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Learning to Love Building Relationships

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, July 24, 2020

 

life is a team sport. there are few meaningful things you can create or accomplish without support from or teamwork with other human beings. this is true in both our business and personal lives. but building relationships is something many people of all ages struggle with. it didn't come naturally to me. 

I was recently asked to be a panelist on a Zoom webinar for college seniors preparing for the challenging task of entering the job market during the current pandemic. The principal strategy discussed was the use of networking both to learn more about possible career options and to make contact with people who might help them land that first job.

 

Interacting with the students underscored for me both the incredible value of knowing how to build relationships with people but also how uncomfortable it can be for people of all ages to do it. As very much a private person myself, it took me a long time to appreciate the value and overcome my own resistance. My mentoring work with CEOs tells me I'm not alone.

 

Sometimes you just get lucky and meet someone who turns out to be a great contact, friend, or source of information. But most of the time, you need to make it happen. It's a skill that's well worth developing - even if, like me, you have to force yourself to do things that make you feel uncomfortable. Here are some suggestions based on the times I did it right. No doubt I missed a lot of opportunities as well.

 

Tips for Creating Beneficial Relationships

1. Follow Your Plan

Your time is precious and relationships take time to create and maintain. So, it pays to make sure you're spending your relationship building time on the goals you most want to accomplish. Connecting with the right people is often the best way to accomplish a goal.

 

Example: To counter new competition that was attacking my company on price, we needed to further differentiate The First Years brand. We chose to do that by becoming known for superior child development expertise. What we needed was an affiliation with a well-known child development expert. After identifying the ideal parenting guru, I networked through the development office at Boston Children's Hospital until I was able to talk with him on the phone. That began an extremely beneficial and rewarding 20-year relationship with Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and the Child Development Unit at Harvard University. 

2. Join an Organization

Sometimes you don't have a particular person you want to contact but you know where the people you're interested in meeting hang out.

 

Example: In the early years of my company's existence, we were not members of JPMA. We joined when we thought we were ready to participate in the JPMA Show. Fortunately, I recognized the value of not only being a member but also of getting on the board of directors. It was one of the best business decisions I ever made. Joining the board was the beginning of great career-long relationships with executives from other companies as well as JPMA leadership and staff. It also gave me the opportunity to be aware of and have a say in all the key issues that the industry was facing. Finally, not to say that misery loves company, but the perspective I gained by talking to other industry leaders in my position was invaluable.

 

3. Create an Organization

If the people you want to meet aren't in an organization, you can create one.

 

Example: When I first created The First Years brand, I was a 25-year-old single guy with no idea what it was like to be a parent. In fact, I didn't have my first child until 15 years later. Talk about trying to land a plane on an aircraft carrier while blindfolded! We desperately needed an ongoing way to connect with expectant and new parents. So, we put an ad in a local paper and asked new moms to meet with us in the meeting room of a local motel to help us create new and better baby products. We promised snacks and an opportunity to meet other moms. The response was overwhelming. Eventually that evolved into a national community of moms and dads we called The First Years Parents Council.

 

4. Learn How to Make People Feel Happy

I still sometimes find it hard to believe that the best way to help yourself is to help other people. As the saying goes "what goes around comes around." People you help today will come to your aid tomorrow. It also just feels good. Fill your world with people who are appreciative of what you've  done for them. It's the best way to be relationship-rich.

 

Example: My father was my role model when it comes to this skill. In his relationships with buyers, he knew how to get people to talk about themselves by asking questions that they would enjoy answering. Then he would listen carefully looking for opportunities to help them with business or personal issues as a way to solidify the relationship. Times have changed and the relationships between buyers and company personnel are generally more professional today. But people are still people and it still pays to have that "how can I improve this person's life" mindset when you spend time with anyone in both your business and personal lives.

 

5. Learn How to Leverage Your Existing Relationships

Often the best way to meet new people is by introductions from people you know or who know you. Calling someone out of the blue has little chance of working. We all are wary of calls or invitations from unknown individuals. 

 

Example: In my "second career" after selling my company, I was interested in making a connection with nearby Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) to become a mentor to business school students. I mentioned this to everyone I knew who might have a helpful contact there. One day I expressed this desire to one of my squash buddies. Turned out he had a friend who was a professor at FGCU. That person introduced me to the head of the School of Entrepreneurship. And that led to me becoming a mentor and having the enjoyment of meeting and helping numerous students over the past five years, being a judge at business startup competitions, establishing friendships with many professors, and becoming part of the FGCU community.

 

6. Build Trust

Relationship building can be a way to break down barriers or overcome conflicts. But it can only happen if you first build trust by being open, honest, and genuine. 

 

Example: The best example I know is not from my life but that of Bob Iger, CEO at Disney. In his book The Ride of a Lifetime, he describes how under his predecessor, Michael Eisner, the relationship between Disney and Pixar, the up and coming computer animation company had imploded. The personal conflict between Eisner and Steve Jobs, at the time the head of Pixar, led to Jobs announcing he would never work with Disney again. Problem was that preserving that relationship was critical to Disney's future in animation. What Iger did brilliantly was to over time establish a relationship of trust and mutual respect between himself and Jobs that eventually led to Disney buying Pixar in a deal that has been a huge boon for both companies. 

 

7. Don't Forget the Maintenance

Like gardens, relationships wither if not attended to. If you've gone to the trouble of establishing beneficial relationships, keep them alive.

 

Example: I had always used videoconferencing in my mentoring work. Some clients liked it and some didn't. Now the pandemic has made it much more universally accepted. To me this is great and ought to become the status quo. With my friends, family, and business partners, I've tried to be the friend or group member who takes the initiative to propose repeating scheduled Zoom or FaceTime sessions. To be respectful of others' time, keep the meetings short. Even a half hour is often enough and certainly no more than an hour. If you're like me, you might want to keep lists of things you'd like to discuss at the next session.

 

Next Steps

Whether you are an extrovert or introvert, consciously and proactively building and maintaining relationships can be one of the most life and business-enhancing things you can do. Take a look at your personal and business goals and identify new relationships that could help you accomplish them. Then start working on it today!

 

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 Zoom, 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 School of 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 JP Industry’s “New Normal”

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, May 21, 2020
The current period of unnerving and painful disruption due to COVID-19 should hopefully begin to end after we either have an effective vaccine or somehow achieve herd immunity. Then, the world should gradually settle into a so-called “new normal” state. But, what will that look like for companies in the juvenile PRODUCT industry?

 

There could be no better reminder of how woefully poor we all are at predicting the future than the sudden surprise onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Even just 2 months ago, few of us expected that there would be hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide and a near total global economic shutdown. Similarly, there’s no way to really know for sure what the world will be like in the post-pandemic era. 

 

Coping With Change

That creates a dilemma. If you don’t know what’s going to come next, how do you prepare your business for it? The answer comes from companies that have been successful over long periods of time. Instead of trying to guess the future, they quickly adapt to the present—over and over again. You can build into the DNA of your company a continuous process of monitoring the environment in which you operate coupled with rapid adaptation to changes and new opportunities as they become clear. I call this operating with an “evolutionary mindset.”

 

Of course, you need to distinguish between the short-term changes that you only need to live with for a while versus the longer-term “new normal” that may require fundamental changes to your business operating model. In this post, I will focus on two key aspects of the likely future juvenile product marketplace “new normal” and how JP companies might want to adapt to them. 

 

Changes in Parent Childcare Behavior

Concerns about Disease Transmission

The crises we experience in our lives leave an indelible imprint on our psyches. Our parents or grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression were still watching their pennies even after they were financially secure. 9/11 has implanted a sensitivity to the possibility of air travel terrorism in anyone who watched that day unfold.

 

Can there be any doubt then that young and old alike currently enduring the effects of this pandemic will be more sensitive in the future to the risk of disease transmission? This concern will be especially amplified for parents of young children because of their inherent protective instincts. In spite of the fact that children don’t become as sick from COVID-19 as adults, according to the Mayo Clinic all children are capable of being infected. Being responsible for exposing your child to this or other contagious diseases is a nightmare scenario for parents. 

 

Increase in Shared Parenting

The dramatic increase in the number of office workers working from home because of the shutdown has revealed some potential positives for both companies and employees. Many companies are seeing reduced costs with little if any loss of effectiveness. Employees are enjoying the additional family time and elimination of wasted commuting hours. As working from home becomes more of the norm, many households are experiencing an increase in the sharing of childcare responsibilities and product selection decisions. 

 

JP Business Implications

The Good News

Pandemic or no pandemic babies keep being born and parents need what they need when they need it.  The baby product business is not going to grind to a halt like the restaurant and travel businesses. And, while some difficult business model changes may need to be implemented, JP business leaders can leverage the current crisis atmosphere to get employees to rally behind the effort. With those two positives in mind, here are some components of your business model that might need to be modified to adjust to the “new normal” parenting behaviors.  

 

 Product Development

 

Ironically, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis could create a phenomenal growth opportunity for juvenile product companies. The pandemic-induced shifts in parent perceptions and patterns of behavior are generating new, unmet needs. These in turn create opportunities to improve your existing products and create new ones. To stimulate your thinking, here’s a table that lists just some of the possible new needs by childcare process: 

 

Childcare Process

New Needs

Nursing

· Desire not to have to touch pre-sterilized bottle-feeding components when assembling bottles

· Breast-feeding related virus transmission prevention

Play

· Baby toys that are easier to clean, are dishwasher-safe, or use anti-viral materials

· Parent-child interactive products geared to fathers as well as mothers or fathers, mothers, and babies together.

· Ways for babies and young children to digitally interact with relatives and friends that aren’t physically present

Oral Soothing

· Teethers and pacifiers that are sold with attached tethers to prevent falling to the ground

· Easier cleaning and sterilizing

Transporting

· Easier to deep clean surfaces and materials that babies come into contact with in strollers, car seats, etc.

· Ways to physically block virus transmission to babies in strollers, carriers, bassinets, car seats, etc.

· Added pockets for bringing along disinfectant wipes or sprays

Healthcare

· Health monitoring devices possibly linked directly to pediatricians

· Baby oximeters

· Remote reading infant thermometers with receivers parents can wear

Sleep

· Nursery air filtration and circulation devices

· Air quality sensors

Toilet Training

· Easier to clean potty chairs and training seats

· Disposable potty liners

Safety Proofing

· Larger washable floor mats with crawl barriers

· Ways to keep floors free of germs and viruses even with guests visiting

 

Marketing

Possible “new normal” marketing enhancements could include:

  • Since parents will more than ever prefer brands perceived as health oriented and reliable, emphasize the thoroughness of your unique safety sensitivity, expertise, and quality control as well as specific safety features built into products. This should permeate every point of contact with parents including advertising, PR, packaging, and product instructions. You might consider affiliating with a reputable medical institution for added credibility.
  • Radically intensify your direct interaction digitally with parents in both a supportive and promotional manner including more professional product demonstration videos on your web site.
  • Make more use of teleconferencing for “face-to-face” interactions with trade and consumer customers individually and in groups.
  • Make sure your marketing messages and product designs address both male and female needs and preferences to accommodate the increased sharing of parenting responsibilities.

Next Steps

Vigilance and quick reaction is the name of the game. If you aren’t taking a fresh look at your goals and action plans at least every quarter, you should start now. This should be informed by a routine monitoring process that serves as an ongoing “situation analysis” to keep you abreast of whether what you’re doing is working and what’s changing in the marketplace.

 

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 Zoom, 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 School of 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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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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