The One Person Every CEO Needs

I love reading “The Corner Office” column by Adam Bryant in the New York Times on Fridays and Sundays. Adam talks with CEOs and other leaders about management and often asks about the lessons they learned on the road to success.

It’s refreshing how honest many of these leaders are. Yesterday, the column was about Penny Herscher, who is CEO of FirstRain, a business analytics firm. She admitted that she has a strong personality and started out too autocratic, sure she was right all the time. People told her they didn’t want to work for her, or they just left the company.

She mentions a mentor who made a big difference in her life. “He was one of the only people who would hold up a mirror to me and say, ‘O.K., that wasn’t good.’ I needed somebody who would tell me the truth. Many leaders with strong personalities never hear the truth because their people are afraid to tell them. The people who will tell you the truth are the most valuable people in your life.”

Bingo! In my career as a turnaround authority, I’ve seen so many companies in dire situations, on the brink of failure or bankruptcy. Sometimes the root of problems isn’t that hard to determine. Many of the employees knew it. Many in senior management knew it. But no one wanted to tell the CEO the truth.

Usually it’s because they fear losing their jobs, they might be punished, or ostracized, or they have tried several times in the past and their suggestions were ignored.

Every CEO or business leader has to have someone who will deliver the truth, no matter how unpleasant. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.

I read an article online about a company that says it only works with “enlightened leaders.” The title of the article is “Destructive Leadership Practices: Is Your CEO in Denial?”

The author, Jeannie Walters, writes about a time she worked with a growing technology company that had a successful product and received a lot of press. But the high rate of employee turnover was hurting it and great talent didn’t stay.

Turns out, the CEO was “inflexible and demanding. They were too fearful to tell the truth about feeling overworked and under appreciated. Every new employee learned the secret code of ‘don’t ever offend the CEO,’ which also meant never critiquing his original work. This included the design of the logo (it was awful) and the user experience of the very product they were selling.”

She presented her findings about the company to the CEO, which were confirmed by the marketing director during the meeting. He didn’t want to hear it and declared all the information was wrong. Fast-forward a few months: the marketing director is gone and the company eventually shut down.

You’re most likely not going to like hearing about which areas are not working in your company, whether it’s that your management team isn’t functioning, your relationships with your vendors are not good or your business is not as well off financially as you thought it was.

Every CEO needs at least one truth teller in his or her life. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to make yourself open to hearing it, believing it and acting on it. It helps to remember that while you may go through short-term pain, it’s all for long-term gain. Don’t be a CEO in denial.

 

The Failures That Came Before

I like to write about failure, because it’s an integral part of success. Every one of my clients has succeeded, but only after a failure or multiple failures. We read about these mega-successful companies but sometimes don’t know about the failures these owners and founders dealt with along the way.

At the age of 39, Nick Woodman is a billionaire. He founded GoPro, a digital camcorder company recently valued at more than $3 billion. But before becoming one of the youngest self-made billionaires in the country, he had two companies that failed. His first was a site that sold electronics called EmpowerAll.com. It never got off the ground.

He did raise a lot of money for Funbug, a gaming site he started in 1999. But it went nowhere and shut down in April 2001. After coming up with the concept to attach cameras to athletes’ wrists, he launched his first device in 2009. Sales in 2013 were $985 million.

Jack Dorsey always loved computers and after working in dispatching services, came to value the ability to send short messages. He started a taxi dispatching service that worked through a website. But that company failed during the dot com crash.

He took that concept of short messages and used it to co-found Twitter, now one of the most popular social media sites in the world. One of his rules of success is “Fail Openly.” Oh, and also have an amazing haircut.

In an essay for the Wall Street Journal, “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams says his secret of success is failure. Before he achieved success with his comic strip he had several failures. These include his invention of a rosin bag that would attach to tennis shorts with Velcro. Turned out nobody wanted it and he couldn’t patent it.

He created “Dilbert” while working at a bank. He had drawn cartoons to liven up his presentations. After trying on and off unsuccessfully to get “Dilbert” into magazines and newspapers, he finally published the cartoon with United Media in 1989, becoming a full-time cartoonist of the popular cartoon in 1995.

In 2000, at the age of 22 Ben Huh started Raydium, a software analytics company. He managed to get investment money but a year later funds ran out and he couldn’t meet payroll.

But he didn’t lose his sense of humor and six years later, bought I Can Haz Cheeseburger. This odd sounding blog network, which is also the home of LOLcat, has been wildly successful, with half a billion page views a month. Investors were impressed enough to invest $30 million in this site of jokes about cats and other funny blogs in 2011.

The thing to remember is that these people learned something valuable from each failure that spurred them on and allowed them to ultimately become extremely successful.

Nick Woodman claims that it’s his fear of failing again that caused him to work 18-hour days to make GoPro a success, referring to it as “constructive fear.” In an article on Forbes.com, he said, “I was so afraid that GoPro was going to go away like Funbug that I would work my ass off. That’s what the first boom and bust did for me. I was so scared that I would fail again that I was totally committed to succeed.”

Failure is not a barrier to success. It’s merely a step. As Scott Adams said, “Success is entirely accessible, even if you happen to be a huge screw-up 95% of the time.”

That’s what life is really about — learning from our mistakes.

 

The Professional Advisors Your Business Needs to Hire

Welcome to part three of my three-part series on working with advisors. In week one, I discussed How to Find the Best Advisors for Your Business. Last week I shared tips on Getting the Most Out of Your Advisors. Today, I’ll talk about the professional advisors you should consider hiring.

Advisory boards can add a lot of value to your company when the members share their wisdom and experience with you. But to give your business its best chance for success, you’ll need to hire professional advisors as well. Here are just three that your business will need.

Accountant and/or Financial Advisor

You need a numbers person to work with you on your budget and determine tax implications of decisions for growth. A good accountant or financial advisor can also provide analysis of how your company is doing and ways to improve your financial situation.

A good CPA or accountant should also be on the lookout for fraud and ensure you have proper controls on how your accounts are handled. The accountant should also have a good relationship with your banker or lenders and can inspire confidence in them that your funds are being handled correctly.

Lawyer

Business owners and CEOs can, and do, run into potentially damaging legal issues all the time. A good lawyer can advise you on how to handle these situations and set up policies and procedures to prevent problems in the first place.

You will also need to consult an attorney to draft any partnership agreements you may enter into, file a patent, handle real estate transactions and advise you if you plan on buying or selling a business. Of course, if you are threatened with any lawsuits you need to hire an attorney immediately. It’s best to find one that specializes in the particular area where you need help.

Management Advisors

A good advisory firm can supplement your skill set and provide solutions to complex business problems. I recently joined the team at GlassRatner, which helps businesses manage through a business crisis or bankruptcy, plans and executes a major acquisition or divestiture and addresses any other difficult business situation. The firm also provides forensic accounting services and litigation support.

Other advisors you may consider include sales consultants, business development consultants and public relations professionals.

My final tip is to hire advisors sooner rather than later if your business is running into trouble. One of my more distressing clients was one whose business could have been saved, if only I had been hired earlier. I talk about this sports bar in the Midwest in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”

This company had a large discrimination issue and filed bankruptcy without proper planning. If I had been involved earlier, I could have negotiated the discrimination issue, negated its demoralizing impact on the employees and advised against filing bankruptcy. We could have salvaged part of the company. Instead, they contacted me too late and they lost it.

Hiring the right advisors is worth the investment. They have the knowledge and experience to handle whatever issues your company is facing. And they are able to see solutions more clearly as they are not emotionally involved in the outcome.

Getting the Most Out of Your Advisors

Welcome to part two of my three-part series on working with advisors. Last week, I discussed How to Find the Best Advisors for Your Business. This week I share my top tips on utilizing their expertise to foster the growth and success of your business.

  1. Be clear about your expectations and create accountability

A new advisor may have been planning on a phone call every quarter, while you envision monthly face-to-face meetings. In the article “How to Use Advisors to Supercharge Your Business,” Eli Portnoy writes about giving up some equity in his company to his advisors and getting nothing in return. “Our advisors were fantastic and really wanted to help. The problem wasn’t them, it was me. My advisors were brought on at random, and furthermore, I failed to create structure and accountability.”

Leveraging the lessons he learned the first time around, when he brought on new advisors he made it clear what he was looking for from them. He drew up a two-year contract that stated they would meet or talk on the phone every other week and have an in-person session or dinner once a quarter. If all obligations were met, they would receive equity in his company after the two-year period.

  1. Be honest with them

To get the most out of your advisors, you have to operate in an arena of mutual trust. That means you have to share the challenges you are facing and your financial situation accurately.

This may be uncomfortable at times if things are not going so well. But perhaps especially in bad times, your advisors can prove crucial to weathering a difficult situation by first forcing you to confront the issues.

I devoted an entire chapter to facing your harsh realities in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned From CEOs Mistakes.” Failure to do so is one of the major mistakes I have seen CEOs make, time after time.

If you share your information honestly, your advisors can be the ones forcing you to face your harsh realities before it’s too late. Maybe you are having a cash flow problem and aren’t sure how to resolve it. One of your advisors may have dealt with a similar scenario and have suggestions on the best way to deal with the situation. You can’t get the best advice without revealing the true picture of the financial situation of your company.

Your advisors may have some other great ideas to share with you even when it’s not a time of crisis. Let’s say you’re having your most successful year yet. Your advisors may have ideas on how to build on and leverage that success.

  1. Listen to their advice

While this sounds like just common sense, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve dealt with who had ended up in dire financial shape and it wasn’t because they weren’t getting good advice. They just didn’t listen to it.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal last week, “Tuning Out: Listening Becomes a Rare Skill.” The article cited a study done in 2011 in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes that found that the more powerful the listener is, the more likely he is to dismiss advice from others.

You can gather the best advisors in your industry and share details about your business. But none of that will do a darn bit of good if you don’t actually follow it. These leaders are those that John Steinbeck was speaking of when he said, “No one wants advice – only corroboration.”

Finding the right advisors and working with them in the best way possible can make a huge difference in the success of your company. Eli Portnoy, the young man who made mistakes the first time around and then instituted structure and accountability, saw a huge difference in his company. “Thinknear took off within months of creating the new advisory board and structure. My personal weaknesses as a CEO became strengths and with the help of my advisors I was able to supercharge our trajectory.”

Advisors can make a big difference in your business, but there are still professional advisors you need to hire. For part three of this series, I’ll talk about those.

How to Find the Best Advisors for Your Business

A trusted team of talented advisors can be essential to the success of any business. But how do you go about finding the right ones for your business? And after you have identified them, what is the best way to utilize their expertise?

In this three-part series I’ll share tips on how to find good advisors and after adding them to your team, the best way to leverage their skills to foster the growth and success of your business.

For the first two parts, I am focusing on hiring for an advisory board. While advisory boards can be invaluable, any successful business needs to hire professional advisors as well. In part three, I’ll discuss what professional advisors you need to hire.

  1. Don’t hire advisors from your fan club

You may have some friends and colleagues who listen to your business ideas and respond with enthusiasm, cheering your every decision. These are not the people you want advising you. You want to find people that challenge your ideas, present opposing sides of view and are not afraid to play devil’s advocate.

A good advisor will bring up issues and concerns that you may not have considered, laying the groundwork for you to deal with those issues now and travel down the right path, rather than pay for those mistakes later.

While it may feel more natural and certainly more comfortable to surround yourself with people who share your outlook, they will function more as “yes” people than advisors. You need someone to challenge your less viable ideas and present alternative viewpoints.

  1. Look outside your existing network

Seek out new networking opportunities to expand your circle and find people with successful businesses who may be able to help. Finding the time to make and foster these contacts can be particularly challenging during high-growth periods for your business, but networking can pay off in ways you can’t foresee. As author Jared Kintz said, “Unless you are a pile of cat hair, you can’t succeed in a vacuum.”

  1. Hire advisors with different areas of expertise and skill sets

Identify areas of expertise where you are less than proficient and seek out advisors with relationships and experience in those areas. Maybe you have a great product, an excellent design team and people with marketing experience, but not the necessary expertise to reach your target market. Find an advisor who has those contacts.

Having access to skill sets your business lacks is crucial. I once worked with a university that was in dire straits. One of the issues it was facing is that senior management was trying to handle areas that were outside their expertise. That does not go well.

Finding a good, functional advisory board takes some time and effort. Some business people forego it altogether, perhaps believing as Judge Arthur Goldberg did, “If Columbus had an advisory committee he would probably still be at the dock.” While that may be true of some advisory boards that seem to serve as more as hindrances than boots to progress, if you find the right team of advisors you’ll have a better chance of smooth sailing.

Tips for Dealing with Office Gossip

This is the second in a series on office gossip. In my last column, I wrote about how harmful office gossip can be to your business. This column focuses on how you can deal with it.

Office gossip can be harmful to your business and to the reputations of your managers and employees. It can cost you money in lost productivity and turnover when employees who don’t like the negative environment leave.

Here are a few tips on how to deal with it so your business can be a healthy, happy and productive place to work.

Set the standard

This is so important that I devoted a section of my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes” to it. As the head of a company, you must lead by example. It doesn’t matter whether you want your employees to emulate your behavior — they will.

Don’t talk about negative rumors about your competition or any of your vendors. If you hear others spreading rumors, request that they refrain from doing so.

Avoid the all-employee approach

Sending an email to all the employees or announcing at an all-company meeting demanding that office gossip stop will not work. The ones who are spreading the gossip will continue to do so, and those who are not engaging will wonder what they are missing, and may even start to gossip so they can catch up.

If you can determine the source of negative gossip, meet with those individuals one-on-one to explain the repercussions of their behavior and that further gossip will not be tolerated.

Create an environment of open communication and trust

This is my number 1 tip for stopping negative office gossip. If you create an open environment where employees trust the management and feel free to communicate with their supervisors, there is no reason to spread gossip.

You’ve probably heard the term “the mushroom treatment.” It’s when employees feel like they are kept in the dark, fed a lot of manure and when they are big enough, they are canned.

Although that term originated more than 40 years ago, many companies still operate this way. When I am brought in to run a company, one of the first things I do is talk to employees at all levels to get their opinions on what is happening and what needs to be done. More often than not, when a company is in dire straits, the employees are not getting the real story. They are being kept in the dark.

Guess what happens when employees know a company is struggling but no one is telling them the truth? They begin to manufacture their own perception of the truth from what little is being shared. That’s how the office gossip train is fueled. The less they know, the more they talk. And when your employees are engaged in a rousing game of “What Did You Hear Today?” guess what they are not doing? Their jobs.

When employees are left to play the guessing game, morale and productivity take a dive, putting your company in even more jeopardy.

Generally, when I take over a company, I am walking into a toxic environment of distrust. One of my most important jobs initially is to regain the trust of the employees, and I do that by making honest communication with them a top priority. It may take a while for senior management to regain their trust, but once we do, you’d be surprised what a difference it can make in turning around a company.

Employees gossip because they are kept in the dark and feel powerless. Telling them the truth, no matter how dire it is, can make them feel empowered.

As Will Rogers said, “Rumors travel faster, but it don’t stay put as long as truth.”

When Failure is an Option

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 
— Thomas Edison

I recently read an editorial in the New York Times called “The Power of Failure,” in which the writer addresses how nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures while some for-profit industries have accepted that failure is part of the process.

Sarika Bansal quotes Wayan Vota as saying, “In Silicon Valley, failure is a rite of passage. If you’re not failing, you’re not considered innovative enough.” Mr. Vota is a technology and information expert who recently organized a conference in Washington called FAIRFaire that focuses on lessons learned from projects that failed.

As a turnaround expert, my career is focused on working with companies that are experiencing failure. If a company is thriving, they don’t need me. I’m brought in when things aren’t so rosy.

successI don’t really want any company to be failing to the point where I’m called in to turn the company around.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s best for any company to enjoy a straight line of success. There are so many lessons to be learned from failure and if CEOs and business owners don’t learn how to deal with failure, they won’t know how to handle it when it inevitably happens.

A few years ago NPR correspondent Eric Weiner traveled the world to investigate where people are the happiest. He wrote the bestselling book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.”

One of the fascinating things he uncovered was that people in Iceland are generally happy, which he attributes in part to the fact that failure doesn’t carry a stigma in Iceland. It’s totally normal for a person to have a résumé reflecting multiple careers — from journalist to executive to theologian — failing at some junctions and continuing on a different path.

For a company to grow and flourish, it has to be innovative and creative. Along with that comes a certain amount of failure. As a CEO or business owner, you want to encourage that innovation, while not stigmatizing any failure that may result from trying something new.

Take a lesson from Thomas Edison. “Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.”

Confucius said, “Greatness is not achieved by never falling but by rising each time we fall.” Will Rogers said,  “To avoid failure is to limit accomplishment.” Jack Welsh said, “I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.”

One of my favorite perspectives on failure comes from basketball superstar Michael Jordan and I urge you to take it to heart if you’re dealing with a setback at your business: “I have taken more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.”

I love the drawing by comedian Demetri Martin about what people think success looks like compared to what it really looks like. Success is not a straight line. But the important point is to keep your company on an upward path, no matter how many times it takes a backward step.

If you’ve made a mistake or failed at something at your business, admit your mistake. Learn from it. Encourage your employees to do the same.

CEO Not Best Person to Handle Crisis

I deal with a lot of crises in my business as a Turnaround Authority: bankruptcies, family feuds, failing businesses, gun-toting union members, just to name a few. So I’m always interested in reading articles about the topic of emergency situations — particularly about those who regularly deal with crises as part of their job.

Dr. Thomas Frieden knows a thing or two about handling emergencies. As head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Frieden deals with public health crises all over the world while also leading 11,000 employees in 50 countries and overseeing an organization with an $11 billion budget.

Sometimes it takes more than a Band-Aid to fix problems in your business. Know when to call in a professional.

Sometimes it takes more than a Band-Aid to fix problems in your business. Know when to call in a professional.

In a recent interview with Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dr. Frieden said one thing that I wish every CEO or business leader who is in a crisis situation would read.

When asked if the top leader of a business or organization should manage the crisis, he was quite clear.

“No,” he said. “The CEO should not be the person running the day-to-day crisis response. That would be a mistake … If a CEO tries to manage every aspect of an emergency, he or she is going to mess it up. Other things are happening and the CEO will never be able to focus as much energy as you need to.”

It’s a smart CEO who knows when to call in an outside professional like me.

As a turnaround guy, I am like an ER doctor. The patient is in an emergency situation and I first have to stabilize the patient and prevent shock. Then I can perform the necessary surgery to save the patient.

Unfortunately, many CEOS in crisis think they can handle their emergencies themselves. They are bleeding from the jugular and think they can slap a Band-Aid on and stop the bleeding.

As Dr. William Osler, considered the father of modern medicine, said, “The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”

You’re not going to cut your own appendix out, right? You hire someone with years of experience doing just that. So if you’re facing a crisis, why not hire someone who has years of experience handling crises?

I am used to skepticism on being hired to turnaround a company. When I’m discussing conducting an initial assessment with a client I often hear, “Our business is failing. We can’t afford to hire you.”

I always respond, “How can you afford not to?”

Then I tell them, “If I don’t save you five to ten times what you pay me in the first year, I’ll give you your money back.”

I’m not saying I’m smarter than any of these CEOs. I’ve just been doing this a long time and have seen just about every situation. And one of the reasons that I have the ability to succeed where CEOs faced by crises do not is because it is not my business. It’s not my company, my employees, my money, my wife, or my life. That allows me to keep a clear head and an objective perspective where the CEO does not have one.

Personal involvement compromises the CEO’s ability to understand what’s important and what is not; the facts and information that manifest themselves during an assessment and what ultimately resolves a turnaround are rarely the same facts and information that the CEO initially deemed relevant.

If your company is in crisis, do yourself a favor. Hire a professional.

Scout Motto Still Applies: Be Prepared

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Alexander Graham Bell

I watched a sad video today of some of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in Sea Bright, New Jersey. Block after block of small businesses were totally wiped out. Of those not yet boarded up, all that was visible was a huge, gaping, black interior.

Many of them may rebuild. But a lot won’t. “Small businesses that don’t have a plan in place generally don’t survive after a disaster, whether it’s a flood or a tornado. We see that anywhere from 40-60 percent of those that are hit like that simply don’t come back to business,” said David Paulison, former executive director of the FEMA, in an interview in 2009.

A street in Sea Bright, New Jersey showing the affects of Hurricane Sandy

Truth is, there may not be much you can do to prepare your business if you live by the ocean and are in the direct path of a massive “Frankenstorm.”

You can gather up as much inventory as you can, then ensure that you and your loved ones are in a safe place and hope for the best.

While most business owners won’t ever have to worry about the effects of a massive hurricane, other disasters — natural and manmade — can affect a business anywhere.

I’m currently serving as the court-appointed receiver for a historic hotel. The current owners bought it in 2008 and planned to spend $10 million renovating it, but after they shelled out $7.5 million, water pipes burst and damaged several floors of the property. The owners shuttered the property and tried to liquidate their debts on the hotel through bankruptcy. No go.

So a judge appointed me as receiver to sell the hotel and use the proceeds to pay down the bond debt.

The hotel had been shut down for two years, with no heat or air conditioning. Can you imagine how it looked? And smelled? Let’s just say this is a job bigger than Febreze.

That’s why I say my job is like being a janitor. I’m called in to clean up other people’s messes. This one is going to take more than a mop, a bucket and some disinfectant spray.

The lesson is that you have to be prepared. Better to have a plan and never need it. Remember all those Y2K preparations? My basement was full of drinking water for years. But I never regretted being prepared in the event those dire warnings had come true.

While very large companies often have emergency programs often small and medium-sized companies do not.

If you don’t have a plan, it’s time to make one. Some of the basics to consider when making your plan include:

Investing in disaster insurance. You can get policies that cover the structure of your building, loss of inventory items and even interruption insurance that reimburses you if your company can’t conduct business. (Note that many business insurance policies exclude food and earthquake damage so you may wish to purchase additional coverage if those are areas of concern.)

Backing up your computers with off-site storage. You hear a lot these days about “the cloud.” That’s just a fancy name for a remote server. I know one guy who set up a cloud in his basement so all his computers are backed up away from his office. He also has a generator to keep everything humming.

Setting up plans to conduct business at another location. There are companies that back up all the information needed to run your business and provide the temporary facilities to perform the task.  If disaster strikes, you can show up there the next day and be open for business.

Creation of a list of emergency phone numbers and addresses and contact information for staff, business contacts and major clients. Sure, you have all that information. Somewhere. Make sure you can find all that information fast if you need it.

There’s plenty of information available on how you can prepare your disaster program.

• For small businesses, visit the Small Business Association at PrepareMyBusiness.org.

• For larger businesses, visit Ready.gov/Business

• Visit this IRS site for information on how to safeguard your essential records

• FEMA has additional information for businesses at www.fema.gov/protecting-your-businesses

Just remember the Scout motto: Be prepared.

I’ll close with another of my favorite quotes on the topic by Winston Churchill: “I’m just preparing my impromptu remarks.”

Get Out of the Corner Office and Hit the Front Line

When Hubert Joly started as CEO of Best Buy earlier this month, he spent his first week on the job as many of the employees of the $48 billion company do, wearing a blue shirt and working the floor.

Joly, hired to turn around the beleaguered electronics retailer, worked at several store locations in Minnesota, being trained to serve customers, accept returns and stock items. “I want to not learn our businesses from the headquarters,” he said, “I want to learn from the front line.”

The most successful CEOs I know follow that philosophy. They walk down the halls of the office, around the manufacturing plant and through the aisles of the store. They stop and chat with people, asking Joe how his son is doing at college or Charlene about her husband’s knee surgery.

You can’t know everything about everybody in your company but the important thing is to engage with people, even if it’s just a friendly wave or by saying hi.

Not only do you show that you care about the people who work for your company, you will learn valuable information to help your business become more productive and profitable.

In addition, the employees get to know the CEO or owner as a real person, not just a face in a big fancy oil painting at the reception desk. Or a name on a memo announcing more lay-offs or plant closings.

Steve Jobs employed this simple strategy of what is known as MBWA, Management By Walking Around. He’d talk to his service reps, answer customer emails and would call customers who were experiencing problems. Can you imagine getting a phone call from Steve Jobs to answer your question about why the CD drive doesn’t work on your MacBook Pro?

When I’m running a business I’m usually given a nice desk, but you’d rarely find me there. When I’m trying to engage with people, that desk acts like a barrier. When I meet with someone, I come around the other side of the desk and sit in a chair beside them, or I suggest we go to a conference table, but I never sit at the head of the table, instead settling down next to the person with whom I’m engaging.

Of course, usually you won’t find me near that desk at all. I’m out walking around and talking with people because like Jobs and Joly I learn a lot that way.

It doesn’t matter what kind of business it is. Whether it’s a brokerage firm filled with cubicles or a manufacturing plant or retail stores, I still walk the floor.

When I took over as interim CEO of an automobile parts company in New Jersey, I told the owner I wanted to visit every one of our stores. “Give me a list of what you’d like to find out, but don’t tell them I’m coming,” I said.

I got quite familiar with the New Jersey toll booths that week as I drove 1,000 miles and walked into every store, operating as a “secret shopper.”

I learned how each store operated and got answers to what the owner wanted to know. I gathered a lot of information that was vital to turning that company around. Most of it was information that the owner didn’t previously have, because he hadn’t been visiting the stores.

It seems like such a simple and powerful concept to me, yet the most common response I get from CEOs or owners when I explain I’ll literally be doing “legwork” and chatting with the employees is, “They won’t talk to you.”

It’s actually quite the opposite. I can’t get them to stop talking to me.

Many owners also say things like, “I have an open door policy. If employees have something to say, they can just come to my office.”

But here’s the thing. Whether an open door policy is effective depends entirely on what employees will find on the other side. As author and motivational speaker Dr. Bob Nelson said, “An open door policy doesn’t do much for a closed mind.”

Your employees want to talk to you. Go take a walk.

(Photo courtesy Best Buy)