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Fostering leadership: confessions of a mega-company founder

(Business Entrepreneur) Fostering leadership in your company or team can be a tremendous challenge, but the founder of a multi-billion dollar company tells us how their brand has done just that.

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Fostering leadership in your organization

After a distinguished military career, Dr. Ernst Volgenau founded SRA International from his basement, which is now a multi-billion dollar company with over 5,300 employees and endless awards for their innovation. SRA offers IT solutions for big government and professional organizations, solving some of the biggest tech problems today – security, big data, business intelligence, analysis, and more, all while emphasizing honesty and service at every turn.

To discover how a company like this grew to be so tremendously successful, we tapped the mind of Dr. Volgenau who outlines below how to foster leadership in your organization:

For about three decades my company (SRA International) was very successful. We grew rapidly from one person to about $1.7 billion and had a successful IPO and growth on the New York Stock Exchange. The reason for our success was good leadership. Later when we faltered, it was because our leadership declined. Here are a few things we did right and wrong.

One of the first principles of leadership is to communicate to employees precisely what you expect of them. We started with an excellent corporate culture and a good simple business plan. All our successful leadership principles flowed from this basis. The values and culture of SRA have always made it a special company. The basic ethic is Honesty and Service which implies high integrity in business, caring about customers and employees, and giving to society. These values and the resulting culture attracted capable people who led to the company’s success.

The business plan was not a long complex document; it was brief, focusing our energies where we had a market edge. SRA is a professional services company specializing in business analysis and information technology. Our key managers knew that part of their job of leadership was to solve customer problems and to do such a good job in the process that they would get more work from existing customers or references that they provided.

We began with orientations for every new employee and often renewed these discussions after people had been with the company several years. In the meetings we discussed the implications of Honesty and Service. We emphasized leadership obligations, particularly taking care of their people.

We rewarded executives well for success

While their salaries were at the median for the industry, they could get generous bonuses and stock options if they performed well. Although we were privately held company for 24 years, our plan was to go public and we valued the stock periodically so people could see the payoff from owning equity.

All our senior executives (at times more than 100 people) had performance plans. Each plan consisted of two parts. One part was quantitative showing objectives for revenue growth, profit, and new orders. Another part was qualitative, describing objectives for leadership in supporting the corporate ethic. Two key factors were helping their employees to succeed and supporting SRA organizations in addition to their own. The qualitative portion was graded by the supervisor of the executive and a final judgment was made by the CEO. The scores for the quantitative business success and qualitative performance were combined and the total was used to determine bonus and equity awards.

We often held leadership courses led by our most capable executives and including stimulating outside speakers, seminars, and teambuilding exercises. We emphasized various leadership aspects of our culture. Most importantly a good leader must be ethical. Our continuous reminders about Honesty and Service ensured that everyone understood this principle. We sometimes spoke of noblesse oblige, which means roughly the obligation of the nobility to serve society. Our nobility was the most senior people in the company.

“Walk the Talk”

Another precept was “Walk the Talk.” A leader does more than emphasize good principles. He or she demonstrates them through actions. An additional principal was that “the best ideas win.” A good leader listens to the views of his or her employees in order to make the best decisions. By implication a good leader has humility; however this quality cannot stand in the way of decisiveness.

For a few years our company faltered. We were never in danger of going out of business, but our performance was nowhere near as good as it had been. There were several reasons. One was a poor decision regarding an acquisition. Another was the market, which had been vibrant and growing during most of our existence but began to falter. However the most important reason by far, was our lack of emphasis on leadership. The problem was not due to any single decision; rather it was lack of attention to daily details: walking the talk, caring about people, soliciting their views, and many other measures.

An example is career management. SRA had many large computer systems jobs. When each one ended, there was the danger that people would be laid off. Therefore, we established advocates who helped employees find jobs within the company. This was important because our people knew that the company cared about their careers. However, as the company declined, these positions were gradually eliminated to save money. Some employees began to believe the company no longer cared, and attrition increased. The result was probably a far larger cost than if we had not eliminated the positions.

Thus good organizational leadership is much more than a few pronouncements by executives. It requires continuous attention by the senior management team, and then a good deal of patience and determination in maintaining a healthy corporate culture.

The chairman founder, and former CEO of SRA International, Dr. Ernst Volgenau just released his new book, Geeks, Mush Heads and the IT Revolution: How SRA International Achieved Success over Nearly Four Decades.

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

Business Entrepreneur

‘Small’ business was once a stigma, but is now a growing point of pride

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Small businesses make up the majority of companies, employers, and money makers of the American economy, that’s something to be proud of.

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American small business

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all businesses were small businesses. Independent craftsmen served communities with vital services. Small merchants opened shops to provide the community with goods. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals hung out a shingle to offer their services to neighbors. Small businesses were the norm. Some of the most beloved American companies started out local. John Deere, Harley Davidson, and King Arthur Flour, all got their start as small businesses.

Business changes led to a attitude change

It wasn’t until manufacturing allowed businesses to scale and produce more efficiently that the idea of big business became more important. Post-World War II, the idea of a small business became derogatory. It was the age of big government. Media was growing. Everyone wanted to be on top. Small businesses took a back seat as people moved from rural to urban communities. Small business growth plateaued for a number of years in the mid-20th century. Fortunately, the stigma of small business is fading.

Small businesses are the backbone of the economy

According to the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, the “American business is overwhelmingly small business.” In 2016, 99.7% of firms in American had fewer than 500 workers. Firms with 20 workers or less accounted for 89.0% of the 5.6 million employer firms. The SBE also reports that “Small businesses accounted for 61.8% of net new jobs from the first quarter of 1993 until the third quarter of 2016.” Small businesses account for a huge portion of innovation and growth in today’s economy.

Modern consumers support small businesses

According to a Guidant Financial survey, the most common reason for opening a small business is to be your own boss. Small business owners are also dissatisfied with corporate America. Consumers also want to support small businesses. SCORE reports that 91% of Americans patronize a small business at least once a week. Almost half of Americans (47%) frequent small businesses 2 to 4 times a week.

Be proud of small business status

Small businesses are the innovators of tomorrow. Your neighbors want to support small businesses, knowing that their tax dollars stay in the community, and that they’re creating opportunities within their own city. Your small business status isn’t a slight. It’s a source of pride in today’s economy. Celebrate the fact that you’ve stepped out on your own in uncertain times. Celebrate the dirt under your fingernails, literally, or figuratively, that made you take a risk to do what mattered to you.

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Business Entrepreneur

Why and how to acquire a business – 4 tips for radical success

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Acquiring a business can be a key part of your business’s future growth, but there are some factors you should consider before signing the deal.

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A meeting room with people shaking hands over acquiring a business

Growing businesses have multiple levers that can be pulled separately or in unison to continue scaling and expanding. And while many companies choose to grow internally, there’s always the option of acquiring other businesses to supercharge results and instantly expand.

Why Acquire?

Acquiring a business is certainly a complicated path to expansion, but it’s also a highly attractive one for a variety of reasons. This includes:

  • Increased market share. If you’re acquiring a business that happens to be a competitor, you can instantly increase your market share. If you currently own 20 percent of the market share and the competition has 15 percent, you suddenly catapult to 35 percent. That might make you the industry leader overnight!
  • Expansion into new markets. Sometimes you acquire a business outside of your industry or niche. In this case, it allows you to expand vertically or horizontally. This can improve top-line revenue and/or reduce costs and benefit profit margins.
  • Advanced tech and IP. In some situations, an acquisition is about acquiring a specific piece of technology or intellectual property (IP). This may prove to be the final boost you need to accelerate growth and initiate further expansion.
  • Talent acquisition. One of the secondary benefits of an acquisition is the opportunity to welcome new talent into your team. Whether it’s a seasoned executive or a highly effective sales staff, this is one benefit you can’t ignore.

Mergers and acquisitions aren’t the correct solutions in every situation, but they often make sense. It’s ultimately up to your team to sit down and discuss the pros, cons, opportunities, drawbacks, and possibilities of pursuing this option.

Helpful Acquisition Tips

Should your business choose to move forward with the acquisition route, here are some essential tips to be aware of:

1. Assemble a Talented Team

Don’t do anything until you first develop an acquisition team. This is a very important step and should not be delayed. (Many businesses make the mistake of starting the search and then forming a team on the fly, but this results in missed opportunities and foundational errors that can compromise an otherwise smart acquisition.)

A good acquisition team should include an experienced mergers and acquisitions advisor, a responsible executive, an attorney, an HR professional, and an IT expert. You’ll also want to bring on a public relations professional as soon as possible. This will ensure you control the messaging that customers, investors, and even employees hear.

2. Do Extensive Due Diligence

With the support of a talented dream team, you’re equipped to find the best acquisition opportunities. As you narrow your targets down, you’ll want to identify and implement a very detailed due diligence process for acquiring a business. This may include an extensive, objective analysis that consists of a letter of intent, confidentiality agreement, contracts and leases, financial statements, tax returns, and other important documents.

3. Make an Initial Offer

If the due diligence checks out, then it’s time to work on formulating an offer for acquiring a business. While the first offer almost certainly won’t be the offer that gets accepted, it’s the single most important offer you’ll make. It frames the transaction and sets the tone for the rest of the negotiations. It’s generally a good idea to offer no more than 75 to 90 percent of what you’re willing to pay. It should be low enough to leave room to inch up, but not so low that the other party could potentially see it as an insult.

4. Negotiate

Your first offer won’t get accepted. But unless you’ve totally insulted the other business, they should come back with a counter. Now is where things get really interesting. Negotiations ensue and it’s time to counter back and forth. The offer consists of a variety of elements – not just a price tag – so consider all of these variables in your subsequent counters.

Adding it All Up

As valuable as an acquisition can be, the process is often filled with friction. It’s up to your team to make the transition after closing as smooth as possible.

It’s very important that you respect the products, services, employees, and customers that the acquired business has. If you come into an acquisition and attempt to shake things up on day one, you’re going to get backlash. There’s nothing wrong with making changes – you now own the business – but be diplomatic and patient. Build trust, work together, and gradually introduce changes.

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Business Entrepreneur

Should you use use confidentiality clauses in your severance agreements?

(BUSINESS) Confidentiality clauses and NDAs have long been tied to severance agreements – but is that notion becoming outdated?

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Severance agreements and their ilk have long included confidentiality clauses, often comprising an exhaustive list of actions former employees may not take should they desire to keep the benefits listed in the agreement. Carey & Associates P.C.’s Mark Carey breaks down the knowledge you’ll need to successfully incorporate a severance agreement – including a stern warning about the future of confidentiality clauses.

There is a long list of things you’ll need when curating a severance agreement, but we’ll start with Carey’s honey-do-nots.

Carey’s primary recommendation is avoiding a non-compete clause where, previously, there wasn’t one.

“As employment lawyers, we see this tactic used every day, but you do not,” he says.

This is because most employment lawyers will advise that a non-compete agreement is largely unenforceable, which sets a poor precedent for an otherwise airtight document.

Carey even recommends against reviewing prior non-compete clauses for the same reason.

He also eschews what he calls the “21 days to sign – or else” philosophy, and he advises that employers should loop themselves into the non-disparagement clause so that employees cannot be blacklisted – something he refers to as “a very real phenomenon.”

What a severance agreement should include is a non-admission provision, a payment provision, a release of all claims to cover any feasible scenarios regarding employee disclosure, a challenge to agreement, a “no other amounts are due” section to release the employer from future responsibility, and a mandate to return any company property. This is a truckload of information, so you’ll want an employment lawyer to help you through the process.

But what Carey warns against is the future of confidentiality agreements, or NDAs. While these provisions have long accounted for employee silence in the face of abusive or corrupt employers, Carey posits that, one day, “confidentiality provisions in employee severance agreements will be banned as a matter of statute and public policy.”

This assertion comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the uncovering of the manner in which powerful people were using NDAs to buy silence from the people who suffered under their direction. Carey points out that it’s a non-partisan issue; corruption isn’t aligned with one specific political party, and the option to come forward with allegations of misconduct is a courtesy that should be afforded to all.

Whether or not confidentiality agreements are ethical is a moot point, and Carey does recommend continuing to use them when necessary – but, sooner or later, one can safely assume that the landscape of severance agreements will change, arguably for the better.

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