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Leadership in a Crisis

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, March 11, 2020

the true test of your leadership skill is how you react in a crisis situation. and UNFORTUNATELY there WILL be no shortage of crises now or in the future.

 

We all remember where we were the morning of 9-11. I was in a meeting at our Avon, Massachusetts offices discussing a possible stock transaction with some investment bankers. As the unprecedented sequence of events unfolded, everyone including me was in a state of shock wondering what was really going on and what to do about it. At a moment like that, it's easy to get caught up in your own thoughts and forget about the critical role leaders play in crisis situations. And that's what happened to me. Our employees were looking for me, as the president of the company, to take control of the situation and acknowledge and address their fears about their own safety as well as the safety of their families. Regrettably I was unaware of this until later in the day and failed to quickly play the role I should I have played. It was an important lesson.

 

Whether it's an external crisis like the current spread of the coronavirus or an internal crisis like the loss of a major customer, the way a leader reacts can often determine the severity of any negative impact. And it also can determine how that leader will be perceived in the future. A crisis can raise a leader to greatness like Bob Iger at Disney or Mary Barra at General Motors. Or it can doom them to ignominy like Ken Lay at Enron or Jeff Immelt at GE. Here are some things about crisis leadership that I've learned over the years: 

 

Recognize Your Responsibility

Even if your management style is to hire great people and get out of their way, when things go wrong, it's the leader's job to take control. A crisis requires a rapid, big picture, coordinated response that only someone at the top can manage. You can delegate tasks but not overall direction. 

 

Get the Facts

Before you act, find out what's really going on. Understand both the situation and how your employees (and possibly their families) and customers are reacting to it. Listen to as many people as you can. You're going to have to deal with both the problem itself and possible fears and misconceptions. And it's important you are viewed as clearly up to speed and in control. 

 

Remain Positive and Confident

It's human nature that everyone watches the leader's behavior to determine how bad the situation is. In a crisis situation, the power of your every word and action is greatly amplified. You need to be the voice of calm and reason--even if you have to fake it. 

 

Manage Expectations with Honesty

But you've got to be straight with people when it comes to the facts. The quickest way to lose their trust is to say that things are better than they really are or provide incorrect information. 

 

Be Tolerant of Mistakes

In the chaos and confusion of a crisis, mistakes are inevitable--both for you and others in the organization. The worst thing a leader can do is create an atmosphere where people are afraid to make decisions or take action because of fear of repercussions. At times like this, your staff needs your full support.

 

Maintain a Long-Term View

When things are chaotic and the news is discouraging, the best medicine is reminding yourself and your employees of your mission and vision of the future--over and over again. Resume the discipline of evolutionary progress towards your corporate goals as quickly as you can. Setbacks usually seem worse than they really are and it's comforting to visualize how things will be once the crisis passes. 

 

Leverage the Opportunity to Improve

Crises have a way of exposing flaws—in processes, infrastructure, finances, culture, and people skills. This can be a good thing if you as a leader take advantage of the opportunity to make your organization stronger going forward. There are dramatic changes you would never dare make under normal conditions that would be accepted by everyone as necessary to prevent future crises from occurring. 

 

Next Steps

Airplane pilots carry a manual with a section of emergency procedures and checklists. To the extent you can, try to anticipate the kinds of disruptive things that can happen to your business and create at least rough action plans and checklists that can be implemented in different circumstances. In the initial fog of a crisis, this can help you react more quickly and appropriately. 

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding achieving your business and life goals or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time session with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Adler at radler@jpma.org.

 

Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company.

 


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Falling in Love Too Soon

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, January 8, 2020
WITH VALENTINE'S DAY APPROACHING, IT'S ONLY NATURAL TO TURN ONE'S ATTENTION TO AFFAIRS OF THE HEART. wHY IS THIS A TOPIC FOR A BUSINESS MANAGEMENT BLOG POST? BECAUSE YOUR EMOTIONS COULD BE UNDERMINING YOUR CHANCES FOR FINANCIAL SUCCESS. 

 

Coming up with a great idea for a new business or new product is an exhilarating experience. It's not unlike romantic love - captivating, exciting, and very pleasurable. Unfortunately, just like love it can blind you to reality. You can be so carried away by the emotional aspects of the experience that you may not only lose the ability to be objective but may even purposely avoid exposing yourself to the truth. When you're in love, the last thing you want is to expose yourself to anything that could burst your bubble. 

 

This phenomenon may be fine and even beneficial in personal relationships, but it can be a disaster in business. Anyone who has created a successful company or new product can tell you that thoroughness and objectivity are critical throughout the process. Generating new ideas is fun, positive, and free-wheeling. But, assessing those ideas needs to be serious, critical, and disciplined. You literally can't afford to fall in love with your idea. Excited and optimistic, yes. In love, no.   

 

Startup Blindness

I see this phenomenon a lot with the entrepreneurship students I mentor at Florida Gulf Coast University. Having never actually run a business, they don't yet realize how fierce competition in the real world can be. When they come up with a plausible business idea, the last thing they want to hear about are the potential flaws in their concept. They even avoid searching for competitors lest they discover some company that's already doing what they had in mind. Surprisingly, this is not just a problem for students. Even experienced business managers fall into this trap.  I see it with some of my consulting clients and it's happened to me in my career. At times, I was so convinced a new product would be successful that I ignored the danger signs.

 

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

The cure is cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset. Successful creativity is not about just coming up with a brilliant idea and hoping that your first shot out of the box will work. In fact, Thomas Edison once commented, "I was always afraid of things that worked the first time." Entrepreneurs and innovators know that almost nothing really new works the first time you try it. What's needed is the patience to follow an iterative process of systematically coming up with many viable ideas and then subjecting them to rigorous critical analysis to narrow the choices down to the most promising options. And that's when the real testing of simulations or prototypes with customers begin. 

 

Not the Only One - Just a Better One

Whether it's a new product or a totally new business venture, you don't have to be totally unique to be successful. So, don't be afraid to search for and study every past and current, direct and indirect competitor you can uncover. If someone's tried something similar in the past and failed, find out why. If a certain competitor's business model or product feature is adored by customers, you may have to consider including something similar. Where you can find competitive weaknesses, exploit them. Google didn't invent search and Apple didn't invent the mobile phone. They just built upon their predecessors' accomplishments and raised the bar. 

 

Next Steps

Take a look at your current new business or new product development activities. Are there any instances where you're being guided too much by emotion? Do you find yourself irritated by or avoiding criticism of the idea? If so, you might want to modify your mindset to welcome and even seek out the critical analysis that can lead to better results. 

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding achieving your business and life goals or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time session with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Adler at radler@jpma.org.

 

Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company.

 

 

 

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Business "No-How"

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, October 25, 2019

 

While all leaders want to be positive, supportive, and proactive, there are times when the right thing to do is say no. Knowing when and how to say no to an opportunity or request is a critical leadership skill and a key to business success. But it’s often surprisingly difficult to do.

 

If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m a big advocate of positive thinking, continuous improvement, prudent risk-taking, and customer service. But when I reflect on my own career, there were times when saying no to customers, employees, or other stakeholders was the right although more painful thing to do. The problem is that it’s typically much easier to say yes and make someone happy than say no and have to deal with the negative fallout.

 

The best method I know of to make decision-making easier is to put the time and effort in up front to create both a clear “vision” for your business (exactly what you want it to look like in 5 or 10 years) and a clear “mission” (the means by which you’re going to achieve your vision). Then as each opportunity or decision comes along, you can ask yourself whether saying yes gets you closer to your vision. And, if so, does it do it in a way that is in sync with your mission. If you’ve ever wondered what visions and missions are for, this is it.

 

Of course, like all life and business advice, it’s great in theory but not always easy to follow. To illustrate the difficulty, I’ll tell you about a couple of instances in my own career where I fell off the wagon.

The First Years Vision and Mission

From the brand’s creation in 1972, we had a vision of becoming a leading juvenile product brand respected for helping parents make the first 3 years of life happier, healthier, and easier for themselves and their children. The mission that we felt would be the means to that end was to provide parents with “superior value from superior in-use performance.” In other words, we would attract customers via functional superiority—offering products provably superior to competition in doing what parents and their babies needed them to do. In fact, we did that quite successfully for many years by virtue of excellent designers and engineers, an outstanding product development process, our Parents’ Council, and input from child development experts. But then . . . .

Unbearable Temptation

In the mid 90’s, what was dangled in front of us was an opportunity that just seemed too good to pass up. Because of our reputation for product quality and child development expertise, Disney offered us exclusive rights to the red-hot Winnie-the-Pooh license for virtually our entire product line. Exciting and flattering as it was, it was clearly a departure from our mission. The appeal of a license is all about the graphics, not product performance. While I had some reservations, the enthusiasm of our marketing team and my own vanity persuaded me to go for it.

 

It was absolutely fantastic for a few years. Driven largely by licensed product sales, our overall sales and profits skyrocketed. However, as a consequence, we became more and more reliant on and beholden to Disney while taking away resources from building our core product line. It also made it less clear internally and probably to our customers what our company and brand stood for. As usually happens with hot licenses, gradually the bloom came off the rose culminating in a sudden precipitous decline in Pooh product sales. This could have been financially disastrous had we not seen it coming. I also always wonder what we could have done with The First Years brand had we devoted our full resources and attention to it rather than being distracted.

“Starck” Reality

Another time “no” was probably the right answer was when one of our biggest customers, Target, asked us to produce for them a line of private label products designed by renowned designer Philippe Starck. Again, this was clearly a departure from the substance of our mission. It couldn’t have been further from our strategy of building our own brand and relying on our own design expertise and product superiority to win the day. Understandably, our Target sales people desperately wanted to do it. Their rationale was that it would solidify our relationship with a very important account. I took the easy way out and agreed rather than risking alienating a large customer and disappointing my own sales force. 

 

To put it mildly, it was a disaster. While Mr. Starck was and I’m sure still is an excellent and successful designer of many things, I think it’s fair to say that infant products were not his forte. The products just plain didn’t sell and the whole program was discontinued within a couple of months. We lost money and I’m not even sure it improved our relationship with Target. In retrospect I could have and should have explained to Target up front that this type of product development was not our strength. They probably would have respected us more if I had.

Next Steps

You can clearly see from my examples that you need a clear vision and mission for your company and should resist the temptation to drift away from it. You can’t be all things to all customers. Every time you say yes to something, you’re taking resources away that could be applied to something else. Let your vision and mission be the guides to what to do and not do. 

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding achieving your business and life goals or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time session with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at  rfeldman@jpma.org.

 

 Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company.

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The Forgotten Skill

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, September 11, 2019

it seems like more than ever people all over the world are struggling to resolve differences of opinion. Yet, there's a simple but powerful skill set that can often produce almost magical results - the lost art of negotiation. 

 

Different people always have and always will see things differently. Whether because of variations in genealogy, life experience, religion, values, income level, geography, or simply mindset, we all interpret facts and situations in our own unique ways. But we have a choice as to how to deal with this reality. We can go down the fruitless path of trying to bludgeon those we disagree with into submission, complain about others and do nothing, or learn how to maximize cooperation in a diverse world through negotiation.

 

Applications for Negotiation

Negotiation might be the most versatile and useful interpersonal skill you can have in your tool kit. Here are just a few common personal and business applications:

·        Buying a house, car, etc.

·        Resolving a dispute with someone from whom you’ve purchased something

·        Resolving a marital disagreement

·        Dealing with your children

·        Making a sale to a customer

·        Managing a consumer complaint

·        Selling your company or buying someone else’s

·        Dealing with difficult employees

The list is really endless. Essentially any time you don’t see eye to eye with someone or wish to persuade someone to do something they are not doing, negotiation could be your best option.

 

Key Negotiation Principles

Like every other topic I address in my posts, I can’t begin to cover all the bases on such a broad and complex subject in a few pages. However, I can offer a few suggestions to hopefully act as a top-level guide and stimulate your thinking. Getting what you want through negotiation is never guaranteed. But here are some things you can do to improve your odds.

1.     Understand your desired outcome and alternatives
Quite often people undermine their chances of success by plunging in half-cocked. Before you act, make sure you are clear up front about (a) what exactly the issue is, (b) what outcome you are seeking, (c) what your options are if you can’t negotiate an agreement, and (d) what the other side’s options are if they can’t reach an agreement with you. Points ‘c’ and ‘d’ should not be overlooked. You may need some leverage to encourage someone to be cooperative and you don’t want to be blind-sided by what the other side might do.   
 

2.     Maintain a line of communication
It should come as no surprise that you need to communicate with someone if you want to negotiate with them. Becoming emotional yourself or riling up the other side is a great way to sabotage your effort from the start by cutting off communication. You can and should be empathetic and civil with someone even if you disagree with them.

3.     Truly understand the other side’s perspective
We too quickly jump to the conclusion that those with differing opinions are just wrong or, even worse, stupid. Once you’ve established or secured a communication link, the next step is to thoroughly understand exactly what the other side’s perspective is. Do this by direct discussion with lots of open-ended questions (e.g. “Why is that important to you?”). If something doesn’t make sense to you, it’s typically not that the other side is irrational, it’s that you don’t understand them yet. Keep probing. And, be willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of aspects of their position that are valid. Setting a tone of objectivity is very important.

 

4.     Help them understand your perspective
Once you know where the other side is coming from, make sure you lay out in an easy to understand way how you’re looking at the situation. Be patient. Their own blind spots may make it difficult for them to understand your point of view. Stick to provable facts. Use 3rd party objective data or standards if appropriate. And, be open to modifying your view if facts presented justify it. Again, maintain an objective tone.

5.     Jointly seek a win-win resolution
Despite what some people seem to think, long-term positive results don’t come from win-lose outcomes. Better to position the situation as both sides working together to reach a mutually acceptable result. Keep lists of each side’s issues in the forefront and conduct joint brainstorming to generate possible routes to a settlement. Quite often, when people take the time to really understand each other’s wants and needs, they find previously invisible points of agreement and “concessions” acceptable to both sides. And, the fact that you reach a solution together is just as important as the solution itself.

6.      If necessary, ramp things up
Hopefully, you’re able to reach an agreement without going any further. If not, remember I mentioned earlier that you need up front to have a sense of what you can do if unable to reach a negotiated settlement. If you’re still at a stalemate, now’s the time to calmly and respectfully indicate the next steps you need to take and why. Just the prospect of what you plan to do next may be enough to push things over the line. If not, you may have to actually take action before the other side recognizes they would be better off agreeing to terms.

 

Negotiation isn’t a cure-all. Some differences of opinion simply can’t be resolved. But because it respects the fundamental principles of human nature, it’s a methodology that, in my experience, often produces miraculous results. Why not give this technique a try!

 

Next Steps

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding achieving your business and life goals or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time session with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at  rfeldman@jpma.org.

 

Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a  business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company.

 

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A Wakeup Call!

Posted By Ron Sidman, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

THERE IS ONE COMPONENT OF YOUR LIFE UPON WHICH ALL THE OTHERS, INCLUDING YOUR BUSINESS OR CAREER, DEPEND. IF IT'S NOT PROPERLY MAINTAINED, EVERYTHING IMPORTANT TO YOU IS IN JEOPARDY. YET MOST OF US PAY LITTLE IF ANY ATTENTION TO IT UNTIL SOMETHING GOES WRONG.

 

Of course, I'm talking about your physical and emotional health. In my mentoring of CEOs and young adults, I now emphasize that you have to look at your life holistically. You can't effectively make business or career decisions without also addressing your vision for family & friends, financial condition, where you’d like to live, and recreation. But most importantly you need to pay attention to your health.

 

The importance of a healthy lifestyle was underscored for me a couple of years ago when I got a call from my new doctor in Florida. “Hi Ron. We got the results back from your cardiac heart scan. As I told you, I do this test on all my new patients. Well, if there was no plaque in the arteries of your heart, your score would be zero. Yours was 500!” He went on to explain the frightening implications. “That means you have a very high risk of having a heart attack or stroke over the next 5 to 10 years.” 

 

It’s impossible to determine how much of that unhealthy arterial crud was due to heredity or a diet that for most of my life was dominated by generous portions of prime rib, Caesar salad, veal parmesan, Chinese food, and pepperoni pizza. That’s not exactly a regimen consistent with the healthy eating pyramid and it undoubtedly didn’t help my cause.

 

While I had always exercised fairly regularly, until I sold my company, I never really confronted the fact that my diet and other aspects of my lifestyle might come back to haunt me at some point. Nor did it help that my previous doctor didn’t realize that because of my family history of heart disease, putting me on a statin drug years ago might have been a good idea.

 

As each new medical study is published, it becomes more and more clear how what we ingest, what we breathe, how and how often we move our bodies, how we think, and the medical care we receive impacts the quality and length of our lives. Fortunately, for the most part, these are all things we can control! Yet it often takes a negative medical test or, even worse, a heart attack or serious illness to get us to do what we should know we should do. 

 

With my wakeup call as the impetus, for the past few years I’ve been making an annual pilgrimage to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to participate in both their Executive Health and Healthy Living programs. The former is an extensive physical examination and the latter a fitness assessment and educational experience. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned on my annual “medical vacations” that you might find helpful too:

 

It’s Never Too Late to Make Up for Past Sins

You can’t always undue damage to your body that has been done. But you can most likely prevent further damage and counter-balance potential negative impacts. For example, diet and exercise changes can have profound positive benefits even if initiated at an older age. Learning how to relax through meditation or other forms of mindfulness can help you prevent or turn around stress-induced illnesses.

You’ve Got to be Your Own Health Advocate

The harsh reality is that no one really cares as much about your health as you do. Even the Mayo Clinic where they truly believe “the patient comes first” is after all a business that is servicing thousands of patients and is motivated to some degree by finances. So is your family doctor. No medical professional will lose sleep if you don’t do everything you can to live a long and healthy life. Doctors today struggle to even have the time to give patients the basic attention they deserve. And not all doctors are competent or knowledgeable. It’s totally up to you to seek the best physicians, ask the right questions, insist on proper care, and distinguish between fact and fiction.

Really Know What You’re Putting in Your Stomach

We all know that what we eat is important for good health. But it’s the hidden ingredients in foods that can hurt you. My blood pressure is a bit too high. Too much salt increases blood pressure. A Mayo nutritionist pointed out to me that while I never apply salt to my food, I was consuming much too much salt because of all the prepared foods and sauces I was eating. Read the labels! You’ll be shocked.

It’s About All-Day Movement, Not Just “Exercise”

You should certainly schedule dedicated physical fitness sessions multiple times a week. But if you sit on your duff all day in-between, you’re still doing your body significant harm. There’s even a name for activity that should be occurring outside of formal exercise times—"Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis” or NEAT. It includes things like walking, gardening, walking up stairs, doing the dishes, even just standing up if you sit a lot. Turns out your NEAT is just as important as aerobics and resistance training.

Get to Know Your Pharmacist

If you’re taking any medications or supplements regularly, how and when you take what you take makes an enormous difference—time of day, full or empty stomach, chewable or non-chewable, interactions between them, etc. It’s quite likely your doctor is not as up to date on the latest studies as a pharmacist is. That’s why the Mayo program includes a consultation with a pharmacist. It’s a healthful thing to do.

Next Steps

If health issues can jeopardize every one of your hopes and dreams, it certainly pays to be just as proactive about your health as you would about your business:
 

1.      Conduct a Situation Analysis Annually--With the help of medical professionals, thoroughly assess the state of your health. I highly recommend the Mayo Clinic or another respected medical institution with similar proactive, holistic, preventive medical care programs.

2.      Create a Vision & Goals--Create a long-term (e.g. 10 year) Vision of where you’d like your physical and emotional condition to be. Then establish 3-year, 1-year, and next quarter goals that will enable adequate progress towards that Vision. Make sure every goal has measurable success criteria.

3.      Create an Action Plan—Document the steps you will take to achieve your next quarter goals. Undoubtedly it will include blocking out in your calendar enough time each week to do the health-related activities that are essential. 

4.      Implement Your Plan—Start today pursuing your goals and monitor and react as needed.

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding achieving your business or life goals or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at  rfeldman@jpma.org.

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Does AI Have a Place in Your Company?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, April 8, 2019

 

Few technological innovations have been hyped as much or created as much concern as artificial intelligence. In reality, it is simply the next generation of information processing. And the only thing you should fear are the implications of NOT utilizing it to increase your business’s competitive advantage.

 

You’re undoubtedly already familiar with the need for you and your company to evolve as the world around you changes and as technology advances. Even so, your first reaction to artificial intelligence may be that it’s only relevant for huge or high-tech corporations. Not so. Just as the advent of computer automation revolutionized the way business is done in companies of all types and sizes, AI will inevitably have the same effect.

 

The reason is that there are business functions that machines can perform far better, faster, and more accurately than humans. If you don’t take advantage of this fact, you can be sure your competitors will. The difference between the automation your familiar with and AI is that AI actually mimics human behavior. Rather than just performing routine tasks, AI technology can learn from experience, react appropriately to sensed changes in the environment, make decisions, and predict the future.

 

But before you ponder the end of the human race as we know it, I can assure you that there are also things humans can and most probably always will be able to do better than machines. The promise of AI comes from letting machines do what they can do best thereby freeing up humans to do what only they can do. This not only could make your company stronger and more efficient, it could also increase employee satisfaction by letting machines do the boring repetitive work while allowing your employees to have more satisfying and enjoyable jobs. 

 

What Exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

AI applications can be organized into three different categories of technological advancement:

·        Machine Learning (ML)

·        Natural Language Processing (NLP)

·        Robotics

Machine Learning is the use of computer programs that actually learn from experience rather than relying on rules-based programming. An example is the ability of Google Photos to search for images of people, animals, and objects. By feeding huge amounts of data into the system and letting the system know when it’s right and wrong, the program actually “learns” how to distinguish for example cats from dogs.

 

Natural Language Processing enables people to have a natural conversation with a computer. This aspect of AI has become pervasive almost overnight—Siri, Alexa, Google Home, etc. As the technology continues to improve, it will get more and more difficult to distinguish between people talking to you and machines. The savings in payroll costs are obvious.

 

Robotics refers to machines that can perform physical tasks in the real world. Unlike movie robots, they typically do not look like humans and are designed for very specific tasks. Sophisticated washing machines, driers, and dishwashers can all be thought of as robots--as can autonomous cars and self-driving fork trucks. Any device that senses what’s happening around it and performs an action based on that information is a form of robot.

 

Applications in the JP Industry

Let me give you just a few of the many possible applications in the juvenile products industry to start you thinking.

·        Parenting Chatbot
Add a chatbot to your web site that answers parenting questions, provides customer-specific product suggestions, solicits ideas for new and improved products, and triages product complaints. This can reduce customer service costs, increase customer satisfaction, and enhance your company’s reputation for parenting expertise.

·        Product Development Team Virtual Assistant
Use machine learning technology to support teams as they wrestle with the complexities of product development in the JP industry. A virtual assistant could prompt teams on the next steps in the process, review research for thoroughness, assist in regulatory reviews, forecast potential sales and return on investment, and report on project progress to senior management. This could speed time to market, increase your product development “batting average”, and reduce development costs.
 

·         New Kinds of Products and Product Enhancements
The flood of products and product features that utilize AI is well underway. AI allows a product to not only sense environmental conditions but react to them automatically. Imagine how this could be applied to strollers, car seats, floor toys, etc. Natural Language Processing offers intriguing options for child entertainment and education. Robotics could also be applied to perform some of the grunt work of parenting allowing moms and dads more time for quality parent-child interaction. The possibilities are endless.

 

Implementation Considerations

My advice to every CEO would be to learn at least the basics of artificial intelligence. I took a 6-week online MIT course but there are also many excellent videos, books, and articles readily available. Here are some other implementation tips:

·        It will be critical to position AI as a necessary enhancement of currently used technologies that are required to ensure continued growth and financial success.

·        Just like when computer automation first came along, substantial training will be required for everyone in your organization.

·        Understand and respect the ethical issues that are likely to arise such as with respect to customer information and privacy.

·        Take it step by step, proving the effectiveness of initial AI applications by monitoring results and communicating benefits.

 

Next Steps

Consider how technology and AI might fit into your 10-year vision. Then start building the interim goals and action plans into your planning and implementation cycle. Like everything else, adopting artificial intelligence will be an evolutionary process with some setbacks and learning along the way.

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding AI implementation or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at rfeldman@jpma.org.

 

   

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Taking Risks

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, December 3, 2018

If there is one regret I have when I look back on my own business career, it’s that I wish I had more aggressively pursued more of our riskier strategic alternatives.

Certainly, I made many moderate to high risk decisions when I was leading my company and most worked out very well. But as the company grew bigger, as I got older, and with the visibility and pressure of being a public company in the Sarbanes-Oxley era, I frankly became a bit more reluctant to try bold new directions. Looking back now with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I wish that were not true. I wish I had taken a gamble on some of the bolder breakthrough ideas we had at the time.

 

Who knows how they would have worked out. But the fact that I’ll never know is regrettable. In reality, most of us are naturally risk-averse for good reason. It’s a life-saving characteristic built into our DNA. As a result, too often it takes a crisis to get an organization to try a totally new approach. By then it can be too late.  

I would argue that the companies that have been and will be most successful going forward are the ones that consider prudent risk-taking to be a critical ongoing component of their culture and behavior.

 

The Challenge Today

In the years since our company was sold, being a CEO hasn’t gotten any easier. I don’t have to tell you about the increasing pace of change. And it’s absolutely impossible to predict the future. Five years ago, how many people predicted the total demise of Toys R Us/Babies R Us, a trade war with China, or the growing impact of artificial intelligence. The feeling most business leaders are experiencing today is like being strapped to the front of a speeding train not knowing what’s waiting for you around the next turn. The one strategy that clearly won’t work is to just continue to do what you’ve been doing regardless of what’s going on in the marketplace. Woolworths, Toys R Us, Sears, and many JPMA companies learned this the hard way.

 

The Need to Continually Evolve

This is where mastering risk-taking becomes important. Successful business leadership requires that you do today what will be needed to be successful in the future. So how do you prepare your company for a future you can’t predict? First, you need to think of your business not as a static entity but one that is in a continuous state of evolution. Then to evolve, you have to continually experiment with new business model components that seem like they might have promise—new product categories, new operating processes, new technologies. I’m not suggesting you recklessly plunge into the deep end. Any new bold direction can and should be validated with your customers and employees before you implement.

 

Next Steps

At the very least, make sure you perform an annual plan review that includes brainstorming possible creative new initiatives. Preferably you do this quarterly. Also make sure, as I mentioned, that you have a mechanism for testing and validating the best of the generated new ideas before plunging ahead.

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at rfeldman@jpma.org.

 

Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a  business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company. He can be contacted at ron@evolutionarysuccess.com.

   

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Who's Your Mommy?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Have you really pinpointed exactly who your target customer is? Determining specifically whom to focus on is a crucial strategic decision that should impact the design of every aspect of your business model and increase your likelihood of success.

 

I do quite a bit of consulting with entrepreneurs and I mentor college students studying entrepreneurship. One of the very first and most important steps in starting a new company is to select a specific, somewhat homogeneous segment of the total market to be the target you intend to dominate. A startup can’t begin to develop products or form channel, pricing, and marketing strategies until it does so. Yet I’ve found that established companies often have lost track of or never really clearly defined who their target customer really is. The typical result is a loss of competitive advantage. 

 

Whether or not you feel you have target customer confusion, I have some thoughts and suggestions:

Don’t Try to be All Things to All People

To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Maybe more than ever in this country, there are major differences between people’s interests, beliefs, lifestyles, parenting styles, and incomes. If you try to please everyone with your product, you may be loading it up with costly features that many customers could do without. The good news is that because there are so many market segments, there’s a better chance you can find one or more you can dominate. And domination is what you should be seeking. Better to totally satisfy and dominate a smaller market than be a me-too player in a big market. 3% of a 50-million-dollar market ($1,500,000) is not as good as 40% of a 5-million-dollar market ($2,000,000)—and probably not as profitable.

Define Your Market Segment

There are numerous attributes that can be used to define customer segments. To name a few:

·        Age

·        Income level

·        Education

·        First-time vs. second-time (or more) parent

·        Geography

·        Beliefs—religious and political

·        Parent or gift-giver

·        Lifestyle (e.g. outdoorsy, like to travel, dog owner, etc.)

You can cut it as finely as you want. For example, first-time parents over 30 with a college education who live in rural areas and like to travel by car. Just make sure the market is big enough to make pursuing it worthwhile.    

 

Leverage Your Strengths

Pick a target segment that you know well or syncs with your skills or interests. The simplest approach, and it happens a lot in the juvenile industry, is to create products for people like yourself. That certainly reduces the need for market research. If not, it’s helpful to have one or more people on your team from the target segment who can give you feedback.

Look for Unhappiness

You also should look for a market segment that is not totally satisfied with the competitive products that are currently available. There’s bound to be some definable group of customers that wants products or features that no one else is offering in your category. That’s your opportunity!

Become an Expert on Your Customer

Once you’ve defined a niche, you’ll want to become and remain the world’s leading expert on it for your product category. This is done via internet research, in-person interviews, and field observation. You’ll want to identify unsatisfied needs of course. But you also want to learn how they make their buying decisions, where they get their information, how they like to shop, and any other information that will help you design your product and let them know why it’s their best choice and how they can easily purchase it.

Start on a Beachhead

If you’re a new company or you’re introducing a new product, it’s often best to start with a relatively small “beachhead” market segment where you have the best chance of success. This will allow you to work out any bugs in the product or delivery system on a small scale without taking a huge risk up front. Once you’ve made corrections and improvements, you can then safely move on to larger adjacent market segments.

Next Steps

If you feel that you’ve defined a very specific target customer for your products, everyone in your company understands who that is, and you’re the category leader in that segment, congratulations! If not, I hope some of these suggestions will help you get there.

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at rfeldman@jpma.org.

 

Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a  business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company. He can be contacted at ron@evolutionarysuccess.com.

 

   

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Trade War Woes

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, August 6, 2018
The current trade dispute between the US and China is just another reminder that juvenile product manufacturers need to continue to be alert and nimble to cope with an ever-changing environment.

Your supply chain is the bloodstream of your company and any interruption or complication can put your business in jeopardy quickly. It’s tough enough having to deal with today’s distribution channel challenges, safety regulation, and competitive pressures. The last thing the JP industry needs is another thing to worry about. But here we are in the midst of a battle of economic titans that has injected a level of uncertainty into both cost and continuity of product supply.

 

It was different when I started in business in the seventies. Baby product importers were able to buy from multiple countries. A typical Asian buying trip for me included Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. If one country was a problem at any point in time, there were alternative sources elsewhere. But gradually labor costs in all those countries increased and China became virtually the only source for most of our labor-intensive products.

 

Meanwhile duties on most imported juvenile products have declined over the years. As JPMA’s general counsel Rick Locker pointed out in his recent JPMA webinar, countries have generally agreed that there’s a benefit to keeping tariffs on goods for children low. Currently duties for most JP products are very low or zero. But this may be about to change for products imported from China if the US goes through with its threats.

 

It’s in situations like this that the rationale for having a JPMA comes into focus. And as usual the association is responding quickly to this potential threat. If you’ve stayed up to date you know that JPMA is making industry concerns known to the appropriate government entities and is arguing persuasively that children’s products should be excluded from tariff increases. At the same time, it is doing a great job of keeping members up to date on what’s transpiring.

 

I think most observers feel that some kind of mutually face-saving resolution of this dispute will occur before long. It’s just not in either side’s interest to prolong a fight that will clearly harm both sides. But, leaving aside the issue of whether tariff threats are the best tactic to use to provoke change, the lack of a level playing field is real and ought to be addressed. And it’s highly likely if not inevitable that any progress in resolving trade differences between the US and China will be slow in coming leaving the possibility of a rocky road ahead for many years.

 

So, what if anything should you be doing in response to these geopolitical machinations? There’s no need to panic but it might be wise to take the opportunity to do a “failure modes and effects analysis” on your supply system—and not just products made in China.

 

This is something you should be doing anyway at least once a year as part of your overall planning and management process. But let the current China situation serve as a wakeup call to spur a more aggressive consideration of all possible threats to cost and supply continuity and possible ways to minimize the likelihood of occurrence or the negative effects if they do occur. Here are some ideas to consider:

 

  • Make sure you are comparing apples to apples in your product costing by including indirect costs such as the added inventory carrying cost for longer lead time foreign sources and the “cost of quality.” You may find that costs for some imported products are not as inexpensive as they seem.
  • Study whether for at least some of your products, consumers would be willing to pay a sufficient enough premium for the product to be produced in the US.
  • For critical large volume products, consider dual sourcing in both Asia and US/Canada keeping the dominant share in Asia but having the capability to shift if necessary.
  • Review whether automation advancements may now allow some currently imported products to be feasibly produced in the US or Canada.
  • Monitor the sourcing strategies of larger companies in other categories who are making products similarly constructed to yours. You may find they are successfully producing in countries other than China.

  • Even within China, make sure you have some kind of ongoing process for cost comparisons between alternative suppliers.

  • As your order sizes increase, make sure you are routinely renegotiating production costs based on the higher volumes.
     
  • Make sure someone in your company is periodically physically inspecting both domestic and foreign factories looking for potential issues that could interrupt supply. 

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at rfeldman@jpma.org.

 

Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a  business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company. He can be contacted at ron@evolutionarysuccess.com.

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Manage Problems: Rule the World

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, April 2, 2018
If you can train yourself and your staff to prevent the problems that are preventable and solve the problems you can’t prevent, you are well on your way toward a more enjoyable and fulfilling business and life.

 

My juvenile product industry odyssey started with having to face a huge problem. When I graduated from college in 1968, I was contemplating going to law school or business school but decided to take a year off before plunging back into academia. Needing to earn a little money to pay for burgers, dates, and rent, I took the path of least resistance and went to work for the family company—a modest-size baby product distributor called Kiddie Products. Turns out I arrived at a pivotal point in the company’s existence. Our customers, the early discount stores, had gotten so big that they didn’t need a distributor any more. They could buy big enough quantities to deal directly with the importer/manufacturers who were our suppliers and enjoy considerable savings in product cost. Of course, our suppliers were more than happy to accommodate them.

 

To his credit, my father saw the writing on the wall. Most of what we sold we were buying from importers sourcing their products in the Far East. So, in desperation, he decided that the company’s only hope was for him to travel to all the “countries of origin” and do to our suppliers what they were doing to us—bypass the middleman and go straight to the source. Unfortunately, he had limited knowledge of importing, injection molding, product design, packaging, or quality control.

 

Meanwhile, I had just finished sleepwalking through four years at a small, all male, New England liberal arts college and arrived on the office doorstep. Since my father was concerned about his lack of manufacturing expertise and was reluctant to travel to those alien lands alone, he asked me to go with him. I guess he thought my four years of Latin could come in handy. So off we went to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong on the first of many (for me not him) journeys to the Orient. Our mission was to knock off every product we were buying from the importers as quickly as possible. And that we did with great success—at least for a while.

 

As you can imagine, our profits on all those now directly imported products effectively doubled and our financial statements never looked better. So good in fact that, at the urging of his golf club buddies, my father decided to take the company public. By doing so he saw an opportunity to get the company out of hand to mouth mode and finally make some decent money after he and my mom had worked so hard to build the business.     

 

Soon thereafter, as happens in life and business, the euphoria was interrupted by another crisis. The FDA, which was responsible for the safety of children’s products at the time (pre-CPSC), decided to impose what I believe was the first ban of baby products ever. They issued a press release banning 28 products in one fell swoop—including a few of our knock-offs. Suddenly our little company was getting national attention in a not so flattering way.

 

Now I can’t explain why, but it was at this point that I had a life-changing epiphany. Rather than look at this turn of events as a business-threatening tragedy, to me it was an exciting opportunity. The FDA ban was not just a commentary on the quality of our products. It was a sweeping condemnation of the quality of infant “accessories and playthings” in general. Fueled by idealism, naiveté, and inexperience, I saw an opportunity to be a crusader for babies and their parents and create a safer, much higher quality product line. This is how The First Years brand was born. 

 

But now I had another problem. I was single, no babies, no knowledge of what was important to our consumer customers. How could I lead the effort to design superior products? They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, ignorance of vital information is the mother of learning. In college, I struggled to get myself motivated to study subjects whose relevance to my life was not clear. Now it was obvious what I needed to learn to accomplish my dream, and the sooner the better. We put an ad in the local paper to see if we could get expectant and new moms to meet with us in a local hotel to talk about their hopes, fears, and parenting practices. Much to our surprise, they came and they absolutely loved meeting other moms and sharing their thoughts. In all the years I attended our regular focus group sessions like this, I never failed to come away on an adrenalin high from some new insight or idea that could be implemented immediately. These early sessions eventually morphed into a nationwide online community of parents that we called The First Years Parents Council. It was an invaluable source of ongoing market research information that contributed enormously to our competitive advantage.

 

The moral of this story obviously is that while you should certainly try to do everything you can to prevent problems from occurring, sometimes problems can be the trigger for breakthroughs in thinking and action. The key is accepting the fact that, as a wise Chinese supplier of mine once said, “If there are no problems, there’s no business.” Then, see if you can get in the habit of looking for the hidden opportunities in every new problem that comes along. 

Next Steps

You can’t problem-solve or prevent reoccurrence if you don’t know the problem exists. Make sure your corporate culture encourages making problems and failures visible and acceptable.  You might also want to adopt and teach a company-wide problem-solving methodology.

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at sadams@jpma.org.

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