Ravi Kathuria: How proper implementation of an initiative rests on extensive work behind the scenes

Ravi Kathuria, president, Cohegic Corp.

Ravi Kathuria, president, Cohegic Corp.

Having the best ideas in the world does not do you any good unless you execute them. Execution gives life to ideas and makes them a reality. Execution of significant initiatives is particularly challenging because it often involves many moving parts and multiple teams inside and outside the organization. Collaboration and coordination are the infrastructure, the engine you need to execute successfully. Without them, you will be limited in what you can accomplish.


For successful collaboration, expectations management is critical. Often, things break down because the teams involved have different expectations. They assign different levels of importance to the project and, hence, assign different priorities. That affects the amount of resources allocated and influences the commitment to timelines.

Avoid the train wreck and align expectations. Set the right context so all teams understand which aspects of the project are absolutely necessary for its success.

For some projects, meeting deadlines is most important, while for others, the quality of work may be the single most important criteria. Knowing which attributes constitute the definition of success guarantees better coordination.

Respect and trust

The foundation of collaboration is mutual respect and the spirit of cooperation. To cooperate is to have the right attitude of helpfulness and openness.

Often, different teams, whether they belong to different organizations or the same company, find it difficult to collaborate because they do not trust each other. It is not clear to everyone how success or failure will be shared. The fear is that others will take credit for success and deflect blame and fault for failure.

For effective collaboration, roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined and accountabilities be clearly and openly assigned. Nothing helps as much as creating a spirit and culture of collaboration by enforcing the right conduct and behavior.

Effective communication

The foundation of collaboration and coordination is communication, not the quantity of communication but the effectiveness.

Effective communication is not just about disseminating information. It is making sure others receive the information, process it, interpret it correctly and understand what is expected of them. Then the process is complete.

If information is communicated with the hope that the recipients will have the time to duly process and act on it, then you are putting the project at risk. It is the job of the communicator to ensure that the message is received and understood. Doesn’t that put an extra burden on the communicator? Shouldn’t you expect that people who receive the communication act on it judiciously? Yes and yes.

However, in this day and age where people are overcommitted and work on multiple projects simultaneously, taking extra care to follow up on critical communication items goes a long away to ensure flawless execution.

One problem with communication is overcommunication. People are often copied on emails, invited to meetings or involved in discussions where they have a marginal contribution to make and little to gain.

When we communicate, we must appreciate that we are making demands on the other’s time and attention. When we communicate incessantly, superfluously or profusely, we run the risk of being tuned out.

Collaboration and coordination need a constant vigil. Things can break down quickly. Ensuring the right expectations, respect and communication will help you execute effectively.

Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and WorldNews, Ravi Kathuria is a recognized thought leader. Featured on the “BusinessMakers” show, CBS Radio, and “Nightly Business Report,” he is the author of the highly acclaimed book, “How Cohesive is Your Company?: A Leadership Parable.” Kathuria is the president of Cohegic Corporation, a management consulting, executive and sales coaching firm, and president of the Houston Strategy Forum. Reach him at (281) 403-0250 or [email protected]

How Carol Wior works hard to stay positive even during the toughest of times

Carol Wior, Founder and CEO, Carol Wior Inc.

Carol Wior has a lot of experience at overcoming challenges. She started her business in a garage with three sewing machines and $77, built it into a $75 million clothing design company and then watched as it fell apart and she had to start all over again.

Add to that a couple of tough recessions and you realize Wior has spent much of the past 20 years in recovery mode at Carol Wior Inc. Fortunately for her, she can still laugh about all the ups and downs.

“You can survive anything if you want to,” says Wior, the 200-employee company’s founder and CEO. “Believe me, there are times when I’d like to bury my head in the sand. Every person goes through that, especially when you start a business on a shoestring like I did. But here’s what you can do about it. There’s a solution to every problem.”

The most recent recession hasn’t completely squelched that optimism, but Wior is still very concerned about the future of her industry.

“A lot of people are using up their reserves and their savings to get them through this rough time hoping that eventually, things are going to turn around,” Wior says.

One of the most common challenges during a recession is that with everyone struggling, you begin to have customers who have trouble paying their bills. You’ve got to find a way to connect with them and work with them to find a solution.

“I have people that owe me money that won’t take my phone call,” Wior says. “That is the most infuriating thing. So I leave messages like, ‘Listen, if you don’t have the money to pay me, I totally understand. If you can give me something, give me 10 percent of what you owe me. Just a little something. I’m not going to pressure you right now. I understand it’s tough. But I need a call back. I need you to talk to me.’

“When people are silent, you don’t know what’s going on and that’s your unknown and that’s when you start to get very worried and upset. Unfortunately, people tend to do that.”

Wior feels strongly that collaboration is vital when it comes to surviving economic slowdowns. That goes both for collecting money from customers and vendors and seeking money from lenders and creditors.

“Sit down with people who won’t give you credit and say, ‘Look, you’re not giving me credit, but I want to show you why you should. Here’s what I can do,” Wior says. “Explain what you have and why you think it’s great.”

Of course, you need to do more than just tell people that what you’re doing is awesome. You need data that backs it up and shows you’ve built something worth investing in.

“If you don’t know what your figures are, your financial statements or your working capital, that will completely turn them off,” Wior says. “You need to know your financial statement upside down and sideways. You have to know the answers to all the questions they are going to ask you.”

Don’t be afraid to bring your accountant along to help with those details and also back up your proposals.

“It’s much easier for your accountant to sell you than for you to sell yourself,” Wior says. “The accountant knows the answers. They speak the same language. As a businessperson, I get very excited. I see the marketing potential and I see the design ideas. I’m all excited about that. The bottom line, the accountants can address that. If you’re going to answer financing questions, bring your accountant with you.”

The key whether you’re trying to collect on bills or add investors is to keep the lines of communication open.

“Face it straight on and attack the problem,” Wior says.

How to reach: Carol Wior Inc., (562) 927-0052 or www.carolwior.com

Have a solution in mind

You may think you’re doing your employees a favor when you offer an overly rosy view of your company’s current financial state. But Carol Wior says you’re just asking for trouble down the road.

“If people understand situations, they can handle them,” says Wior, the 100-employee clothing design company’s founder and CEO. “It’s the unknown that freaks people out.”

When your employees hear a lot of bad news outside the company, and then hear you talk about positives without anything to back it up, you’re going to leave them very confused. And that’s not good.

So don’t be afraid to talk about problems, but do so with a real solution in mind for how to solve it.

“I usually have solutions before I present my problem,” Wior says. “Have some solutions before you express the problem. Here it is. We have a big cancellation and that’s going to mess up shipping for the month. Or so and so isn’t paying us, and they filed for bankruptcy, and that’s really going to hurt our cash flow next month. But here’s what we can do about it. You get the solutions together and then your team sees you working with solutions. They don’t just see you as, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got this problem.’”

How Jim Keane leads Steelcase Inc. to innovate product in a changing market

Jim Keane, President, Steelcase Group brand of Steelcase Inc.

Jim Keane says the nature of work is changing.

As president of the Steelcase Group brand of Steelcase Inc., a global leader in the office furniture industry based in Grand Rapids, Mich., he is at the forefront of adapting its product line to accommodate this change.

“There’s a major shift from individual work to collaborative work,” he says. “And to the extent you do individual work, because you have new technologies that allow for mobility — things like wireless laptops, smart phones — people can do their individual work from anywhere.”

Smart Business sat down with Keane at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how the 10,000-employee company generates, tests and implements new ideas for its product line to meet the changing needs of today’s workforce.

Where do you get inspiration for products?

We believe in user-centered innovation. … What happens when someone actually sits in our product, uses our product or goes to the conference room and tries to make a video conference call? How can we make life easier for them? How can we get at the root of what they’re really trying to get done? And we find that surveys aren’t very useful for that because people just don’t think about these things. So the most powerful tool we have seen is observation, literally just standing there and watching.

Every time we work with a client, we go back and we observe what things that worked the way we expected and we look at things that were different than we expected. Sometimes those differences give us ideas. We also are very careful about studying people at work. We have people inside Steelcase that are sociologists, anthropologists, people who are trained in design thinking. … They kind of tease out behaviors that they’re seeing (in the workplace).

Studying things that have nothing to do with furniture is actually very helpful. So I attend conferences that have nothing to do with business and nothing to do with furniture, and I learn about biology and new things that are happening with that field. I learn about architecture and design, which have a tangential relationship to us. … Almost always within six months or a year after the conference, I find myself thinking back on one of those presentations and remembering something somebody said and beginning to think about how it could actually be relevant to what we’re going to face in the future.

How do you turn an idea into a tangible product?

We very quickly in our innovation process move from ideas to prototypes. … We experiment on ourselves, and our employees love being part of experiments we run inside the company. We’ll also do this sometimes with clients. We’ll have clients who will ask to be part of pilot product testing.

We’ll study something, we’ll come up with our own range of ideas and we’ll very quickly build rough prototypes. These might be built out of foam board, they might be built out of cardboard, so we’re not intending to sit in it or work at it. But we just want to feel what that’s like, and then we tear it up. We learn from it, we tear it up and we start over with something that might be built out of wood. And then we’ll tear that up and we’ll keep iterating — maybe five, 10, 15 iterations on an idea — before we finally decide that it might be something we want to launch as a product. So we fail over and over throughout that process. Fail early, fail often, but keep iterating.

How do you take lessons from that process and apply it to future ideas?

We try to capture the lessons that we’ve learned. We may capture it through video; we may capture it through still images. We love, for example, giving users disposable digital cameras where they can take pictures of whatever they want to take a picture of to relay to us their experience in using the product they’re testing. So we end up with rooms that are wallpapered with these photographs. We might capture thousands of photographs from stage to stage, and then on that wall there might be little Post-it® notes or things that are the synthesis of the lessons that we’ve learned. So as our team continues to work, they never leave that space. They continue to work in that space and they see the progression of their idea from the early stage ideas all the way through to the end.

How do you get your clients’ constituents on board with changes to their work environment?

We have consultant services we offer, and our dealers also offer services, to help manage that change process. Some of it is actually engaging the employees of the company in the design. … A lot of times the employees have strong views about the way their workplace should be. And by working with them, we’re able to help them play a role in the design process, and that creates true buy in.

We also work during the move-in process to help people make the adjustment from the kinds of spaces they had before to new kinds of spaces — help them get their chairs adjusted, help them figure out how they’re going to use the new kinds of storage. And if you do all those things right, if you pick the solution that’s right for your company, if you engage your employees in the design and if you play close attention to individuals as they make their way through the process, it can be very successful.

HOW TO REACH: Steelcase Inc., 616-247-2710 or www.steelcase.com

Kim Andres’ keys for succeeding together

North Texas continues to be on the socioeconomic forefront of metropolitan areas across

Kim Andres, president, Irving Flood Control District Section III

the country — and for good reason. Our region has continued to have a below average unemployment rate and strong economic fundamentals when compared to other areas of the country. Most significantly, these measures are occurring despite a less than ideal economic climate and a population that is growing at rates higher than the national average.

I believe the ability of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to outperform many other major metropolitan areas is strongly connected to innovative thinking that enables us to continue creating and capitalizing on opportunities that help North Texas prosper. Individual communities and the region as a whole continue to set the bar higher, empowering superior performance in both the public and private sectors.

With approximately 250 public entities dedicated to supporting North Texas’ growing population, our region has a vast infrastructure in place to serve individual and business residents. Yet, while demands on various government agencies are becoming more complex with time, I’ve recently noticed a positive trend emerging in addressing community needs. Rather than looking to increase the scale of individual agencies, various city, county and regional groups increasingly are launching collaborative efforts, on large and small scales alike.

One of the most visible, and a first for North Texas, was the unifying of more than 50 communities in preparation for Super Bowl XLV. With the creation of a “council of mayors,” 55 heads of cities worked together to achieve one very large goal. The council was a Super Bowl first and integral to making the game in North Texas possible. This regional approach was a great success, and despite the somewhat unusual weather, the event provided a huge economic boost to the region.

We’ve also seen the teaming of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, the North Central Texas Council of Government’s Regional Transportation Council, along with various cities and chambers of commerce, to create an innovative plan for developing a new regional rail line along the Cotton Belt right of way. This new transportation asset will link the northeast and southwest portions of the Metroplex and connect with air service at DFW Airport. What originally was envisioned as a public project now is being developed as a public-private partnership, seeking to expedite the process in response to tremendous public interest. This multidisciplinary group is creating the financial resources needed to expedite construction of the rail line and greatly impact our transportation landscape. 

On a smaller scale, but driven by the same interest in efficiency, I’ve witnessed the spirit of collaboration firsthand in support of surface water management in the Valley Ranch community. Recently, the Irving Flood Control District Section III joined with leaders of the Valley Ranch Association and the city of Irving to begin extending the city’s Sam Houston Trail Park into Valley Ranch. Rather than any one entity single-handedly designing and completing this venture, leaders of the VRA, the city and the flood control district teamed to begin making the extension a reality. Through collaboration, the resulting project will be thoughtfully integrated into the roads, walking paths, water features and overall community.

These and other similar ventures demonstrate that a region growing faster than its infrastructure can work smarter and be more focused. Connecting agencies and organizations possessing the right core competencies for a given assignment is smart, both logistically and financially. This course of action is one of the tools our region should continue to use in order to provide innovative solutions to the myriad challenges and opportunities of the future.

A 17-year resident of the Valley Ranch community in Irving, Kim Andres is president of Irving Flood Control District Section III, the publicly funded agency responsible for constructing and maintaining canals, ponds and other natural water management facilities that safeguard people and enhances the economic value of property throughout the community. Learn more at www.ifcd3.org.

Collaboration is key in Northeast Ohio’s advanced energy industry

Dave Karpinski, Vice President, NorTech

Advanced energy has gained considerable traction in Northeast Ohio, across the country and around the world as a transformational economic development opportunity. NorTech, a regional, nonprofit, technology-based economic development organization, has been working with public and private sector partners in Northeast Ohio for the past two years to accelerate growth in the advanced energy industry.

According to a recent study published by the Brookings Institution, the size of Ohio’s clean economy ranks sixth among the 50 states. The report also highlights that 26 percent of clean economy jobs in the U.S. are in the manufacturing sector. While this recent news bodes well for our state, how can we continue to leverage Northeast Ohio’s current assets — especially in manufacturing — to develop a thriving advanced energy industry cluster that generates economic opportunity in our region?

The opportunity

In order to build a cluster, you must first know who is on your team and what their strengths are, assess your competition, understand the market, and then devise a game plan to win. Essentially, this is the process NorTech embarked on nine months ago by creating a series of road maps with more than 30 representatives from the region’s advanced energy companies and research organizations. The advanced energy road map process has concluded that there is $30 billion in market opportunities within Northeast Ohio’s energy storage, smart grid and biomass/waste-to-energy sectors alone, which could add approximately 5,000 jobs in our region over the next seven years.

These road maps are based on building upon the core strengths we have today. However, we anticipate that additional opportunities will emerge from this strong base. New companies, collaborations and partnerships will develop from our core strengths, which will generate new ideas, new technologies and new products. In turn, this will attract more funding, companies, resources and opportunities to Northeast Ohio.

Making connections

So how do we continue to spur regional development to grow the advanced energy industry? By building relationships among industry, academia and manufacturing supply chain companies to create new commercial opportunities. This is the focus of the upcoming Advanced Energy B2B Conference & Expo on Sept. 14-15 at the John S. Knight Center in Akron, Ohio. Co-produced by NorTech and the Summit County Mayors Association, the event will bring together leaders in the advanced energy industry to develop new business prospects, learn about the region’s strengths in advanced energy and explore commercial opportunities. The event will connect existing manufacturers who are interested in advanced energy and want to understand how their business can become part of the supply chain. National and international collaborators who are interested in doing business with companies in Northeast Ohio will also be attending the conference. Throughout the event there will be a unique opportunity to arrange business-to-business (B2B) meetings with conference attendees in order to build upon common synergies that could lead to future collaborative partnerships. In total, the Advanced Energy B2B Conference &Expo is expected to attract more than 300 attendees and 70 exhibitors.

The conference program will include a slate of regional, national and international advanced energy experts and thought leaders with sessions featuring NorTech’s advanced energy road maps and regional industry collaborations. The conference program is designed to explore the most promising sectors in Northeast Ohio’s advanced energy portfolio including: energy storage, smart grid, biomass/waste-to-energy, fuel cells, off-shore wind, nuclear, solar photovoltaic and transportation electrification. These sectors will be discussed within the global perspective of how the conversion to advanced energy solutions is impacting regional economies around the globe. Stephen Crolius, senior director of the Clinton Climate Initiative, will deliver the keynote address and discuss his observations on how clean and renewable energy technologies are impacting regional economies in many of the largest cities around the world.

Power of collaboration

The advanced energy road map process has reinforced the value of collaboration and the exciting opportunities that can be achieved when industry and academia work together. While collaboration is not a new concept, the purpose of the Advanced Energy B2B Conference & Expo is to take collaboration to the next level and stimulate commercial opportunities in Northeast Ohio’s advanced energy industry. We believe the outcome of these efforts will be new ideas, new technologies and new products, which will accelerate the revitalization of Northeast Ohio’s existing industrial base and create new jobs. On behalf of NorTech and the Summit County Mayors Association, I invite you to join us at the Advanced Energy B2B Conference & Expo on Sept. 14-15 as we explore new opportunities to accelerate growth in Northeast Ohio’s advanced energy industry.

Dave Karpinski is vice president of NorTech and director of NorTech Energy Enterprise. Reach NorTech at (216) 363-6883 or www.nortech.org.

Serving customers in a regulated industry

Jack Partridge, President, Columbia Gas

Jack Partridge, President, Columbia Gas

Usually when your natural gas provider decides to replace thousands of miles of pipeline, it spells potential inconvenience for customers. But when you’re working with Columbia Gas of Ohio, the company is one step ahead. That’s because President Jack Partridge keeps the company’s customers front-of-mind — which is pretty innovative in the regulated utility industry.

Because of this, Smart Business, U.S. Bank and Blue Technologies named Partridge to the 2011 class of Columbus Smart Leader honorees. He told us how he maneuvers challenges like these with communication, setting his company apart with innovative service.

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Several years ago, in the interest of safety and reliability, we knew we needed to significantly accelerate the replacement of major portions of our 20,000-mile natural gas pipeline system in our 61-county service territory (capital spend of more than $2 billion during the next 20 years). We knew we were going to be in customers’ backyards and busting up pavement on the streets of the communities we serve more than ever before. We also realized we needed our regulators to authorize us to recover this investment of major capital in Ohio.

We launched a proactive, comprehensive communication/education plan targeted to all our stakeholders — from one-on-one meetings with community and government leaders to presentations for civic organizations to bill stuffers and door hangers and news releases — all with the same message: ‘Yes, we are going to be visible in your community. We will minimize disruptions. The benefits are: first, safety and reliability, more jobs, property tax benefits to the community, economic development benefits, better sizing pipe to growth areas, less leaks, lower O&M expenses, etc.’

In terms of our regulators, we conveyed we will be investing more capital in Ohio than ever before, and the investment will enable us to keep our costs down.

To date, this program has been extremely effective. We have seen no material increase in complaints. I credit this to effective communication and very effective operations planning and execution.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

We are innovators in the utility industry in terms of how we maximize value in a regulated environment and how we work with our customers.

Utility companies, being regulated, typically file rate cases to recover their costs from customers. This usually involves nine months or more of litigation (beating your customers up, in a legal sense, in a hearing room). We have adopted an innovative approach to this combative, unproductive process. We gather all our stakeholders around a table in a collaborative fashion prior to filing a rate case to find out what their needs are, be candid about our needs and negotiate true win-wins. Our objective is to file a settlement with the PUCO for approval — ideally a multiyear agreement that’s agreed to by all parties. We have been successful — our most recent rate case was in 2008 and resulted in a settlement approved by the PUCO. This has allowed us to establish more positive relationships with our customers and regulators.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

We serve the entire Central Ohio region and realize we have an obligation to not only supply customers with reasonably priced natural gas every day but to be good community partners in terms of providing corporate, philanthropic and employee participation contributions. In terms of direct economic impact, natural gas prices are the lowest they have been in the last eight to 10 years. This has a huge positive impact on residential, commercial and industrial customers.

I personally serve as chairman of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce board, and I am a member of the Columbus2020 board and the Columbus Partnership. These require a great deal of time, but it’s time well spent. The Columbus2020 Economic Development initiative is for real and will provide great value for the investment in our Central Ohio region.

How to reach: Columbia Gas of Ohio, www.columbiagasohio.com

See all of the 2011 Columbus Smart Leaders on the next page.

Why Jenniffer Deckard listens and collaborates at Fairmount Minerals

Jenniffer Deckard, president, Fairmount Minerals

One of the biggest lessons that Jenniffer Deckard has learned throughout her career is that she had to develop the patience and recognition that she really needed to listen to other people’s ideas, opinions and evaluations of her ideas.

“There’s a power of collective experiences in such that one person, whether that’s me or anyone else, can never have as many ideas as two people or even three or even four,” she says.

As president of Fairmount Minerals, one of the largest producers of industrial sand in the country, this lesson she’s learned is put into daily practice. Throughout her career, Fairmount has had an environment that fosters collaboration, and that has, in turn, helped her develop this skill in herself and in others.

“I hope to lead by example more and more, but [it’s] letting other people speak first — truly listening as opposed to waiting for your opportunity to jump in,” she says. “If you were to ask me what have I been able to do that has allowed me to succeed, I still have work in that area, and I’m developing in that area, but what has allowed the most success for me is … engaging collaboration.”

Sometimes it’s easy to talk about fostering collaboration and much harder to actually do it. Deckard says that coming up on the finance side — she previously served as chief financial officer — has allowed her to touch every facet of the business, so it’s helped her connect with people, so they, in turn, see her as a team player.

“Then, as others view me as a teammate, as [person] A views me as a teammate and [person] B views me as a teammate, it’s helped to foster A and B’s collaboration, as well,” she says.

But you can’t force people to view you as a teammate; that comes through years of patience and practice.

“[It’s] always working toward the same objectives — putting aside divisional objectives, functional objectives and putting the greater objectives for the whole first,” Deckard says.”

The outlook she takes and portrays to employees is one of transparency in a commitment to the success of the organization over all else.

“If we create a stronger, better business, that’s better for everyone, and that’s better for our communities, and that’s better for our employees, and that’s better for everyone in our stakeholder group,” she says.