Thursday, March 29, 2007

As far as I’m concerned, it’s all about over.

People over target audiences

Ideas over technology

Conversations over dialogue

Insights over information

Simplifying over intellectualizing

Brevity over verbosity

There's one exception: Never overdo it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Taking Your Message On The Road: Shell Oil Exec Turns Shell Answer Man

Executives often resist taking their message on the road, especially when their company is viewed negatively by stakeholders. But Shell Oil recently decided to send company president John Hofmeister on tour to share Shell’s vision for the future of the energy industry.

The purpose of Hofmeister’s 50 city tour was to re-establish a “social trust” in oil companies as providers of a secure, environmentally sound energy supply, rather than an industry at war with the American public.

“For too long oil companies have been perceived as the enemy,” Hofmeister said during a recent stop in Milwaukee, assigning blame to himself for not working to change that perception sooner.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, every state’s attorney general sent letters informing him that they would be watching his company for consumer price gouging. Invitations arrived from numerous states to testify in front of various committees concerned about the windfall profits of big oil. Even an invitation reached his desk to give testimony in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Audio from one of Hofmeister’s speeches and video from an appearance on MSNBC should give readers a sense of his message. In the links below, you get a sense of how a company under fire consistently takes its message out to important publics. Even though the tone of some of the media coverage is negative, I’d say Hofmeister accomplished his mission to ensure his on-message story is being told.

It seems the Shell Answer Man realized a public relations maxim: if you are not telling your story, someone else certainly will tell it for you—especially if it’s bad news. Regardless of the size or focus of your business, you could benefit from similarly persistent, on-message communication with those who influence outcomes in your industry.

Shell Exec Buffs Firm's Image

Shell President Discusses Oil Prices On Today Show

The Shell Answer Man And Peak Oil

Shell Oil President Raps Proposed Gov. Doyle Surcharge

Doyle Administration Responds To Shell Oil (Notice how Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle immediately responded to ensure his message was represented in the dialogue.)

One On One With Shell Oil President John Hofmeister

Shell Oil Chief: U.S. Needs Global Warming Plan

Energy Firms Come to Terms With Climate Change

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

When Crisis Hits Think Like KPMG, Not Arthur Andersen

KPMG’s near-fatal crisis involving the sale of allegedly illegal tax shelters provides a case study in crisis management. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal takes readers inside the decision-making process as executives determined the best strategy for averting criminal indictment. Indictment—not conviction mind you—led to the mass exodus of Arthur Andersen clients as well as partners, and, ultimately, the accounting firm’s demise. The Journal story reveals how KPMG managed to keep its partners, clients, and, at the time of this entry, its doors open. (Client civil litigation looms.)

Unlike Andersen, KPMG executives—including a former federal judge—opted for a fall-on-the-sword strategy in front of the Justice Department. This strategy does have potential pitfalls, which also are described in the Journal story.

Most executives, I believe, think of the potential for a crisis as a low-probability, high-impact event. In fact, if executives take five minutes to list potential vulnerabilities that could sink their company, I believe the list would lead them to a different conclusion. The probability of crisis in any business is high. The probability of survival is low without being prepared and understanding how to deal with the different stakeholders during a crisis.

A few points to consider—with your attorneys and public relations counsel present—if faced with a crisis:

  • Dump the bad news: tell it all at once.
  • Admit wrong doing and apologize.
  • Fix the wrong.
  • Communicate plans to avoid it happening again.
  • Execute on those plans.
  • Provide stakeholders with progress reports along the way.

Friday, March 9, 2007

What ABC and the Geico Cavemen can learn from a chili cook-off.

Variety reports that ABC has green-lit a half-hour comedy series pilot featuring Geico’s famed Cavemen. Yup, our favorite cro-magnon, sensitive, metro-sexuals are going primetime network.

But will it work?

What made them famous (or infamous) was the over-the-top juxtaposition of being both cavemen and sophisticated. Being proud yet misunderstood. It all makes for some funny bits. …..BITS. These little bits are set up and played out within 10 seconds. Last I checked, a half-hour show is longer (not by much thanks to those pesky commercials).

So, what can ABC learn from a chili cook-off?

Most winning chili cook-off contestants will tell you that, to win, the judges have to be impressed in one or two spoonfuls. So, they concoct recipes so intense that you can only enjoy a little….BIT. Not a bowlful.

My sense of this comedy pilot is that while people enjoy a spoonful of the Cavemen, they won’t settle down for a bowlful.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Eastward Expansion of Capitalism

China impacts every business on the face of the planet. A billion people with the purchasing power of an evolving middle class create an economic frontier for B2B companies supporting the eastward expansion of capitalism.

At a recent China Business Council meeting of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Area Chamber of Commerce, the overwhelming consensus among business leaders who successfully execute in the communist country is finding a Chinese national you trust.

The ideal person to work with is what’s known as a “returnee” to China from study or employment in the United States. Both cultures and business environments are understood thoroughly by this person, allowing a team to be built on the ground in China around deep bilateral knowledge. The biggest mistake companies can make is hiring an American on the ground in China.

But how does one know who to trust? A couple of books have been receiving more attention of late in the quest to answer this question. The Art of War by Sun Tzu and 400 Million Customers by Carl Crow are becoming must-reads for corporate leaders who seek an understanding of the Middle Kingdom.

“Many authorities contend that the Chinese have a genius for misunderstanding which works to their advantage in many lines…,” according to an excerpt from Crow’s still-relevant book published in the 1930s.

Crow also observed, “It appears to be impossible to foresee all the twists and turns that force majeure or the acts of God may take, and they invariably turn out the disadvantage of the party to the contract whose function is to pay the money.”

Those attending the China Business Council meeting agreed cause for caution continues today, but echoed the Chinese are “dying to work with us.” It’s a matter of finding those who understand how to get things done in a culture and business climate very different from capitalist rules of engagement. Though, one lawyer in attendance did say he sees increased willingness to structure and operate business in ways consistent with capitalistic strictures. Some of the Chinese rules of engagement are outlined by Crow in a recent National Public Radio story.

Crow’s recount of business in China is consistent with a culture raised on and indoctrinated for millennia on the strategic philosophies presented in The Art of War. According to many scholars, this is an extraordinarily important book in Chinese culture and required reading by those who hope to successfully understand the mind of China.

The advice it offers extends beyond war to insights into Chinese philosophy of life. Popular culture continues to leverage Tzu’s mastery of strategy through television serializations, comic strips and a growing number of Chinese and English language websites dedicated to spreading his philosophy.

For more modern resources to understand China, visit Deloitte’s Focus on China. Executives interested in fair trade issues should visit U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission testimony recently presented by business professor and author of The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Can Be Won Peter Navarro. Deloitte has regular podcasts discussing trends in China and Navarro’s testimony, while lengthy and challenging, presents some eye-opening perspective.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Pssst! Manufacturing in North America Is Alive and Well … Pass It On!

“North American Manufacturing Still Haunted by Over Capacity”
“Domestic Automakers Move More Tooling to China”

Enough already. If you’re as tired of these headlines as I am, you might like to know that there’s another side to the story.

Lean manufacturing. Highly engineered design. Automation. Rapid prototyping. Global supply chain partnerships. Headline-worthy progress is in full swing at manufacturing facilities everywhere, but we aren’t reading about it enough. News coverage spotlights a success here and there, but it too often on focuses on negative generalizations.

This gloomy vision of the future is scaring away the next generation of manufacturing leaders—talented people whom resurgent manufacturers need to keep up with growth. That’s why I believe businesses, government and nonprofit organizations in the Greater Milwaukee region, where manufacturing remains so vital, must work together to shift the focus to what’s exciting in the industry … before a worker shortage fulfills the prophesy of doom.

The efforts of some technical colleges promoting careers in manufacturing are a good start, but to produce a lasting, far-reaching impact, we’ll need a more concerted, collaborative, well-financed effort. Most importantly, it’ll have to show how careers in manufacturing are vibrant and successful, right here and right now in the Milwaukee area.

Sure, the manufacturing sector is still struggling. And shops that aren’t implementing the most advanced technology or exploiting a niche will probably have to close their doors. But at the same time, many manufacturers are on the upswing. For example, a recent Plante & Moran plastics processor survey shows that the top quartile of processors is definitely on the move. Many of these top performers utilized lean principles to help realize 2006 profitability increases of up to 40 percent. And this shift from lagging to leadership continues to accelerate.

People deserve to know the good news about these companies—especially our young people who are looking for a career. My hat’s off to those manufacturers who have successfully made the transition. There are a lot of them out there. Don’t keep it a secret. Pass it on!

Originally Appeared 2/22/07 on Milwaukee's BizBlog