Funny, But True Stories: The Thoughtful Thieves

 

“No way that really happened!”

You know that saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I’ve lived that during my career in the turnaround industry. I’ve seen the look of disbelief cross people’s faces when I’ve recounted one of my unbelievable-but-true stories. Like the one I call The Cases of the Thoughtful Thieves.

I’ve dealt with my share of messy fraud and embezzlement, cases in which I had to dig deep and do a lot of research to track down the missing funds and identify the perpetrator. That’s why I was so appreciative of the Thoughtful Thieves. They made my job so much easier.

I was sitting at a CFO’s desk one time while he was on vacation. I recommend to all my clients they encourage their CFO to take two consecutive weeks off and sit at his or her desk, open their mail and just see what happens. You can learn a lot that way.

So I decided to check out this CFO’s mail. Imagine my surprise when I found bank account statements from an account in the Cayman Islands where he’d been stashing the money he had been stealing from the company. Had I been his advisor, I would have strongly recommended having those statements sent to his home or a PO box. Anywhere other than to the company he was stealing from. But maybe there aren’t a lot of fraud consultants available with these handy tips for success.

I was poking around on the computer of another CFO and found a folder on the desktop. It was password protected, but with the blessing of the CEO, I used my handy-dandy password decoder and opened it up. And I found an Excel spreadsheet neatly detailing all of the money he had stolen from the company. Everything had a date on it and tracked the path of the funds he had embezzled. He even had an entry for paying the contractor for his home, done with company funds he’d helped himself to. It’s like he had given me a gift, one that I happily shared with senior management at the company.

For more stories, check out my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”

5 Business Lessons from Olympic Athletes

Earlier this week Bill Murray tweeted “Every Olympic event should include one average person competing for reference.” It’s true – when those divers leap off the diving board, gymnasts fly through the air or rowers zip through the water, they make it look almost effortless.

If you take a closer look or read their stories you’ll see how much work, sacrifice and mental energy went to achieving that level of success. Although we may never compete in the Olympics ourselves, here are a few lessons we can learn from these top athletes.

  1. You have to set goals and be focused on them.

No one achieves a high level of success without setting a lot of goals for themselves, both short-term and long-term. That’s how seven-time gymnastics Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller claimed she reached her ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics. “It’s great to have the ultimate goal, but regardless of what that long-term goal is, you have to set short-term goals. Think about what you can do each and every day to make that long-range goal happen.

As Usain Bolt, three-time Olympic gold medalist and fastest person ever said, “Dreams are free. Goals have a cost. Time, effort, sacrifice, and sweat. How will you pay for your goals?”

  1. You have to surround yourself with people who make you better.

Top athletes are smart enough to hire the best coaches. Look at the women gymnasts. They nicknamed themselves the “Final Five” in tribute to their coach, Martha Karolyi. She and her husband have been training gymnasts for five decades on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, Texas.

As I mention in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” I hire people who are smarter than me. Many business people like to think they know it all. No one does. When you need help, reach out to others to provide that help.

  1. You always have to be on the lookout for competition.

No matter how successful you are or how unique your product may be, you will face competition. Failure to take competition into account can be disastrous. In my book I talk about what happened with Q-Zar, initially a huge success in the laser tag field. But the company didn’t pay attention to the competition that came in the form of big-box stores selling laser tag sets for home use. That failure, coupled with massive fraud in the company, led to its demise.

You don’t have to wait for competition to come to you. The late Norwegian marathon runner Grete Waitz said, “You’ve got to look for tough competition. You’ve got to want to beat the best.”

  1. You have to persevere when the unexpected occurs.

It was heartbreaking to see Annemiek van Vlueten, the woman cyclist from the Netherlands, who was minutes away from winning a gold medal, crash on the wet pavement, and rather than taking her place on the podium, wound up in the hospital.

You’ve worked hard for years, your business is doing well, then bang. Something unexpected and unpredictable happens to derail you. You uncover massive fraud in your company. Or as happened with one of my clients, your biggest client asks to revamp your manufacturing capabilities. You spend millions to do so, then one day, the client cancels the order.

What do you do? You keep going. Olympic track athlete Brenda Martinez knows how to keep going. During the Olympic trials for her best event, a runner behind her tripped and knocked into her, throwing her off and killing her chances of getting an Olympic slot in that event. She just focused on her next event, and came in third, securing that coveted spot on the team. “The track doesn’t care about your feelings,” she said. “You’ve just got to move forward.”

  1. You have to keep your cool under pressure.

It’s hard to imagine the level of pressure these athletes feel. Many of them are just teenagers, but are carrying the weight of the expectations of their families, teammates and their entire countries as they perform superhuman feats. They have all found a way to deal with it. Gymnast Gabby Douglas said, “For the most part, I’m kind of used to it, because it has been a part of me for my whole life. I’m trained to deal under those circumstances—at the gym we do pressure sets.”

CEOs and business owners have to learn to deal with and perform under extreme pressure as well. As Mike Myatt wrote in “6 Ways to Conquer Leadership Pressure,” “How leaders deal with pressure is often the difference between catapulting an organization towards success, and contributing to its demise.”

Is it Time to Sell Your Business?

Have you been entertaining thoughts of selling your business? Many business owners keep that thought in the back of their head. But if you don’t need the money, why should you sell?

Possible reasons include that you’ve gotten a good offer, you’re ready to retire, you are tired of the risk or you feel it’s time for a change. Or, if you have a family business, there may not be a family member interested in taking over. Whatever the reason you have to explore the option of selling, you’ll want to enlist the right team to value your company correctly and help you make the right decision to get the best price.

Maybe the concept to start your business was entirely your own. But you didn’t build a successful business by yourself — you had a team that most likely included lawyers, CPAs, investors, salespeople and your employees. When it’s time to sell, don’t try to do it alone. It’s time to build another team — one that will ensure you get the outcome you desire.

You would definitely want to include your lawyer, accountant, and an expert on the tax ramifications of the sale. Also consider adding a business consultant, even if you’ve never used one before.

Acquisitions is one of our areas of expertise at GlassRatner. We guide our clients through a process that begins with valuing the company, preparing and presenting the company to the marketplace, weighing offers from potential purchasers while balancing the objectives of stakeholders, and closing with the best possible purchase for that client.

We also work with distressed companies that may have filed or need to file for bankruptcy and need a quick sale.

Whatever your reason for selling, make sure to build the right team for the best possible outcome. It took a team to get where you are, and it will take another one to create a lucrative exit.

For more information on selling a business, please see “5 Mistakes to Avoid When Selling a Business.”

New Answer for Mental Illness in the Workplace

In my professional career I’ve unfortunately had to deal with a suicide, attempted suicide, several major heart attacks and strokes of C-level executives. The level of stress business owners and CEOs deal with can have serious repercussions on not only the financial welfare of their businesses, but their health as well.

I’ve worked with companies where the CEOs were suffering from depression and unable to make the best decisions on the direction of the company, even to the point their businesses failed completely. I’ve been in negotiations for the sale of a company where a bipolar owner refused to sign the papers for a deal he had agreed to, only to change his mind and ask me later why we didn’t do the deal.

The mental health of CEOs and employees at all levels is a serious business, and one I need to be cognizant of at all times. It should be a concern for anyone running a business, as untreated mental illness costs companies $44 billion a year in lost workplace productivity, according to the University of Michigan Depression Center and reported in an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Tackling Worker’s Mental Health, One Text at a Time.”

It’s not just that people are missing days of work, with people suffering from depression costing the company 27 days of work a year. They are also less productive when they are at the office.

Some companies have instituted Employee Assistance Programs to help workers who may be suffering from anxiety, depression or some other form of a mental condition. These programs usually involve giving workers free counseling sessions on the phone. But some people are still reluctant to pick up the phone.

They may perceive a stigma to seeking treatment and worry about losing their jobs.  Managers are not sure what to do to help them, according to the article “Mental Problems in the Workplace” on the Harvard Health Publications website.

According to Kent Bradley, former chief medical officer at Safeway as reported in the article “Overcoming Stigma Around Mental Health Services, “71 percent of U.S. adults with depression won’t contact a mental health professional. They figure that they’ve got to work it out themselves.” He points out barriers that include not being aware of their condition, not being open to learning more about it or seeking care for it, the cost of counseling and medications, and difficulty with access to the right health care provider.

So some businesses are seeking to provide help through access to apps that help with their employees’ mental health. Rather than pick up a phone and call for a counseling session, employees can text or video chat with a therapist who can also connect them with a health coach, reports the article.

The app Ginger.io offers “personalized care for stress, anxiety and depression from a team of experts.” Users download the app and are assigned a health care coach, who coordinates their care with a team of specialists and checks in on them if they haven’t heard from the user in a few days. The user can schedule a video chat with a therapist, share information about medication needs with their physician and continue to personalize the plan until they find the right care for them.

Addepar, a financial services tech firm purchased access to the new app for its 200 employees. So far, 50 people have signed onto it.

Sprint has tried another app from Castlight Health for its 42,000 employees and dependents. Once a user downloads the app and enters health information, the app can identify who might need help by reviewing the employees’ medications and health claims and directs them to help.

Let’s say something about an employee indicates they may be suffering from anxiety. They may get a message asking if they are feeling overwhelmed and suggesting they take a questionnaire to determine if treatment is indicated.

Sprint invested a bunch of money in the app – $2.1 million. But the hope is that in addition to helping its employees, the company actually saves money on what it spends on behavioral health treatments.

However you choose to handle it, it makes sense for your company to have some policies in place to address employees who may need treatment for mental health issues.

3 Reasons You Want Employees to Take Vacation

In France, taking days off is considered a national birthright. The standard for an average worker is 30 days paid leave a year. One company, the utility EDF, has a policy that if you work more than 35 hours a week, you get an additional 23 days off every year. That’s on top of the company’s standard 27 days. Yes, that means 50 days of vacation a year – 10 weeks.

Pretty much the entire country takes two to three weeks off in July or August. In fact, the French people are divided into two camps and they even have names for them: Those who vacation in July are called Juillettists and those who chose August are called Aoûtiens.

In case you are wondering, yes, there is a massive traffic jam every year around the last weekend in July when the Juillettists are returning home as the Aoûtiens are just setting out. There’s even a name for that too: it’s known as the chassé-croisé. So here’s your warning: don’t try to travel on the highways in France that weekend.

We do take vacation in the U.S. although the average worker gets just 15 days a year. And even with that amount, some people have to be forced out of the office. But CEOs and business owners would be wise to make people take time off. Here are three reasons why:

  1. It’s better for their health
  2. It makes employees more productive
  3. It can give you a chance to detect fraud

For more on the topic, please refer to “Why You Want Your Employees to Take Vacation.”

4 Ways to Attract Millennials to Your Company

 

Today I am happy to introduce a guest blogger. Chris Butsch is a Millennial Happiness Expert, speaker and the author of the upcoming book The Millennials Guide to Making Happiness.

Millennials now outnumber Gen Xers and Boomers in the workplace, and with the improving economy, they have unprecedented choosiness in who they’d like to work for. And make no mistake, Millennials like to shop around. The average job tenure in 2014 was around 4.5 years, the lowest since the 1970s. For Millennials, it’s less than half that. And as the Boomers and Xers retire, a company’s survival will depend on its ability to attract America’s next working generation.

While interviewing dozens of young professionals for my upcoming book The Millennial’s Guide to Making Happiness, I took the time to understand why they love their current employers, or what they’re looking for in their next venture. What’s the #1 most-desired perk? What are the red flags? Around 65 percent of employers report struggling to hire and retain Millennial talent, so here are 4 ways to join the 35 percent.

1)   Have a Clear Purpose and Mission Statement

As children of the digital age, we Millennials are obsessed with Impression Management. Our jobs become part of our identity, so we’re naturally attracted to companies with missions we can get behind. Ninety-five percent of us say a company’s reputation matters strongly to us, so it’s unlikely we’ll work for a company whose Google search reveals images of Communism on the first page, like Comcast.

Having a clear, concise mission statement not only helps Millennials understand your company’s goals, it gets us excited to help you. Ensure your mission statement is broadcasted everywhere, not just your website. Which brings us to tip #2.

2)   Know Where Millennials Are Looking Online, and Be There

While Millennials spend less time researching each employer (12.4 hours compared to the 25.9 older generations spend), we tend to look in more places and for different things. Most companies have online information ready for the scrutinizing Boomer (i.e. health plan and 401k), but few are truly prepared for the investigative Millennial.

We’ll go to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to see if you’re there, and if you are, what kind of content you post. These platforms are a way for companies to show off their work culture, and companies who post a couple of times a week content like updates, employee praise, or helpful articles, win Millennials. For good accounts to model after, visit the Facebook pages of The Nashville Entrepreneur Center and Carvana.

Millennials will also see what former employees are saying about you, and our forum of choice is Glassdoor. We make up just over a third of the workforce, yet account for nearly half of Glassdoor’s traffic. We’re reading and writing thousands of reviews for each other, and Millennials considering one company as an employer are sure to come across this one:

Good reviews on Glassdoor are crucial to recruiting Millennials.

Good reviews on Glassdoor are crucial to recruiting Millennials.

When I interviewed for my first job at Epic Health Systems as a Project Manager, I felt nervous about the alarming number of Glassdoor reviews citing poor work-life balance. I actually printed some off and showed them to my interviewers to ask their honest opinions, which they graciously offered. I got the job, but had Epic scored lower than a 2.5 on Glassdoor, I honestly wouldn’t have flown up for the interview.

If your company has no Glassdoor reviews, consider reaching out to former employers who are likely to leave you positive words.

3)   Update Your Technology

Millennials live on the cutting edge, constantly optimizing our lives with apps, trackers and gadgets. We’re the most likely to order an Uber on a SmartWatch and get excited when a wall socket has a USB outlet.

“Millennials don’t think of technology as an extra,” writes Art Papas in Forbes. “They expect to be able to use it in all aspects of their lives.” As such, we love employers who also keep up. Productivity software, the latest Microsoft Office, and fast internet beckon tech-savvy Millennials, while aging beige monitors and fax machines make us question the company’s forward momentum. But above all, Millennials love laptops at work because they often come paired with another item on our workplace wish-list: flexibility.

4)   Pay in Dollars and Freedom

On average, Millennials get married seven years later than our parents did in the ‘70s. We place huge value on international travel, and are the least likely to own a car or a house. Surely part of our changing mindset is due to our tepid economic predicament, but mostly we wait to “settle down” because we value our freedom.

According to Fast Company, Millennials place more emphasis on work-life balance than other working generations, and Bentley University found that 77 percent of Millennials believe flexible work schedules boost our productivity. We’re not asking to work less; rather, we just want to get more done in the same time or the same done in less time.

And according to Ellen Ernst Kossek, author of CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age, we might be right. “Research shows that employees are healthier, experience less stress, and are more productive and engaged when they effectively make choices about how, where and when they work.” Which explains why more Millennials look at the 9-to-5 and ask: why?

As for vacation, my friend from Switzerland once asked me, “How much vacation do you have?” When I told her 10 days, she balked. “Only 10 days left? Wow, where all have you been traveling this year?” Thanks to globalization, more and more Millennials are picking up on our country’s deplorable standards for time off. And since we highly value freedom and travel, we’ll work hard for companies with forward-thinking strategies.

Virgin, Best Buy, and Netflix offer unlimited vacation time, while startup powerhouse Evernote offers a bonus to employees who take at least an entire week off. While these policies sacrifice in-office time, they boost retention and employee happiness, creating a clear return on investment.  Research shows that prolonged work-a-thons atrophy our productivity and ability to cope with stress, so Millennials especially are more likely to burn out of jobs that don’t provide adequate time off.

Plus, affording your employees more vacation time and flexible work hours creates a quieter office, so you’ll kill two birds with one stone.

Little Changes CEOs Make Can Lead to Big Ones

 

Trash cans and toilet paper. You wouldn’t expect CEOs to concern themselves with such mundane items. Aren’t they supposed to concentrate on managing the company’s resources, developing and implementing long-term strategies and communicating with the board of directors?

Yes, of course. But part of their overall strategy may need to include small changes in the workplace that can lead to big shifts in employee outlooks and increased productivity in the workplace.

Suzanne Sitherwood has been CEO of Laclede Gas Company since 2012. An article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, “CEOs Sometimes Use Small Changes as Wedge for Broad Transformation,” detailed a few of the design changes she made when she took over to foster an interactive atmosphere.

These included moving into her assistant’s office, installing a round table for management meetings to foster “a sense of unity and equality” and keeping her office door open. And she banned the use of individual trash cans in offices.

Yes, that’s right. Trash cans were taken out of individual offices and moved to communal areas to encourage staffers to meet face to face. So instead of tossing a crumpled-up piece of paper into the bin by your desk, you had to get up and walk into the main area, where you just might run into a co-worker doing the same thing.

That’s one of the more creative ways I’ve heard of encouraging interaction among employees. Steve Job’s tried to institute another not-so-popular idea when he built the Pixar headquarters. He wanted to design the building with only one set of bathrooms in the atrium, rather than the usually placement of being tucked off to the side. (Fortunately for the employees in offices located far away in the wings of the building, he was overruled.)

Both these CEOs know that attention to small seemingly insignificant details like these can lead to bigger changes in their companies. Laclede Group, now rebranded as Spire, was once considered a conservative, unexciting utility. After Sitherwood took over, she turned that image around. The company made two major acquisitions of other gas utility companies, and increased the stock more than 50 percent.

A little change that that led to a major turnaround for me had to do with toilet paper. I was brought in to manage a computer parts company in Texas after the bank had forced the egomaniacal, ineffective CEO out. Although he was highly educated, he didn’t know diddly about how to treat employees.

His wife, affectionately known to the employees as the Dragon Lady, was the COO. It didn’t take me long to find out what she had done to earn this nickname. She was rationing coffee and toilet paper.

My first day there, a meek-looking secretary shyly approached me and asked for $20 to buy the daily allotment of coffee and toilet paper. I’d actually never heard the term “daily allotment of coffee and toilet paper” outside of a war-time situation. It seems Dragon Lady had limited how much of these items employees were allowed to use.

My decision was easy in this case. Banish the daily allotment – toilet paper and coffee for everyone! That one small change signaled to the employees that they mattered to the company. That one small gesture changed everything. The employees regained their faith in the company and they all begin working together to save it. We stabilized the company, sold it in six months, and all the employees kept their jobs.

There’s one change designed to improve office morale I find a little questionable. Last year President Nobuaki Aoki of the MK Taxi company in Kyoto, Japan, installed six personalized vending machines in his company.

These machines have his photo on them and in addition to snacks, dispenses sound bites in his dialect like “Groom yourself well and smile,” “Good job,” and “Thanks for working hard again today.” The idea, of course, is to boost employee morale. But I’m guessing these words mean a lot more coming from a supervisor rather than a machine.

Think about small changes in your office that could boost employee morale. But think twice about the vending machine.