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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

Freelancers, this new social site will enhance your networking experience

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Contra promises freelancers a new way to flex their experience by leveraging professional relationships in a bold take on networking and – at its core – hiring in general.

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Birds eye view of two women networking at a table with colorful interconnecting pattern on a concrete floor.

In the modern technical world, freelancers act as nomadic one-off hires that come aboard to complete a job and then are released back into the void. The rise of the gig economy and similar services has delivered new opportunities for those who need work and those who want to provide it, with entire platforms built around this idea of temporary employment. This is certainly viable and has given individuals more reach than ever before across networking systems.

However, these services tend to have some limitations – each job is isolated and usually cannot guarantee follow-up work with the same company. Workers may not be building themselves up meaningfully – lasting relationships with businesses aren’t guaranteed, interactions with colleagues might be brief, and long term freelancing might be viewed negatively. It can function alongside a career path, but is not necessarily a replacement for it (or at least is more difficult).

Maybe this could be blamed on the status quo and attitudes regarding employment, where extended tenure at the same company connotes loyalty and merit. There’s been some push against this in recent years given the way widespread platforms have enabled job seekers, but the hesitancy remains. Corporations want to hire quality candidates, but favor in-house employees that have proven themselves.

This is where Contra comes in, aiming to improve how freelancers function in the greater context of their industries. Based on their pitch, it does this by first placing a larger emphasis on networking, and then uses this as a way to reframe how we think about freelancing’s efficacy. Contra suggests that professional relationships hold more significance than traditional metrics. After all, referrals are king.

Put another way – people are your best bet to securing continued and new jobs, so let’s turn away from things like how long you’ve been somewhere and instead favor referrals, offering a path to focus on what you’ve done. As co-founder Gajus Kuizinas says, “…We are giving people the tools to describe their proudest career moments, publicly thank the people with whom they’ve worked with, and begin accepting inquiries for future opportunities.”

The hiring process might need a modern refresh

Maybe Contra isn’t saying it in so many words, and perhaps this is a harsh way to think about it, but maybe our current models for evaluating employment are misguided. There’s an emphasis placed on working at the same place for an extended period of time and at prominent companies. Those aren’t bad indicators by any means – there is something to be said for working at well known and established corporations.

But this can be hazy and gloss over what exactly someone did, which can hurt or diminish their contributions. If we focus on the positive, proactive question here of hiring qualified individuals, then what is the best thing to look at? The work.

Nothing is as accurate as looking directly at the results someone has produced – that is what matters. Quality outweighs where you were or how long you were there. Turn the attention away from “this is a series of one-off projects all over the place” and instead zero in on how all of those things best represent someone’s skill set.

This brings up a second problem – how can you best show this when trying to get new gigs? Sometimes a portfolio can’t speak primarily for itself, or legal contracts prevent divulging assets, or someone may not be the best at selling themselves. Even with a killer inventory of projects, there are still hurdles to overcome.

A one-two punch: Looking directly at what matters

Contra has a solution for this – flex those high profile relationships you’ve made. If you’ve got people eagerly talking about what you’ve done, they absolutely will show off your work. And they’ll do it with a level of excitement that will make a solid and lasting impression. After all, they’ve already received the fruits of your labor, and they’ll happily talk it up.

It’s a brilliant approach that puts a bigger emphasis on reinforcing your experience through the use of those around you. Contra’s solution is elegant – let’s allow our users, contributors, makers, and freelancers have access to a platform where they can build out a network of people who can vouch for them, and then actively utilize that social aspect. Keep your resume and portfolio, sure, but use it in tandem with those who will elevate you.

It’s a move toward something more alive.

Contra’s Community Lead explains, “Before joining the Community team at Contra, I was a freelancer who desperately wanted to make new connections with clients and other freelancers. Though — don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just want to network for the sake of networking. I wanted to make relationships with people who I could learn from and be inspired by. When using other freelancing sites, I realized I needed more from these platforms, not a quick one-off project with strangers (I don’t dig transactional interactions).”

It’s like a supercharged LinkedIn – instead of just listing out a bunch of static bullet points and hoping that coworkers drop by for a kind word, Contra’s hope is to take that latter part and make it the central focus. It’s a one-two punch of having a network of willing hype people alongside a portfolio and/or resume. This can include other freelancers, established employees at respected companies, or even well known veterans striking out with new startups.

The benefits don’t stop there – now a freelancer has greater access to mentors and inroads to bigger companies. Contra is providing solutions to things that plague the independent consultant route by creating support during all parts of the networking process – education, securing relationships, building upon past successes, improving a portfolio, and creating a network of reliable, helpful colleagues. It is empowering a freelancer to realize their true potential.

Voice over text

By providing a social backing component to the networking, job hunting, and freelancing process, Contra effectively resolves many of the shortcomings such a career path might adversely afford. It helps build out a way to repeat contracts, levels the playing field by projecting experience and results, and provides ways toward self improvement. It gives voice to someone by building up a support team – there’s safety and strength in numbers.

In a way, this feels like a modern and refreshing take on the freelancing process – something a bit more real and personal in the business world. We are social beings – let’s let others speak for us at times, even when it comes to our professional lives.

In a new world where there are dozens of communities, why shouldn’t there be one more devoted to the job search and hiring process? Contra’s platform may deliver just that to networking as a freelancer. It will be exciting to watch.

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Business Entrepreneur

Small businesses must go digital to survive (and thrive)

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) A study at Cisco reveals how digitizing small businesses is no longer optional, but critical to success, thanks to the pandemic.

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Black woman working on a laptop on a couch, running her small businesses' needs digitally.

As digital transformation efforts ramp up due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study released by Cisco has highlighted some key insights into how small businesses will need to adapt in order to survive in the “new normal.”

The study, conducted by International Data Corporation (IDC), analyzed more than 2,000 small businesses across eight different markets, including the United States, Canada, Germany, Mexico, United Kingdom, Brazil, Chile, and France. Using a four-section index to assess a small business’s digitalization efforts, the research found that 16% of companies said they were “thriving and feel their businesses are agile and resilient.” While 36% stated they were in “survival mode.” Regardless of where they were ranked in the index, the study concluded that 70% of firms were in the process of ramping up digital transformation within their company due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide that was already present in the small business market, and it is forcing companies to accelerate their digitalization,” said Daniel-Zoe Jimenez, AVP, head digital transformation & SMB research at IDC. “Small businesses are realizing that digitalization is no longer an option, but a matter of survival.”

The study also highlighted several challenges associated with digital transformation. The three biggest obstacles that businesses seem to face during the process were digital skills and talent, budgetary issues (lack of funds or previous commitment of funds), and cultural resistance to change. Despite these roadblocks, 45% of companies surveyed stated that they expect over 30% of their business to be digital by 2021. And 32% responded that they are planning on developing a digital strategy. This included investing in talent with the right set of digital skills moving forward.

Those decisions fall in line with Cisco and IDC’s recommendations. These include creating a three-year technology road map and building a workforce with the right skills to succeed in a digital world. Other suggestions include finding the right technology partner, and keeping up with industry trends. Leveraging financing and remanufactured equipment can aid with cash flow and budget requirements.

As small businesses continue to adapt to consumer behavior and the whirlwind of ever-changing rules that have come with the coronavirus, digital transformation will continue to play a major role in the post-COVID world. According to the report, if half of the small businesses surveyed can reach the second-highest tier of the index by 2024, those companies could end up adding an additional $2.3 trillion to the eight markets’ gross domestic product (GDP), contributing to the global economic recovery.

As we approach the six-month mark of the pandemic, just when and how the “new normal” will emerge is still uncertain. But there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for small businesses — even if it’s faint green and contains zeroes and ones.

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Business Entrepreneur

Product Hunt is putting their money where their hunt is

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Product Hunt is putting money where their hunt is by announcing a new Maker Grants service to boost small and independent creators.

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Meeting of product creators making their pitch for Product Hunt.

Product Hunt – a technology centric site that aggregates new products daily – recently announced a new Maker Grant program that is designed to identify and help startups get their products started with a $5,000 grant.

Since its inception in 2013 by Ryan Hoover, Product Hunt has been a success vehicle for numerous products and companies by giving them access to a large audience of potential customers and investors. Available as an app across multiple formats, it allows groups to post their ideas and get feedback from a number of sources through comments and an integrated voting system. Everything from books, podcasts, hardware, and games can be found on Product Hunt, with dozens of new entries every day.

And now, Product Hunt’s new venture is to give 3 promising products their own substantial grant each month in an effort to give back to its community by placing money into the hands of its followers.

In a statement in its press release, Product Hunt announced that, “We know that building products can be expensive work, and passion doesn’t always pay the bills. As a way of saying thank you to the community, and to encourage makers to keep building, this year we’re offering cash gifts of $5,000 to three makers each month.”

Users will be able to nominate Makers that they feel deserve the investment by filling out a form. Product Hunt will take these suggestions and make decisions from there. In terms of how this will all be done, the official word is, “We’re reviewing makers who launched in the previous month who we believe are shining examples of innovation, grit, and engagement with the PH community. We’ll also be prioritizing those who are bootstrapping their businesses or working on their side projects without the help of venture funding.”

The big takeaway here is that Product Hunt is championing its support of its Makers through direct monetary help. By giving back into their own users, it strengthens and encourages them to put their best ideas forward and believe in their own innovation. Whereas more standard and traditional methods of grants may require several layers of arbitration, paperwork, and other hurdles, Product Hunt is providing a fast track to capital by leveraging its existing group of passionate users. Even knowing where to look can be intimidating and overwhelming.

At a time when banks may not be the best option for grants and loans, seeing a company choose to instead redirect its own money into the hands of its users is uplifting (and even more so given the turbulent market in a pandemic-choked world). Product Hunt maintains that it will do this each month, and will listen to feedback as it continues to build out the program.

Product Hunt’s userbase has reacted with incredible enthusiasm and praise, with repeated posts expressing a huge level of excitement and gratitude. While there are still some questions to be answered, Product Hunt’s flexible and community-driven approach is poised to potentially change the lives of many Makers. It will be exciting to see how this all plays out, and hopefully will encourage other companies to follow suit in creating positive outcomes through financial support.

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