Business Services Inc.

Deborah Sweeney, CEO, MyCorporation Business Services Inc.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon on a sweaty Wednesday. You answer what feels like millions of emails, check a few items off your to-do list and take a lap around the office to stretch. You look sure that enough time has passed to make it 5 o’clock. But it’s only 2:35. Only five minutes have gone by.

It’s easy to get stuck in a summer rut. Unless there’s a BBQ and lemonade stand in each of your employee’s cubicles, being in the office is probably not an employee’s ideal location on a summer afternoon. It’s harder to stay focused and on track with projects and assignments when it seems like virtually everyone is on vacation or taking on new shift hours.

Don’t let the temperature and the temptation of playing hooky to go to the beach get to your employees before you can. Here are a few tips to keep your team focused while still having fun in the office all summer long.

Go on the occasional field trip

During the summer, I like to take my team on a “field trip” every now and then. We’ll walk to the nearest frozen yogurt establishment for a cool treat or to our local Starbucks to get just the right amount of caffeine to finish out the day.

It’s a nice break in the day that everyone appreciates. Sometimes it’s all you need to get motivated to finish out the afternoon strong.

I make it a point to get the team talking on our outing — do a little team building together with some quick exercises. Last summer, I asked my employees to go around and each say a word they associate with starting a small business and their favorite summer memory. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

Be understanding when it comes to time off

I am a firm believer in fully being a boss when I’m at the office and fully being a mom when I’m at home. As long as I work the absolute hardest I can during the day and get everything on my to-do list checked off, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to head out early to catch my son’s soccer game.

I apply that same principle to my employees. As long as they have everything done and done well, early dismissal and later arrivals in the morning every now and then is fine.  During the summertime, it’s important to be flexible with everyone’s schedules and work around them.

That’s not to say your employees should get out of the office for every little thing that comes up. But when something important unexpectedly happens, try to accommodate around that moment as best as you can.

Keep the watercooler filled

Obviously, you’ll be doing this for hydration purposes, but what I’m getting at here is to make sure your office has a laidback, summer-friendly atmosphere. Keep plenty of water available for everyone, a steady stream of A/C (with plenty of fans on hand) and a nice refreshing fruit bowl for a healthy summer snack.

It’s the small gestures that let your employees know that you have their best interest at heart, especially when it’s 104 degrees outside.

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation.com. MyCorporation is a leader in online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, providing start-up bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent, DBA, and trademark & copyright filing services. Follow her on Google+ and on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.

Joseph James Slawek – Four tips to help you build a more courageous workplace

Joseph James Slawek, Founder, Chairman and CEO, FONA International

Joseph James Slawek, Founder, Chairman and CEO, FONA International

The fear of failure is something that even the most successful and gifted of employees can bring with them to the office.

They are afraid the product won’t be successful or the phone call won’t be returned. I can still remember being almost terrified to make a sales call on one of the largest food companies in the world because I was afraid I would fail.

If we don’t work through this fear, it will almost certainly lead to paralysis.

We procrastinate while waiting for better conditions to develop and remain “stuck” where we are, rather than where we want to be. I must admit I put off starting some new initiatives using that same fear-based rationale. I can clearly recall thinking, “Maybe I will launch my own business, once some additional favorable elements fall into place.”

I was stuck.

But it is our job to help our people overcome their fears and prevent them from becoming stuck. We need to create a courageous workplace. Here are a few techniques I have used to build a courageous workplace for my wonderful employees.

Pursue excellence 

The tool that best fights fear is the pursuit of excellence. It’s the vitamin shot that gives everyone the confidence to move forward. Teach your employees that their performance goal is excellence and giving their best effort in everything.

Aiming for perfection will drain an organization of its confidence and vigor. The goal is excellence! Write it on the office walls, put it as your email footer and repeat it often when you address the organization. Live it. The relentless pursuit of excellence should be part of the fabric of your company.

Embrace failures 

To paraphrase a brilliant sentiment by Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” we shouldn’t fear failure — it is mediocrity we should be afraid of. Failures mean people were trying new things, rather than standing still.

Encourage employees to take risks. Empower them to fail. Foster curiosity and innovation. Embrace the belief that mistakes are how we grow, and growing employees build strong, innovative and dynamic workplaces.

Overcome paralysis 

This technique involves getting the person to clearly decide a specific time when they will “stop working” on a project rather than a stop time. A stop time is far more helpful if they are already struggling to get it started or keep it moving.

In this way, the person moves on to another project, rather than feeling that frustrating, wheel-spinning experience of getting nowhere fast.

Stop time works at home, too. For example, instead of asking my teenage daughter when she will begin her homework, I ask her to set a time when she will stop doing her homework. “I will be done with my homework by 8:00 so I can watch ‘The Bachelor’ on TV,” she responds with a big grin on her face.

Be quick to encourage 

As the senior leader, your ability to encourage is essential for a healthy, courageous organization. You are watched closely by your people and are expected to “give heart” (which defines courage) as they pursue routine and difficult objectives. Remember — a courageous, encouraging heart is a talent multiplier!

As we help our employees overcome the fear holding them back at work, we begin to build their energy, confidence and freedom. And you need all three of these qualities flourishing in your people in order for you to operate a successful business.

Joseph James Slawek is the founder, chairman and CEO of Fona International, a full-service flavor company serving some of the largest food, beverage, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical companies in the world. For more information, visit www.fona.com

Alan Jay Kaufman makes recruiting a top priority at Burns & Wilcox

Alan Jay Kaufman, chairman, president and CEO, Burns & Wilcox

Alan Jay Kaufman, chairman, president and CEO, Burns & Wilcox

Nobody in Alan Jay Kaufman’s field is looking for the insurance industry to develop the same professional glamour appeal as a movie star, professional athlete or international spy — but they are looking to get on the same recruitment footing with banking, finance and just about any other area of business.

The insurance industry is fighting that kind of an uphill battle. It’s primarily because college students, in many cases, don’t view insurance as an appealing career choice, which hinders the recruiting efforts of firms such as Burns & Wilcox, a 1,000-employee insurance brokerage, which Kaufman leads as chairman, president and CEO.

“The effort from our industry to go to universities looking for the best and brightest isn’t there,” Kaufman says. “It’s also not a profession that universities are encouraging people to go into. They think about banking, finance, marketing but not insurance. It’s not emphasized as a great opportunity or a great career.”

But without attracting, training and retaining great talent, a business in any field can’t hope to flourish. So Kaufman and his staff must swim against the recruiting current, challenge the preconceived notions about life in the insurance business and give bright, talented people reasons to want to come to work at Burns & Wilcox.

“That’s my biggest challenge,” Kaufman says. “We need to acquire the best and brightest talent that can take the company from one good level to the next higher level. And after you’ve acquired them, after you’ve trained them, you face the issue of retention. How do you retain the best talent you have so that you can continue to improve your team?”

It has required Kaufman to help spearhead recruitment efforts and formalize training programs, all with an eye toward making Burns & Wilcox not just an attractive place to work but an ideal place to build a career.

Find your selling points

To understand how your company can best appeal to potential employees, you have to understand what sets your company apart from the competition. You have to know what you can uniquely offer to the people you recruit.

If you are aiming to hire young talent, as is the case at Burns & Wilcox, you have to develop programs and facilitate opportunities that appeal to recent college graduates who are mobile, both in a geographic sense and corporate-ladder sense. Young employees value career advancement, and many of them also value the opportunity to live in different areas of the country and world before settling down.

It’s something Kaufman and his HR staff have carefully considered as they have built their company’s recruitment and training programs.

“The recruits we’ve brought in have been impressed with our training, that we have a course that helps them get their careers off the ground,” Kaufman says. “We can move them around to different regions. They can spend some time here in our corporate headquarters in Michigan, and we can move them to different offices where we have training programs operating. They can understand how the office in Atlanta works versus the office in Dallas or Los Angeles.”

Not every office in the Burns & Wilcox system is set up for training but enough are equipped with training staff and capabilities so that a newly recruited employee has an opportunity to experience living in different cities and learn about the work environment in various company offices.

Kaufman and his team have developed the company’s recruitment and training platform, in part, by observing the competition and analyzing the holes that competitors weren’t filling in the recruitment game.

“We don’t necessarily react to what the competition is doing, but we do certainly pay attention to it,” Kaufman says. “We’ve realized, for example, that our competition has been more focused on compensation, as opposed to training and career advancement.

“I believe that the right leaders are going to realize that compensation is important, but training and providing promotion opportunities is more important to career advancement. We do meet the competition as far as compensation is concerned, so I’m not trying to undermine the fact that compensation is important, but the education and training aspect is critical.

“I’d like to see more of our competitors in the industry implement some programs for advanced training. It would be better for us and better for the industry. I consider it a weapon in our arsenal, but it’s not a secret weapon.”

Build a training program

To sell recruits on your company’s ability to advance their careers, you must develop a comprehensive and formalized training program that lays out a process for how your company can help its employees achieve their career goals.

At Burns & Wilcox, the company formalized its training program under the acronym KELP — the Kaufman Emerging Leadership Program, which is administered by Burns & Wilcox’s parent company, Kaufman Financial Group.

“We formalized the program to a greater degree by actually hiring a recruiter internally, just for university graduates, just for the program,” Kaufman says. “We have one person on staff who is devoted to that. That’s all she does. We’re constantly trying to improve our formal approach through the KELP program and other programs that we have. That’s one way we have of searching for the best talent — and I emphasize ‘best,’ because it’s not just a matter of hiring people. We need people who fit the insurance culture, who will embody the best aspects of our company.”

Employees in the KELP program have usually graduated college within the previous five years. The three-year program is selective, with approximately 30 people gaining admission each year.

“We hire many people with the hope that they’ll get into the program, because it’s not guaranteed that they’ll get entrance into the program,” Kaufman says. “We first hire them, then after a period of time — maybe six months to a year working for us — they can potentially get entry into the program.”

But the size of a training program is less important than its quality, measured in the success rate of its graduates. A successful training program is usually successful because the leadership of the company committed resources to it and made it an organizationwide priority.

To build great leaders, they need to be taught by great teachers who understand the principles of effective leadership and how those principles fit into your company’s culture.

“It certainly has to start off with the right leadership in the training program, and the company has to put that on the list of priorities,” Kaufman says. “You can’t have an internal program without the support of the senior executives and management, which is why we always try to involve the best leaders in our company in the implementation of the training program.

“For two weeks, we bring our best leaders into the program, people who work in various disciplines throughout the company — whether it be underwriting, brokerage, property, professional liability or any other area. Without the support of those people, the program wouldn’t be successful, and the company wouldn’t be as successful.

“If you look at the people in our company, the people who have historically been the most successful are the people we have trained.”

And that training has to be open to all areas of the company. You might have certain departments that you view as more essential to your company’s success than others, but the next great leader could emerge from a department that’s on the edge of your radar screen.

“Open your training to people in every area,” Kaufman says. “Our training program also includes assistant underwriters and other people through all levels of the company. It’s across the board because you can’t just train certain individuals. You need to have a macro approach. And that goes back to having someone on staff who is entirely devoted to training on an ongoing basis.”

Consider other factors

Your recruiting efforts can get talented employees in the door, and your training programs and compensation packages can get them to accept the job. But once you have them, how do you keep them? That is a question with a multipart answer that involves additional factors, including the work environment, networking opportunities and the way in which the job contributes to — or detracts from — quality of life.

“There is not a magic formula, but those items are all part of the formula,” Kaufman says. “How you balance it and mix it is an ongoing process. It’s never perfectly right, so you just have to keep looking at the ingredients.”

It’s why Kaufman makes it a point to personally keep his finger on the recruiting pulse of Burns & Wilcox. He empowers his HR staff to do their jobs but remains in tune with the company’s ongoing recruiting efforts.

“I participate in recruitment and the interviewing process,” he says. “I interview hundreds of people a year and certainly anyone on the management level. And I expect that standard of other people in our regional offices. You need to maintain a strong leadership team that works together and comes to a consensus on what to do. You want a consistent approach.”

How to reach: Burns & Wilcox, (248) 932-9000 or www.burnsandwilcox.com

The Kaufman file

Alan Jay Kaufman

chairman, president and CEO

Burns & Wilcox

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned? The lesson I learned from my father (Kaufman Financial Group founder Herbert W. Kaufman) about his door being open to anybody. You didn’t have to go through different layers to get to him. That is the way I am, and I encourage my executives to be the same way. If you want to know something, you have to go right to the source, and with our management style, you can talk to anyone in the company — and our employees do that. Regardless of your size, you want your company to keep that part of the culture, keep that feeling that people can talk to anyone.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader? Humility, honesty and hard work. That, and you have to lead by example. I can’t expect someone else to work hard if I’m not working hard. I set the pace for everyone, and I expect, from my level on down, to keep that pace. As an example, I expect everybody — clients, insurance brokers, agents — to understand our history and what we’re selling.

What is your definition of success? The quality of the team around you. The better the team you have, the more it will be able to carry you through thick and thin. A company isn’t one or two people; it’s the total team. A great team leads to success — it’s true in business, it’s true in government, just as it is in athletics.

Takeaways

Sell recruits on your company.

Build a strong recruitment strategy.

Formalize your training program.

G.A. Taylor Fernley – Eight irrefutable tips to help you earn and keep respect

G.A. Taylor Fernley

G.A. Taylor Fernley, president and CEO, Fernley & Fernley

R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Find out what it means to you

Move over, Aretha Franklin. While she did popularize the word “respect” in her chart-topping single in 1967, respect has been a fundamental building block for successful companies for decades, well before Aretha arrived on the scene.

Respect does not come with age; it is earned. In my humble opinion, there is no management tool more important or powerful than respect itself.

Businesses fundamentally exist to make money, but the currency that is traded inside every organization is respect.

Walk through any office today and listen to the conversations, from the boardroom to the watercooler. What will you find? Probably elements of both respect and disrespect. If you command respect, people listen attentively when you talk and follow your direction. It can be seen in both body language and facial expressions. On the other hand, if you don’t command respect, you will quickly become the focus of ill-timed conversation.

Having said that, here are eight irrefutable and effective building blocks for you to earn (and keep) respect.

1. Be real. People will not respect you if you are not natural. Our workforce is smart — they have the ability to detect those who are “faking it.” There’s no stronger foundation for earning respect than being, well, you.

2. Be interested. People like to be listened to. When people realize they are being heard, they’ll open up and tell you what is important to them about their jobs, their concerns and goals within the organization. It pays to listen.

3. Be a safe harbor. Workplaces are hotbeds for gossip. Create an environment of openness and confidentiality. When people realize you can safely be told anything within the confines of your relationship, you’ll become the one person everyone seeks out when they really need some perspective, advice and direction.

4. Be helpful. People respect those who contribute. Being a contributor means making it your primary goal to help others achieve their goals. Remember, it is important to pay it forward and work with others within your organization to help their dreams be realized.

5. Be creative. People respect innovation. The “same old, same old” mentality left us years ago. By being creative and coming up with new, fresh ideas will motivate the workforce and results will speak for themselves.

6. Be a risk-taker. Associates gravitate to those who take chances — and are willing to look at life through a different set of lenses. They do not accept traditional thinking. Be willing to take chances. Remember: Failure is a way we all learn.

7. Be spontaneous. Use your position to create an environment of fun within your organization. Introduce special events and do so without warning. Consider, for example, an Aloha Day after several weeks of dreary weather or hire a massage therapist after a busy business season. Let your mind wander here.

8. Be respectful of other people’s time. There is nothing more valuable in today’s business world than time. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. One of my favorite mottos that I follow is, “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” And I live by it.

Remember again, respect does not come with a job title or age; it is earned. Make it a central part of your personal business strategy. The results will speak for themselves.

G. A. Taylor Fernley is president and CEO of Fernley & Fernley, an association management company providing professional management services to non-profit organizations since 1886. He can be reached at [email protected], or for more information, visit www.fernley.com.

Ruscilli Construction didn’t panic as the recession roared and now has pre-downturn volume levels to show for it

Jack Ruscilli, Chairman, Ruscilli Construction

Jack Ruscilli, Chairman, Ruscilli Construction

It was 2008, times were tough, and Ruscilli Construction Co. Inc. saw that many contractors were submitting rock-bottom bids just trying to keep their heads above water. While it may have been tempting to follow suit, the family-owned company refused to throw away what four generations had built into a total construction resource. It was a calculated risk.

“There was a lot less work out there to go after, and as a result, we witnessed a lot of our competitors change their approach to the business and their culture,” says Lou Ruscilli. “They were doing this in an attempt to survive.”

Before 2008, the business of Ruscilli Construction was hitting record highs as far as the volume and the number of projects. Then it appeared the plug had been pulled.

col_cs_LouRuscilli_0313

Lou Ruscilli, CEO, Ruscilli Construction

“In our industry, just like a lot of other industries then, we all took a lot of things for granted,” he says. “I hate to say that the phone would ring, and you would pick it up — don’t pass up the opportunity. We were always providing fantastic customer service. But how that was communicated down to the project level and how we evaluated our project teams, as it relates to how that experience was for the client, I don’t know if we were drilling down quite that far.”

The company, operated by Jack Ruscilli, chairman, his son Lou, CEO, and his nephew Tony, president, took a frank look at its culture, saw what needed to be done and is now actually back to pre-recession levels in terms of volume.

Tony Ruscilli, president, Ruscilli Construction

Tony Ruscilli, president, Ruscilli Construction

“We feel that our company is busier than the majority of our competitors,” Lou Ruscilli says. “The work that we have is good work and with very good clients. In 2012, we were in five states. In 2013, we will be in at least 10 states. Our increased workload has allowed us to attract very talented professionals from all over the nation.”

Here’s how drilling down farther brought substantial benefits for the 72-employee company, which tallied $100 million in revenue for 2012.

Find the right route

Once a recession hits and business drops off, a business has to act — and fast if it wants to cut its losses. But the knee-jerk reflex action may not be for everybody.

“Our competitors tried to keep the same number of people, the same number of volume and just go after just about everything,” says Tony Ruscilli. “It became more of a conflicting relationship than a team relationship. That wasn’t the approach we wanted to take.”

“We made a very conscious decision at that point not to change the way we did business but rather to find new ways to bring value to our clients,” Lou Ruscilli says.

If a company has been around for some time, looking at its history may give a clue about how the current problem could be handled. Take for example when Ruscilli Construction drew up its core values in response to some concerns during the 1980s when the company saw a big growth spurt.

“We probably had hired about 100 people,” Jack Ruscilli says. “I remember sitting at a table with the managers, a lot of people I didn’t personally hire. I saw a leaking culture, and I didn’t like it.”

This was an opportunity to lay down the company’s core values, what is called The Ruscilli Way. The values include safety, integrity and honesty, but more importantly, they are what the company stands for.

“We had some people who didn’t have the same values that we did,” says Jack Ruscilli. “They came from other companies, and we weren’t doing things in unison. But today, The Ruscilli Way is used when we are hiring someone. It is discussed with them to make sure we are up front, that they understand how we intend to do business.”

Customer satisfaction would be something that was openly discussed throughout the company and constantly reinforced.

“You have to go out and challenge your associates to enhance your clients’ experience, primarily through better communication and responsiveness,” Lou Ruscilli says.

To do that, one of the most effective methods is to create a sense of ownership.

“That meant our project managers, our project engineers, superintendents and field labor had to take ownership as if they were owners of the company and were responsible for how the clients would be treated,” Tony Ruscilli says. “Go the extra mile; do whatever it takes.”

Focus and communicate

Communication in any form motivates people. That’s an accepted observation inside and outside the business world. The key to using it effectively to achieve your goal is narrowing your focus to find the most effective forms of communication.

Once Ruscilli Construction realized its best route out of the recession was through a refocus on its core values, it was a simple but extensive task.

“It really started with communicating with our associates — sitting down with them, taking them to lunch and really making sure that they understand our definition of client satisfaction and that they understand our definition of responsiveness,” says Lou Ruscilli. “And the folks who didn’t understand it, well, they pretty much are gone.”

To achieve that understanding, a key point to make is that it is a win-win situation.

“It is much easier to manage and be a part of the team that is a team working together for the same goal,” Tony Ruscilli says. “We are all working toward the same end, and it is more of a team atmosphere than it is an adversarial relationship. So for them, it’s an easy buy-in, an easy way to say, ‘Hey, this is the way I always want to be a part of any project or any team.’”

There is one point to remember about customer satisfaction versus making money — profit isn’t everything.

“Stress to your associates so they all understand and appreciate that profit isn’t the No. 1 driver around,” Lou Ruscilli says. “It is customer satisfaction. It is relationships. You satisfy those two criteria, and at the end of the day, the profit will come — even more so, in the form of repeat clients.”Ruscilli Construction didn’t panic as the recession roared and now has pre-downturn volume levels to show for it

A new emphasis on core values, as it were, can repair broken links in the chain of success.

“As we started building the volume again, we just have had a wonderful selection of other new hires that have come to work for this company because of the fact that it’s really a revitalized company and it’s progressing and doing more and more business,” says Jack Ruscilli.

Happy customers mean more business. One of the best tools to determine customer satisfaction is a client survey. Ruscilli Construction makes note of accolades or beefs about its managers and associates with surveys throughout the entire project. If there is something that is a problem, it can be addressed at the time.

“All throughout the project we give them a chance to say, ‘Hey, I don’t like this, or should we consider this?’ says Jack Ruscilli. “The objective is that when we are done, we have a perfectly happy client. And if there is something that comes up wrong, it is addressed, and it is taken care of immediately so there is no excuse for us or the client not to have a great project.”

If your company is serious about improving its perception among clients, you should be able to accept criticism given in a survey or by other means.

“I can remember one engineer saying, ‘You mean you would actually put yourself up to that kind of scrutiny?’” Jack Ruscilli says. “And we said yes! You want that. You cannot improve if you don’t know what you are doing wrong. You want to nip problems in the bud, and that’s what we to do on the job site, every step of the process.”

The results of the refocus on Ruscilli core values have been beyond expectations.

“It has been amazing,” Jack Ruscilli says. “I have had some of our associates even say that it has affected them at home; they are taking a different look at how they are acting and how they are treating people.”

To carry that one step further, re-examine the prospective clients.

“Now we are looking for those same values in our clients,” Lou Ruscilli says. “We are more selective today than we probably have ever been with these types of projects that we pursue the clients who we want to.”

Keep in mind that relationships build over time, and can be lost in a second.

“With any organization, when you engage with your client, you are making at some level some sort of investment in that relationship,” Lou Ruscilli says. “What we have learned over the years is that the folks you have interacting with that client need to really understand what their expectations are and how they are going to be evaluated. You need to be caring for those same requirements, those same beliefs, to your clients or to the people you are working with. If they are not going to appreciate the investment you are making, it is probably not the right arrangement.” ●

How to reach: Ruscilli Construction, (614) 876-9484 or www.ruscilli.com

The Ruscilli File

Jack Ruscilli, chairman
Lou Ruscilli, CEO
Tony Ruscilli, president

 

Born: All are from Columbus.
Education:
Tony: I went to Michigan State University and received a degree in business.
Lou: I went to Clemson University and earned a degree in construction management.
Ja
ck: I went to Findlay University and graduated with a degree in marketing.

First job: All worked for the company as teenagers. Jack started at 12, Lou at 14, and Tony at 15. Jack: We all had experience in the field. There probably wasn’t anything that I asked somebody to do that I probably hadn’t done myself.

What was the best business advice you received?

Jack: Mine is probably from my grandfather, Louis Ruscilli Sr. Years ago he would see me as a young man struggling with a big decision, and I can always remember him in his common way saying, ‘Hey, you do the best you can. You be honest. And don’t worry about it. Quit worrying about these things.’ In his way, he was saying do what you can do and back off. One of the things I remember my father always saying is, ‘Little profit is no loss.’ I remember when he first said it. I thought what is the big deal about that? What he was really saying was, ‘Don’t be greedy. Treat the customer right and ask for a fair profit and everything will work out.’

Lou: When I first got in the business, I would get nervous a lot. We were going into a meeting with a client, or we had an important meeting coming up and my father would always say to me, ‘Just be yourself. At the end of the day, just be yourself and everything will work out.’

Tony: My dad, Bob Ruscilli, was vice president, and he kind of oversaw all the guys in the field, So having worked with him for many summers as a kid growing up, I saw that he was willing to get in and do whatever he needed to do to make things happen. If it meant getting in the trenches, he would get in the trenches. So as my uncle alluded to earlier, the one thing he taught me was, ‘Don’t ask somebody to do something that you are not willing to do yourself.’ I’ve lived by that pretty much all through growing up and watching him.

What’s the secret of a family business success?

Jack: I think it is straightforward honesty. We all tend to be pretty blunt, myself and Lou in particular; Tony sometimes is the mediator. But we put it out on the table and walk away, and we are still family.

Tony: I would say one of my Uncle Jack’s strongest attributes is he embraces family and finds ways to bring us all together as a group.

Lou: I would just reinforce what both my father and my uncle said. It is about communication, and it is about, at the end of the day, we are family. We all have to look out for each other’s interests and that’s what we do. There are no divided lines in this. We are going to succeed as a team or we will fail if we are all individuals.

How Shelly Sun keeps BrightStar Care shining during the toughest of times

Shelly Sun, co-founder and CEO, BrightStar Care

Shelly Sun, co-founder and CEO, BrightStar Care

Shelly Sun was quite confident that BrightStar Care would emerge from the 2008 recession intact and ready to grow. The challenge was convincing employees and franchisees that the health care staffing solutions provider could achieve such a daunting goal.

“Access to financing to start franchisees had dried up and was completely unavailable,” says Sun, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “That meant our ability to grow and add new franchisees to fund improvements in our system had declined.”

As a CPA, Sun decided to put her experience in the financial realm to use and tackle the financing issues. She asked her franchisees and employees to look at what they could do to increase efficiency on their end.

“I really empowered my team to take on those initiatives and work with the franchise advisory council on key sets of goals that were going to move the profitability and top-line elements of the model forward while I focused on capital access,” Sun says.

Through it all, Sun demonstrated her confidence. But it was the steps she took and the action that followed her words that enabled everyone else in the organization to feed off of that confidence and become believers themselves.

“It’s really important to spend time helping every employee understand what makes a business tick and how their role in the greater ecosystem can make a difference every day,” Sun says.

The result of the collaborative effort is a company that has bounced back and is poised to grow from 250 to 300 locations by the end of 2013, including new locations both in the United States and overseas. BrightStar has about 60 corporate employees and 25,000 employees in its overall system.

Sun says a key to BrightStar Care’s continuing success is a culture that has prepared employees to be ready to adapt.

“We’re rarely doing the same thing three months from now that we were doing three months ago,” Sun says. “We’re just not that type of culture. We’re an ever-changing culture. We believe the way to be the leader in this industry is to continually be improving what we do and the outcomes we deliver for the franchisees and consumers we serve.”

Here are some of the ways Sun uses employee engagement to help BrightStar succeed.

Focus on solutions

You’ve got to empower employees and give them opportunities to discover the solution to problems on their own. But that doesn’t mean they have to be completely on their own. Whether it’s you or a supervisor, employees who are developing still need the support.

“I use a 1-3-1 approach with my people,” Sun says. “For every one problem that they have, they need to bring three possible solutions and one recommendation. If someone walks up to me with a problem, I’ll say, ‘OK, great. Go think about that problem a little more. Think of three possible solutions and a recommendation. Then let’s sit down and talk about it.’

“I won’t let you follow through with a poor recommendation. It’s likely one of those solutions or a combination of them is going to get us there. We continue to reinforce that thought process, engagement and ownership at the employee level. We have every manager within our organization do that with their people.”

It’s easy to talk about, but Sun says it’s often much harder to follow through when the pressure is on and it feels like a problem needs to be solved right now.

“What’s hard for most leaders, and I’m no different, is it’s often faster to solve a problem for an employee than it is to let them think it through on their own,” Sun says. “But the outcomes are so much more sustainable for me in following that 1-3-1 approach wherever possible.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that delegation can come with urgency. If something needs to be done more quickly, tell the person that they need a solution tomorrow instead of next Wednesday.

The key is to make sure on an ongoing basis that you’re making time for your people, specifically your direct reports, to help them and to support them in helping their team members.

“I block time on my calendar so that 10 percent of my time is spent with each of my five direct reports,” Sun says. “When I lose sight of that because of other things going on, the ripple effect of that will begin to show up two to four weeks later. … Make sure you’re dedicating time to your people.”

Keep looking for talent

Sun loves to see people who are already on the team blossom and fulfill or even exceed their potential. But she’s always keeping her eyes open to bring new people in who can join the team and make the company even better.

“I won’t go recruit a specific individual because I likely know their peers or their boss and so that would be inappropriate to do that,” Sun says. “But I might post on my LinkedIn status that we’re seeking a new director of field support for the West region. And within 12 hours, I might have eight people who are in my network reach out to me and say, ‘I’ve been waiting for an opening to work for BrightStar. You guys have such a great reputation.’”

The key to generating those kinds of feelings about your business is to have a strong culture where employees are eager to welcome new people aboard.

“It’s important externally for the leader to be very articulate about the vision and strategy of the organization,” Sun says. “It’s equally important, if not more important, to be able to do that internally so employees understand where they are at is the best company they could possibly work for. That way, they are talking to friends and family about how great it is to work at BrightStar. That’s how you get great future employees.”

Sun says networking isn’t just about talking to people about job openings that you have today or will have tomorrow.

“You never know where an opportunity is going to arise or what a relationship is going to lead to,” Sun says. “We all have a lot to learn from one another, and we need to enjoy that journey along the way.”

Make your company desirable

You’ve got to think beyond what you do each day to crank out your products and services. Who benefits from the things your company makes? What difference do your employees make in the lives of others? Those are things you need to think about if you want to build a strong culture that can withstand challenges like a recession.

“You need something that people are looking to get behind,” Sun says. “If they are a really talented individual, salary usually isn’t the reason people take jobs or keep jobs. They want to respect the company that they work for. They want to be proud to talk about it with their family at the dinner table. They want to understand where and how they are going to grow with the company.”

Don’t be mysterious about your company’s growth plans. Be clear about the plans and clear about what steps employees can take to be part of those plans.

“What’s the future state of the organization?” Sun says. “Is it planning to grow, add new business lines and new brands? If exceptionally talented people come in at a lateral level, do they have the opportunity once they prove themselves to move up because the company is going to be different and growing and expanding in future years?”

While a good culture alone isn’t enough to drive a company to success, a bad culture can easily poison a workplace and make it nearly impossible to succeed.

“You’re not going to keep the best people if you’re telling them from A to Z what to do and you’re not empowering them to make their own impact and their own difference every day,” Sun says. “As the leader, I set the direction and the vision clearly enough where they can tell it’s Swiss cheese. But I’ve empowered them well enough to be able to know that they have a significant role in plugging those holes.”

And when the times turn tough, show faith in your employees that they have what it takes to pull your company through to the other side.

“Our people saw we were in it with them and we weren’t cutting people,” Sun says. “That empowered our people to want to go even further than the extra mile. We would remain loyal to them and they would remain loyal to us and give us the extra effort to help our franchisees succeed and get to the other side, no matter what that took. They knew we were making sacrifices to not cut staff to keep our profits in line with where they had been historically and let profits suffer.”

How to reach: BrightStar Care, (866) 618-7827 or www.brightstarcare.com

 

The Sun File

Shelly Sun, co-founder and CEO, BrightStar Care

Born: Knoxville, Tenn.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, University of Tennessee; master’s degree in accounting, University of Colorado

What was your first job?

I worked in a shoe store, Franklin Shoes. I spent every paycheck on shoes. I’ve had a strong work ethic from a very young age, and I’ve always had a shoe fetish, too.

Who has been your biggest influence?

My father was a very strong workaholic and entrepreneur, so I always saw the work ethic and determination. But for me, it’s about trying to balance having both the success that a great business can deliver while also having people like and respect me — respect being more important. That includes my own family.

Who would you like to meet and why?

Marshall Goldsmith. He’s one of my favorite authors and has written some of the most impactful business books for me personally — being able to take some of what he has written for everyone and be able to talk about my specific circumstances as a leader in my organization. It allows me to look at how I could more specifically apply great leadership principles that have been helpful in the abstract, but would be even more helpful in the specific.

Takeaways:

Give employees a chance to solve problems.

Articulate your strategy.

Make your company a great place to work.

How Phil Libin is building a 100-year start-up at Evernote Corp.

Having employees who tolerate stupidity is literally Phil Libin’s worst nightmare.

“I’ll wake up from a dream in which somewhere, someone at Evernote is working on something right now and they don’t understand why they are doing it — they think it’s stupid. ‘It doesn’t make any sense. It’s dumb. I’m just doing it because somebody told me,’” says Libin, CEO of Evernote Corp., the company responsible for popular Evernote and Skitch applications.

“As soon as you have someone who is doing some work and they don’t understand why they are doing it, then you’re not a start-up anymore. You’re something worse.”

Considering the noteworthy changes that Evernote has gone through over the last two years, it’s no surprise that culture is ingrained in Libin’s mind. Since launching the Evernote product public in 2008, Evernote’s apps have gained fast traction with users who rely on them to organize personal data and information on mobile devices and platforms.

Since 2010, the company has tripled revenue annually while increasing head count from 30 to 250 employees. It also plans to reach a level of 500 employees by the end of 2013.

Taking notes yet?

While Evernote’s success is undeniable, Libin’s permanent challenge is creating what he calls a “100-year start-up” — i.e., maintaining the entrepreneurial culture that makes Evernote great while continuing to grow.

“I want everyone at Evernote, no matter how big we get, to understand why it is that they’re doing something and to see the impact of their work,” Libin says. “If we can maintain that, then we have a good shot of scaling the company in the future.”

Here’s how Libin keeps the entrepreneurial spirit alive at Evernote.

Eliminate obstacles

Like many Silicon Valley companies, Evernote offers employees a number of unique perks, including unlimited vacation time and catered lunches. Yet Libin knows enhancing employee productivity isn’t just about add-ons; it’s about removing the obstacles that inhibit people’s success.

“All of our benefits and our office life are structured around this idea that people who are here want to do excellent work, and it’s our job to eliminate any obstacles that get in the way of that,” Libin says. “Whenever we find things that impede people’s natural desire to be productive, we ask if we can eliminate that.”

Libin and his leadership team actively look for ways to make people’s jobs easier on a day-to-day basis, especially when it involves enhancing productivity. It’s why Libin played an active role in designing the company’s new 90,000-square-foot Redwood City, Calif. headquarters, which employees moved into last summer to incorporate features that improve workflow, such as an open work plan to facilitate open communication.

“It’s the first time that we’ve been in a space that we’ve actually designed,” Libin says. “Our previous two offices have been little start-up things — whatever we could afford at the time. This is the first time we’ve had a chance to think about our surroundings a little bit.

“There are a lot of small things. A lot of times you need something from IT. You need a power cord or an adapter or a keyboard or a mouse or a network cable … so you have to track down an IT person and ask them for it, and then they go into the supply closet and get it. Now you’ve tied up two people: the person who wants it and the IT person. It’s a small waste of time, but it’s a waste of time.”

Evernote solved this problem by stocking a vending machine in the cafeteria full of equipment such as headsets, power cords, mics and keyboards, which employees can freely access by swiping a card.

“You decide when you want something, you can go down and get it, but now it takes one person two minutes to do what two people took 20 minutes to do,” Libin says. “So there’s a lot of stuff like that, where it’s something that’s not a huge thing in itself, but it adds up.”

Ideas to improve a culture don’t need to be radical to make an impact on productivity. Removing a small obstacle can actually have huge benefits, especially if it affects a lot of people.

For example, Evernote’s open work plan makes talking on the phone the biggest source of noise for employees throughout the office. So instead of having everyone work around that, Libin and his team decided to do away with desk phones entirely. If someone needs to make a call, they are encouraged to use one of the company’s numerous conference rooms or meeting spaces.

“We find an obstacle and we try to get rid of it,” Libin says. “You can find 100 things like this and it adds up to a culture where people feel like they are trusted and respected. We don’t have to explain to people that you’re only allowed to take one mouse every six months. We don’t have a policy. Take as many as you want.”

Bring on the best

Evernote isn’t Libin’s first time leading a start-up business. Before founding the company in 2007, his career as a successful engineer led him to serve as president and CEO of the software companies Corestreet Ltd. and Engine 5, respectively. In both cases, Libin found that his programming background played a direct role in his leadership style — and not in a good way.

“At my first company, I had this weird idea about people who work for me,” he says. “I thought, well, I can do their job better than they can, but I’m too important. I don’t have enough time.

“So I’d walk around and look at some programmer writing database code, and I would think to myself, I’m a programmer, too. I could write that better than he could, but I don’t have time so we can let him do it. And I’d look at a sales guy working and I’d think, well I could sell the product better, but I don’t have time so let him do it. I’d listen to the receptionist and I would think my phone voice is so much nicer than hers. But I don’t have time to answer the phone so let her do it.”

What Libin realized is that this superior mentality is self-fulfilling, breeding a culture where leaders are always second-guessing and micromanaging their people and where talented people don’t want to work. But if you’re trying to build a 100-year company, this kind of thinking just won’t fly.

“A lot of people instinctively are afraid of hiring people better than them,” Libin says. “So they tend to surround themselves with people who are mediocre. That’s the thing that kills a lot of companies.”

Finding and keeping the right is critical in fulfilling the vision of a 100-year start-up, which is why Libin encourages his direct reports and managers to follow the “hire better than you” philosophy for any position,

“I have to hire people who are so good that they can wind up running the company, and that’s true all the way down the ranks,” Libin says.

“Really embracing that philosophy is the only way I think you can scale and manage and really reduce stress, because anything I’m worried about, I know that there’s a person who’s much smarter than I am in that function, who’s also worried about it but actually in charge of dealing with it.”

Stay connected

Evernote may have a start-up culture, but the company has also come a long way from its start-up roots. In addition to its employees on five floors of its Redwood City office, Libin now leads an organization with offices in Austin, Texas, to Tokyo, Zurich, Moscow and Beijing.

“As we grow to be a bigger company, we’re not 10 nerds anymore,” Libin says. “We have designers. We have marketing people. We have people from all sorts of demographics. We are really broadened, and that broadens the products that we want to work on.”

It also broadens the scope of any given project, which can create a disconnect between a company’s departments, offices or teams.

“Very often in companies, and especially a big company, if you ask an average employee at the company, they kind of feel, ‘Well, I’m doing a job, the five or 10 people that I’m working with and I understand what they’re doing — they’re doing a good job,’” Libin says. “‘But those other guys two floors above me, I have no idea what they do. They’re probably just dumb.’”

One way that Evernote avoids communication and innovation breakdown is through cross-training. Taking a lesson from a friend who is a submarine officer, Libin implemented Evernote’s Officer Training Program, which mimics the idea of officers who must be trained in many different roles.

Each week, employees who sign up for the program are assigned to several random meetings outside of their department where they are encouraged to act as full participants. While the company is currently tweaking the program for simpler execution, the idea is that both the trainee and the group will benefit from the exchange.

“So if you are in IT and you sit in a marketing meeting, you see that the marketing guys do a lot of work, and they have difficult questions and problems,” he says. “It also works the other way, having a person in the room who hasn’t mastered the jargon. You wind up having to speak differently. You wind up having to think about things that you may not have thought about if you’ve been doing this job for 10 years.”

Other ways that Evernote promotes connectivity are using remote-controlled Anybots for telecommunication and video walls and “windows” to connect Evernote’s domestic and international offices. Set up near the coffee machines, the video walls are synced up to mirror Evernote’s different offices at the same time of day.

“When it’s 9 a.m. here and you’re getting coffee, you’re going to see 9 a.m. in Tokyo as somebody is getting coffee,” Libin says. “The point is you can connect with people. You can see who is there. You can see what they are wearing. You can have this ambient feeling because you know that you’re not the only person there. There are people all over the world working at Evernote that are also getting coffee.”

Experimenting with cultural perks, programs and policies should be an ongoing process, and leaders need to be willing to try and fail.

“The basic idea is we want people to be able to connect in as many different ways as possible,” he says. “When I’m traveling out of the office, and I connect to the Anybots, and I drive it around, and point the laser pointer at people, and yell at them to get back to work, everyone loves it.

“There’s no silver bullet. You say the core value is communication, and then you just find ways to make it a really magical experience.” ●

How to reach: Evernote Corp., www.evernote.com

 

The Libin file

Phil Libin
CEO
Evernote

Born: St. Petersburg, Russia
Education: Boston University

Why there’s never been a better time to be in business: I don’t think it’s ever been a better time to have a company, to be in business. This is the best time in the history of the world actually to be trying to build something because it’s much of a meritocracy than it’s ever been. If you build something great and you really focus on building something great then you get massive leverage in everything else because of app stores, smartphones and social media. If you make something great, then everyone is going to know about it. And everyone is going to be able to get it. … All I really want is to make great stuff. And that’s what all the people who work for me want, and it’s enough. It’s enough now to just make great stuff.

Why stress helps: As a CEO, it’s good to have a balanced diet of stress. You stress out about the product. You stress out about the finances. You stress out about improving about the office space. It’s good to have multiple completely different things to worry about and sort of balance those things.

Libin’s best business mantra: I think the most important phrase is ‘simple is hard.’ That says a lot of stuff. In all ways it’s better to be simple than complicated, in terms of your product, your benefits, everything you do. You’re much better off being simple; and it’s the hardest thing to do. Always strive for simplicity, but also realize that it’s far harder to make something simple than to make something complicated.