Leftover Vacation Days and the Impact on Your Business

Americans did not use 658 million vacation days last year. For the first time ever, more than half of Americans (55%) did not use all of their days off, according to a study done by Project: Time Off. We are becoming the “No Vacation Nation.”

While Americans used to average three weeks of vacation a year in 2000, in 2015 they only took 16.2 days. That represents a loss of almost one week in 15 years.

Why would people essentially volunteer a week of their time every year for their company? The two biggest factors cited in the study were fear they would return to a mountain of work (37%) and that no one else can do their job (30%).

Unlike other developed countries, in the U.S. employers are not required to give employees paid time off. Employees in the European Union get a minimum of 20 days a year.

While a business owner or CEO may appreciate that their employees didn’t take their allotted time off, research shows their productivity may actually be lower when they don’t take breaks.

Studies show that when employees take time off, their productivity increases. “There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources. When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You’re able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks,” said Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University in the article “The Secret to Increased Productivity: Taking Time Off.”

In a Wall Street Journal blog, Dr. Kathleen Potempa wrote, “In addition to mental and physical stressors, long periods of work without vacation can lead to reduced productivity, diminished creativity, and strained relationships. Americans seem to believe that logging more hours leads to increased output, but respite deprivation can actually increase mistakes and workplace animosity—in addition to prompting or exacerbating stress-related illnesses.”

CEOs and business owners should look at their own calendars and clear time for vacation as well. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, takes six weeks a year. “I take a lot of vacation and I’m hoping that certainly sets an example. It is helpful. You often do your best thinking when you’re off hiking in some mountain or something. You get a different perspective on things.”

COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg says she was able to write her best-selling book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” because she took all of her vacation days. (I’ve written a book, and would be on the side of people who argue that’s not quite what I’d call a vacation.)

Tony Schwartz, the president/CEO of The Energy Project and author of “Be Excellent at Anything” says at The Energy Project they teach “the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for recovery.” Feeling burnt out one year, he went on vacation and completely disconnected from digital distractions. “By the end of nine days, I felt empowered and enriched. With my brain quieter, I was able to take back control of my attention. In the process, I rediscovered some deeper part of myself.”

Mark Douglas, CEO of the marketing and advertising company SteelHouse, recognized the need for his employees to take vacation and offered them unlimited vacation when he founded the company in 2010. But perhaps due to the reasons stated above, people weren’t taking much.

So he decided to pay them. To take vacation. He pays his employees $2,000 a year to go anywhere in the world. They can split up the money for more than one trip, or use it all at once. Employees who request the money in the form of a bonus are turned down. They must spend it on a vacation.

As a result, his turnover rate is extremely low. Out of 250 employees, only five people left the company in a three-year period, with three of them leaving for reasons unrelated to the job.

So if you are feeling a bit anxious when you see all the empty desks and email vacation notices at your company over the holidays, think of it this way: they are recharging their batteries and will come back more productive than ever.

Take some time off yourself. And enjoy.

My book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is now available as an ebook.

 

Funny, But True: When Employees are Naughty, Not Nice

The popular song may claim this as the most wonderful time of the year and the hap-happiest season of all. December is also the least productive, as many workers take time off for the holidays and when they are in the office, they are distracted. And possibly doing their gift shopping online.

Having employees take adequate vacation is important and critical to the well-being of your business. I encourage every company I work with to encourage employees to take time off, and in fact to mandate the CFO take two consecutive weeks off every year. No, I’m not playing Santa Claus here. It’s about uncovering fraud.

In addition to the benefits of having an employee come back refreshed and rested, vacation is the time companies uncover naughty things some employees may have been up to.

Take the example of dear Aunt Tess. She was a payroll clerk at a company I was working with. She was a loyal and dedicated employee of 25 years, who had never missed one single payroll. Not even less than 24 hours after she had her appendix out. See any red flags yet?

I did, and after a bit of investigation, found dear Aunt Tess had been paying fake employees for 25 years, diverting their income to herself, to the tune of $75,000 to $100,000 a year. She had stolen millions of dollars.

So, I may sound a bit Grinch-like, but when your employees take time off during the holidays, make a list of who has access to your books and do a little checking it twice.

Next week, why did Americans leave 658 million vacation days unused last year, and what impact does not taking those vacation days have on your employees?

What Business Are You Really In?

 

He started as a book salesman in the late 1880s. To entice people to buy his books, David H. McConnell gave away free perfume samples. Those proved so popular, he abandoned the books and founded the California Perfume Company in 1886. That company eventually changed its name to Avon in honor of Shakespeare’s hometown. Last year, Avon’s revenue was $1.6 billion.

That’s just one example of successful companies that were founded with one business model, then pivoted to a different business. They thought they were in one business, but the market led them to change their business, either by choice or because their potential for increasing market share vanished.

Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland.

Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland.

Twitter is an example of a forced pivot. It started as Odeo, a network for people to find podcasts. It was a bad day for Odeo when iTunes announced it would include a built-in platform for podcasts in every one of its iPods, pretty much obliterating their business overnight. So, the company got to work, hosting hackathons to come up with a new idea. The concept for a microblogging platform was hatched, and Twitter was created in 2006. It’s now worth over $10 billion.

One of my favorite pivot stories is about the American food company Wrigley. William Wrigley Jr’s father was a soap manufacturer, so as a teenager William became a soap salesman. To encourage shop owners to stock his soap on their shelves, William offered free gifts. Baking powder was the most popular, so he dropped selling the soap to focus on that. In 1892, as an incentive, he began offering two packages of free chewing gum with each can of baking powder. Once again, the giveaway was more popular than the actual product he was selling, and he moved to selling chewing gum. Wrigley sold to Mars in 2008 for $23 billion.

Did you know Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland in 1865? It moved to creating rubber goods and telecommunications devices, and a mobile phone in 1992. That year the company sold off all its other divisions to focus on mobile devices. Sadly, it failed to make a successful transition to the smartphone industry, and sold its devices and services division to Microsoft in 2013.

We associate the name Nintendo with Super Mario Bros, Game Boy and Wii. The company was founded in 1889 in Japan by Fusajiro Yamauchi to sell playing cards. Unsuccessful expansion attempts by his great-grandson in the 1960s included getting in the taxi business and “love hotels.” Then one of their engineers began developing electronic toys, which led to video game development, and its large market share of the mobile gaming space. While profits had been in decline, Nintendo seems to be on the upswing based on the potential of the value of its intellectual property.

In addition to knowing how to maximize profits for your company, knowing what business you are actually in allows you to expand and grow in the right direction.

When you aren’t clear what business you are in, efforts to innovate and expand can go astray. As Ty Montague writes in inc.com, “The lion’s share of innovation mistakes still come from companies funneling their efforts into extending the life of some existing platform, instead of spending time getting clear on what business they are really in and then constantly looking for opportunities to apply that definition to new technologies and new markets. Companies that do this will grow robust businesses that can be hard to describe in conventional terms.”

An example he gives is Tesla, which he says isn’t in the car business, but rather in the electric mobility business, so in addition to building cars, it builds infrastructure to support the mobility of electric vehicles.

Every business goes through a metamorphosis of product lines in response to marketplace pressure and technology, and a smart CEO needs to continue to monitor that so he can remain in business by moving forward.

Take a step back and think about your own business. What business are you really in?

 

Funny, But True: Friendly Fraud

As people began to think about end-of-the-year business expenses for the close of the 2016 tax year, I chuckle when I think about one of my most unusual expenses incurred on the job. I had to pay to get my license plate back.

It started as I was sitting at a red light in Juarez, Mexico, without a car in site for miles. All of a sudden, a motorcycle cop came roaring up and informed me I had been speeding in a school zone and had run a red light. Pretty miraculous, considering my car was at a standstill at the only red light for miles. When I didn’t say anything, he went to the back of my car, stole my license plate and rode off.

I was in Mexico to visit a factory that had a 17 percent a month turnover rate and a huge shrinkage rate. I had been appointed CEO of the factory, which in a case of irony, made switches for signals used in traffic lights.

When I told the plant manager what happened, he told me I’d have to bribe that officer $500 to get my license plate back, which I needed to cross back into the US and return the rental car. But lucky for me, the plant manager knew the cop and said he’d take care of it. What a guy, right?

I did get my plate back. I also learned that the plant manager only gave the cop $100 for it, stealing $400 from me. But that was nothing compared to what he was stealing from the company.

He had created and was paying dozens of fake employees and was getting kickbacks from his cousin, the customs agent, and his uncle, a local freight business owner. He was robbing the company into ruin.

He was helpful in one respect, however. He told me that company had 90 percent market share and the owners could raise the prices. That was one of my first orders of business. After getting rid of him, of course. And getting my plate back.

For more stories like this, read my book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” now available as an ebook.

3 Tips on Enjoying Thanksgiving When You Own a Family Business

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want."

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want.”

Everyone wants a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, the one depicted in his famous 1941 painting “Freedom From Want.” The painting shows a happy family seated around the table waiting for the turkey to be carved.

For many Americans, this is far from reality. Thanksgiving becomes something to dread, more of an endurance test and something to survive rather than to enjoy. And when you own a family business, there are even more topics that can cause conflict and tension.

I saw an ecard recently that read, “My favorite thing about Thanksgiving is when we all pass out and stop talking to each other.” Here are a few tips for how to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner when you run a family business, before you’ve reached that point.

  1. Make your desire to keep family business off the table known prior to dinner.

You can take a lighthearted approach to this if you are the host. When issuing the invitation, say something like, bring your favorite side dish and bottle of wine, but leave business matters at the office for the day. Or you may remind family members during a meeting or through a memo that Thanksgiving is a day off from the business.

  1. Plan an if/then scenario.

This tip comes from the Wall Street Journal article, “How to Have Thanksgiving Dinner Without a Family Blowup.” Author Elizabeth Bernstein recommends you coach yourself on how you might respond should a certain topic come up despite your request to not talk about the business. Let’s say one son blames the other son for thefts from the warehouse, and makes a snide comment as he passes the gravy. How will you handle it? One suggestion may be to quickly table it by saying, “Let’s be sure to address that Monday morning at our weekly meeting.”

  1. Privately enlist the help of the person most likely to start the drama.

Your brother Fred is typically the one to bring the tension, generally by referencing some long-ago conflict. Call Fred before the dinner and tell him, “Fred, I really need your help this year to have a more peaceful gathering. If you see any conflict start to develop, can I count on you to change the subject? Maybe tell us about your last fishing trip.”

Fred will be flattered you asked for his help, and eager to share his story. Problem solved.

If all this fails, there’s always TV. As comedian Craig Ferguson said, “I like football. I find it’s an exciting strategic game. It’s a great way to avoid conversation with your family at Thanksgiving.”
 

 

The Top Trait Every CEO Must Have

You can’t run a successful company without it. I can’t do my job turning companies around without it. And once it’s lost, it can be almost impossible to get it back.

I’m talking about credibility. Every CEO must have that – with his employees, his board, his customers, his investors and his employees. And he must guard and protect it as a valuable asset.

As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

I urge every CEO I work with and every company’s senior management to maintain a high level of credibility. The consequences if they don’t can be catastrophic.

I once replaced a very smart man, who was CEO of a company that manufactured electronics parts. Despite the fact he had a PhD, he wasn’t too smart when it came to running his business. Upon reviewing his numbers one day he found some cost accounting discrepancies and realized he was selling his primary widget under cost. Instead of having a $1 million profit as anticipated, the company actually had a $2 million loss.

Rather than admit his mistakes, he just adjusted his prices. His customers weren’t thrilled with the unexpected and unexplained 50 percent price increase he put on that widget and fled. Faced with more losses, the bank soon noticed he wasn’t able to repay his loans and gave him the boot as well. We were brought in late in the process, and were able to sell the company and repay the lender and creditor. But the business lost $8 million in equity.

Had the CEO come clean about the mistake, been honest with his bank and his customers, he could have avoided the losses his ego cost him. He wasn’t. And he didn’t. His credibility was shot.

Through no action of my own, I almost suffered the same fate at a company I has hired to assess prior to becoming the director of reorganization. The president of that company didn’t like the fact I was doing an assessment of the company and wanted me to keep out of his business. So he decided to destroy my credibility.

How did he do that? The chairman of the board gave me specific people to speak with about certain issues. So the president told senior staff members I had already made up my mind about how I would restructure each of their divisions. That was untrue, of course, as I always speak openly with people and listen to their thoughts before making any decisions. But in their minds I was just wasting their time.

Thankfully, with the help of another senior staff member, I was able to salvage that situation.

An article in Forbes, “The Three Qualities a CEO Must Have to Success” addresses the issue of credibility and how critical it is to success.

“CEOs who lose credibility can never regain it. When you communicate, do people believe that you are telling them the objective truth? If they do, then you have credibility. To maintain credibility, you have to tell the truth 100 percent of the time. Telling the truth 90 percent of the time is not much better than telling the truth 10 percent of the time. It only takes a few instances of delivering non-credible statements to totally lose your credibility. Once you lose your credibility, you cannot lead successfully.”

My book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEO’s Mistakes, is now available as an ebook.

Funny, But True: Having a Blast

Well, at least some people thought it was funny. I didn’t happen to be one of them.

I was in a staff meeting of a steel company where I was the chief restructuring officer. The company was not doing well for multiple reasons and was facing a huge cash crisis.

We had decided our only option at this point was to reduce the 2,500-person workforce by at least 10 percent to keep the company competitive, a tragic outcome for those 250 workers and their families. We were also going to have to reduce union employee benefits, which we had discussed the day before with the union representative.

All of a sudden, I hear BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! In shock, I quickly hit the floor, only to find I was the only one there. When I got back up, the other senior staff at the table were laughing at me.

I was right to duck – those were shotgun blasts that smashed into the windows. But none of them made it through the bulletproof windows the company had installed 20 years previously. It seems shotgun blasts were a frequent means of expression for unhappy union members.

So here’s some free advice. If your workers are routinely so unhappy they are shooting at senior staff, rather than spending money installing bulletproof windows, spend time thinking about rethink how you are managing the company.

My book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEO’s Mistakes, is now available as an ebook.