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?

Communicate, Negotiate and Delegate in a Turnaround

This week I’ll be in Jekyll Island at the Turnaround Management Southeastern Conference, where I’ll be on a panel called Titans of the Turnaround. I chuckle about being called a Titan, as I was for an article written about my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.” I never played football for Tennessee.

But it has me thinking about the skills that I have found to be the most useful in my career in the turnaround business. These include the ability to communicate, negotiate and delegate.

Communicate

I’ve written several times about the need for communication, because it doesn’t matter how smart or visionary you are, if you can’t communicate to your employees you will not be a successful leader. As Lee Iacocca said, “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.”

When I am hired as interim CEO or consultant at a company in trouble, I stress the need to senior management to communicate openly and honestly about the situation. I often have to work hard to open up lines of communications with employees at all levels, as they may have become accustomed to being kept in the dark.

Some employees work night shifts and may feel particularly left out of what’s going on. At one company, I hosted a midnight barbecue and chatted with the employees as I grilled hamburgers. In addition to enjoying my superb cooking skills, they left feeling listened to and informed.

As a “Titan” I also have to communicate effectively with everyone involved with the company, including lenders, vendors and customers.

Negotiate

I’ve written about my need to negotiate as the Turnaround Authority, which has earned me the nickname the Monty Hall of business. Every day is a game of  “Let’s Make a Deal” for me. You cannot be successful in the turnaround field without the ability to negotiate effectively with all interested parties.

In the negotiation process, I employ communication skills while always searching for creative solutions. Because I have not been involved in the company as it began to suffer financial difficulties, I can clearly see the situation, while the CEO has often become too emotional to determine and handle what needs to be done.

I worked with one company that had lost control of its brand and entered into licensing agreements with substandard manufacturers. It was embroiled in trademark issues and meanwhile had accumulated large debts.

I was able to renegotiate licensing agreements and default substantial licenses, getting the company back on track and focusing on its fantastic design department.

To read more about negotiation, please see my previous post, “A Key Ingredient to a Successful Negotiation.”

Delegate

I’ve seen it more times than I can remember in companies in crisis. A CEO who should be focusing his time and talent on getting his company back to financial health is instead working on tasks that could easily be handled by someone else. Usually it’s because he has not learned to properly delegate and let go of tasks that are not the best use of his time.

This inability to delegate is often one of the reasons the company has ended up in trouble in the first place. The CEO did not know how to let go of tasks or was micromanaging those that he had delegated.

All CEOs and business owners have to learn the art of delegation. That involves giving clear instruction on what needs to be done and when the deadline is. Another key is making sure you delegate the task to the right person.

The CEO needs to see himself as the catalyst to get the job done. He also needs to have the skills to communicate, negotiate and delegate.

Sales Were Up, Profits Were Down: What Happened?

In my last blog, “Big Sales Don’t Mean Big Profits,” I told the story of two companies I worked with that had increasing sales but declining profits. They both had problems with their product mix.

It was too late for one company — the owners didn’t want to make the investment needed to keep it running after we identified the problem so they closed it down after 30 years.

We were able to save the other company, although it shrunk from a $600 million company to a $350 million company.

What could both of these companies have done differently? What could have kept them out of this situation, which caused one of them to go out of business completely and the other to shrink to almost half its size?

Although the circumstances related to the issues with their product mixes were very different, the root cause of the problem in both cases was the same: a lack of communication.

Company A, which was a $2 million company that manufactured and distributed products, ran into trouble when their lower-profit sales to big box stores increased, pushing their margins down until they were no longer profitable. The operations and sales manager knew that the percentage of the lower profit sales to the big box companies was increasing — it went from 20% to 80% — yet no one discussed it.

The chief financial officer must have recognized the situation because the profitability of the company was severely impacted, but also didn’t raise the issue. Because no one talked about it, no one attempted to fix it. As Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge. So the situation just got worse.

With Company B, whose management assured me they did not have a problem with their product mix, we found that even though the company had spent millions on computer systems to make sure they knew exactly what their costs were, there was still a breakdown in the system.

We found that there had been a lot of turnover in one of the key positions responsible for the accuracy of the data going into the computer systems. The new people taking over were not being properly trained. So the company had been selling products based on inaccurate cost structures. Again, there was a failure in communication.

In this case, I was reminded of a quote by George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Communication is one of the keys to the success of any business. In my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes” I discuss the value of honest and open communication. In the case of Company A, the management of the company should have noticed the drastic change that was taking place in their product mix and discussed the situation. Together they could have determined what the effect on the business would be and taken steps to deal with the inevitable decline in profits.

As for Company B, it had a breakdown in the quality of training new staff. The duties of people in a key position were not being adequately communicated so the job was not being performed as it should have been.

Good communication at all levels of an organization can alert you to ways to improve your company while also providing early warning signs if things are starting to go wrong. Open communication will not only help steer your company through hard times, it can prevent them from occurring in the first place.

8 Tips for the Entrepreneur in Us All

Who said running your own business or managing your own team would be easy? Most people I interact with, whether CEOs or managers, function in at least one role as an entrepreneur.

I compiled the top actions to which they credit their success, so that I can share them with you. You’ll notice that they are all actions because moving forward is the most important element of running a successful operation.

1. Take smart risks

Don’t be reckless, but you must make bold moves sometimes. Caution is important, but beware of too much circumspection. Any growing business will require risks on its path forward – make sure you choose the risks with the most potential for reward to cost ratio.

2. Hire wisely and accept that you won’t be able to do everything yourself

One of the biggest challenges leaders face is letting go of certain tasks they should no longer be doing. But tying your time up with things that others could do will only hold you back. Learn to delegate, choose the right people for the right positions and make it your personal challenge to train them well at the tasks you pass along.

3. Spend money on healthy business growth

Penny pinching seems to be a wide-spread attitude as well as a reality in the years since The Great Recession. It’s an admirable change in many ways, and I encourage you to be cautious financially and eliminate unnecessary costs. However, don’t be afraid of spending money on development. It takes money to make money – trite but true.

4. Learn from mistakes and don’t let them devastate you 

Mistakes are a part of life and business, and you will inevitably make them. What matters is less the mistake and more that you learn from it. In addition, you have to learn to move on from your mistakes. Dwelling on the mistake will not make you a better businessman – dwelling on the lesson will.

5. Make ambitious goals

Some days you may want to conquer the market in your field, while other days you may feel burdened just maintaining the status quo. Set ambitious goals, share them with your team and use them to motivate yourself and to hold yourself accountable. You started a business to grow it – not to maintain it. Ambition does not mean outrageous. Make them possible, but make them ambitious.

6. Don’t box yourself (or others) into one role

When people find something they are good at (especially if others notice it and praise them for it) they tend to keep returning to the same activity. This is great for becoming a specialist in one specific area, but being an entrepreneur and business leader means doing much more than specializing. By the same token, let people try new things and experiment with new roles – you never know what hidden talents you’ll uncover.

7. Challenge your business model and operational plan routinely 

Can you name a single business that was successful throughout the centuries without changing the way it operated? I can’t. Look at your business plan and the way you operate – find one thing that exposes you to a lot of risk and find one thing that may leave you behind if you don’t change it now. Brainstorm ways to improve these areas and see if any of the improvements are viable. Consider potential mistakes that could take a huge toll or technological advances of which you have not yet taken advantage.

8. Don’t be greedy

When business leaders taste the sweetness of success, they want more and more and more. This natural ambition is a fantastic catalyst for growth, so don’t lose it! But you must ask yourself if the actions you are taking now may only benefit you in the short term while proving detrimental in the long term. Don’t let the desire for instant gratification and visible success cloud your judgement.

What are some points you would add to these tips to help your fellow entrepreneurs run an even more successful business?

Would You Trade Long Work Hours for Increased Efficiency and Creativity?

This is not a trick question.

In the U.S., we know that hard work pays off. The more we work, the more successful we will become, or so we believe. Our culture encourages us to work more and rest less. As a business leader, you are used to working even harder than many of the people around you; heavy lays the crown and so forth. You go a hundred miles an hour at work, you give direction, you motivate and inspire others around you. When people ask you how you are, the answer generally includes “busy.” It rarely seems appropriate that you take a break.

But you must. Some of the most successful CEOs in the world are those who work normal hours and take time for pleasure and leisure.

Take time for yourself to stare into space. Read a newspaper or magazine. Take your wife or husband to dinner and a movie. Go for a walk. If you can, drive somewhere for a weekend getaway.

There is one rule, though. You should refrain from checking your Blackberry or iPhone for e-mails or take a business call “just for a minute.” If you must check these devices, try to set a specific time when you will do so, and impose a time limit on how long you can engage with your device. Try to take the break seriously, and you will reap the benefits.

Not only will your relationship benefit (who likes to be left at a dinner table for a business call?), but so will your efficiency level and creativity. You may not realize it, but a lot of the work you do is incredibly imaginative work. I am not talking about ad designs or billboard development. Management, business strategy development and finance all require a lot of creativity – especially when it comes to finding solutions to complex challenges.

Grant yourself a break and you will gain it back in no time through increased efficiency, focus and creativity.

Though any break is better than no break at all, I would prefer that you make relaxation a routine activity. Put it on your calendar and make it non-negotiable to the extent that you can. Most of us tend to compromise personal time before compromising any other activity. This is understandable, but know that your long-term health requires you to live a successful and balanced life.

How do you add balance to your work life?

Politics Sinks Companies, But It Doesn’t Have to Sink Yours

All organizations have politics. If there’s more than one person involved – or one person with split personalities – you will have politics. Whether a 50,000-person enterprise, a non-profit, a school, a small business or a club, there will be politics.

The question is: How do you minimize politics?

Remember that everyone has an agenda. Even keeping one’s head down and doing a job for the paycheck is an agenda. As you can imagine, so is sucking up to your boss for a promotion. But those are ordinary personal-level agendas. If this is the culture of the company the aggregate of these individual low level politics could be crippling, but these are not the politics that concern me.

I’m concerned about the kind of senior-level destructive politics that slows down the operations of a company. At this senior level key decisions are made, so when people jockey for their political interests, they are making – or more likely breaking – their companies.

At one large company I turned around, there were some old directors who wanted to continue in the manufacturing business, while other directors preferred to morph into a licensing company. As a result, valuable time was lost, resulting in a 6-month delay – and a ton of monetary losses – before the company pulled together on the project that would save them.

Now, a disagreement amongst board members is a healthy way of fleshing out the best ideas – and a normal process – but problems arise when a board member or senior manager tries to undermine the process of normal negotiations and discussions within the board by currying the favor of senior management or board members who skew assumptions and therefore strategies towards their desired outcome.

I’ve seen numerous companies fail for these reasons.

As a board member, manager or director, it’s your job to minimize the politics around you – and to recognize when you’re a culprit in creating those politics.

I don’t know that you can stop politics, but you can mitigate it. If you, as a manager, see politics going on, you need to nip it in the bud by speaking directly to people about their actions and emphasizing that by working as a team, you are all working towards the same goal: the success of your company.

The bigger a company becomes, the more layers of management are created and the more political the team gets – and the less “team” things become. No matter how big your company gets, try to keep your business from being too political. Life is too short for politics.

When internal politics heavily influences people’s behaviors, leaders don’t get the right answers quickly enough. When a business is in trouble, this results in a slower turnaround; even when a company is healthy, internal politics creates unnecessary barriers to honest communication and collaboration.

What kinds of politics does your company face? How do you handle them?

5 Big Blunders CEO’s Make That Lead to Crises

My last white paper was about the faux pas of CEOs in crisis, but in writing that paper I started thinking about some of the biggest mistakes CEOs, presidents and business owners make that result in crises. Since you may not be facing a crisis right now – and I hope you never are – I wanted to share these blunders with you so that you could either avoid them or start rectifying them.

1. Growing a Business Without Proper Equity or the Right Financial Structure

It’s never wise to try to grow your business without enough money. I once carved an injected molding company in Toledo, OH like a Thanksgiving turkey because the president sunk $2.5 million into his pet project: making the perfect bottle-cap. He effectively leveraged the entire company by borrowing against it to pursue this dream. Not only did he bet the ranch, but he tried to grow and evolve his business without sufficient funding to keep it running. Let that be the first lesson: make sure you have enough capital before making any big moves.

2. Growing a Business Without a Sufficient or Competent Management Team

The corollary to having enough capital to grow your business is having the right management team to do so as well. I’ve run Ocean Pacific twice. The first time was because they were expanding overseas without the proper personnel who understood sourcing and distribution in international markets. Though they lost a ton of money before we arrived, we were able to scale back to domestic manufacturing and refocus the company on design and licensing.

Many years later we were brought back in for a similar reason. Not only had the company lost control of its brand, entered into poor licensing arrangements and become embroiled in trademark issues, but they had accumulated a ton of debt. Once again, the management team couldn’t handle its responsibilities. The company was restructured through bankruptcy, selling its licenses to a private equity firm. Learn from Ocean Pacific and don’t embark on new strategies for growth without acquiring the right management team first.

3. They Allow Idiot Family Members to Run Key Divisions of the Business

Putting family members in key positions of your business can be dangerous without written expectations and a timeline for control, advancement and responsibilities. It takes a unique father and CEO to balance the intersection of a family and a business. Problems arise in many places, but particularly as it comes to entitlements, compensation and selling the business.

I had a mechanical engineering company in New York that was in the middle of a restructure that included a large union shop. The father had died and put his wife in charge as CEO. The son, resentful of his diminutive role due to a lack of delineated expectations and a board-approved succession plan, and, in his eyes, inadequate compensation, was stealing a lot of money. When we confronted good ol’ Charlie, he took a kitchen knife to his mother. Fortunately, she lived, got a restraining order, and kicked him out of the company.

Mixing business and family is not easy. Be careful and have the sense to know when someone is incapable of doing the job he feels entitled to do, family or not. Always manage expectations by putting everything in writing.

4. They Skew the Facts to Boards, Creditors and Constituents to “Sell the Deal”

As I’ve discussed before, honesty really is the best policy. The CEO of a hard drive manufacturer in California desperately wanted a line of credit from his bank for $60 million, so he stuffed the channel in order to make his company appear worthy.

Stuffing the channel is when a manufacturer oversells product to put sales on the books, despite knowing that much of the merchandise will come back unsold; this inflates the books by overstating the top line, thereby improving the bottom line. This strategy led to the loan, but when the company repurchased the inventory on the channel within 60 days, it became out of compliance on the line of credit. Once the bank defaulted the company I was brought in to salvage what I could and to hopefully restructure the company. The company survived thanks to some hedge fund loans, but the CEO lost his job because he skewed the facts.

Not bending the facts is so important that it deserves a second story. Before the technology was so ubiquitous, lazer-tag equipment had a very high value, and a Texas-based company seeking a large loan claimed it had more inventory on its books than it did; the company added the inventory in its Ireland-based location to the US books. The US auditors never verified the inventory and granted the company a far larger loan than it could handle. When the company filed for Chapter 11, I was brought in as CEO; within weeks of my new position I discovered we were $75 million short in inventory. I immediately went to the judge to convert the case to a Chapter 7 rather than try to bring the company through the bankruptcy and be embarrassed by the fraud. The creditors ultimately sued the accounting firm and made millions of dollars from faulty accounting, once again highlighting the blunder of skewing facts.

5. The President/CEO/Owner Can’t Keep It in His Pants

I have more examples for this one than any other lesson I know, but I’ll highlight this case with two basic stories to indicate how easy it is to get caught and how ruinous it always is. The president of an apparel manufacturer had other interests: he wanted to design the perfect yacht. He certainly succeeded in making a great one, such that he ended up in a prestigious yachting magazine. However, when he and his innovative yacht were photographed for the cover shoot, he failed to ask his girlfriend to get off the yacht or at least cover up her delightfully revealing bikini. When his wife saw the cover of the magazine, she filed for divorce and he lost control of the company.

In another case I was brought in to resolve as president, the CEO and Chairman of the Board of a retail establishment was caught with his kids’ babysitter while his company was going through a Chapter 11 restructuring. Once the matter became public, he lost focus on the business and the employees and the creditors lost faith in him. Ultimately, the business was sold off in pieces.

Gentlemen: keep it in your pants. Not doing so can be very expensive. For the record, I have similar stories about the other gender, but I’ll save them for another time.