Times are tough all over. And I do mean all over. You and I know that in the average US home, families are making do with less. In the offices and cubicles of corporate America, shoes are shaking. For the small to mid-size business owner out there, it’s scary. Gloom. Doom.
So, we’ve established we should all be afraid, right? Here’s the deal, though: there is a genuine opportunity for all of us – ALL of us – to use this time to our advantages. For this post, I’m going to focus on Corporate America and how this time in our history could really take us back to our roots.
Remember, people, we are the scrappy innovators. We are the creators of the assembly line, of Hoover Dam. We’re the folks that capitalized on the electronic frontier.
So here we are; faced with cut-backs, set-backs, layoffs, shrinking profit margins, and the stressful barrage the 24 hour news cycle offers up. How are we going to capitalize on this time? I work in the hospitality industry; a hard hit sector, indeed. Last Thursday, one of our competitors (and a past employer) let 204 local people go. Not that such a thing is outside of the norm right now. On any given day, coworkers passing by my office will ask: “how are you holding up?”, “did anyone you know lose their job yet?”, “do you think our company will cut back?”.
I do think our company will make cuts. I do know people who have lost their jobs. I am holding up.
Here’s what I know:
I was out of the ‘Corporate America’ scene for years. During that time, I was in the entrepreneurial scene. As a small business owner, it is imperative to think through every expense. You’ve got to have a fully formed idea. You’ve got to multi-task. You can’t be a diva. You’ve got to take responsibility for your actions. Learn from your mistakes. Better yet, learn from the mistakes of your competition. You’ve got to think long term, but not let that long-range goal take focus away from your day to day operational tasks. If you want to succeed, that is.
When I returned to Corporate America, I was immediately struck by the waste and how pervasive politicking and fear came between best practice and results. I found myself amazed at rampant bad behavior and empire building. In small business, if I had a strategic partner or assistant who I could not fully trust to act in a way that reflected my clearly stated mission statement, I immediately separated myself from that person or organization. I was, as a result, free from having my clients associate the actions of others with my business.
So, what can Corporate America learn from the successful entrepreneur?
· Know your team. Learn who in your organization is ‘Wheat’ is and who is ‘Chaff’. Separate the Wheat from the Chaff, taking care to retain those that may be of value, but aren’t managed effectively or currently in the wrong role. This is important because the cost to retain good talent with organizational knowledge is far less than the cost and risk involved in obtaining outside talent, even with the increased applicant pool. The cost of replacing an employee who leaves has been estimated by various studies to be between 70 and 200 percent of that worker’s annual salary.
· Make necessary changes without delay. When the new team structure has been finalized, clearly define it from the top down. Your employees know change is afoot, from the executive level to your hourly workers. They know jobs may be lost; they know times are tough. Getting the word out that the organizational shuffle is complete, and that, as a group, future actions and decision will shape the fate of the company creates that entrepreneurial spirit throughout the entire team.
· Clearly broadcast the Company Vision to your team. Get the word out swiftly to the entire company (and your partners and stockholders) sharing how the company plans to survive and thrive in this tough time. In the September / October 2008 edition of Chief Executive Magazine’s article, “To Outmarket the Competition, Run with the Rhinos”, they use the image of the Rhino as a role model for success in our current market. One of the strongest images in the piece is that of the charging rhino; impossibly fast for its size and configuration, charging ahead at 35 miles per hour on a highway full of cars inching forward.
· Enlist your employees’ creativity. Reward shared ideas that add value or increase the organization’s profit margin. Your employees know what is done wrong, and have ideas on how to change. Giving safe haven and rewards for their feedback will generate fresh perspective.
· Declare that your organization is now a zero tolerance zone for information silos, negativism, and waste. I can’t tell you what a shock it was to my system to see the amount of wasted opportunity, time, and money when I reentered Corporate America. By clearly stating the Company is watching costs, expects knowledge transfer (and clearly defines how to participate), and providing a positive work environment, coupled with the employee rewards program, you create a setting for visionary work. You can’t change the market, but you can offer a better experience than your competitors.
· Let your customers know you appreciate them. If you are doing direct marketing, and I know you are, give some thought on how you can effectively communicate your real appreciation for their business. Let then know that YOU know they could have made a different choice. Then, to really understand what made your customers choose YOU, ask them. I know, seems heavily ’un-slick’. But when I ran my own business, these types of sincere questions were always coupled with a request for a testimonial and an opportunity to share their inner thoughts on their experience. It gave my clients a forum to let me know what went right and what went wrong. I acted quickly on any opportunities for improvement, and added their testimonials to my future marketing efforts with their permission. This type of personal interaction can help you fully understand when opportunities exist, even if you have to hear some harsh realities. This type of feedback is never negative and is always an opportunity to improve profitability. There are many different methods you can use to reach out for this type of information, and to expect success, understanding the demographics of the consumer, and/or their contact preferences must drive the channel and message.
Due diligence is key, and a ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’ approach is the undoing of any organization – especially in tough times. In a recent discussion, a colleague asked what makes a person a good employee. I believe it is the very thing that makes an organization a good place to work: genuine care for putting out a valuable product, creativity, reliability, responsibility, integrity, thrift, service, and the understanding that the team is responsible for the quality of end product (rather than the individual). If an entity lives and breathes by this, the likelihood of success is far greater, especially in these challenging times.
Leadership is understanding people and involving them to help you do a job. That takes all of the good characteristics, like integrity, dedication of purpose, selflessness, knowledge, skill, implacability, as well as determination not to accept failure.
– Admiral Arleigh A. Burke
So, dear Corporate America, this is your opportunity to shine. What bravery are you ready to tackle? Channel the successful entrepreneur now and you’ll certainly lead a sleek, focused team toward the collective goal. For their involvement, their ideas, creativity, integrity, and, well, grit, will not only be rewarded, but add to the Company’s rewards. This is the foundation of our American roots, and possibly being knocked a bit off our collective pedestal will be just the ticket to bring us full-circle to our foundation. Which is, quite literally, a great place to land.