Monday, March 21, 2011

The Importance of Training, Customer Connections & Leadership

Please welcome Eric Jacobson to my blog. Eric has more than a quarter-century of experience in successfully leading employees and teams through periods of revenue growth, new product development, and re-engineering. He is an experienced mentor and coach and holds an MBA Degree from Keller Graduate School. Eric’s passion is helping individuals to become effective leaders at work, within organizations, and wherever they are called upon to lead and inspire. Eric and I recently discussed a number of important business topics, and I would like to share Eric’s insights. For more about Eric, visit his blog and follow him on Twitter.


ERIC JACOBSON: Fortunately, for most of my career, I have worked in effective corporate cultures. But if I put together the best of each, here is what made those environments effective:

  • Leaders led by example on a consistent basis and were willing to roll up their sleeves, particularly during tight deadlines or challenging times.
  • Employees clearly understood how what they did made a difference and how their contributions made the organization either more profitable or more effective.
  • The workforce included a blend of long-term employees with a rich company, product/service, and customer history, employees who had been at the company for five-to-seven years, and then new hires with a fresh perspective and keen sense of new technologies and techniques. That blend worked best when the mix included virtually all A-players.
  • Top managers had a clear, realistic, and strategic vision for how the company would grow and compete in the marketplace.
  • Employees were challenged and rewarded through growth opportunities, education and training, and pay increases.
  • Leaders provided opportunities for the company and employees to give back to the community. Sometimes it was through company-organized volunteer projects, and other times, it was by encouraging (and rewarding) employees to volunteer on their own time.
  • A group of employees served on an activities committee with as little top management influence or interference as possible to plan monthly team-building, networking, educational, and charitable activities. This grassroots approach helped ensure that the culture was shaped and influenced by employees and not just by top management. In this way, employees owned the culture as much as the management teams did.


ERIC JACOBSON: Training is vital, and sadly, most companies do not provide enough training for their employees. My experience tells me that typical employees know only a fraction of what they can do in Excel or PowerPoint for example. Also, too often, employees lack enough training on their company’s new products or services, or about their customer base and competitors. My recommendations are to find power users of Excel and PowerPoint and have them lead a training “Lunch & Learn” session where co-workers bring sack lunches and spend an hour learning new ways to use these software tools. You can also use the “Lunch & Learn” format as a forum for your salespeople to share with employees what they are hearing from your customers or about your competitors. Another idea is to devote a half-day when employees team with co-workers from various departments to learn more about your customers, products, and services. “Lunch & Learns” and forums for power users and sharing information don’t involve out-of-pocket expenses. They do require devoting time for training. But, the time spent will be well worth it and felt throughout the entire organization.


ERIC JACOBSON: Whenever possible, connect with your customers face-to-face: visit with them at their locations, engage with them at networking events and tradeshows. Be sure your salespeople are asking your customers why they bought from your company and what other products and/or services they would like to see your company provide. Ask your former or lost customers why they left you. Use surveys (mailed or via online tools, such as, SurveyMonkey) to ask your customers quantitative and qualitative questions. Engage your customers in a dialogue via social media, particularly via your company’s Facebook page or YouTube channel. Make it easy for your customers to tell your story in their words via social media.


ERIC JACOBSON: Wow, selecting only five is tough – especially since I asked a similar question in a LinkedIn group discussion and group members offered nearly 100 different adjectives to describe an effective leader. But for me, the five most important traits are:

  • Good communicator: That means effectively communicating timely and consistent messages during good and bad times, and knowing how and when to be a good listener. Communicating is critical. Employees must hear from their leaders, and, hearing from their leaders in person vs. email and written memos is much more effective.
  • Being a servant leader: Put your employees and your company first. A top manager who makes self-serving decisions will lack followers and bring the company down.
  • Adaptable: Today, more than ever, a leader needs to be able to adapt. That means being able to adapt to competitive and industry situations. It also means being willing to change your decisions if new information or circumstances warrant the change.
  • Decisive: Leaders who are not decisive and who cannot make a decision will spin their organization into a frozen state where employees are unmotivated, discouraged, and frustrated.
  • Motivating: Smart, decisive, engaging, tough yet fair, personable, and encouraging leaders are motivating. These leaders motivate employees to deliver their best for their leaders and their companies.


ERIC JACOBSON: Before you start a new business, you must ask yourself:

  • Is there a true need for my product or service?
  • What is the competitive environment and how will my product or service be unique or different or better?
  • Will my location (or accessibility online) be convenient and easy to get to for my customers?
  • Do I have adequate funding to support my business, particularly during the ramp-up period that could last a year or more?
  • Do I have the stamina to start a new business and work hard even if it means months of extended work hour days, loss of weekends, lack of vacations, and limited personal time?
  • Will my family and social life withstand my commitment to my new business?
  • Will the name of my business be easy to spell, suitable for print on online, and memorable?
  • Am I a risk taker?
  • Am I humble enough to ask for help, especially if I am not an expert in marketing or accounting?
  • Do I hire well? Do I have the skills, ability, and resources to hire people who will share my same vision, work ethic, and commitment to the business?
  • Do I have an exit plan? Do I know how to handle exiting from the business should it fail or, ideally, should it become so successful that I will be able to sell it?
  • Do I have a business plan? Even if one is not necessary for a bank, funders or lenders, it will force you to address many important issues. Writing the plan, which could take two to six weeks of working on it nearly every day, will force you to think of all aspects of your business and will require you to address tough questions you will likely not ask without the discipline of writing a plan. Perhaps most critical in your plan will be the sections on: competition, marketing, and financial projects.


ERIC JACOBSON: I admire the following four companies: Southwest Airlines, Marriott, Whole Foods, and Amazon. Each has leaders that are both employee and customer focused. Each makes it easy to do business with them and creates a relationship with you so that you want to do business with them over and over. Each has employees that seem to enjoy their jobs and are proud to be part of their respective company. We can learn much from these companies.

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