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Make Your Company an Innovation Powerhouse

Posted By Administration, Thursday, March 1, 2018

If you want to survive and prosper in this world of fast-paced change  and intense competition, you need to build innovation into every nook and cranny of your company. Business success is all about creating and sustaining a competitive advantage and innovation is the key. 


What sets apart companies like Google, Amazon, “Elon Musk Inc.”, and Apple is their extraordinary pace of innovation. Hardly a day goes by when they aren’t announcing some new product, feature, technological breakthrough, business model redesign, or other initiative. As a result, their competitors are choking on their exhaust fumes as they futilely try to catch up.


Now, you may believe that rapid-paced, company-wide innovation is only required in the high tech world. But I would argue that companies in the juvenile industry who want to break out from the pack and flourish in today’s very challenging marketplace would be wise to adopt the philosophy that has driven the high tech company boom. And it’s not really difficult to do if you are committed to it. In a previous post, Crafting an Innovation Culture, I talked about how you can create a culture that energizes the implementation of your mission. Here’s how to make sure your culture fosters state-of-the-art innovation:


Innovate Everywhere

Let it be known in your company that everything is up for grabs. No sacred cows. You obviously can enhance your competitive advantage by designing innovative new products, but also by creating a clever new way to attract consumers, redefining your target market, revamping your sourcing strategy, leveraging artificial intelligence, simplifying your organization chart, changing your compensation system, entering a totally new category, and on and on. These are all innovations.


Adopt an Experimentation Mindset

In the “old days”, companies were reluctant to create radically new products, processes, and business models because of the high cost of failure and related risks to personal job security. Today, it’s easier than ever to simulate and test ideas at low cost rather than immediately take the high risk plunge. We now know Innovation is best accomplished through iterative experimentation. Generate an idea, simulate or prototype it, get feedback from internal or external customers, revise as necessary, get feedback again, and so on until you’ve got something you’re confident will fly. Then you invest the big bucks and make it happen.


Encourage Idea Generation from All Sources

Successful innovation is a numbers game. The more ideas coming into the funnel the more great implementable ideas will surface. The nurturing and harvesting of ideas has to be built solidly into your business model so it automatically happens all the time. Identify all the potential idea sources and make it easy and rewarding for people to make suggestions. It shouldn’t be just a passive approach where you wait for ideas to be generated. The search for ideas should be proactive—a part of everyone’s job.  Monitor the number and quality of ideas from all sources and take corrective action if you’re not getting what you need.   


Screen Effectively

The quickest way to discourage idea generation is to not provide feedback to idea generators. The well will quickly run dry. Every idea should be acknowledged and responded to with information about the likelihood of implementation. You’ll need a very good screening process to separate the wheat from the chaff. The art of screening is to be able to recognize the ideas that have potential even when they are still undeveloped. You’ll also need a mechanism for refining and implementing the best ideas in a timely manner.


Leverage Teamwork and Diversity

Innovation is a team sport. It takes a blend of diverse perspectives to take the seed of an idea and develop it into something that will really work. A team will almost always come up with a better idea than an individual. There’s a magical synergistic effect generated by a cross-functional team trained to build on and implement an idea.


Teach Innovation Techniques

One of the most effective things we did at The First Years to encourage innovation was to adopt one company-wide innovation process that people across the company were trained in. We used a technique developed by a company in Cambridge, MA called Synectics. Whenever we needed a new idea or a problem needed to be solved, we got the appropriate cross-functional group together and conducted a Synectics brainstorming session. The more we used it, the better we got at it. And it was fun! 


Next Steps

Do a self-assessment to see how innovative your company is right now. Ask yourself if you are generating enough new product and process ideas to keep you out in front of competition for the foreseeable future. If not, consider implementing some of these suggestions. You might be surprised by the amount of creativity in your company you can tap into.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

Tags:  business  competition  innovation 

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Why You Need a Mentor

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, February 16, 2018

If you haven’t yet established a relationship with one or more confidants with whom you can share your deepest concerns and get reliably helpful feedback, you’re missing a huge opportunity. 

Most successful CEOs and senior executives are not totally independent and self-sufficient    pioneers who boldly move forward without the need for advice or a shoulder to cry on. In fact, some of the least successful CEOs I know have avoided mentor help because of fear of looking weak while the mega-stars almost always thrive because of mentor guidance.


Bill Gates credits Warren Buffet with teaching him how to deal with tough situations and how to think long term. Mark Zuckerberg got advice from Steve Jobs about how to build a high-performing team and about focusing on changing peoples’ lives. Nike founder Phil Knight says if it hadn’t been for his mentor and co-founder Bill Bowerman, there would have been no Nike.


While I certainly don’t put myself in the same league as the aforementioned billionaires, I too benefited from mentors in my career. Bart Wendell is a business consultant and psychologist whose experience working with family companies was especially relevant to my situation early in my career. Joe Selame was a highly talented graphic designer who taught me the basics of good design and helped bring out the innovator in me. I also for years met monthly with a group of successful “big league” CEOs organized by a company that was called TEC at the time. Their guidance was of enormous value during the ups and downs of my career and particularly when the time came to sell the company.


Since that sale in 2004, I myself have enjoyed mentoring many JPMA CEOs and executives and for the past three years I’ve been the lead mentor at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at Florida Gulf Coast University. Learning how best to help people of all ages succeed in whatever it is they are trying to accomplish has been the highlight of my “second career”.  Here’s some of what I’ve discovered. 


Characteristics of great mentors

Mentoring is a skill of its own. Just being a successful executive yourself does not teach you how to help others. Here are some of the characteristics of the best practitioners:

  • Totally supportive—not in a position to cause you harm or affect your compensation or standing in any negative way.
  • Empathetic—has a sincere interest in helping you solve your problems and improve your life.
  • Curious—asks open-ended questions that enable you to talk openly about your thoughts and actions and pays full attention to the story and the story behind the story.
  • Honest but diplomatic—able to be direct without being offensive.
  • Experienced—already gone down the same road that you are going down.
  • Discreet—able to keep everything discussed totally confidential without exception.
  • Connected—having a broad and relevant network of resources.
  • Innovative—recognizes opportunities that you may have not thought of and able to stimulate your creative juices.

What a mentor can do for you

Consultant and mentor Bob Proctor defines a mentor as, “someone who sees more talent and ability within you than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” The fact is that we all live in one form of a “mental prison” or another. What I mean is that our mindsets have blind spots and walls that prevent us from seeing everything objectively. And you’re not going to ever get the straight scoop from your board, your boss, your employees, or even friends and family. A good mentor that genuinely wants to help you and has no axe to grind can quite simply open your eyes and bolster your confidence. This can make all the difference in the world regarding your ability to learn and progress.


How to find the best mentor

Just like the process you would use to hire a new employee, you need to start with an understanding of at least the general area of needs you are trying to fill. In my case, I was looking for someone with a family business background who also understood the particular stresses of being a CEO. It was the emotional and personal side of business I wanted to talk to someone about, not the nuts and bolts of how to manage a company where I felt more confident.

Once you know what you’re looking for, use your existing network of business associates, trade associations, friends, and family to find someone who you know you can trust because of the referral. Then follow the typical process of phone screening followed by a trial session. I ended up finding someone through a referral from a member of my TEC CEO group.


Next Steps

If you don’t currently benefit from a relationship with a qualified supportive mentor, I would highly recommend at least giving it a try. Use the methods listed above to identify a candidate and have at least one meeting to see what comes out of it. You really have little to lose and you may have created a new life-changing relationship.

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

Tags:  mentor 

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Crafting a High-Performance Culture

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, December 8, 2017

A crucial but often overlooked component of your business model is the culture that you create within your company. The first thing to recognize is that it’s something that needs to be thoughtfully designed and nurtured, not something that should be allowed to just happen.


Corporate culture can be described as the shared values, standards, and beliefs that govern the behavior of management and employees. A positive culture that is designed and implemented correctly and consistently can be a powerful force supporting performance excellence and enhancing your competitive advantage. A negative culture can be poisonous.

Here are some thoughts about what you can do to create a culture in your company that will help you be successful.   

Understand the Culture that Best Supports Your Mission

As you know if you’ve read my previous blog posts, I firmly believe that the design of your business model is the key to business success. My definition of a business model includes 5 components:


  1. Mission—how you will improve the lives of your customers
  2. Culture—the values, standards, and beliefs that support fulfillment of your Mission
  3. Operating Process—the day to day methodology used to fulfill the Mission
  4. Resources—the people, skills, facilities, partnerships etc. that you need to perform the Operating Process
  5. Financial Formula—the relationship between expenses and revenues that will generate a profit

Culture is a foundational element of your business. You could have a great mission and process, outstanding resources, and a sound financial formula. But if your culture is flawed, everything crumbles to the ground.


A great example of a company with a clear and well-enforced culture is Wal-Mart. I personally believe that their culture has played an enormous role in their incredible success. If you’ve had any experience working with Wal-Mart buyers, you know that they consider their mission to be acting as agents for the consumer to save them money so they can live better. All well and good. But it’s their unique Sam Walton-initiated culture that makes this work so effectively. It dictates, for one thing, maintaining relationships with suppliers that are cooperative, demanding in a fair way, and strictly objective. To that end, in stark contrast with many other retailers, their buyer-salesperson relationships have always been of the arm’s length variety and this has been strictly enforced over the years without exception. Add to that their other cultural attributes like obsessive continuous improvement, merchandising boldness, customer focus, etc. and you have a potent cultural platform on which to build a business.  

Include the Most Important Mission-Supporting Values

Be careful what you choose to include. There are certain values that virtually every company should embrace like integrity, fairness, teamwork, and continuous improvement.

Some obvious ones for the juvenile industry might be supporting family values and rigorous regard for child safety.


Certain values and policies might stem from the kind of employees you’d like to attract like work flexibility or development opportunities.


And, you might want to include some that differentiate you from your competitors like obsessive customer-centricity or high speed innovation.


What you need is the right mix of cultural elements that best creates the working environment that you believe will best support your mission—but not so many that no one can remember what they all are.

Walk the Talk

There are few things more demoralizing in an organization than leaders who lay out a glorious set of corporate values but then don’t follow them themselves. The CEO and other senior managers need not only to lead the culture creation process but also be its most avid followers. You can talk all you want about the importance of efficiency and timeliness but if you yourself are late for meetings or miss promised deadlines, you’re teaching your staff that that’s acceptable.


And, it’s not enough to just live the values. You need to find ways to continually remind everyone what they are virtually every time you’re talking to your employees or through other forms of communication and events. Understanding and appreciating the challenges of parenting and the keys to healthy child development were aspects of our culture at The First Years and we reinforced this through training programs and videos among other things.

Hire People Who Fit the Culture

This is enormously important. Not every employee can flourish in any culture. And a fish out of water will contaminate the atmosphere (literally and figuratively). Part of your recruiting process needs to address cultural fit. Then make sure your culture is explained in detail with explanatory examples during new employee orientation.


And, if you make a mistake and hire someone who doesn’t buy in, act quickly to remove them. This sounds cruel but cultures are crucial and fragile at the same time. Keeping a misfit on board will not do you or them any good.

Align Your Compensation and Rewards System to Support Your Culture

A critical component of culture reinforcement is your overall policy for compensation, feedback, rewards, and punishment too. No matter what you tell your employees your culture is, what gets rewarded and what gets punished sends the definitive message. For example:

  • If you want to promote teamwork, your bonus system needs to have at least some team component.
  • If you want to encourage innovation and risk-taking, people who make good tries and fail should be praised not punished.
  • If you want your managers to think long-term, don’t predicate all compensation on short-term results.
  • If you want to see more culture consistent behaviors, praise publicly behaviors that reflect your important values and promote employees who are culture ambassadors.
  • If you seek continuous improvement, create a system for creating measurable objectives and reviewing results.
Next Steps

There is a culture that’s a perfect fit for every mission. What you and your key employees need to do is identify the employee attitudes, standards, and behaviors that will support what you are trying to accomplish, document them, and live them.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

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Dreaming About Selling Your Company?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Many juvenile product company owners hope to be able to cash in on all their hard work someday via a company sale. Having experienced the process myself first hand, I thought I could pass on a few pointers as well as some cautions.


Just like most major life decisions, selling your company is a complicated proposition that deserves a great deal of thought and care. No doubt it will be a life-changing experience not just for you but for many other people in your world. You want to be able to look back on the transaction with satisfaction not regret. If you’ve reached the point where you are considering selling, here are some important questions to ask yourself:


Are You Selling for the Right Reasons?

There are lots of situations and events that can stir up thoughts about a sale. But you never want to be using a sale as a way to escape a bad situation. The outcome of selling under duress is likely to be disappointing. You can’t hide the bad news. Buyers are too savvy. The best time to do a deal is when you don’t have to but you want to—and your reasons for wanting out should make sense to others. If your rationale doesn’t add up, potential buyers will be very suspicious. Good reasons for putting your company on the market would be things like wanting to try something else in your life or being ready for retirement.


Is This the Right Time?

To maximize the value you will receive, you want to sell when your profits are trending up and prospects for new business are provably rosy. Of course, when that’s the case, you’ll be tempted to postpone selling. But that’s precisely the time to press the go button. Buyers will estimate the return on their investment and the corresponding price they are willing to pay based on what is real—what has already happened or is sure to happen, not what you’re promising for the future.


You also need to make sure your company has been positioned for sale. What I mean by that is that the staff and processes you have in place can be easily taken over and run by the new owner. If that’s not the case already, it will take time to get there—maybe years. But it’s worth waiting. If the company is too dependent on you or any one person for that matter, the value for a buyer can be drastically diminished. Similarly it’s best for your company not to be too dependent on one customer or one product. Diversify your revenue sources.


Can You Keep it Confidential?

While I’m typically a big proponent of transparency when running a company, the fact that you’re contemplating a transaction of this type is one thing that you need to keep confidential for as long as possible for many critical practical reasons. It’s crucial to keep your business running smoothly during a process like this. The last thing you need are employees or customers nervous about the company’s future. When you’ve worked out all the details, that’s the time to come forward.


Have You Really Thought Through the Consequences?

Failure to thoroughly think through all the intended and possible unintended consequences of a sale is where the biggest heartaches can come from. The sale of my company did not at all unfold the way I expected. While I wanted to walk away after the deal, our hope was to attract a buyer who would retain our existing staff. That didn’t happen for the most part and once the documents are signed you have no control over what the new owner does.


Other questions you should be considering in advance are: What are you going to do with yourself after the sale? Stay on? If so, what would it be like working for someone else? Leave and play golf? Will you be happy doing that for the rest of your life? Start a new company? I was strongly advised by some business friends to make a clean break. That was good advice for me.


Do You Have the Right Advisers?

Selling a business is complicated stuff legally and financially and chances are you’ve never done it before. Make sure you have capable experienced legal and deal-making experts working with you every step of the way. Get the best you can find. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is even if it seems expensive. A process like this will have many unexpected surprises and setbacks. You want people by your side who have been through it multiple times and know how to cope with anything and everything.


Next Steps

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

Tags:  company sale  sell your company 

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Preparing for the Inevitable

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The recently announced Toys R Us bankruptcy filing brings back memories of numerous crises we at The First Years, like every company, has had to weather. Bad things happen—with regularity. And anticipating and preparing for them should be part of your standard operating procedure.


As a senior manager, there’s a value to being optimistic about the future. No doubt your company’s mission statement and vision are based upon bold beliefs about what’s possible—and rightly so. To grow and improve you need to dream, and dream big. However, if your plans and budgets are based on a belief that you can accurately predict the future and everything is going to work as planned, you’re in for a painful surprise. Bad stuff happens.    


In fact maybe the only thing about the future you can be sure of is that something unexpected will occur. In my 32 year experience leading The First Years, it seemed as if we had at least one major costly negative surprise every year. Here are just some I can remember:

  • Numerous major account bankruptcies
  • A phthalate-related mass return from retailers of standards compliant merchandise sparked by a Greenpeace protest in Hong Kong
  • Product safety recalls (fortunately few)
  • Precipitous decline of licensed character sales after many years of rapid growth
  • Patent law suits
  • Unexpected losses of key employees
  • Dock strikes
  • “Greenmail” by a major stockholder
  • Aggressive new competitors
  • 9/11

I’m sure you could add to this list. For example, some companies have had fires destroy their warehouses, sexual assault or discrimination cases, or had their information systems compromised. So how do you deal with these harsh realities? Here are a few suggestions:


Brainstorm What Could Go Wrong

After your senior management team has generated your company’s preliminary plan of action for the next time period, devote some time to thinking about everything that could go wrong. Build this into your process. Usually the rule for brainstorming is there’s no such thing as a bad idea. For this kind of brainstorming, no bad idea is a bad idea. Get the most pessimistic and conservative people in your company to participate. Narrow the generated list down to the most costly and disruptive possible crises with a reasonable chance of happening. Then see if you can come up with ways to prevent them from happening or mitigate the impact and build that into the overall plan.  


Include an Adequate Contingency Fund in Your Budget

After a few years of getting blind-sided by unexpected financial setbacks (usually when we’re on our way to a record-setting year), we decided to include a sizeable “unknown contingency” expense line item in our annual budget. If nothing bad happened, great. If it did, we still had reasonable profitability. 


Maintain Ongoing Diligence

Just like when it comes to personal health issues, early detection can enable you to minimize the harmful effects. Stay on top of industry related news and take pre-emptive action when appropriate. JPMA can be especially helpful to you in this regard but also subscribe to relevant news feeds and other information sources. Don’t ignore the red flags! Often there is smoke before there is fire.


Have Reaction Plans in Place

It’s very worthwhile to have thought through in advance what the best things to do are in various crisis situations. In the “fog of war,” it’s going to be very difficult to think straight. One personal example—when 9/11 happened, I should have been more proactive in speaking to our employees, recognizing their concerns for the safety of their families, and making it easy for them to leave work if they desired. But in the heat of the moment, I was so caught up in what was unfolding that I failed to do my duty as CEO. Similarly it would be wise to have at least some guidelines in place for what to do if there was violence in your workplace, a product safety recall, accusation of sexual misconduct, etc. 


Have Crisis Communication Plans in Place

A mistake even the largest companies make is to keep their employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders in the dark too long when something goes wrong or appear to be hiding the truth. Obviously these are no-no’s. In an information vacuum, people will imagine worse facts than what’s actually true. To be prompt and prudent with your statements, it’s wise to anticipate problems and formulate at least some possible talking points well in advance of an actual occurrence—with legal and PR advice as appropriate. Make sure you reflect your corporate mission and values in what you say. By doing so, quite often you can turn a negative event into a positive as J&J did with the Tylenol recall. 


Next Steps

If you haven’t already, take a hard look at your strategic planning and budgeting process and make sure you have adequately addressed the inevitability of unexpected negative events.

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

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Your Packaging Can be Your Most Effective Advertising

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, August 31, 2017


With all the hype about social media, online reviews, and other mechanisms for getting the word out about your brand and products, it’s easy to overlook the importance and power of your packaging communication.


Even in this era of the rapidly increasing importance of online communication and growing e-tail sales, when asked by my mentor clients about marketing strategy, the advice I often give is, “Get your packaging right first.”  If you think about it, it’s the one messaging vehicle that every target consumer will see. So why not leverage it to the hilt. You also have total control of the message delivered. And it’s your most cost-effective communication channel. Obviously you need a container for your product anyway and it costs a relatively small amount to use it to deliver your complete product and brand message. You just have to be smart about what you’re printing on it.


Like most of my blog topics, you could write a book about this subject and still not cover all the important information. However, here are a few hopefully thought-provoking ideas about what your packaging can and ought to do for you:


Here we are!

Chances are that the dominant share of your sales is still going to be of the brick and mortar variety for at least a while (even Amazon realizes this). So one of the things you absolutely need to do is make a brand statement at retail. In the chaotic retail display mosaic, your piece of retail real estate needs to say “look at me” so customers know you exist and will stop to take a closer look. To do this well, it helps to have listed multiple products with the retailer. At my company, we emphasized what we called “program selling”—i.e. don’t ever sell individual products, always present multiple products together in “families.” The packages need to be designed in such a way that they look great together in a grouping and have color and graphics that grab attention. You should have a store fixture set up in your offices on which you can test how prototype packages will look amongst the competition.


Who we are.

Once customers have found you, you’ll need to quickly communicate who you are and what you stand for as a company—i.e. your “brand identity.” Some packages do a good job of explaining and selling the product (see below) but not the company. It’s critical you do both—especially in juvenile products where safety and reliability are so important. A number of package elements can combine to deliver this “corporate elevator speech”—brand name, tag line or positioning statement, structure, graphics, brief company description, guarantee, etc. The goal is to establish the positive uniqueness (a.k.a. competitive advantage) of your company.


What this is and why you need it.

You then need to deliver the “product elevator speech”—what you are selling and why parents and children can’t live without it. You might be surprised how often companies do a poor job of explaining what the heck is inside the package! They personally know what it is so they assume everyone else will. Assume you are talking to someone who just landed from Mars (parents often feel they have). Be careful about the product name and description. In almost all cases, you’ll need an explanatory picture or drawing as well. But your job isn’t done until you’ve made the case for indispensability. The unique benefits this product delivers that you have to have and you can’t get anywhere else need to be spelled out.


What else you need.

You’d be missing a huge opportunity if somewhere on or inside the package you didn’t cross sell other relevant products of yours, with or without coupons. No advertising could be more targeted and hyper-efficient than telling someone who just bought one of your products (and is hopefully loving it) what other goodies you have to offer.


Join the club.

In or on your packaging is also a great place to encourage customers to sign up for your loyalty club. At my company, we recruited thousands of “Parents’ Council” members via an in-package offer. The Council became a great resource for market research input and a mechanism for economically promoting new products.


Keep it simple.

After all that, now you’re going to think I’m crazy. Because I’m going to tell you that you have to deliver all these messages without overwhelming the poor customer with a mish-mush of words, pictures, and logos. It’s like that old saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Take the time to prioritize the messages and get them across with the fewest possible words and pictures. Visual complexity will drive customers away.


Test, test, test.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of testing communication effectiveness. Again, you and your staff are too close to the product to understand how your average consumer will interpret what’s on your package. Show prototype packages one-on-one to objective target consumers who will tell you the truth. Keep revising until all the key messages are instantly and accurately communicated.  


Next Steps

I’d suggest you make a checklist of things in this blog and elsewhere that you think are important to accomplish on every package. Do a review of all your current products and see if some changes might pay dividends. Then apply the same checklist to all new products you develop.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at 

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What You Can Learn About Management from the NFL

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Another National Football League season is about to begin and sports fans across the country are bristling with excitement. Besides being entertained by the on and off field exploits and drama, you can actually learn a lot about how to build a successful organization from the teams that have been perennial powerhouses.


Maybe it’s because of the simplicity of their mission (to win football games) and the incredible visibility of everything that goes into that effort on a moment by moment basis under extreme pressure. Whatever the reason, the organizational structures and management methods in top-level professional football are often, in my opinion, more progressive and effective than those in many companies. Here are a few examples of what you can learn from football.


1.    Define and Enforce Your Culture

The best NFL teams have a well-defined and consistently enforced culture. So much so that when players change teams, the first thing they often comment on is the different atmosphere in the locker room and the unique attitude and behaviors of the players on their new team. Some common NFL team values are (1) team first ahead of personal interests, (2) knowing and doing your job, (3) focusing on winning, (4) not dwelling in the past but continuously improving, and (5) supporting the community. On the best teams, players who undermine the culture are quickly disciplined or gone.

Culture is just as important in a business but often not clearly defined or consistently enforced. Compare the company-wide understanding and strength of your company’s culture to that of your favorite (successful) NFL team. 


2.    Organize and Manage Both Horizontally and Vertically

Businesses are most often managed vertically—by function. Reporting to the CEO are typically heads of functional departments (sales, marketing, finance, operations, etc.) who in turn manage their staff members. NFL teams too have functional coaches for each player grouping—offensive line, defensive line, wide receivers, linebackers, and so on. But in addition they have “process owners” who coach across positions—offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coordinator. The functional coaches develop the positional skills of the players, the coordinators coach the cross-functional interactions that produce the desired end results—the “core processes” of football.


I believe that businesses too need both functional management and process management. We combined the two successfully in my company, The First Years. Our department heads developed their staff’s functional skills like sales techniques, consumer communication, purchasing negotiation, financial analysis, etc. But we had process owners who oversaw from start to finish the critical cross-functional processes of the business—product development, customer creation and retention, order fulfillment, and so on. In smaller companies, individual managers may simultaneously oversee one or more departments and one or more processes. But, what’s important is to make sure both types of “coaching” are taking place on an ongoing basis.    


3.    Constantly Search for New Talent

One of the most important roles of successful NFL coaches is to be constantly searching for and acquiring talent suited to the team. Yes, there are directors of player personnel who are the HR directors of professional sports teams. But the best coaches are personally active all year round visiting colleges, watching other teams’ players, bringing in prospects for tryouts.

Especially today where employees change companies more frequently than in the past, business CEOs and other managers need to be constantly looking for the next candidates to fill key positions—before the need arises. Like a football team, you can’t afford to have vacancies for very long.


4.    Teach, Teach, Teach

NFL coaches inherently recognize that it’s their job to enable the players to be successful. They are very clear about roles--coaches coach and players play. In practices and during games, head coaches, position coaches and the coordinators are continuously teaching techniques, guiding actions, and motivating performance.

Some business managers mistakenly believe their job is to hire the right people and get out of their way. Wrong! Managers need to manage just like coaches need to coach. And management is about doing what’s necessary to enable the “players” in your company to be successful.


Next Steps

While enjoying the NFL season this year, watch how the head coaches and the rest of the coaching staff on the various teams perform their jobs. See if there’s anything about what they do that you could adopt for your company. And be thankful that you don’t have a camera watching your every move and reporters second-guessing every decision you make.

If you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Steve Clark at

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The Enormous Power of Carefully Worded Open-ended Questions

Posted By JPMA, Monday, June 26, 2017
Updated: Tuesday, June 27, 2017

By Ron Sidman 


Possibly the most under-appreciated and under-utilized tool for gaining knowledge and insight in any situation is the carefully crafted question. Yet too often we don’t put enough thought into what to ask . . . or maybe we’re just afraid to. 

Let’s face it. Communication between people in general, even those who speak the same language, is often outrageously poor leading to misunderstanding, inefficiency, potential grief and even harm. We so often never get the whole truth when we talk to or work with someone. This can be due to many factors including social convention, reluctance to reveal inner thoughts, differing mindsets or simply because we didn’t ask. Yet all of these obstacles can be overcome just by recognizing that open-ended (as opposed to yes or no) questions are the power tools of interpersonal communication.


Here are some common business situations where you can use clever question crafting to generate superior outcomes:


Conducting Consumer Satisfaction Surveys

No doubt you’ve had a restaurant manager come to your table with a question like, “How was your dinner tonight.” Unless your steak tasted like shoe leather you probably said, “Good.” But what if they followed up with a question like, “Is there anything we could have done or done differently that would have made your experience even better?” That question gives you “permission” to mention things that you were reluctant to mention because they weren’t earth shattering complaints but that would be very useful to restaurant management.

When you conduct in-person or online surveys in your company, don’t just ask the obvious. Include open-ended questions that really probe the otherwise unspoken concerns and desires of your customers.


Interviewing Prospective Employees

Hiring selection failure rates are higher than they need to be because it’s very easy for applicants to be very good at interviewing even if they’re not qualified to do the job. Instead of the stock questions like, “What would you say are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?” try something like this—“What was your most successful (sales effort, product launch, project, etc.) and describe in detail how you accomplished it.” No one can fake this and you can verify the accuracy further via subsequent reference checks.    

Providing Performance Feedback

If you’re trying to change someone’s behavior, you could simply tell them that their performance is not satisfactory. That’s likely to prompt a defensive response and uncomfortable conversation. But look what happens when you phrase it as a question like, “What do you think you could do to speed up progress on the web site development?” You’ve changed the focus from looking backward and finding fault to looking forward and generating improvement.



At my company, The First Years, we learned a brainstorming technique from a company called Synectics. What they taught us was when throwing out ideas in a brainstorming session, always phrase them as “How to . . .” or “What if . . .” questions. That type of phrasing stimulates the thinking of the rest of the group and blows open the possibilities. For example, instead of saying “collapsible high chair” say “How to create a high chair that is easy to travel with?” “What if . . .” questions encourage solving seemingly unsolvable problems. For example, “What if baby monitors didn’t need batteries?”  


Strategic Planning

Carefully crafted questions can break through mental barriers. To encourage out of the box thinking when creating strategy, ask your senior team questions like, “If we were starting this company today, how would we design it?” Or, “What could we do that would make us indispensable to our customers?”


Monitoring Employee Satisfaction

Retaining your star employees is critical to the success of your company. Too often managers assume that if an employee is not complaining they’re happy. I was blind-sided a few times in my management career by key employees suddenly departing and this may have happened to you. You might prevent this by making it a practice to ask questions like, “Is there anything about your job that you wish was different?” Or, “Where do you see yourself going in this company over the next few years?”


Identifying New Product Opportunities

One of the best ways to get new product ideas is to spend time observing your customers do what they do relative to your product category and then ask them open-ended questions like, “Why did you do it that way?” “What were you thinking when you did that?” “What was that experience like?”  



The temptation when providing someone with advice is to provide solutions. Much better is to ask questions that cause the mentee to think through the issue and come up with their own solution. For example, rather than advising someone to verify their new business idea by conducting 1:1 consumer interviews, you’d be a more effective teacher asking, “How do you think you could verify that consumers will want to buy your product?” 



The most successful negotiations result in win-win solutions for both sides. Quite often you can get what you want by offering something the other side wants that you’re happy to provide but you just weren’t aware of. But you won’t uncover that opportunity without asking something like, “What is it that you’re looking to accomplish in this negotiation and why?”


Planning Your Life

Stephen Covey famously encouraged everyone to think about listening to the speakers at your own funeral and asking yourself, “What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life?” What a powerful way to create a “life vision” that can guide your decisions and behaviors.


Next Steps

Take advantage of the power of open-ended questions by learning to have a “question bias.” Practice this whenever you have the opportunity and you’ll be amazed what you can accomplish. It’s like having a magic key to unlock information, ideas, and even relationships.

If you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA website for more information or contact Steve Clark at 


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The Case Against International Sales

Posted By JPMA, Tuesday, June 13, 2017


By Ron Sidman

Early stage JP companies eager to grow often look at international distribution as an easy solution. Don’t be tempted to take this route prematurely. I suggest you saturate the US market before you venture off to foreign lands.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for companies going global—when the time is right. However, the low hanging sales-enhancing fruit will be in the good ol’ USA until just about all your products are available just about everywhere you want them to be in this country. Even so, quite often companies that are still struggling to establish market share domestically believe that starting to establish international distribution is a solid growth strategy. Here’s why it should not necessarily be a priority:


It will take more of your precious time than you think it will.

The tendency is to think that all you have to do is find a good distributor in each country and then just wait for the orders. The reality is that the potential sales volume in foreign markets is typically quite small compared to the amount of time you and your key people will need to spend getting yourself up the learning curve and catering to the special requirements. Add potential “lost in translation” communication complications and you can see how time spent may add up. The payoff from spending that same amount of time on domestic sales expansion is probably much higher.


It’s likely to be less profitable than domestic sales.

There will be sneaky added costs that you might not be anticipating. Most likely you’ll need multi-lingual or local language packaging if you want your products to sell which will require smaller, more costly production runs. Unless you hedge the local currency, you may suffer from currency value fluctuations. Claims of defective merchandise can also be problematic and costly to resolve. And, product design customization may be required (see below)


Consumer tastes and behaviors may not be the same as in the US.

When my company first started selling in Japan, we learned the hard way that some of our most popular products simply were not appealing there whether due to aesthetic tastes, different parenting practices, or even extreme quality sensitivities (even though we made a quality product). So foreign rates of sale may not parallel what you’re used to in the States.


Competition may be tougher.

There are likely to be fierce local competitors in each country with potential price and retail relationship advantages and an eagerness to retain their distribution regardless what it might take.


Legal and regulatory requirements and processes are likely different.

You may need to comply with safety regulations that go beyond or are in conflict with US regulations. And violations may be handled without the due process you’re used to in the US. We once had a parent in the UK who complained that our booties left a red mark on her son’s legs. We ended up having to appear in a local UK court to defend ourselves—and lost.


Oversight is much more difficult.

We take for granted that we can easily visit stores to see how our products are being displayed, what the competition is up to, and how consumers are making buying decisions. But much of what is happening in foreign countries will be invisible to you unless you’re in a position to globe hop regularly. This makes it more difficult to anticipate and diagnose sales issues and opportunities.


Next Steps

Expanding internationally should definitely be a part of every JP company’s long-term vision. But don’t jump across the pond until you’ve accomplished your US distribution goals or you’ll be slowing down your sales and profit growth rather than speeding it up.

If you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Steve Clark at 


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Are You in It for the Long Haul?

Posted By JPMA, Thursday, May 4, 2017


By Ron Sidman


How long you see yourself being involved with your company can have a significant impact on the degree of your business success. Long-term thinking and commitment can lead to superior short-term and long-term results.


I suppose one thing I can claim to be an authority on is how to run a business over an extended period of time. I created my company, The First Years, in 1972 and managed it for 32 years. It didn’t ever become the biggest company in the industry but we were always profitable and earned, I believe, a solid reputation for being progressive and innovative. At the time of our sale in 2004 to the RC2 Corporation, sales were around $140 million.


I don’t know the statistics but my guess is continuity of leadership like that is very rare and not just in the juvenile product industry. It might not surprise you to hear that I attribute a lot of my company’s success to the fact that I always had a long-term mindset. From the outset, I expected the company to exist indefinitely and I expected to be the guy running it for as long into the future as I could imagine. As a result, my dreams for the company were bold. And my commitment to riding out the inevitable ups and downs was very strong.


On the other hand, there are entrepreneurs that start companies with the clear intent to get the company established and then sell it for a pretty penny within a few years. This does happen to some degree in the high tech world where the market is huge and things can go viral quickly but rarely in our industry. The problem is that if you’re thinking is short term, your vision of success will likely be tame and conservative. And if things don’t go well in the early stages—which they usually don’t—it can be very discouraging to see your imagined time frame become less and less realistic.

If you are a serial entrepreneur, this post is not for you. If however, you think of your business as your career or at least a multi-year proposition, here are some suggestions for how to sustain it for a long length of time based on what worked for me.


1. Have a Clear Vision

Having an exciting dream that is shared by your key employees is what creates the direction and generates the energy that will propel your company year after year. Especially when times are tough, it’s that exciting vision that will keep everyone going. At The First Years (TFY), updating our long-term and medium-term visions was always the first step in the strategic planning process.


 2. Document and Enforce a Set of Core Values

The most successful and long-lived companies usually have a very clear set of values that are consistently espoused and enforced by leadership. It’s those values that allow them to establish and sustain a solid reputation that attracts the top talent, customers, and partners. At TFY, we established early on a set of core values related to customers, employees, and commitment to excellence that allowed us to align our daily behaviors in a positive and consistent way.


 3. Stay Vigilant

You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. You can’t cope well with changes that catch you by surprise. You need a feedback system in place to make sure you are always aware of everything going on inside and outside the company that could impact your future. At TFY, one of the first things we did was to establish a “Parents Council” that started as meetings with local groups of moms but eventually became a nationwide internet-connected network that was a significant competitive advantage for us. We also had a data reporting system called “Vital Signs” that generated weekly and monthly performance charts.


 4. Appreciate Your Employees

People leave bosses not companies. Hiring and retaining talented people is critical to long term success. Employees need to know you recognize and appreciate the role they play in the company’s success and that management is there to help them be successful in their jobs. At TFY we taught our managers that there job was to enable their direct reports to be successful. We also maintained open support and communication through company-wide meetings, “lunches with the President”, and employee appreciation special events.


 5. Always be Recruiting

Speaking of hiring, as you grow you will need more people and people with higher skill levels. Think like a pro football team general manager. You need to always be on the lookout for talent so that when you need someone you know where to find them. As CEO, I did many things to learn about and meet potential new employees via networking at industry events and through other contacts.


 6. Live Within Your Means

I admit to being fiscally conservative. I’m not a proponent of living in an atmosphere of high debt or wondering where the money will be coming to meet the next payroll. I like to sleep at night. As soon as possible, you want to be able to finance your business via profits. At TFY, we always operated within our means and ended up when the company was sold with no debt and almost $30 million in cash on hand.


 7. Be Obsessed with Improvement

You simply have to keep getting better at the key components of your business model because you can be sure your competitors will. At TFY, we were a process-centered organization that used Six Sigma techniques to drive continuous measurable improvement. Every senior manager was expected to improve their department’s quality and efficiency every year.


 8. Leverage Processes to Maintain Consistency

Designing and continuously improving your key processes (e.g. product development, production, marketing, customer service, etc.) makes managing a company infinitely easier because it allows employees to manage themselves. A key is to make sure that process participants understand the purpose of the process and don’t just blindly follow the steps.


 9. Know Your Costs

We once had a new competitor that rose up quickly and undercut our prices by a considerable margin. We couldn’t figure out how they could do it. There was a reason we couldn’t figure it out. Turns out they had no idea what their costs were and had to announce about a $100 million loss at the end of the year. At TFY, on the other hand, we were meticulous about monitoring costs by product, by account, by department, etc. And we were quick to act if we found we weren’t making money in some aspect of the business.


Next Steps

Do some soul searching about what your time frame is and what you want it to be. If you’re thinking short-term, get out as quickly as you can and work on something else that you can really build over time. If you’re in it for the long haul, consider implementing some of my suggestions. They worked for me!


If you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Steve Clark at 





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