You Can’t Counter Culture

Innovation Insights
One of a series by Ken Tencer, Spyder Works CEO


Have we seen the death of the Twinkie? If urban legend is correct, they can survive just about anything … except, maybe, a change in consumer culture.

Hostess Brands built its success around the development of sweet, indulgent snack foods, from its original chocolate cupcakes to the cream-filled shortcake Twinkie. James Dewar, who invented Twinkie in 1930, called them “the cream puff of the proletariat.” But something has changed. The proletariat began to realize that they wanted to live longer, healthier lives… fighting the sweeping epidemic of obesity, not dying from it.

Contrast Hostess with Pepsico, whose CEO has announced her objective to generate 50% of company revenue from healthful food. Pepsico embraced the new wave of health-conscious thinking and made it a corporate crusade. They have diversified into snacks and drinks that support today’s active lifestyles, through Gatorade, Quaker, Aquafina and more.

With Hostess’s parent company filing for bankruptcy protection in January, the respective failure and success of these two companies couldn’t be more dramatic. But it hinged on one minor difference. Pepsico looked and listened and recognized that while change is all around us, one thing doesn’t change: The customers know best. Don’t ignore what they’re telling you.

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Use big ideas to get your mojo back

Originally published as a Special to Globe and Mail Update on March 21, 2012

the globe and mail canada

Mea culpa.

As a relentless cheerleader for innovation, I have harped on its importance as a stimulus for competitive advantage and organic growth. What I may have forgotten to tell business owners is that innovation is also fun.

It’s the coconut-cream pie after dinner. It’s the trip to the toy department after buying socks and underwear.

Spending time with entrepreneurs has taught me that they share a desire to create something new. An essential strand in their DNA compels them to cause a disturbance by shaking up their marketplace and filling a void. But my sense is that some entrepreneurs tend to lose that killer instinct as their role evolves from disruptor to operator and manager. They spend more time and energy doing what they have to do rather than what they are wired to do.

Instead of guilting business owners into embracing innovation, I’m going to remind them that their instinct for discovery and disruption is the reason they became entrepreneurs in the first place. Big ideas made them happy. And big ideas can put the bounce back into their step, and the rev in their revenue statements.

It’s never a bad idea to do what you’re best at, and what you love to do.

To all the entrepreneurs chained to their desks and baffled by their own bureaucracy, my suggestion is simple: offload a bunch of operational responsibilities onto someone who loves them, and focus your passion on the next epiphany or invention that’s pinging around in your right brain.

Even if an idea doesn’t turn into a full-fledged profit centre, the discovery process will energize you and infect the people around you. Once you reassert yourself as your company’s chief innovation officer, you’ll inspire your team to start thinking about possibilities, rather than simply punching in and out.

We all know what innovative cultures can do. You’ve seen companies such as Google, Apple and Virgin thrive and grow under the leadership of original thinkers. You’ve seen upstarts such as Under Armour and Spanx shake up the stodgy underwear industry, with the leaders of both companies recently vaulting onto the latest Forbes magazine “billionaire’s list.”

Give yourself and your people permission to imagine and explore new ideas – even if they’re only process improvements. Questioning the status quo is always beneficial. By rediscovering your own eureka muscles, you can lift the spirits of your people and your business’s bottom line.

You’ll have more fun and your people will feel more invested in the company.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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The 5 Types Of Employees That Are Destroying Your Business

Elaine Pofeldt, originally published on The American Express Open Forum Blog on October 31, 2011

Innovation Insights

Some people are easy to avoid hiring because they give glaring hints that they’re unprofessional by doing things like treating your receptionist rudely or showing up an hour late to the interview.

But many experienced entrepreneurs find that there are other folks, who, while polished, can eventually undermine a company culture. Some of these folks provide subtle signs that many bosses miss during the interview process. Others may essentially be good employees, but react poorly to changing circumstances at a company.

Here are five types of employees that can undermine your company—and what you can do to stop them.

1. The entitled crowd

These employees expect the company to function in a paternalistic way, taking care of their every need. They expect constant ego boosts, 9-to-5 hand-holding and compensation that far exceeds their contributions. Sometimes, they may just be inexperienced workers who lack the maturity to realize that a promotion isn’t due to them within three weeks of starting work (or at all if they don’t earn it)—and you may be able to help them adjust their expectations. But mid level folks and above who show these tendencies could be harder to reform.

Amy L. Crawford, owner of Crawford Consulting Group, an HR advisory firm in Davie, Fla., recalls the situation of one mid-career employee she encountered. This worker expected her employer to pay her for a day when she couldn’t make it to work because of a flight delay on a personal trip.

The constant demands of entitled employees can wear you out. If you want to avoid hiring the entitled type, ask interviewees questions about how they handled past work situations where they were given little direction, says Crawford. Those whose answers suggest a lack of resourcefulness may not be able to function well in an entrepreneurial company that can’t provide them with round-the-clock support and nurturing.

2. The finger pointers

In these employees’ minds, it’s always someone else’s fault when things go awry. There are no gray areas, in which they, too, may have had partial responsibility for a problem. As a result, it will be hard for you, as a boss, to get them to get involved in preventing a snafu from happening again.

To sniff these folks out, ask prospective hires to tell you about a time when they had a conflict with another coworker and how they resolved it, advises Crawford. An interviewee who tells a story about a conflict with another employee “who always did things wrong” may be prone to blaming others.

3. The double-talkers

Simply passing a criminal background check doesn’t mean someone is honest. David Cohen, an owner of Cyril’s Bakery, a supplier of frozen bakery products to the food service and retail industries, recalls an employee who went to such lengths to cover up mistakes that he constantly told “lies on top of lies”–creating endless confusion and stress.

One way to spot folks who are less than forthright is to speak directly with an interviewee’s past bosses, rather than a hand-picked list of references, to confirm that the information on their resumes has not been distorted, says Crawford, who has advised Cyril’s Bakery. Another strategy: During job interviews, ask several questions about how applicants have handled or would handle particular situations likely to come up in your business—and pay attention to whether they answer in an inconsistent way.

Some companies find it helpful to use personality tests such as the ProfileXT assessment or the DiSC Personality Test to get a better picture of interviewees, Crawford says.

4. The change resisters

If normally supportive employees are resisting innovation at your company or seem to be privately convening behind closed doors to gripe, it may indicate that they are worried about what’s ahead. You may need to improve the flow of communication with them to put to rest any fears they have about what a change means for them in order to put the behavior to rest.

“There’s a fear factor whenever we try something new, whenever there’s change in a company and change in a position,” says entrepreneur Ken Tencer, co-author of The 90% Rule and CEO of Spyderworks, a branding and innovation firm in Toronto and New York. “Oftentimes, owners can overlook that.”

You can help your team get back on track by talking openly with employees and providing any training they need to adapt to the changes taking place, he says.

Tencer adds, “As entrepreneurs, we take a lot of risk and have our own fear factors.” It’s essential to realize that your employees may have similar ones when encountering new situations, he says.

5. The boss who can’t let go

You probably don’t want to hear that you may be your company’s own worst enemy. But if your company has grown rapidly, you may lack the skills you need to run it now. If your investors are signaling that you need to step into a different role and bring in an experienced CEO to run the place, listen carefully to what they’re saying.

“I think that’s pretty hard,” says Tencer. Your investors may not be right, but if it turns out they are—and you continue to hang on to your role—you may prevent yourself from harvesting the full value of your business when it’s time to cash out.

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist specializing in entrepreneurship whose work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, BNET, Crain’s New York Business, CBS Moneywatch, Good Housekeeping, Inc., Working Mother and many other publications. A former senior editor of Fortune Small Business magazine and editor of its website, she does editorial consulting for online and print publications.

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