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Does Running Your Business Out of Your Home Actually Work?


Working out of your house seems like the perfect scenario for anyone who wants to start their own business, unless you want to repair cars and find the prospect of having a Chevy Malibu parked in your living room problematic.

But for a one-person show — especially if the job is driven mostly by sitting in front of a computer to ply your trade — the idea of not paying rent for an office, avoiding bumper-to-bumper traffic, and staying in your warm and fuzzy pajamas is most compelling.

When Baby Boomers started getting laid off from their jobs during the recent economic downturn, many of those 55-plus folks suddenly realized they had a big house because the kids had moved on to greener pastures. There now existed wide-open spaces to set up a home-based business. All they needed was an upgrade in their computer software, a shopping cart full of supplies from OfficeMax, and new business cards.

But they also soon found some items they didn’t need, like a well-stocked refrigerator in close proximity, a 55-inch HDTV and comfy couch in the next room, and a dog that must surely have some kind of bladder problem since it always needs to go for a walk.

These entrepreneurs also discovered something was missing in their business lives — people. We’re talking about the need for real-life, face-to-face interaction and the ability to bounce ideas off someone to get opinions, feedback, and even constructive criticism. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it certainly doesn’t happen via e-mails, texting, Facebook, and Skyping. (OK, Skyping is close, but the camera never seems to be positioned correctly, and the people you are talking to always seem to be looking at something over your left shoulder.)

But all that being said, maybe a home-based business is just the way it has to be for budgetary reasons, and you are content to brainstorm with others face-to-face over a turkey sandwich at Panera’s. If so, here are some tips to help make working at home work:

Get out of bed. It’s great that you now don’t have to leave your house in the early-morning darkness to avoid being stuck in traffic for an hour on Route 3, but that doesn’t mean you can sleep until 10 a.m. on a workday. Try to make sure you’re on your computer no later than 9 a.m.
Dress for success. Sure, no one is going to see your footie pajamas, but working in your PJs isn’t a good mindset. Dress like you are at work, and you will feel like you are actually at work, not at a sleepover.
The couch is your enemy. Designate a room in your house as your office so that you’re free from distractions. Do not sit on the couch watching TV while juggling a computer on your lap. Unless Ellen DeGeneres and the Kardashians are your clients, you don’t need to be hanging out with them while you are at work.
Eliminate distractions. Every day shouldn’t be ‘bring your kids and pets to work day.’ If your children are school age, use that window of solitude wisely. If they are preschoolers, find a reliable day-care service … and one also for Fido.
• Communicate with your team. Keep in touch with colleagues, clients, and prospects via the usual channels, like e-mail and phone. That is, when you can’t make it to Panera’s.

Steve White is the owner of Steve White Public Relations in Norwell, Mass; www.swhitepr.com.

Business Management Sections
Alan Robinson’s Second Book on Ideas Shows Organizations How to Get ‘There’

Alan Robinson

Alan Robinson says “The Idea-Driven Organization” is designed to be a road map for companies looking to glean ideas from frontline employees.

When asked what prompted his second book on the broad subject of ideas in the workplace and how to generate them, Alan Robinson said there was something rather obvious missing from the first one, called Ideas Are Free.

Only, it wasn’t obvious to Robinson and co-author Dean Schroeder at the time.

“When we wrote Ideas Are Free, we made the same mistake a lot of writers make,” said Robinson, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “We went out and we looked at organizations — companies, nonprofits, and government agencies — that were doing the best in the world at this; wherever we found these systems, we went and studied them, and we said, ‘this is how they work; here’s what they look like.’

“Then the book came out, and it went all over the world, and soon we were starting to get inquiries,” he went on, noting that it became a bestseller on Amazon. “People were saying, ‘this is great … but how do we do it?’ It took us maybe a couple of years to realize that it is an entirely different problem to show what it’s like to live in this environment and then to show how to get there from being an average company.”

So, The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power in Bottom-Up Ideas was conceived to show how.

Released a few months ago, it provides what Robinson called a road map that companies can follow in their efforts to replicate some of the organizations on the leading edge of what some would call a movement.

Elaborating, he said Ideas Are Free was a comprehensive look at best practices. The sequel, if one can call it that, is all about the journeys that bring companies to that point.

And in the course of chronicling dozens of such journeys, Robinson and Schroeder included lessons that could be taken from three local organizations — Big Y Foods, Health New England, and Springfield Technical Community College, which is, in Robinson’s estimation, one of the few institutions of higher education, if not the only one, that has enjoyed any real success in this realm (more on that later).

Those organizations, like the others cited in the book, have fully grasped what too many companies and their managers still haven’t, said Robinson, and that would be the simple math he calls the ‘80-20 rule,’ meaning that 80% of the overall improvement comes from frontline ideas, and only 20% comes from management-driven initiatives.

“This is the big gorilla in the room, and most organizations just leave it on the table,” he said. “Globalization means that companies have a lot more competition, whether they know it or not, and the Internet means people can find those competitors much more easily and compare. So the pressure on you to perform and to innovate and to get better is higher than it ever was — and, yet, most organizations have very weak cycles of continuous improvement, if they have any at all.”

For this issue and its focus on business management, BusinessWest talked with Robinson about his new book and what it offers to readers, but also about the contributions made by the three area organizations to this so-called road map, and why the author considers them some of the clear leaders in what would have to be called the ideas movement.

The Write Stuff

As he talked about Ideas Are Free, which was released roughly a decade ago, Robinson described it as a labor of love, a work, years in the making, that chronicled what leading-edge companies around the world were doing to generate ideas, review them, and, when appropriate, implement them.

But, as he said, this was a look at best practices.

“There are barriers that organizations have to remove to make their systems work — you don’t just collect ideas; you also fix the policies and the systems, the resource issues, and all the stuff that blocks ideas,” he told BusinessWest. “The process is only 20% of this issue; these obstacles to ideas are something you have to address. But when we were going in and looking at the best in the world, you don’t see those barriers, because they’d already been removed.”

Thus, The Idea-Driven Organization takes the reader back to the barrier-removal process, he went on, and to specific cases, such as one at Big Y that has been oft-cited by Robinson in his many talks on this subject, and has become known simply as the ‘eco bag idea.’

Elaborating, he said a checkout clerk at one of the chain’s stores noted that, often, after he recited the question ‘paper or plastic?’ an embarrassed customer would say that he or she left their eco bags in the car. Therefore, he suggested that signs be put in the parking lot reminding people to remember their eco-bags — a common-sense recommendation that has since been copied by many competitors.

But this sound idea didn’t get put in place for a while, because of some miscommunication and a lack of clarity concerning who was responsible for escalating ideas.

“The store manager was new, and he thought, ‘I don’t have the authority to do this,’” said Robinson, paraphrasing a section from the book called “How Effective Idea Processes Work.” “The idea goes up to the regional manager, who says, ‘it’s the store manager’s authority,’ and doesn’t take any action because he assumes he’s just being informed.”

Fortunately, the company had a policy in place whereby ideas such as this one were red flagged if they were not implemented within a certain period, Robinson went on, adding that, in the course of investigating what went wrong, company executives, including CEO Donald D’Amour, realized that store managers and other executives weren’t being trained properly in what their responsibilities were in such cases.

There are hundreds of other examples of effective obstacle removal in the book, said Robinson, adding that it was designed to help others possibly avoid such barriers to progress.

Overall, the book was undertaken to stress the importance of encouraging, gathering, weighing, and implementing frontline ideas — those that originate with individuals who work in the trenches rather than the corner office — and then provide that road map for putting a system in place.

As for the first part of that equation, the authors sum up neatly why many managers are often blind to frontline ideas — and why, if they want to take their companies forward, they can’t be.

BookJacket“Consider the constant reminders of their superiority that managers are bombarded with in the course of their daily work,” they write. “They wear the suits, they have the private offices, they are the ones chosen for promotion, they are more highly educated and paid significantly more than their subordinates, and everyone defers to them. They are the ones in charge. With all of these signals continually reminding them that they are superior to their employees, it is easy for managers to come to believe that they actually are.”

Robinson told BusinessWest that, among other things, leadership at the three local organizations he cites in The Idea-Driven Organization don’t have that problem, and that’s a big reason why they’ve been so successful.

“One of the messages of our book is that you need to be humble enough to realize that the people who work for you know a lot more than you do, and your job as manager is not to tell them what to do and be the smartest person in the room,” he explained. “Your job is to tap that know-how, and these three companies have done that very well.”

Chapter and Verse

Overall, more than 100 businesses and organizations were cited for their success in The Idea-Driven Organization, and HNE, Big Y, and STCC, all of which have worked extensively with Robinson on their systems, receive prominent mention.

While each was highlighted for different types of obstacle-clearing and pace-setting work, Robinson summed up their contributions to the book — and the ideas movement in general — by telling BusinessWest that each organization highlights the importance of getting a high level of involvement from top management in the creation of an ideas system, implementation, and problem solving.

He started with high praise for STCC and especially its president, Ira Rubenzahl.

“I have my thumb pretty much on what’s going on in this business, and this is the only institution of higher education in the United States that’s doing this,” he said of the 47-year-old college. “They’re the only ones who are actually going out to their frontline people — the registrars, the librarians, and others — and soliciting ideas.

“President Rubenzahl is in higher education, he’s the only one doing this, and higher ed could really benefit from this,” he went on. “Of all the leaders I’ve worked with over the years, he’s put more of his personal self into this than anyone I’ve seen. We did lots of training sessions at STCC, we had lots of meetings, and he sat through every one of them. He really sent a message with that; if you ask him any details about the system, he knows them cold because he’s really engaged in it, and there’s a lesson there for other organizations.”

At Big Y, D’Amour has also taken a leadership role in the ideas process, said Robinson, adding that perhaps his most notable contribution to the process was getting senior management involved early on — especially during a pilot phase involving five of the company’s stores.

“He determined that the executive team would meet every two weeks and review every idea that came up,” Robinson recalled. “The senior team at this 5,000-person company was going to look at every single idea; what that showed them was what kind of things to expect, and the senior management team said, ‘wow, this is really cool. This can really help; we need more of this.’

“The other thing they saw was how these ideas were getting hung up,” he went on, returning to the eco bag. “They said, ‘we have this idea, and it’s a great idea; why isn’t it being implemented?’”

In HNE’s case, Robinson praised now-retired President and CEO Peter Straley for having the foresight to understand years ago that the healthcare industry was heading into uncharted waters, and that his company would have to be imaginative — and nimble — to handle whatever was coming down the road.

“He said, ‘we’re facing Obamacare, we’re also looking at big changes in Medicaid, and no one knows how this is all going to shake out, and the best way to prepare my company is to make it great at improving, great at adapting, and very flexible,’” noted Robinson. “[Straley] knew his company was facing massive change and needed to get better at handling change. That was his rationale, and it was a brilliant piece of leadership.”

The authors praised Straley for his ability to put together a seven-member team to design and oversee an ideas system — one that included the IT director, general counsel, a member of the executive leadership team, several middle managers, and a frontline employee known for proposing improvement ideas — and then provide it with the proper training and the time needed to do its job properly.

“Once the design team is assembled, it must be provided with a thorough education in idea management. Its members will need to have a strong understanding of what high-performing idea processes look like, how they work, and how to address the challenges they will face in creating one,” the authors write. “The initial training can involve classes taught by experts, reading relevant books, and perhaps visits to idea-driven organizations. For the HNE team, the process began with a day of training in idea systems, and then reading and studying two books on managing ideas.

“Once the team began to apply its new knowledge, it began to learn by doing, starting with the assessment of HNE from an ideas perspective,” the authors continue. “As the team members interviewed frontline employees, supervisors, and middle and upper managers, they discovered impediments to the flow of ideas that needed to be addressed. This action learning continued as the team designed their system and rolled it out through their company. In the end, the members of the design team developed considerable expertise in the management of ideas, and HNE went on to successfully implement a high-performing idea system.”

Not the End

Robinson told BusinessWest that he’s already hard at work gathering material for the next book on ideas.

He didn’t say what the specific subject matter would be or when it would be ready to write, but he did note that the ideas movement is still in its relative infancy, and that the process of learning — and teaching others how to do this — is, like the process of soliciting ideas itself, ongoing.

And it seems likely that these Western Mass. companies, and perhaps others, can and will be part of that teaching process.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business Management Sections
This Growing Trend Can Make Employers Tipsy

An airplane pilot wants to bring his own propeller to work. A fireman insists on bringing his hose from home. A student says, “to heck with the textbook the teacher wants me to read; I’ll find one I like better.”

These scenarios might appear to be somewhat preposterous, but what if the pilot, fireman, and student insist that their ‘stuff’ will allow them to work better, faster, and more effectively? What’s an airline executive, fire chief, or teacher to say in response?

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

BYOD, short for ‘bring your own device,’ is the latest headache facing IT departments across the country and around the world. In increasing numbers, employees are insisting on bringing their laptop computers, tablets, and cell phones to work with them — security and compliance be damned. BYOD has employers scrambling to balance worker satisfaction, productivity, and the benefits of not having to pay for all this stuff, with the potential for sensitive data breaches, violations of privacy laws, and the need to have IT people well-versed in supporting the variety of end-user devices now being brought into the workplace.

BYOD even has its own Wikipedia page. “BYOD is making significant inroads in the business world, with about 75% of employees in high-growth markets such as Brazil and Russia and 44% in developed markets already using their own technology at work,” it reads. “In most cases, businesses simply can’t block the trend. Companies like Workspot believe that BYOD may help employees be more productive.  Others say it increases employee morale and convenience by using their own devices and makes the company look like a flexible and attractive employer. Many feel that BYOD can even be a means to attract new hires, pointing to a survey that indicates 44% of job seekers view an organization more positively if it supports their device.”

One of the biggest challenges for BYOD is in the healthcare industry. The electronic health record (EHR) mandate set by the federal government has doctors and nurses expecting instant access to information. Oftentimes, that means using their own cell phones, laptops, or tablets, which comes with the risk of exposing sensitive data, in violation of HIPAA regulations.

According to Anders Lofgren, writing for Health Management Technology, “banning devices outright isn’t an option, as about 70% of IT specialists and physicians already use mobile devices to access electronic health records.” Lofgren suggests implementing a comprehensive BYOD policy as soon as possible. Here are some suggestions on what to include.

• Start by Defining BYOD
. Mobile phones may be permitted, but iPhones, Android devices, and, heaven forbid, Blackberrys require different security protocols.

• Implement MDM. That stands for mobile device management, and basically means registering each and every device with your IT department.  It’ll be up to IT to set security policies and determine how data will be accessed, stored, and used.  They’ll also decide what apps will be allowed or banned, a potential major hurdle for any BYOD policy. MDM will also mean new, complex passwords, something employees generally dislike with a passion.

• Acceptable Use. Most companies have rules about corporate-issued mobile devices governing what an employee can and cannot do. That policy needs to be reassessed with BYOD, since personal devices can be used to access potentially offensive material using the company’s network connection. Do I hear First Amendment lawsuit?

• Termination. What happens when an employee leaves the company? You can’t take back his or her phone, but you must be able to remove e-mail access and other proprietary applications. When will this process occur, and how will it be enforced?

Embracing BYOD may be a necessity in keeping a 21st-century employee happy and productive, but, like BYOB, liability questions can arise if an accident occurs on the way home. n

Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the U.S.;  (413) 268-1605; [email protected]

Business Management Sections
Mandatory Paid Sick Leave on the Horizon for Many Employers


This November promises to be an exciting — and important — time for the Commonwealth. The state will elect a new governor, a Massachusetts seat in the U.S. Senate is up for grabs, and a ballot question will ask voters whether they want to vote down a 2011 law allowing resort casinos to operate in the state. Given these hot ticket items, it’s easy to overlook other voting initiatives.

However, employers should pay particular attention to Question 4, the Massachusetts Paid Sick Days Initiative.

John Gannon

John Gannon

If approved by voters, the measure will require employers to provide certain employees with several sick days each year. Various federal and state laws already require unpaid job-protected leave, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act, and the Small Necessities Leave Act. The difference with this new measure is that most employers would be required to pay employees for their time off.

History of Paid Sick Leave

Connecticut made history in 2011 when it became the first state in the country to require employers to provide paid sick leave. However, the law did not reach all employers or employees.

Employers with fewer than 50 employees were exempt from the law. In addition, paid leave was required to be provided only to non-exempt service workers. The law was predominantly focused on protecting low-wage workers in the service and retail industries. Since then, many cities have adopted similar measures. There are currently sick-leave laws on the books in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

In Massachusetts, similar versions of paid-sick-leave laws were proposed in the Legislature, but none reached a final vote. This year, sick-leave supporters abandoned the legislative route in favor of a ballot strategy. They delivered enough signatures to the State House to get a question about paid sick leave on the 2014 ballot.

The Ballot Question

The law proposed on the statewide ballot would entitle employees in Massachusetts to earn and use up to 40 hours of sick time. The amount of time off, and whether it needs to be paid, varies depending on the size of the employer.  Individuals working for smaller businesses with fewer than 11 employees would be able to earn and use up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time. Employers with 11 or more employees would have to provide these 40 hours of sick time as paid leave. Unlike Connecticut, the law generally applies to all employees regardless of job duties.

The law provides three scenarios where an employee could use earned sick time. Leave could be used (1) to care for a physical or mental illness, injury, or medical condition affecting the employee or the employee’s child, spouse, parent, or parent of a spouse; (2) to attend routine medical appointments of the employee or the employee’s child, spouse, parent, or parent of a spouse; or (3) to address the effects of domestic violence on the employee or the employee’s dependent child. Employees would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, and would begin accruing those hours on the date of hire or on July 1, 2015, whichever is later. Employees could begin to use earned sick time after working 90 days.

Carryover of unused sick time to the next calendar year would be permitted, but the employee could not use more than 40 hours in a calendar year. Unlike unused vacation, employers would not have to pay employees for unused sick time at the end of their employment.

Do They Have to Prove It?

One issue that concerns employers is whether employees have to back up their need for time off. The new law states that employers can require certification of the need for sick time if an employee uses more than 24 consecutive hours of sick leave.

Any “reasonable documentation” signed by a healthcare provider must be accepted as sufficient certification of the need for leave, and employers are prohibited from demanding that the documentation explain the nature of the illness. However, it is unclear whether employers can require medical documentation for shorter absences pursuant to company policy.

Finally, when employees are aware in advance of the need for earned sick time, they must make a good-faith effort to notify the employer beforehand. The law does not suggest how much advance notice should be provided.

Bottom Line

Many employers, particularly small businesses, oppose the sick-time mandate.  Some are already operating on thin margins, and paid-leave requirements would undoubtedly add to growing labor expenses. Those in favor of the law contend that employees should not have to choose between coming to work sick and getting paid.

Recently, the debate has transcended employer groups. Last week Democrat Martha Coakley criticized gubernatorial rival Republican Charlie Baker for his opposition to the ballot question.

If you need assistance revising or adopting your employee-leave policies, contact experienced labor and employment counsel.

John S. Gannon is an associate with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., and practices in the firm’s Springfield office. Since joining the firm in 2011, he has defended employers against claims of discrimination, retaliation, harassment, wrongful-termination claims, as well as actions arising under the Family Medical Leave Act and wage-and-hour laws. He also has experience with lawsuits seeking to enforce restrictive covenants and protect trade secrets; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Business Management Sections
Massachusetts Export Center Helps Firms Do Business Overseas

ExportDPartTo Ann Pieroway, the statistics speak volumes.

Take, for example, the fact that Massachusetts companies exported more than $26.8 billion in goods last year — a 4.63% increase over 2012 — and ranks as the 17th-highest exporting state in the U.S.

Or that the Bay State ranks second nationally in seafood exports, third in medical-device exports, and fourth in the U.S. in high-tech exports. Or that 28% of the state’s manufacturing workers depend on international exports for their jobs, which ranks fourth nationally.

Those achievements don’t happen in a vacuum, said Pieroway, regional director of the Western Mass. office of the Mass. Export Center (MEC).

“We have a very simple mission: to help companies throughout the Commonwealth achieve success in global markets and contribute to economic growth in our state,” she said. “The goal is to maintain jobs or grow jobs.”

It does so by providing a range of resources to client companies, from counseling and technical assistance to market research and assessment, to a wide range of training programs to help businesses navigate the tricky, hyper-regulated world of exports. As for the center’s effectiveness, Pieroway said, the numbers speak loudly there, too.

“For our latest impact study, we sent out a questionnaire to our clients — significant clients, not just somebody we’ve answered questions for,” she explained. Almost 70% responded, and reported $240 million in financial return from their dealings with the MEC in 2011. “That’s not total exports; that $240 million for 2011 is their increase in export sales due to the help they’ve received from the Massachusetts Export Center.”

With a background in offshore manufacturing, Pieroway has been involved in the export arena since 1983, when she was appointed to the governor’s International Trade Council.

“Back then, there were 27 different groups that had their fingers in international trade, but no one primary group,” she said, explaining the germination of the MEC. Paula Murphy, who still serves as statewide director, got the program running 20 years ago, and Pieroway came on board soon after. “We’re a specialty center of the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network, which put the funding in.”

Ann Pieroway

Ann Pieroway says the success of the Massachusetts Export Center can be measured in the additional dollars exporters bring into the Bay State.

Today, the center is primarily funded by the Small Business Administration, with a matching commitment from the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

The state contributes as well, Pieroway said, and studies show that, for every tax dollar it kicks in, $4 is pumped back into the state economy. “So we don’t get cut; we’ve always been level-funded. We put out an impact study that goes to all legislators, and everyone can see what we do — $240 million is a lot of money.”

She also noted that the $2.2 trillion in overall U.S. exports accounts for 9.8 million jobs. “Supposedly, every time you get a $125,000 increase in export sales, a job is created somewhere in the network. That’s very important to us here in the Valley.”

Helping Hands

While Pieroway wasn’t at liberty to name specific clients, she did cite a broad range of services the agency provides, including:

Export counseling and technical assistance. These services are customized to each client’s needs, and might include:

• Export planning and preparation;
• Assessment of export readiness;
• Export strategy and international business-plan development;
• Assessment and selection of target export markets;
• International sales and marketing;
• Identification and qualification of overseas customers and partners;
• International payment and financing;
• Export logistics, including shipping, documentation, terms, and controls;
• North American Free Trade Agreement compliance and eligibility; and
• Working with export service providers, such as international banks, law firms, and freight forwarders.

International market research and assessment. The center has access to a wealth of information on export markets. Examples of research provided to clients include:

• General information on doing business in different countries;
• Demographic, economic, political, and cultural information on different countries;
• Market size, characteristics, and trends;
• Trade barriers and regulatory issues;
• Detailed statistical information on U.S. exports by state, product, and country.

International business-development assistance. Through the center’s partnership with other state and federal government agencies, companies can take advantage of specific programs to market their products and services internationally. These services include:

• International business-plan development;
• Assessment and selection of target export markets;
• Guidance on international sales, marketing, and distribution-channel development and management;
• Identification and qualification of overseas customers and partners;
• Participation in overseas trade shows and missions; and
• Connections with state and federal overseas offices for in-country support.

Export training programs. Partners for Trade, the state’s official export training initiative, is a regional collaborative between the Massachusetts Export Center, chambers of commerce, trade associations, economic-development agencies, and the private sector, working together to present frequent seminars on international trade.

Partners for Trade programs offer Massachusetts companies an overview of topics like international marketing, legal issues, export logistics, international distribution, and others, including country-specific and industry-specific export issues. Much of the training is provided by international trade experts from the private sector, including international business lawyers, export consultants, freight forwarders, international bankers, and international business executives from area companies. On average, more than 1,000 companies participate in the Partners for Trade program each year.

The Massachusetts Export Resource Center. Launched in 2012, the MERC offers a wide range of instructional and practical information on exporting, including training modules, video guides, workbooks, and templates.

The bottom line, Pieroway said, is that the MEC deals in information — lots of it.

“When I first started this job 19 years ago, we used to get reports from the Department of Commerce monthly, and we would send requests to Amherst; our research people would send us a stack of paper like this to take to our clients,” she said, spreading her hands a foot apart. “We no longer have a research department; we do all our own research, or have our interns do research. The things available today were nowhere near available 20 years ago; it’s all Internet research now.”

That information is invaluable to companies navigating the often-thorny, heavily regulated world of international business. Pieroway told of a seven-month-long effort to help a client send a product to China. “Anything going to China gets extra scrutiny. They finally allowed it, with all kinds of conditions. I just pray this company adheres to those conditions.

“We’ve helped companies in every industry there is,” she added, “from agriculture to guns to butternut squash to cosmetics to precision machining — you name it,” she said. And whether a client needs a license or legal assistance or any of a host of other requests, “I connect them with somebody who can help them. We have a wonderful network of support across the Commonwealth.”

Ship Shape

The day she spoke with BusinessWest, Pieroway was preparing for a Partners for Trade seminar in Holyoke called “Fundamentals of Exporting.”

“We want people to have a basic understanding of the process. For some people it’s daunting — there’s a little more paperwork going international — but we achieve results the same way you would domestically: research your client and find out who they are.”

The MEC recently launched another program, called Compliance Alliance, a forum for exporting firms that offers:

• Periodic briefings that address a variety of regulatory compliance issues and provide an opportunity for exporters to network and share best practices with one another;
• Conferences and seminars that provide in-depth training across a broad range of compliance and operational issues. Speakers include exporters, law firms, consulting firms and representatives from government export regulatory authorities;
• An e-newsletter containing updates about current compliance issues and events; and
• Online resources, such as a member directory, a compliance resource library, and a job board.

That word ‘compliance’ comes up often for a reason, Pieroway said, adding that the federal government has tried to simplify international trade, but those efforts have often just made it more difficult.

“We’re doing a lot more webinars, so a lot more people can participate, from all across the country,” she said. “We’re known for our compliance training. We know what companies are going through, and we do a lot of hand holding here.”

That hand-holding has led to national recognition, especially in 2008, when the agency won both the Presidential E Award for excellence in exporting — the highest honor the federal government issues in the exporting arena — and the SBA’s Service Excellence and Innovation Award.

“This year, we won the SBA award for the state and for the region,” Pieroway said. “We feel we should have won the national award, too. I think they thought we’d won too much.”

A 2010 survey found that more than 11,000 Masschusetts companies were exporting goods — about 90% of them small and medium-sized businesses. Along with all the other resources the MEC provides, Pieroway boils a company’s international-trade success down to a strong commitment — of people and resources — by top management.

“You’ve got to have someone in charge of this,” she said, reflecting back to when a company’s compliance ‘expert’ was often a secretary tasked with figuring out how to move product out of the country. “So they became the experts. Now there’s more emphasis on training.”

Pieroway conceded that most companies still get involved in exporting by being reactive, not proactive — for example, when foreign buyers take an interest in a product at a trade show. But the world has been shrinking, so to speak, for a long time, and opportunities abound in other countries for businesses willing to seek it out and learn the ins and outs of exporting. And that takes work.

“You cannot do international business sitting in your chair in your office; you have to leave the country to be really successful,” she said. “It depends on your commitment — of time, personnel, and money.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

Business Management Sections
Executive Coach Helps Clients Get to the Next Level

Anne Weiss

Anne Weiss says that, while she sometimes helps clients affect change, more often, she is engaged in “tweaking” their habits and thought processes.

Amy Jamrog remembers the first time she met Anne Weiss — and coming away both impressed and more than a little scared, which, in this case, was a good thing.
“She thinks really, really big,” recalled Jamrog, a wealth-management adviser and principal with the Jamrog Group, affiliated with Northwestern Mutual, adding that her career in financial services was then about five years old and at what could only be described as a crossroads, which is why colleagues had referred her to an executive coach and, specifically, Weiss.
“If you mention that someday, one day, you hope to accomplish ‘X,’ she’ll want to get that done in the first year,” said Jamrog while elaborating on what she found scary about her new coach. “And that’s what we did; I told her my three-year vision for my practice, and she said, ‘why don’t we do that in 12 months?’
“She’s synonymous with ‘tough love’ — if you say this is what you want to accomplish, she will not let up in seeing that you do,” Jamrog went on, adding that, overall, what Weiss helped her find professionally were consistency, accountability, and a calendar that consistently generated a proper work/life balance as her circumstances changed.
And because she’s been able to do that for a number of clients, she’s considered one of the most successful executive coaches in this area.
Over the years, she’s grown her client portfolio to include bank presidents, lawyers, accountants, architects, executives with large corporations, owners of small businesses, and even some business consultants.
They all have specific needs, and all were at some kind of proverbial crossroads when they decided to seek out her services, said Weiss, but there is a simple and basic pattern to the client-coach relationship, one that she has mastered to the point where she now counts nearly 20 clients from both inside this region and well outside it.
“It starts with both parties being clear about the result that they want to be accomplished,” she said, “and then creating a plan to have that goal accomplished, and then holding people to account for accomplishing it.”
Sometimes, this accountability process requires a phone call a week, other times one lengthy meeting each month, she went on, adding that, in general, having a coach makes them more effective, gives them peace of mind, or both.
She said her coaching role, which is a huge part of her consulting practice, involves working with clients on any number of issues or challenges, from teaching them how to network (a critical skill when it comes to building a business) to advising them on setting and reaching goals, to enabling busy professionals to effectively learn how to say ‘no’ to some of those requests for their invaluable time.
“A lot of times, I don’t have the answer,” she said as she said as she talked about her work. “But in talking with the client, we come up with something that would be an answer, and then we say, ‘this is good — let’s go for it.’”
Overall, Weiss said, while she sometimes brings about real change in people, more often she is “tweaking” their style when it comes to everything from how they interact with people to how they manage time to how to become more punctual.
“Sometimes people need to change, and other times people need to be tweaked, but even tweaking can often make a profound difference,” she said, referring to both an individual’s career and a company’s bottom line.
For this issue and its focus on business management, BusinessWest talked at length with Weiss about executive coaching and how she uses that tough love Jamrog described to help get through the crossroads and into the fast lane when it comes to personal and professional growth.

Getting Down to Business

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog says Anne Weiss helped her with many aspects of career and business development, the most significant being the ability to work consistently.

Weiss told BusinessWest that executive coaching is certainly not a recent phenomenon — people have been doing it for decades, and in recent years, as in many fields, it has become a specialized profession, with individuals developing niches in sometimes quite specific aspects of business management.
What might be considered new, she went on, is a realization among a growing number of business owners and managers that, while they may know their industry and vocation, they don’t know everything about succeeding professionally.
And this is why her client list has grown steadily over the years, with the notable exception of the peak years of the Great Recession, when many executives decided that, despite apparent need, they felt they just couldn’t afford a coach during those lean times.
The portfolio is now larger than it was prior to the crash of 2008, said Weiss, adding that this is both a good barometer when it comes to the economy and an indication that a growing number of professionals are becoming comfortable with the concept of hiring a coach.
When asked how someone will know when they’re ready for that step, she said simply, “when you need to produce something you can’t produce on your own.”
And in the business world today, that’s most people, she went on, adding that a coach can provide such individuals with a unique, outside perspective not available from a mentor, per se, or from someone inside a company or organization.
“I’m not their advisory board, and I’m not their board of directors,” she explained. “So there’s a level of accountability and understanding, so they’re free to be able to say, ‘here’s what’s working, and here’s what’s not working.’”
Weiss brings a broad range of experience to her role as coach. Earlier in her career, she worked in sales and marketing, and eventually segued into consulting, with a heavy emphasis on executive coaching. In the mid-’90s, she partnered with two others in a venture called TLD Consulting, which was based in New York, but has been on her own for the past 16 years.
Most all of her business comes from referrals, she noted, adding that she works with individuals in a wide array of sectors, including financial services, education, and manufacturing, and has assisted a number of entrepreneurs as they have struggled to take ventures to the next level or juggle several initiatives simultaneously.
As she elaborated on what she does and how she does it, Weiss came back repeatedly to the phrase “holding people accountable” for meeting or surpassing the goals they have set for themselves.
And she does so with a passion that that prompted Jamrog to summon not only that word ‘scary’ but also ‘intimidating,’ and another business owner to note in an online testimonial that she has “ruthless compassion,” which sounds like a synonym for tough love.
“She asks really hard questions and then waits for you to figure out the answer,” said Jamrog, adding that, shortly after becoming a client, she developed a strong desire not to disappoint the coach.
“When I had to be accountable to her, and pay her, that became a real motivator for me — when I told her I was going to do something, I didn’t want to let her down,” she said. “And that made it an interesting relationship, different from anything I’d had before. She wasn’t my boss, she wasn’t my mom, she wasn’t even a colleague, but I wanted to do what I said I was going to do, because she was counting on me. The coaching relationship is very interesting like that.”

Accounting Lessons
When asked what problem, or professional weakness, Weiss was most helpful with, Jamrog said it was consistency in her work.
“I would work really hard, then I wouldn’t, then I’d work really hard again, and then I wouldn’t,” she explained. “It was a very inconsistent — and also very stressful — way to work. She helped me really build in consistent practices that became habits over time.”
But that proved to be simply one of many ‘projects’ the two would work on over a coaching relationship that would last eight years and ended only because Jamrog had reached a point professionally where she was comfortable and simply didn’t want to take on any more projects.
Weiss said her clients have different motivations for seeking out her services. Many, like Jamrog, had reached a point in their career where they realized that to get to the next level — whatever that might be — they would need some help getting there. Others, meanwhile, don’t feel accomplished in their career, despite a decent level of success, and need help reaching that station. And still others understand that, while they may be good at what they do professionally, they need a coach to help them to maximize their potential, set the bar higher, and then clear the bar.
Sometimes clients simply need some help with those people skills that are often as important as technical ability when it comes to growing a book of business.
“It’s not the same dynamic anymore,” she said of business in general. “What used to be a handshake now requires a contract, and what used to be an old-boys kind of network isn’t like that anymore. Being in business requires a lot more networking, and one of the trends I’ve seen is that people need to be trained in how to network, in how to grow their business.
“Lawyers went to school to practice law; they didn’t know that they were going to have to be accountable for going out and growing their business,” she continued. “Architects thought their job was just to draw and build. Instead, they need to be the ones on the street meeting with facility managers and learning that there’s a new job at Smith College, and that company should get it.”
Beyond these hard lessons and the broad assignments of holding clients accountable for their stated goals for themselves or their company, Weiss said she also helps with that ‘tweaking’ she described earlier, noting that, quite often, seemingly small changes in style and performance can bring about significant impact in both the efficiency of an operation and how a leader is perceived by employees, customers, and the business community in general.
“If someone alters some way that they act — they’re on time, they answer e-mails, they return phone calls — those little things will matter in how people interface with that individual and how they respond to that person,” she said. “If you show up to a meeting with an agenda, start it on time, and end it on time, there’s a respect that people will have for you, and as you keep doing that, people will start to respond very positively.”
As an example of such tweaking, Weiss cited a local banking executive who was consistently late for appointments and, more importantly, not feeling accomplished professionally.
“So we took apart his entire job to find out why,” she explained. “And what we found is that he had said ‘yes’ to more requests to be on boards, to be on committees, to be on subcommittees to committees … it’s no wonder he couldn’t handle it all. He said ‘yes’ to way too many things, so we had to unravel and undo and revoke some of the things he had said ‘yes’ to and replace him on some of those boards and committees, while keeping him on in the things that mattered most to him.”

Coach Class
Weiss noted that, while her work can at times be frustrating — over the years, a few clients have eventually been deemed ‘uncoachable’ — it is usually quite rewarding.
That’s because people come to her when they realize that they need to produce something and can’t produce it on their own, she said, adding that helping them get there by asking the hard questions, working with them to find answers, and then holding them accountable for results is very fulfilling work.
This is the essence of tough love, or “ruthless compassion” in the business world, and Weiss has it down to a science.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business Management Sections
Clear Vision Alliance Helps Businesses Focus on Tomorrow

Ravi Kulkarni and Lynn Whitney Turner

Ravi Kulkarni and Lynn Whitney Turner say many business leaders make the mistake of focusing on their day-to-day operations instead of seeking answers about what it will take to grow in this economy.

Ravi Kulkarni and Lynn Whitney Turner say great vision is a journey, and business owners who create compelling visions focus as much on their personal growth as they do on business growth.
The owners of Clear Vision Alliance not only do consulting, but also speak across the nation, telling people that organizations stop growing when their leaders stop growing. They were once competitors, but joined forces in 2007 to help executives learn how to create new visions and strategies for growth.
Their advice is based on statistics gleaned from their clients’ histories, coupled with relevant case studies pertinent to each industry, and they told BusinessWest they have seen many business executives so focused on their day-to-day operations that they fail to seek — and grasp — opportunities for the future.
“We have asked CEOs in large organizations to tell us what their vision is, and none of them were able to articulate it,” said Kulkarni. “And leaders of nonprofits are all about immediate needs. They are not driven by passion and don’t know what is possible, so they aren’t able to come up with innovative programs.”
Turner agrees, and says many clients tell them that they ‘hope’ their business will do well. “But hope is not a strategy, and if you put all of your eggs in one basket and the plan falls through, the business can fail.”
They added that many businesses get stuck when their revenues reach between $2 million and $10 million, which often happens after the founder’s original goal is achieved. “The owner had a vision, took it to that point, and may not have looked beyond it,” Turner said.
Kulkarni concurs, and says many companies get into a comfortable niche once they know they can survive. “Some have been in business for 30 to 50 years and they justify their stagnation by saying they have reached market saturation, or, in the case of manufacturers, that there is an excess of things being outsourced.”
In addition, the many nonprofits in Western Mass. experience problems because their services often overlap, and competition to raise money through fund-raisers such as golf tournaments is fierce. “Although most of them do an excellent job in providing services, many are always in survival mode,” Kulkarni said.
Change is possible, but may never occur until a crisis looms, they said. This happened to a nonprofit in Kansas that called upon Clear Vision Alliance to help reformulate its business model when it was nearing bankruptcy.
“After they changed their marketing strategy, they were able to expand into Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Iowa, and Washington D.C., and grew from four employees to 23 employees,” Kulkarni said.
The basis of the nonprofit’s operation was an activity program used in schools, and it turned things around when it began marketing it by using up-to-date research findings showing there is a correlation between a child’s learning, behavioral problems, and the amount of activity they engage in (more about that later).
“People come to us when they run out of ideas; most of them have made strategic decisions based on emotion and opinions, but we are data-driven,” said Kulkarni, noting that applying principles of neuroscience, combined with the latest technology and a global market analysis, can make a world of difference.

Changing Paradigms
Many firms hold annual weekend retreats for their executives that never result in change. Although team members may seem to be in agreement during these meetings, Kulkarni and Turner say they are actually in “artificial harmony,” since power struggles, individual insecurities, egos, and biases play into what happens when they return to the office.
Teamwork needs to be inspired, she went on, by competent executives who hold healthy and honest debates, do research into best practices, and employ strict discipline.
But Kulkarni says problems arise because these leaders lack “strategic humility.” In the past, he explained, executives believed they had to have all of the answers and worked in isolation to find solutions to problems, with no one to challenge their assumptions.
Although that course of action is not effective in today’s marketplace, many don’t know what it will take to grow their business beyond the point it is at and don’t ask for help.
If they do, however, the first step is to make them understand it is critically important to invest in their own education, and Clear Vision Alliance accomplishes this goal through a series of questions.
“We ask clients how they will survive over the next 10 years, but many don’t have an answer,” said Kulkarni. “They cite past knowledge and experience, but that really isn’t relevant to the future. Technology has generated a gap between what they did and the way consumers will buy in the future, and their plans are not based on current data.”
He added that formulating a plan for continued growth should be an ongoing process, but when executives are queried about how their company is doing, 90% of them answer, ‘we are busy,’ and when they are asked, ‘are you making money?’ the typical answer is ‘we hope so.’
Turner says the word ‘hope’ is simply wishful thinking. and means the company is not using the right metrics to measure its growth.
Most of Clear Vision’s clients haven’t seen their revenues change much in the past 10 years, and although they think they are doing fine, when they are told to superimpose an annual rate of 2% to 20% in inflation over the next 10 years, they realize they will lose money if they don’t increase their earnings.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Kulkarni, adding that one company he and Turner worked with had been in business for a century, but called upon the consultants because they felt they had reached market saturation. “We created an educational process for them,” Kulkarni said, explaining that they gave the executive team Harvard case studies and other reading materials applicable to their situation, then had them debate the cases.
“One CFO told us that, when he first did the reading, he became angry, then realized he had been doing something wrong,” he continued. “And this year, the owner told us, ‘you made me very uncomfortable, and it was a good thing,’ while the entire executive team had similar comments. When people say they are comfortable, it means they are complacent.”
Turner said many firms get into a mode of doing business as usual, and don’t snap out of it until a crisis occurs. “We try to circumvent that process,” she noted.
When a crisis does hit, many think it occurred without warning, but it usually happens because leaders have not looked ahead and kept up with changes in technology and the economy.
Kulkarni gave the example of a local precision manufacturer that invested $6 million in new equipment, hoping to get $10 million in business contracts from the defense industry during a time when the government was cutting back on military spending. “A catastrophe is often in the pipeline, but people don’t see it coming,” he told BusinessWest.
He gave another example of an area manufacturer who makes home insulation from newsprint. When its leaders called upon Clear Vision Alliance for help, home building was on the rise, but print newspapers were declining, so the owner was sending trucks to Pennsylvania to purchase outdated books, even though the quality of the paper in them was inferior to newsprint. “I asked him how long he thought it would be before his sources dried up,” Kulkarni said.
Another problem occurs when business owners want to retire and discover that no one in their family is interested in taking over, and there is a discrepancy between what they think their business is worth and what a buyer thinks is a fair price. As a result, they often keep working. “Some want to get out, but they can’t because they are attached to their employees,” Turner said.

Different Focus

Although it’s easy to get caught up in solving daily problems, many of Clear Vision’s clients make the mistake of directing their focus internally with the goal of improving their systems and productivity.
“They haven’t looked at the world outside and how it will impact them, which will not help them long-term,” Turner said.
Kulkarni said one client they worked with told them he learned that “bad strategy with great execution will get you in the wrong place that much faster.”
He said the Kansas nonprofit mentioned earlier was able to reach new heights by coming up with an innovative plan. But in order to create that, the top executives needed to see what was possible.
To facilitate that, Kulkarni and Turner took the company’s leaders to visit nonprofits in Connecticut and Tennessee, where research in neuroscience, technology, and behavioral science was being applied to improve programs.
“It opened new doors for them,” Turner said. “Once their minds were open, they began doing research, and a top university connected with them to work on a project.”
By keeping up with the times, she added, the nonprofit became eligible for federal and educational grants as well as other new sources of funding, because it had differentiated itself from other nonprofits.
“Private corporations want to invest in research projects which lead to project development and new partnerships,” Kulkarni said.
Although some executives think reading will keep them up with the times, Turner says it is not enough. “When they actually see and experience something, they are able to see what they can apply to their own business,” she said. “We make them do homework beyond their current direct competition.”
However, formulating a plan to move forward isn’t easy. It requires using objective data pertinent to a target market. In addition, bringing new ideas to the team members who will be responsible for implementing change and getting them to carry them out require honed leadership skills.
“It’s very common in large corporations for people to agree during a meeting, even though they will not pull in the same direction when they leave the room,” Turner said, as she continued to talk about how top executives need to become group facilitators, as opposed to the person with all the answers, which involves examining their style of communicating and whether they make people feel comfortable enough to speak honestly.

Bottom Line
Kulkarni said organizations grow stagnant due to a lack of focus and direction on the part of their leaders.
“They have no vision, have become comfortable looking inward, and don’t have knowledge of the skills and changes they need to have an impact,” he said.
“Great vision is a journey,” he reiterated, and the path executives choose can either inhibit growth or allow them to keep pace with today’s global economy.

Business Management Sections
There Are Many Applicable Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Succession Plan


Charlotte Cathro

Charlotte Cathro

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs passed away in October and left behind him an incredible legacy. He conceived and cultivated a successful and admired company, but a long history of health issues had investors concerned about where the business would be without him.
The company had been tight-lipped about their succession plan, leading to some speculation. The world was shown what Jobs intended for the company when he resigned in August and the plan was officially set in motion.
While a company as successful as Apple needs a plan on the largest of scales, there are some cues that can be taken to benefit all companies in planning for their future.
Jobs founded Apple with his high-school friend, Stephen Wozniak, in 1976, and the two transformed the personal-computer industry. After a disagreement with company executives, Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985, but returned to take the helm in 1997 as part of a new management team. Upon returning to Apple, Jobs continually expanded the company with new innovations. What was a computer manufacturer became a conglomerate of music, software, and personal electronics. Jobs created a following for his sleek and modern design aesthetic. Keen marketing campaigns surrounded each new product in buzz. His charismatic presentations of new products were touted for their brilliance, and his own image became inseparable from Apple’s. It is this intertwining that makes Jobs an incredibly tough act to follow.
To ensure that Steve Jobs’ vision lived on, the company created Apple University. The university is a training program for Apple executives with high-level courses designed to instill Apple’s most important principles: accountability, perfectionism, simplicity, and secrecy. The project ensures that everyone is on the same page, and allows management to trust that the organization is acting with a collective brain.
Jobs took the project so seriously that he recruited the former dean of Yale University, Joel Podolny, to run it. While not all businesses have the resources to set up such a program, business owners can and should train employees to make smarter decisions independently. An education and training program fosters loyalty and a culture of self-improvement. It doesn’t just prepare them for when you are no longer running the business; building trust will allow you to transition responsibility over time.
When it came time to name a new CEO, Apple was ready. Jobs stepped down in August, and Tim Cook was appointed in his place. Jobs trusted Cook to take the helm for several reasons. First, Cook had a strong relationship with Jobs and considered him a mentor. He has respect for the vision and history of the company, and is not looking to completely revamp it now that he is in charge. He reportedly sent a memo to employees since he took over noting that Apple would not change.
Cook has a strong drive for success, which has gotten him this far in his career. As COO, Cook managed Apple’s enormous supply chain and enabled the company to post impressive profits. His experience will allow him to maintain Apple’s standing as a fierce market competitor. Most importantly, Cook loves Apple and its products.
Cook’s appointment in August was not his first time running the show. He had filled in on several occasions during Jobs’ previous medical leaves and had been in charge of the day-to-day operations of the business as of January. While it may have been Jobs’ continuous illness that required Cook to act as a standin, it served the succession plan well. Investors, analysts, and the public started to know his name, and employees of the company got a taste of what working under Cook would be like.
Field-testing executives allows them to get some comfort in the role, and gives opportunity for feedback. Businesses can begin by including protégés in meetings with major customers and suppliers and allowing them to create a rapport. Acclimating customers to future leaders can also result in fewer losses upon transition.
A succession plan doesn’t need to be a one-for-one replacement in leadership. Jobs had developed a team of advisors with specialties in different areas. This group includes Jony Ive, vice president of design; Scott Forstall, in charge of operating system software; Bob Mansfield, hardware engineering; and Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing head. It is unknown whether roles within the organization will shift with Jobs gone, but this ‘two heads are better than one’ approach ensures that Cook will have a sounding board for ideas.
To follow the lead of Apple, companies developing succession plans should evaluate what skills are needed for future leadership and fill the gaps, spreading the abilities to supporting roles. Smaller organizations without the resources for multiple executives with different skill sets can retain consultants or send existing staff to targeted training.
Apple has reinvented itself several times over the years, and Jobs prided himself in knowing what the public wanted, even when they didn’t. A future for the company, then, needs to include continuous innovation. The vision for the future should not just be that of survival, but of growth.
In planning beyond Steve Jobs, Apple educated its employees, created a strong corporate culture, established a support team of differing skills, and test-drove their executives. To ensure that a company lives past its president, a succession plan needs to be more than just a decision. The plan needs to be in motion as an ongoing initiative.

Charlotte Cathro is a tax manager with the Holyoke-based CPA firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510; [email protected]

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