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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

If you’re easily distracted, you’re more likely to thrive as an entrepreneur

(ENTREPRENEUR) If monotony and boredom at work- well bores you, it’s possible you may fit with the other entrepreneurs with a quick and constantly changing career.

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When Bill Gates was a kid, he knew he liked messing around with code. He couldn’t have known how it might evolve, but he was willing to live in the distraction, focusing on details when needed, but always learning, moving on, taking risks and growing in the process.

Some of the most successful folks among us are not content to sit and make widgets every day. They cannot thrive in a detail and focused work environment. So, it may come as no surprise to know that people who are more easily distracted are also more likely to thrive as entrepreneurs.

According to this study, if you are intelligent and get distracted more easily, those two qualities combined will likely enhance your creativity. And, that creativity and ability to use distraction as an advantage can be channeled to create new things, jobs, companies, etc.

For those of us who are more easily distracted, who enjoy doing different things every day, and who like learning, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests a good option is to find a career path that provides the right amount of distraction and which is a great fit for your personality. If you do that your talent is more likely to be apparent because you are playing to your strengths. Also, if you are working in your sweet spot you will be more productive and motivated.

Maybe not surprisingly, the top job for those who live in distraction is entrepreneur. The term “easily distracted” often comes with a negative connotation, but considering an entrepreneur is taking risks, making things happen and creating companies, ideas, products that may have never existed, this spins that idea on its head. Entrepreneurs are the chief cooks and bottle washers of the world. They ideate, create, hire and inspire. None of that is possible in a monotonous work environment.

“Unsurprisingly, meta-analyses indicate that entrepreneurs tend to have higher levels of ‘openness to experience,’ so they differ from managers and leaders in that they are more curious, interested in variety and novelty, and are more prone to boredom — as well as less likely to tolerate routine and predictability,” according to the HBR story.

Other careers that are great fits for those of us (me included) who enjoy distraction are PR/Media Production, Journalism and Consultant. What these fields all have in common is, there is never a dull moment, switching from task to task is pretty commonplace, and you will do well if you can be a generalist – synthesizing information and weeding out the unnecessary.

Not sure where your strengths lie? Here’s a quick quiz to give you some feedback on how curious you really are.

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Business Entrepreneur

How can a small business beat a large competitor moving in next door?

(BUSINESS) How do you stand out when a big competitor moves to your neighborhood? Reddit has a few suggestions – some obvious, some not so much.

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Small businesses, especially restaurants have been hit hard by lockdowns. Many closed for good this year, and those that are still hanging on are in a precarious position as their local economies shift.

Last week, a user on r/smallbusiness asked a timeless question that is especially relevant right now. Reddit user longbottomjr writes: “We have a strong competitor moving in next door in a few months. Our restaurant is one that pays the bills but […] I feel that if this new competitor takes up enough market share we will lose our restaurant. Can anyone chime in with resources/ideas I can use to help put together our plan of action?”

Comments quickly pointed out what common sense would dictate.

First, ensure the basics are covered. Being clean, quick, friendly, and high quality will take you far, no matter what competition you’re up against. And as u/horsemullet said, “Customer service also happens before someone walks through the door!” So make sure that your online hours, contact info, menus and social media accounts are up to date and accurate.

Another point emerged that is less intuitive: Competing businesses will naturally gravitate towards similar locations. This is a well-established phenomenon known within game theory as Nash’s Equilibrium. In the restaurant industry, this is actually a good thing. It brings entirely new customers to the area and ultimately benefits all the other nearby businesses, too.

Take advantage of the attention by offering something other spots don’t, like loyalty rewards, specials, unique offerings, or meal deals.

Speaking of the area, a great way to stand out from larger competitors is to build relationships with the community you serve, as u/sugarface2134 emphasized. “In my city there are two Italian restaurants in the same location – just across the parking lot from each other. We always pick the smaller one because the owner truly makes you feel like a member of the family.”

That’s an advantage of being a small, local business that all the money in the world couldn’t buy. Get to know your customers personally and you will not only create loyal regulars, but friends as well.

One of the top rated responses, from u/seefooddiet2200, made an often overlooked but critically important point.

“Talk to your staff and see if they have any ideas. These are the people that are working every single day and may know one or two ‘annoying’ things that if they were switched would make things easier. Or maybe they see that there’s specific things people ask for that you don’t serve. Every single [one] of your employees is a gold mine of insight, you just need to be open to listening to them.”

That is applicable to any business owner who wants to improve their practices.

Ask employees what they think, especially the ones who have stuck around a long time. Not only do they know the ins-and-outs of their jobs, but this builds rapport and trust with your staff. A good boss realizes that employees are more than their job descriptions. They have valuable thoughts about what’s working and not working, and direct access to customer’s opinions.

Good luck, u/longbottomjr! We’ll be rooting for you.

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Business Entrepreneur

How a newly funded coffee delivery startup is thriving during COVID

(REAL ESTATE MARKETING) Seattle’s Joe Coffee finds successful funding in hyper specific clientele and operations even mid-pandemic. But how did they do it?

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Amidst a pandemic, you might not expect a small company with limited clientele to thrive. Yet, Joe Coffee, a Seattle-based delivery service, is doing just that.

Joe Coffee, an aptly named coffee runner, has received millions in funding, a large chunk of which was raised mid-pandemic. Their mission is simple: to bring coffee from smaller shops to local consumers, especially without endangering either party.

There’s a lot to be said about Joe Coffee’s valuation and mission, but what’s more intriguing is their unlikely success.

A food delivery service that focuses on coffee may not seem that niche, but when you look at Joe Coffee’s determination to stick to the Seattle area, coupled with its staunch resolve for frequenting smaller shops (e.g., not Starbucks), the service begins to look pretty specific–and, in an economy that honors sweeping solutions, this is a welcome change of pace.

The way their service works is fairly simple: Joe Coffee provides shops with signs and information on how to order through the Joe network, then consumers are able to download and order through a mobile app on all of the usual platforms. Joe Coffee takes a nine percent cut of the order total, credit card fees included.

In return, customers are able to order from their favorite, local, non-chain coffee shops, both supporting them and sustaining their caffeine addiction at a time where alertness is paramount and grouchiness is all too common.

What’s truly interesting about Joe Coffee’s example is that it demonstrates an availability for small services with extreme specificity in terms of operating capacity. By sticking to unique businesses in a relatively small metropolitan area (as opposed to, say, multiple cities), the service is more likely to be successful in execution and delivery, thereby solidifying its relevance to both consumers and businesses alike.

And, by playing into the need for curbside pickup or home delivery these days, Joe Coffee only furthers the perception that its service is necessary.

If the country begins to reopen–whenever that happens–it will be no surprise to see Joe Coffee maintain a relationship between consumers and smaller businesses in the Seattle area. For anyone offering a similarly niche service, this is a perfect example of a company to which you should pay attention.

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