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December 2011

Your team is your best marketing tool

Bigstock_Teamwork_Connection_529643If you want a powerful, profitable company — create a powerful team.  If you want to create love affairs with your customers — create a passionate team.  If you want to leavea legacy — create a committed team.

Your team.  Nothing reflects on a business owner/leader more than the team they build around them.

So in this world of disposable everything — how do you, with genuine intention, bring that mythical team to life?

Let them have a voice:  There are few things more frustrating than having no control over your environment.  Whether it's how to handle summer hours, what charities your company will support or how a customer service policy should be amended — ask them.  Ask them and listen.

At MMG, 90% of the company decisions are made collectively.  I toss the problem/opportunity on the table and we talk about it.  When we think we've covered all the bases, we find consensus and move forward.  About 10% of the time, it's a decision I feel I have to ultimately make — but I want the team's input first.  So I ask.  And listen. 

Don't be afraid to use the "L" word: My friend Steve Farber teaches us in his brilliant book Radical Leap that the word and the emotion love belong in business.  That there's nothing wrong with loving your team, your clients and your work. In fact, I'd worry if you don't.

Make it mean something:  I don't care what you do — it has a higher purpose.  Jim Collins calls it a big, hairy audacious goal. A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.  If you don't have one….your team needs you to create one.

Celebrate the big and little wins: This doesn't have to be "send the sales force to Vegas" sort of celebrations although there's nothing wrong with those either.  It can be as simple as gathering everyone together for a quick high five.  At MMG, we have a drum that when someone has big news (new client, big project successfully completed etc.) — we bang the drum and everyone comes to the conference room to hear what's up.  It's about taking the moment.  (And we're not always good at it either, so cut yourself some slack…but make it part of your culture!)

Thank them in surprising ways: Again — this doesn't have to be a grand gesture.  Part of the fun of it is the surprise element.  One of the goofier ones that I've done is this simple.  Go buy gift cards for various places (iTunes, restaurants, your local grocery store etc.).  Get enough so you have one for each person on your team.  Then go buy the same number of Pringle's cans of chips.  On the bottom of each Pringle's can — write a number 1- how many ever you bought.   Spread the gift cards all over the conference room table and put all the Pringle's cans in the middle of the table, so no one can read the numbers.

Call in your team and tell them (with love) how proud you are of them or congratulate them on some client accomplishment or whatever.  But…set the mood and tell them why you're doing this.  Then, let each person randomly pick a Pringle's can.  Whoever got the #1 can gets to pick among the gift cards first, etc.

It will take you 10 minutes, but they'll remember it for much longer than that.

Bottom line — building a rock solid team doesn't happen by accident.  It is borne from love, gratitude and sharing a vision that matters.  The good news is — it costs very little and the rewards for you, your team and your clients — is huge!


~ Drew


Keep your software current

Often, I come across a business that is woefully out of date with their software. This is an IT management nightmare. What usually happens is that they use whatever software came with the computer at the time, and do not invest in standardizing their software. This creates technical difficulties in workflows, as well as differences in the interfaces and features between the same software on two computers in an office.

There is a cost associated- there are upgrade license fees associated with major upgrades, as well as training/reduced efficiency as users are learning new software. However, it is an eventuality. Computers need to be replaced on a schedule. Newer computers often won't support older software. Therefore, software needs to be updated so that the versions remain constant between computers.

Stress Reduction

Let's use the relatively ubiqoutous Microsoft Office as an example. In Office 2007/2008, Microsoft implemented a very different series of XML-based (extensible markup language) file formats: docx, xslx, and pptx. The advantages are significant- smaller files, vastly increased stability, richer content, interoperability with non Microsoft software.

The drawback is that it is not backwards compatible with older versions of Office(with the exception of Office 2003/2004, which has an update available to support the version). This has resulted in many companies continuing to standardize on the older, larger, bug ridden format. I do realizing that interoperability between companies is an issue with the file format too, but I argue that this is an independant, temporary issue, which can be worked around by downconverting documents as needed, rather than mandating the older format across the board.

Next, the interface and feature set often changes between versions. This is most obvious again in Microsoft Office. In Office 2007/2011, Microsoft introduced the Fluent user interface (the ribbon). If a business has both Fluent-based versions of Office and older, it becomes difficult for users to collaborate and share information on how to perform tasks within Office.

Office is not the only software that needs to be maintained. Windows, Mac OS X, and Adobe Creative Suite all have interoperability issues between versions. The worst, however, is web browsers. Modern web browsers adhere to standards much better than older ones, yet there is a large amount of older browsers still active today.

Get them updated.

- Jon Thompson

The holiday bonus

2076611618_e2e0ebd526_tIt is the time of year when many employees receive a year end or Christmas bonus. The bonus comes at a time when employees can use the extra cash for the holiday season. The sad thing about these bonuses is that in many cases they are given even if the business lost money for the year or has to borrow on their credit line to pay for it.

Giving a bonus to employees under these circumstances...it would be better served to go to a homeless shelter or someone truly in need. This type of bonus creates an entitlement culture and does little to engage the employee in the success of the business. It can also feed the frustration of owners and leaders that their employees do not care. The fact that the bonus is "free" creates a plethora of on going challenges.

Bonuses should be self funded. They should be based on goals that improve the performance of the company and therefore increase the bonus opportunity for the employees, which also leads to higher returns for the owners. This can create psychic ownership in employees and improve their level of engagement.

Think of it this way. How many people wash their rental car before they return it? A free bonus increase the chances of the Scrooge emerging in everyone. Increase the holiday joy by giving employees bonuses that are earned.

- Victor Aspengren

Flickr photo by bjosefowicz

Demountable wall systems mounting a comeback!

In the 60's and 70's, many big corporations like GE, Principal, and US West installed miles of demountable walls rather than building walls out of metal studs and gypsum board. I worked with a system used at the US West building in Des Moines. It matched the typical demountable wall system….beige with a vertical joint every 4 feet and doors where you needed them. To jazz it up you could provide a side light next to the door. Yippee!!!

Problem was they were just plain ugly. The walls were not used much after the 80’s because workers' expectations of the work environment increased.

Along comes the green movement and demountable walls are being considered again. The difference this time is they look cool and can adapt to almost any style. The walls no longer have the look of 4 foot wide monolithic panels. Systems come in a wide array of wood, metal, glass, and painted finishes. You can even get sliding doors to your office. Surfaces can also be equipped with white boards so you can write on the walls.

The demountable wall is more expensive than building walls from scratch but you can take them apart and reconfigure. While a typical painted 8 foot office partition costs $60 per foot and a demountable wall costs close to $75 per foot, it’s still worth it even if you just move them once. A new layout can also be done quicker with the demountable walls and makes less of a mess. That’s very sustainable.

Companies like Dirtt and Teknion are leading the way with innovative design. Ken Kahrs of Koch Brothers in Des Moines sells Teknion and says the demand for demountable walls continues to rise. Ken also says 50% of the cost can be written off and the remainder depreciated over 7 years rather than 30 years for a stud wall.

So, when it comes to sustainable design and construction consider demountable walls.

Transitioning the business to your employees

If a transitional sale to your employees is your exit strategy, you may want to consider some common issues that often occur:
* Owners will often over compensate employees, thereby selling the business or a portion of it below market value to employees.
* Employees may cash-in their ownership position for a handsome profit when offered fair market value for the company and the owner receives nothing for their generosity.
* Employees will demand a role in the management of the company. Often this will lead to management disputes, office politics, confusion and loss of direction.
* Will the company be forced to buy back a minority position at fair market value when an employee leaves? What will this loss of cash do to the value of the business for the remaining owners?
* Is it better to make employees earn an ownership position or allow them to buy it?
* Is your success as an owner making you feel guilty and triggering these possible events?

In short, there is no one set of answers to these questions. Taking care of your employees by helping them succeed so they can afford an enjoyable lifestyle and retire comfortably, should leave you with nothing to feel guilty about.

Steve Sink
Certified Business Intermediary
Merger and Acquisition Master Intermediary

Is your name Buffett?

Is your name Perot, Gates or Buffett? Probably not. But it doesn't matter. A name and a bank account may open a door, but ultimately the person who walks through it will be measured by his or her core capabilities and actions. Successes in your past may be noteworthy, but it's how you handle each new challenge before you today that continually shapes your life and eventually your legacy.

Think about your current challenges. Answer these three questions:

  1. Has past success made you "dangerously comfortable" with your life?
  2. Can you risk "certainty" to create new levels of competency?
  3. What can you do to re-invent yourself, expand your skills and awareness, and move forward for self-growth?

The old Irish proverb is right: "You've got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was."

Even if his name was Buffet.

-Shirley Poertner

What your business culture says about your business

Vector handshakeImage via Wikipedia

Ok, restaurants again.  As you can tell, I eat out - alot. 

I was at the local Applebees in Ankeny the other evening.  It is a favorite place of mine.  The food is good but not the reason I go there.  I go there because of the staff.  The staff they have stays long term because of the culture.  The general manager is one of the hardest working people in the place.  He never stops moving.  He is the first to wipe down a table or sweep up the floor.  He treats his employees as equals.

I see a similar attitude in the staff of HyVee.  I recently was checked out by a manager at my local HyVee because her staff were already helping others.  She opened a lane and checked me out. I did not have to ask or encourage her.  You could tell that it is just the way they do business.

The actions of you and your staff are what we customers use in understanding your culture.  If you own a restaurant where the tables are filthy and the manager is leaning against the bar talking to the hostess, I know your culture.

I personally do not like spending a lot of time talking to my teams about culture.  I believe you simply model the behavior you expect of everyone else.  Those who can emulate your model are the ones you keep and reward. Those who do not need to leave.

Make sure you are modeling the culture you expect from your employees at all times.  It is the strongest form of communications you possess. 

- Mike Colwell


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Are you on your customer's list?

It's the time of year for lists. First there's the wish lists and Santa's list of who's been naughty and who's been nice. Then there's the year-end lists to which we will all be subjected. The top 10 of this, last year's top 100 of that. We love lists.

Companies, in particular, love to make it onto lists. I always get a kick out of the marketing campaigns who tell their customers that they've made it on to some list for their great customer service. The reality is that customers don't care about lists. Customer's only care about the experience they receive when they interact with your company.

The list that great companies truly care about is their customers' satisfaction and loyalty list. When it comes to corporate resolutions for 2012 , making your customers' top 10 list would be a worthy one to make.

- Tom Vander Well

It's time for joy, family... and to make deductible payments for related parties!

The holidays are a time for families to gather, eat, and share memories.  And, it seems, to scheme to reduce taxes.  At least that seems to be what the tax code assumes, with its rules restricting deductions for payments to relatives.

20111216iabizYes, you can usually deduct payments to relatives...but only in the year the relatives include them in income. 

Accrual-method taxpayers can deduct payments owed to unrelated employees if they are made within 2 1/2 months of year-end.  Many non-wage payments to unrelated taxpayers accrued at year-end can be deducted if paid as long as 8 1/2 months after year end.

But Code Section 267 only allows a deduction to a related party "as of the day as of which such amount is includible in the gross income of the person to whom the payment is made." That's no problem if the "related party" is on the accrual method, because they will be accruing the income at the same time you accrue the expense. But if the related party is a cash-basis taxpayer, you have to pay up to get that deduction.

Who is "related?" It's a wide net. Most problems arise with closely-held accrual-method businesses and their cash basis owners. If you have a C corporation, only owners of more than 50% of the stock, and their families (siblings, spouses, ancestors and descendants) are related. For pass-through entities -- partnerships and S corporations -- any owner is a related party, along with members of owners families and anybody related to the family members.  Commonly-owned businesses are also considered related.

The broad definition of related parties for pass-throughs means that if a calendar year accrual-method S corporation accrues a bonus for a 2011 shareholder's nephew payable in January 2012, the deduction gets deferred until 2012. The same thing applies to interest expense, rental expense, or any other expense owed to a cash-basis related party.

So enjoy the holiday turkeys, roasts, hams and bowl games.  Just make sure you take the time to cut the checks to any relatives to whom you owe deductible expenses, if you want that deduction this year. Check with your tax pro to make sure you get it right.

- Joe Kristan

Flickr image courtesy snowpea&bokchoi under Creative Commons license.

What will 2012 bring?

In December you can count on snow, nostalgic looks back over the year and the inevitable predictions for the future.  One of the more interesting trends that seems to be garnering quite a bit of chatter is the notion of screen time and how touch screens are going mainstream.

Check out this video by Corning on how we're going to interact differently with glass.  Some of this may seem pretty far out there...but it's right around the corner.



Did you notice how many different ways there were to communicate in this "new" world?  And how many of those could be commandeered for marketing messages?  Pretty soon we'll be using them to order at restaurants, customize merchandise and interact with billboards.  You'll even be able to watch live sports while you grocery shop. (check it out here)

What does all of this mean to the average business owner?  It means that technology is continuing to change consumers' expectations and experiences.  And you need to start asking yourself these sorts of questions if you don't want to be left behind:

  1. How can I leverage interactive screens/technology to serve my clients better?
  2. Can we gain efficiencies by replacing human operated systems/processed with interactive programming?
  3. How could I capture some of the screen real estate my customers look at every day by offering something of unique value?
  4. Are there elements of my clients' online experiences that I could bring into my/their physical space?

While some of this still feels a little Jetson-esque (if you're under 30, Google it), it's actually right around the corner.  And there's market advantage to be had by those who are smart enough to jump on this moving train.

~ Drew

Workstations are dropping their panels

Panel systems to provide some privacy and acoustics for the office worker came about in the late sixties by companies like Westinghouse and Hermann Miller.  You’ve seen the typical six foot tall monolithic panel in many movies as an endless sea of gray where one could easily get lost.  Sometimes one color was used throughout…like turquoise!!


For years, I encouraged using lower panels so you could see others and not be penned in, but everyone seemed to want no interaction with others.  Then along comes sustainable design and LEED where your design gets points for providing daylight and views for most office workers.  With a wave of the sustainable wand, shorter panels are now being used. 


Two credits within the Indoor Environmental Quality of LEED deal with daylight and views to the outside.   Daylight requirements have several approaches, but basically the credit is achieved when all occupied spaces have a level of at least 25 foot candles in 75% of the space.  If daylight provides 25 foot candles to 90% of the space, 2 credits are achieved.  Obviously tall furniture panels block daylight from penetrating the space and providing the required foot candles.


Views requirements are the main driver of shorter furniture panels.  One credit is achieved when 90% of all occupants in a space have a direct line of sight to the outdoors between 30 and 90 inches above the floor.  Furniture panels can use glass to meet this requirement if a taller panel is needed.


What does this mean for office workers?  They are more connected to the outdoors and natural cycles.  In the old days of tall cubes everywhere, you could actually lose touch with the time of day or whether it was raining so you could run outside and close your car windows.


Access to natural daylight maintains our circadian rhythms.  I have never heard my clients say they have too many windows.  On the contrary, I have ripped holes in many walls to provide light into what was a cave.


- Rob Smith

Actions versus words

"Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't," Margaret Thatcher said.

It's the old "actions speak louder than words" philosophy; those who have to talk about their power are working to convince themselves -- as well as others -- that they really have it and know how to use it. But people become leaders in the eyes of others through their actions, not through their job titles or their rhetoric.

When you think of a true leader, who comes to mind? Who inspires you to be part of their team? What gives that person his or her power? What is his or her uniqueness, and how can you put such skills and capabilities to work for you? Alfred Lord Tennyson called power "self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control." An organization can bestow a leadership title, but only an individual can earn it.

Identify one element of your leadership style that you would like to focus on in the coming week. Make a list of 3 or 4 specific actions that you could undertake that would help you hone that element. Remember, it's those actions that make all the difference, not the words!

- Shirley Poertner

Your name - a powerful tool

ThumbnailDo you remember the names of new people you meet? Many people struggle with remembering names. It is not easy and it takes effort to consciously make a place in your mind for a new name. In a social setting the consequences of not remembering a name are minimal. In a company or business setting the consequences can be dire.

Do you know the names of the employees in your company? Obviously if you have thousands of employees it would be a rare leader that would know all the names. Just as obvious, you would expect leaders in companies of say less than 150 employees to know the names of their employees. The sad reality is that many leaders do not know the names of their employees and there may only be 25 or 50 employees.

If you are one of these types of leaders, corrective steps should be taken. The symbolism and impact of knowing an employee's name is critical to creating an engaged employee and building a high performance culture. If names are not important, then the culture that the leader believes they have will be disconnected from the real culture that exists for the employees.

Leaders have a higher expectation put on them, but knowing names is equally important to all employees in an organization. Knowing a person's name is a sign of respect and genuine interest. A key ingredient in a high performing culture.

Stop the "Hey you" statements, blank stares, and lack of interest - remember the name.

- Victor Aspengren

New owners are at a disadvantage...don't make it worse

U.S. Division-North Sustainment HeroImage by United States Forces - Iraq via Flickr

It is truly a disadvantage to be a new business owner. To start with, you are an unknown to most potential customers.  You probably do not have a long list of referral accounts or a line of customers out your door. So how do you make up for this disadvantage?

There is one thing you can do that will make up for most of the "new business owner" challenges.  Professionalism.  It is a big word both in number of letters and in fulfilling the attribute.  Professionalism is not accomplished through a single action or method.  It is a constant state of being.  Here are a few examples.  See if you can spot the professional.

You make an appointment over the phone with an auto repair facility.  At the end of the call, the person on the other end says:
    a) G'bye
    b) See you then
    c) Repeats back to you the time, date and expected work to be accomplished.

You walk into a retail store. The clerk is at the back of the store is talking to another person. The clerk:
    a) Keeps talking to the other person
    b) Makes eye contact but does not engage you
    c) Greets you and tells you s/he will be right with you

You are working with a consultant. You ask for a proposal for the cost of doing some work you have been discussing. The consultant respond with:
    a) A verbal cost
    b) An email with a "Thank you for the opportunity" and a price
    c) A written proposal including all terms, conditions, scope, price, payment terms etc. 

Being professional will set you apart from the crowd.  If you have employees, make sure they understand the same concept and are professional at all times. 

- Mike Colwell

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Prison - the reason you shouldn't "borrow" your payroll taxes

20111201iabizEvery entrepreneur struggling to stave off hungry creditors has probably taken a wistful look at that pot of cash set aside from employee paychecks to send to the IRS as withholdings and payroll taxes.  Some go so far as to "borrow" that money to pay other creditors, leaving the IRS hanging.

Don't do it.  It's very expensive money. 

  • If the business goes under before you pay the IRS, the liability doesn't go away.  "Responsible persons" who fail to remit withheld taxes for their business can be held personally liable for the unpaid amount, even if the business is run in an LLC or corporation that otherwise shields the owner from liability.  

The former owner and president of two businesses in Brookings, South Dakota, who collected taxes from his employees and then failed to account for and pay those federal income and FICA taxes, was sentenced November 15, 2010, to 21 months in federal prison.

Michael D. Hoppe, age 60, from Watertown, South Dakota, received the prison term after a May 27, 2010, guilty plea in federal court in Sioux Falls. Hoppe was convicted of one count of failing to account for and pay taxes.

While paying payroll taxes may make it hard to run your business, prison walls make it much harder. 

- Joe Kristan

Flickr image courtesy Dan4th under Creative Commons license.

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