Informative Articles to Grow Your Business
Call today 800.525.1315
0 comments | Posted by: Terri on June 20, 2012 | Categories:
We can spend all the money in the world on advertising. We can tell you until we’re blue in the face about our great customer service, professionalism and reliability. But there’s just no better marketing than word-of-mouth. Recently, a potential client reached out to one of our long-time customers, Jim Bolain of Sun Digital Inc. for a referral. Jim was kind enough to share the interaction:
We are considering using AnswerConnect for off-hours answering of our help-desk phone number in support of the global users of our aviation maintenance records management system. They have provided you as a reference. Can you very briefly answer the following questions?
A wholehearted “thank you” to Jim for the high praise and for letting us share! Feedback like this is what keeps us always striving to provide the best service possible to our clients.
0 comments | Posted by: Spencer on June 18, 2012 | Categories:
Scott Gordon began working for HelioPower, a California-based renewable energy solutions company, after realizing he wanted to leave behind a better world than the one he inherited. He laughs about that now: “I was in the business for 10 minutes when I realized nobody buys solar for that reason.” As Senior Vice President of Sales, he’s helped install thousands of photovoltaic systems and he’s heard plenty of reasons to install solar, but most boil down to: It’s cheaper. “Ninety-nine percent of our customers buy it to save money,” Scott says. “They can see how solar pencils out.”
Scott discusses solar power’s financial benefits, building a business culture based on integrity, what pitfalls to beware when weighing your own solar install, the changing face of U.S. energy distribution, and how smart meters may join in public debates about consumer privacy. This Client Spotlight is a long read, but it’s worth it: Scott offers one tiny, but fascinating, guess at the future of energy.
What does HelioPower do?
HelioPower, predominantly, does residential and commercial solar installation. We also have an asset management program that takes care of people’s solar systems. A lot of solar systems have been built by companies that have gone out of business; those customers have systems that aren’t working or aren’t working to their full potential.
We also do energy financing, and we own and operate systems—we own something like 150 systems that pay us every month for the energy coming out of them. And we do distribution. We sell equipment to other folks, buying in bulk so we can sell equipment at reasonable prices. Lastly, we do energy analytics. One of our biggest customers is Safeway. They want to know how many kilowatt hours it takes to, say, bake a loaf of bread.
That’s essentially our business in a nutshell.
For your commercial and residential clients, what is solar power’s biggest advantage?
Solar power’s biggest advantage is locking in your energy costs. Energy prices are going up. In California, for example, they’ve been going up 7% a year, on average, over 40 years. If you can lock in that cost, you have an advantage. My electric bill costs $85 a year. I’ve taken that extra money and put it into my kids’ college accounts. So in addition to locking in costs, and potentially eliminating my bill, another advantage is that my house is more valuable than my neighbors’. Home appraisers are finally starting to figure that out.
So it’s threefold: You lock in costs, increase the value of your home, and free up some cash to spend on other things instead of electricity, like a college account.
You didn’t mention transitioning from fossil-fuel-based energy.
When I got into the business in 2006, I had just watched “An Inconvenient Truth.” I thought, man, we have to change things. That was what got me into the business. I was in the business for 10 minutes when I realized nobody buys solar for that reason. Having a positive impact is maybe the reason they got interested, but it’s not why they buy solar power; 99% of our customers buy it to save money. Most of our customers aren’t even Democrats. They’re Republicans. Most have financial backgrounds. And they can see how solar pencils out.
HelioPower started in 2001. Eleven years seem mature for a U.S.-based renewable energy company. To what do you attribute your company’s success?
We had a visionary founder: Maurice “Mo” Rousso. He saw, back in ’99, 2000, that solar was going to be big, and he built us around doing right by the customer.
It’s funny thing, solar. People come to the industry all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and then you realize that end the end of the day, you’re a contractor. You go into to put PV panels up, for example, and you realize something’s wrong with the customer’s roof. What Mo really instilled in our culture is “Make it right for the customer, even if you have to lose money on a job.” That approach has gotten us to a point in our career where 60-70% of our business are referrals. We take care of our customers.
And because of that culture, we don’t have to market a lot. We’re the biggest solar company you’ve never heard of. It’s all word-of-mouth and referrals. That’s key to our success.
The other thing is, we don’t have a lot of employee turnover. We have a high skillset; the guy that installed my system in 2007 is still installing for us today. He has hundreds of jobs under his belt. Or a guy like me, who started off as a 1099 sales guy. Now I’m senior vice president of sales. It’s a career path. We can keep our costs down because we’re not constantly training and our customers are satisfied. There are fewer mistakes, a better customer experience, and more referrals.
What tools and services, besides installing renewable energy systems, do you offer your clients?
We have a lot of resources out there where we talk about issues coming up in the solar industry.
One issue is homeowners’ associations. Sometime they’ll rubberstamp an install; other times, they’ll drag it out a year and a half. We offer resources on our site on working with your HOA, on what they can do and what they can’t do.
I also blog about the ugly side of solar, which is something nobody in our industry wants to touch: Fly-by-night installers punching holes in your roof, all that. Ugly installs can literally destroy or burn your house down. Another part is ugly sales tactics, which is a predominant theme in the business. When we got into the business, we were a bunch of engineer hippies. Now who’s in? Your slick, vinyl-siding, used-car salesmen. Now you’ve got that sales guy who’ll sit at your table for nine hours until you sign his contract. You have guys promising double the amount of kilowatt hours you’ll get or guys showing you a really good lease payment, but you’ll be paying for the installation three times over for the next 20 years, and you’ll get slammed with a balloon payment on top of that.
We want to be educational on our site. My feeling is that we’re still a young industry, and as all these shysters take advantage of people, there’ll be a backlash. I think that’ll happen 12-18 months from now, when people begin to realize the lease they signed isn’t giving them the production guaranteed them. And the guy they worked with isn’t still in business. We want to shine a light on all this.
To survive this chapter of our industry, we’re trying to position ourselves as high-integrity. We don’t want to do a one-call close. Most of our problems are with customers that were one-call closed: A sales guy strong-armed someone into a contract; now it’s a year later, and the true-up is different than they thought—with solar, you pay once a year—and they’re very unhappy.
We’re trying to shine a light on this, so when it all shakes out, we’re still standing; so people trust us. We can say, “We were straight with you the whole time.”
Where do you think the U.S. renewable energy sector will be in two years?
That’s a very interesting question. Honestly, a lot hinges on who gets elected in November. Democrats are more friendly to the solar industry than Republicans, even though our customer base is primarily Republican. It’s ironic.
We have another interesting factor, which is all this fracking going on. As natural gas gets cheaper and cheaper, we’ll see more natural gas power plants getting built, which could reverse the trend of higher energy costs. It could affect transportation. FedEx and UPS, for example, are converting their fleets to natural gas.
As far as the industry is concerned, solar will do well in states with high energy costs. The good thing is, we’re nearly at the point we don’t need incentives. The rebates are almost gone; we just have the federal tax credit left. But solar prices have dropped by half over the past five years. That’s good.
Wind is a different animal. It’s in a lot of trouble right now. They’re suffering. That’s a wild card.
Then you get into biomass. The really big player over the next five years will be biomass. We did a 500-kWh biomass system; before, they were spending gobs of money to haul out waste. Now they just throw their waste into the biomass digester, and they’re doing great. So that’ll be a big player in renewable energy.
Ultimately, you’ll see less wind, more biomass, more natural gas, less coal. Coal is on the ropes. The big issue with coal is the U.S. is converting to natural gas, and all the coal in the U.S. is being exported to China and India and places that are behind us in terms of clean energy. Coal will lose over the next few years. Biomass will win. And solar will do well.
How is solar and renewable energy changing the aging U.S. energy grid, which currently relies heavily on carbon sources?
Utilities are struggling. I spent ten years as a software engineer; I got into computing in the mid-’90s, when computing distributed. You started seeing you don’t need a supercomputer for processing power. You can use spare processors on a million laptops. Now we’re in the Internet 2.0, where computing’s truly distributed.
The grid is something similar. In computing, we still had mainframes; the energy grid has centralized power plants. Utilities are trying to maintain a sense of a centralized power plant. But there’s a shift happening, just like in music. The music industry lost control of production. It happened when we, as kids, would make mix tapes. Then we started copying CDs. Now everybody shares music, and the music industry has lost control of the means of production.
That’s what’s happening. Big utilities are losing the means of production. Renewable energy is just a fraction of a percentage now, but they’re still losing control. Meanwhile, my solar system is producing energy. So are the 3,000 systems I’ve installed and the 15,000 SolarCity has installed. They’re all producing energy.
Here’s the problem for utilities: The trend was only to go one way, where the energy started at the power plant and end up at your business. The issue they have today is, energy isn’t flowing in one direction. It’s flowing in multiple directions. When my meter goes backward, San Diego Gas & Electric has to figure out what to do with my energy. They have to balance the grid.
Utilities’ perspective is, they’re losing customers, but at the same time, they’re being asked to invest $10 trillion to update our grid. Their revenues are going down, but they have to make investments. This is an interesting challenge for them. Utilities have to figure out new sources of revenue.
One way is through a smart meter. They’re very smart. They know what time you wake up, what time your garage door goes up and down, what time you’re on your computer, if you have a pool. That builds a profile of you. So your smart meter knows how many loads of laundry you do every month. So what? Well, Proctor & Gamble wants to know. Utilities are gathering some of the most powerful marketing information ever through their smart meters. The state of California said “You can’t share that information with other companies, unless you get your customers’ permission.”
They’ll get many people’s if the utility says, “If you agree to share your information, we’ll give you 10% off your electrical bill.”
Now all of a sudden you’re getting coupons for laundry detergent. The pool company is sending me stuff because they know I have a pool. Or I’m getting marketing from Anheuser-Busch, because they know I have a kegerator. But even more insidious is if I’m a person with malcontent, and I hack into a utility’s database, I can figure out when you’re at home or not. I can case a neighborhood, using energy data.
We have to think about that. The grid is changing dramatically. Utilities have to invest. They’re losing revenue, but they have to change. They’re going to get into the business of distributing power. They’re going to get in the business of selling my power to you and figure out a model that answers the question “How do I sell Scott’s energy to Spencer?” The implication is time of use: You’re going to be charged different rates for your energy use at different times of the day. In California, everybody’ll be on this plan by 2014.
Beyond that, the next step is called dynamic billing. Rates will change every 15 minutes, based on grid demand. Your electricity rates can change. Your fridge will know this. It has smart-grid chip in it. Every appliance that rolls off the assembly line in 2015 will be smart-grid enabled. You’ll be able to log on and allocate your power use. In the U.S., we don’t think like this. We think “Plug it in and use it.” Eight years from now, it’ll be “When do I plug it in?” and “For how long?” and “How do I program my pool pump?”
Right now, if you run your laundry in the middle of the day, it costs the same as it would at 2:00 in the morning. Not so two years from now. If you still have solar, you’ll had freedom. If you’re not producing your energy, you’ll pay three times as much. I mean, you can still run your laundry whenever you want, but it’ll cost you more. Is that really freedom of choice? Not really.
How did you, personally, get involved with HelioPower?
It was having kids. Early in life, I was always in an environmentalist. Then I got out into the real world. After awhile, I started to think “What happened to you? You’re a software guy. You have kids now. What kind of world will you leave them?” Did I betray myself and sell out? I had these deep thoughts. I realized, I can take my knowledge and put it to solar and have a deep impact. I did it for those reasons.
I still do it for that reason, and I still think about my impact. Through my efforts, I’ve literally removed tons of CO2 emissions. I feel good about that. Yes, I’m making money and creating jobs and helping my customer control their energy costs. But I can tell my children “When your dad goes to work, he’s starting to make the water and air cleaner, so your kids can had the same life you have.” I haven’t lost sight of that.
0 comments | Posted by: Spencer on May 29, 2012 | Categories:
Walter C. Cox, Jr., is an attorney and counselor at law in Lexington, Kentucky, who specializes in estate planning through revocable living trusts. Not only has he practiced law for decades—and for 30 years, he’s been recognized AV preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell—but Mr. Cox also served in World War II and the Korean War (as JAG). These experiences shaped his professional outlook on what really matters. In serving his clients, as in serving in the military, says Mr. Cox, “you learn that human relationships are the most important thing.”
What is your primary legal focus?
I do estate planing, mostly through trusts—revocable living trusts. It’s something I can do without stress. I don’t have to work the old-time way; what I used to do is stay up until 10:00 at night and get up at 4:00 a.m. to do trial work. Once I retired, I decided to do something where I’m not a slave to law practice.
Can you explain “revocable living trust”?
Where a will requires a probate, here, you establish a trust. The trust lives on after you die. You select your children or whomever—maybe a bank—to be a trustee. They live on and get done what you wanted to do after you die. They can pay the money to your children if you want, or you can keep the money in a trust and give it to your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. It’s that sort of thing.
The biggest thing we have to get across is that you don’t have to get court approval. A will has to be recorded in your county clerk’s office. A trust never gets recorded. So you have privacy also.
What are some typical obstacles faced by many of your clients?
Well, they want to make sure their estate goes the way they want it to. They want to make sure it goes with the least problems with their estate and trustees. The trust starts immediately, so you appoint people to take care of you when you’re alive. If you get mentally or physically disabled, you get someone to take care of you. You’re taking care of yourself while you’re alive.
Is it difficult, discussing end-of-life plans with families?
I don’t find that to be difficult. I find that people, by the time they get to me, have made up their mind that they need to do something. They don’t know exactly what that is, but they know they need to do something. And they need to know that it’s going to work, that they don’t have to go to court. Most folks have their minds made up, what they want. I provide them with information about what they can and can’t do. I ask pertinent questions, and we get to talking about it. Then I’m able to get them to open up as to their relationships with their children or grandchildren. When they leave here, they feel relaxed about it. When we sign the papers and get it done, they feel like they’re ready to go.
You served in WWII and the Korean War. How did your military background prepare you for law?
The discipline of the army and the necessity of doing what you have to do certainly was the largest thing. If you’re in the army, you have to do your orders, no matter what. You learn that procedure. Then when you get into law, you certainly have to do whatever’s necessary to protect your client. That requires discipline, secrecy, and all of the above, in addition to everything else.
I was a company commander with over 200 men, and learning to deal with all those men, and learning about each one of them—I knew them by first name and I knew their families—you learn that human relations are the most important thing, along with how to deal with an individual. It’s the same with law practice. You need to know all about your clients: Why they’re there and what they need to either correct or solve their problems.
Not to stray too far from the subject, but can you compare your personal post-military experience with that of returning service members today?
When we returned, I would wake up in the middle of the night, dreaming about being shot at. It took me three or four years to stop that. I was okay; I just dreamed a lot, and I would wake up in the middle of a firefight.
I guess we didn’t have anybody to talk to. We just overcame it. I guess some who had it really bad didn’t. But most of us went on with our work, went onto college, got our degrees, and eventually got over it.
I speak to high schoolers a lot, and I tell them that the one thing you need to do is establish something they can do for the rest of their lives. That’s not a job where they can be fired. If they go to college or vocational school, they’ll always have something they can do, no matter where they are or what they’re doing.
What’s most satisfying about your work?
Well, I get letters from people all the time—the children, mainly—thanking me for doing what I do for their family, that it worked out so easily. They’re very satisfied. When you get letters from people , saying they’re happy for doing what you do, that’s satisfying. What I do is so much better than wills or general law practice. There aren’t over two percent of lawyers that know a damn thing about trusts. I’ve seen what lawyers do, and they don’t know beans about preparing a proper trust.
I got my picture in the paper not too long ago, for being rated AV preeminent for 30 years by Martindale-Hubbell. I went to a lady’s house—she had a problem with her legs, so she couldn’t go anywhere—and I had to go visit her at her house. She had my picture that was in the paper there. So it paid off, because we did a trust for her. In fact, I’m working on it today.
0 comments | Posted by: Spencer on May 23, 2012 | Categories:
Steve Thomson, founder of Sweetwater Logistics, likens his business to that of an old-school neighborhood grocer, someone who knew your family and their needs. Sweetwater provides logistics and shipping services for start-ups, small businesses and entrepreneurs—their North Carolina-based warehouse lets them ship to 80% of the contiguous United States’ population within two days—but their underlying service, ultimately, is scalability. “If you have a great idea, you need someone on your operations side,” Thomson says. “I’d love to be known as the entrepreneurs’ secret to success to selling products on the Web.”
Which industries do Sweetwater Logistics primarily work with?
We provide services to really anything nonperishable that gets sold on the Internet. From an industry perspective, we’re open to everything. What I do—my niche, so to speak—would be start-ups, small-business owners and entrepreneurs. They recognize the value of outsourcing so they can focus on marketing. We focus on warehousing, setting up space, working with vendors, et cetera, so they don’t have to worry about it.
Our clients are start-ups and entrepreneurs. We’ve gotten into a really good niche; we’ve gotten well-known in subscription-based services. One of our clients has a subscription-based product for men, where every three months, you get a pack of new t-shirt, socks, and underwear. We’re a leader in setting up that type of service. We just had a client come to us, wanting to do that for pet food.
Before founding Sweetwater Logistics, you worked in international shipping. What did that teach you?
Logistics is a very simple thing: You move product from point A to point B. Many times, logistics providers try to make it as complicated as possible to prove their worth. But in reality, it’s pretty simple. It’s just a matter of knowing where you go to find the right answers. I don’t have to know everything about shipping. I just have to have the belief that something’s possible, and then find a provider to do that. That’s key to what I’ve learned in international shipping. It doesn’t matter what the language or the customs in the country are. The underlying principles are the same everywhere. It’s just identifying those processes and finding global nuances.
Honestly, I’ve gained a deep understanding and belief that there is an answer and solution for every problem out there. No matter where I’ve been in the world, you can find the answer. And it’s usually not as difficult as everybody wants to make it out to be.
Why would logistics companies make shipping appear more difficult than it is?
Transportation has turned into a commodity. Going way back, the original industry involved moving something from the farm to the marketplace. That’s the very first thing, as a society, that we’ve done, and every economy requires it.
What I learned in international transportation is that it’s the knowledge of moving that’s important. You have to convince [your clients] that you’re the go-to person to do it. Your competitor has the same-sized shipping vessel and containers, and it takes them about the same time. So there’s perceived value in creating this veil of insecurity around your customers’ knowledge. You’re able to create a differentiator. And that made me sick to my stomach, knowing that was out there. There are so many other ways to differentiate in the market without creating that deceptive veil.
How does Sweetwater Logistics scale its services to work with home-based businesses and more mature, larger companies?
All of our clients are fantastic at making products that are unique and creating demand for those products. We help them focus on that. It doesn’t matter their size.
I have a client—she has one pallet. In between Thanksgiving and today, she sold five items. That’s perfectly fine. It can sit there until an order comes in, and when it does, it just goes through the flow. And we notice; everybody cheers.
Then we have other clients, they’ll move a hundred pallets in a day. Because of automation, we can scale dramatically. We can scale to any size.
My growth strategy is, if I can take away one or two constraints that are hurting expansion of small business in the U.S., I should be able to grow on that. My strategy is helping these guys thrive. They’re able to focus on growth by letting us handle all the other little stuff.
How do you cross-promote your clients?
Here’s a good example: We have one client that does skin care and body care products for men. We also have another client—Manpacks.com. They have a similar demographic. We introduced Anna from Raw Materials for Men to Ken at Manpacks. Ken actually sells Raw Materials products in his subscriptions. Anna could put a note into her orders, saying “Thank you. As a token of my appreciation, here’s your first month free at Manpacks.” Ken can do the same thing. Or Ken has a blog going out twice a week, and he mentions her stuff in his blog.
That’s something we actively do, making those connections. My success comes down to my clients’ growth. I get paid when my clients’ products get out the door. Cross-branding and introductions is part of it. Everybody wins. Ken or Anna can thank their clients and give them value that they otherwise couldn’t, and they get eyeballs in a new segment of the market that they wouldn’t otherwise.
Have you found it challenging to build a clearly focused brand?
When we created our logo, we actually did this exercise. We went out to our client base and crowd-sourced our logo from artists around the world. We got 150 images, all different. We asked our clients, “Which one of these matches your image of Sweetwater, and why?” I got great feedback. The underlying message was, as somebody summed it up, “That sign looks like a sign for a neighborhood grocery store in the ’50s, where the owner knows what you need and knows your family.” That’s exactly the brand I want.
Doug, one of our clients—he’ll call on a Friday afternoon to chitchat, talk about his business, his challenges, his big wins. He sincerely wants to share. Another client, Anna—I love the fact that when something big happens, I’m one of the first three phone calls she makes. She wants to share. I love being in that position. I love knowing that we’re considered a partner. And all the guys here want to hear that. They see products every day, going out the door. We packaged that DVD, that underwear, those socks, these boots. The guys here are the last ones to touch it before the customer. So they take great pride in that.
What direction is Sweetwater Logistics headed?
I’d like to continue with the same focus. Five years from now, I’d like to have 20 of our clients hit it and and be huge.
The nitty-gritty of it? We’re really selling scalability. The ability of an entrepreneur to entrust us, if we’re working with them. Say, right now, they’re selling 2-3 items per week. If they get to more than 15 per hour, that’s great. That’s what I sell: The ability to expand dramatically.
It’s maybe a wish, but if there’s somebody taking an entrepreneur course in school, I want a professor to say, “That’s a great idea. You should talk to Sweetwater. They can help you.”
We’re not peddling get-rich-quick schemes. If you have a great idea, if it’s sound, you need someone on the operations side while you focus on growing this idea and getting it out. You’re always going to be your idea’s biggest advocate. I’d love to be known as the entrepreneurs’ secret to hitting success to selling products on the Web.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the energy of entrepreneurs. I love their optimism. If I can surround myself with that every day, that brings me pleasure.
0 comments | Posted by: Spencer on May 16, 2012 | Categories:
Like most people, Michael Beck worked for his share of bad managers. Unlike most people, rather than swallowing the abuse or settling for a mediocre job, Beck left to forge his own executive development company, based on improving organizational leadership and creating corporate culture. With the majority of American workers emotionally disconnected from their jobs, Beck helps his clients and their organizations consciously create the types of culture that encourages connection, job satisfaction, creativity, and workplace happiness. “I believe people really want to do a good job,” Beck says. “…You need to appreciate what a strong culture can do to your bottom line.”
What do you do?
Most of what I do is executive coaching. Some of what I do is training, but the training is secondary to coaching.
I love working with executives and helping them succeed. I love my clients because they’re all about improving who they are. We’ll work on leadership competencies—everything from improving communication to helping them develop other people to creating more of a vision for their organization and learning how to express it effectively. I also work with conflict resolution. If they’ve got a more junior member of their leadership team who they’re having trouble with, we’ll strategize about how to help that person improve.
The other thing I do with my clients is to help them with strategy—either corporate strategy or career strategy or something to do with their business; a market direction or sale or acquisition.
How did you enter this practice?
In the job-part of my career, I worked for some folks who I felt were not very good leaders. I thought they did a poor job leading, and I felt they mistreated people. I really wanted to make a difference by helping leaders become more effective and treat people better. I believe people really want to do a good job and often, if they don’t do a good job, it’s not because they’re incompetent, but rather one of two things: They’re either in the wrong role for their strengths, in which case a leader needs to help them move, or they end up doing a poor job because they become de-motivated by poor leadership.
What you’re saying seems like the inverse of the old Peter Principle.
The Peter Principle has some validity. I’ve worked with people where they were promoted beyond their capabilities, and then unfortunately, they didn’t get the right developmental support. So they struggle and fail.
But I’m not really talking about that when I say “People are in the wrong roles for their strengths.” I’m talking about natural competencies. For instance, some people are more creative than analytical. An easy example of a poor fit would be a creative person becoming an accountant.
Describe how you teach how to “capture hearts and minds.”
Capturing hearts and minds of folks is about resonating with people, learning how to have a vision, and how to project that vision, share it, and communicate it effectively. There’s a natural order that emerges out of that. The people who align with that vision will be invigorated and those who aren’t will gravitate away from the company. As it becomes more and more apparent externally, you attract new people to your management and staff who are aligned with that vision and are engaged with it. That’s how you capture hearts and minds.
Over the years, I’ve been asked “How do you motivate people?” How people might interpret that question is “How do you get people to do what you want them to do?” And the answer to that question is, “You can’t”. They need to be self-motivated. If you always have to poke and prod in order to get them to work, they’re the wrong people. When you get the right people on your team, they’re self-motivated. Something about you as a leader, something about the vision of the company, the culture of the company–those things resonate with those folks and they become self-motivated. They’re happy to be part of what you do.
How do you create corporate culture?
I’ve been having an ongoing conversation on LinkedIn about culture. Every organization has a culture. Sometimes it’s by default and sometimes it’s by design. If you don’t craft a culture, one emerges regardless, and usually it’s dysfunctional.
Why would a company’s culture, in the absence of conscious direction, default to dysfunction?
A designed culture is crafted around values that everyone agrees are important. Those might be things like treating one another with respect or a having a commitment to excellence. They’re strong, positive values. If you don’t have those values in place and live by them, then people’s dysfunctions are tolerated. Without a designed culture you end up with a culture in which dysfunction becomes acceptable. In my experience, the majority of companies operate like that.
The third side to this coin—it’s weird coin—is that if you design a culture and then you don’t live by those values, it actually acts as a de-motivator. It throws the whole integrity of leadership into question. Part of that equation of culture—of having an impactful culture—is to be diligent about living by it. That means calling people out when they do something that’s not in line with the culture or making decisions that depart from that culture. Those are de-motivators.
Conversely, when you have a good culture and live by it, there’s an integrity about it. It always leverages the results of the organization. They are many examples of companies that have good culture. One that comes to mind is Zappos.
They started early on and continue to be completely focused on good customer service. They embody this culture by living it and the results are spectacular. Can you imagine a company selling shoes online and generating over $1 billion a year? It’s crazy. You need to appreciate what a strong culture can do to your bottom line.
How do you get a company, whose raison d’être is profit, to turn their attention to culture?
I was able to do that with a client recently. They had done a number of employee surveys over a couple years and gotten a consistent message of disconnection with leadership and a feeling of a lack of fairness. It became apparent that there was poor communication and no set of values that everyone was being held to.
The point I made to their CEO was that corporate culture by itself doesn’t work. It’s a waste to have a mission statement because your company doesn’t live by it. If you’re going to do it, you have to commit to living it. If you have a culture and you don’t live by it, it’s a de-motivator. So if you’re going to go through the effort of creating a culture, you’ve got to commit to holding behaviors accountable to that culture, to making decisions in-line with culture.
My recommendation was to form a cross-functional team to define cultural values. So they started doing it and they’re starting to get great results.
What’s the biggest challenge to helping C-level executives become better leaders?
The thing that’s most frustrating is that they’re very busy. They don’t always have time to implement the things that we’ve agreed to. That can be frustrating. And things come at them very quickly. One week a certain topic is on the forefront of their minds. Then a week later, there’s an emergency and they’re focused on a new topic.
Does that affect how you coach strategic thinking?
Have you seen this [Time Management] graphic? It’s four quadrants. The Y-axis is “importance” and the X-axis is “urgency:”
I’ll ask people “In your ideal work day, what quadrant do you want to spent the most time in?” A lot of people will say “I’d spend it in the ‘Important’ and ‘Urgent’ quadrant.” That’s the wrong answer. Things that are both “important” and “urgent” are what we call “fires”. Spend time there, and you’re putting out fires all the time. In the ideal world, you want to spend time on “important” tasks before they become “urgent.” Now we’re talking about strategic thinking.
What makes your job great?
It’s the best when you love what you do. I love my clients. I love the conversations that we have. I love the marketing of the business.
I’m in the kind of business that offers me variety. Sometimes I’m with clients, sometimes I’m working at a coffee shop on an article, sometimes I’m reading to expand my knowledge. I love that variety.
You must’ve been a terrific student.
[laughs] Yes. I was!