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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

How to know when it’s time to go freelance full time

(ENTREPRENEUR) There may come a point when traditional work becomes burdensome. Know how to spot when it is time to go full freelance.

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Freelancing is often thought of as a mythical concept, something that is almost too good to be true. While it isn’t all about hanging out at home in your pajamas all day, being a freelance is something that is completely possible to be successful – assuming you do your homework.

Recently, a friend of mine who is a licensed esthetician was no longer happy with her position at the salon and spa she worked for. The set hours were becoming a burden, as was having to divvy up appointments between another esthetician within the salon.

She noticed an increasing number of people asking her if she could perform services (eyebrow and lip waxing) from her home, as they preferred not to go into the hectic salon. My friend also found an increase in requests for her to travel to bridal parties for their makeup, rather than the parties coming into the salon.

It was around this time that my friend began to seriously consider becoming a freelance esthetician, rather than a salon employee. After about six months of research and consideration, she decided that this was the best route for her.

Below are the reasons she felt ready to pursue this option, and if they resonate with you, you may be ready for a full time freelance career.

1. She had a number of built-in clients and a list of people she could contact to announce her at-home services. Doing this at the start of one’s career would be very difficult without a contact list and word-of-mouth references, so it’s important to have…

2. …experience! My friend had worked for a number of salons over the years, and had the experience of working with all different types of clients. She also learned what she liked and didn’t like about each salon, which were pieces that factored into her own work-from-home space.

3. Since she had years of experience and had done all of the necessary aforementioned research, she knew what was expected of her and knew that getting a freelance career off the ground wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Operating a freelance career is completely on you, so you have to be 100 percent dedicated to making it work – it won’t just happen for you.

4. Once she began thinking about this idea nonstop and became more excited, she knew it was time to move forward. At first, the “what ifs” were daunting, but became more positive as time went on. If the idea of being a freelancer elicits more smiles than frowns, definitely take the time to consider this option.

5. In addition to the clients she already had, she also had an amazing support system who helped her develop her freelance brand and get her at-home business up and running. Having a solid group of people in your life that will help you is crucial, and any offer for help should be appreciated.

Other things to consider are: do you have enough money saved in case the freelance venture takes longer than planned to take off? If not, maybe stick with the day job until you feel more financially secure.

Jumping into something too quickly can cause you to become overwhelmed and drown in the stress. Make sure you’ve covered every single base before making this leap. Good luck, freelancers!

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Business Entrepreneur

Teach kids music and they’ll learn entrepreneurship

(ENTREPRENEUR) Sowing the seed of music education and appreciation in your child when they’re young is a great way to produce the fruit of entrepreneurship when they’re older.

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With all the focus sports gets as the petri dish for producing driven adults, I’d like to offer up a different extracurricular activity for your consideration: music. Supporting your child as they learn how to harmonize with others will help set them up for success later in life, as music cultivates many of the characteristics that entrepreneurs rely on every day.

Iteration

Anybody who’s played an instrument or been a part of a choir can tell you that the number one thing you’ll learn in a musical group is that you won’t make it unless you practice, practice, practice. Although in the moment it’s not that great to hear little Timmy or Ginny run through their C-scale a hundred times, a few years down the line when all those hours of iterating result in the lilt of Beethoven through your household, you can be sure that your kid has learned that repeating the little steps helps them achieve large goals.

Showmanship

A large part of being a successful entrepreneur is knowing your markets, or your audience, and able to keep their attention so that they come back to you when they need your business. Being a part of an ensemble not only teaches children to be comfortable in the spotlight but to crave putting on a show.

Teamwork

When young musicians come together to play in a band or raise their voices in a choir, they’re learning a lot about how to collaborate with others in order to achieve a goal. When a young alto sings alone, her notes may sound strange without the soprano tones filling out the melody. The duet that comes from them learning to work together and complement each other builds a strong foundation for any team venture your child will encounter later in their careers.

Competiveness

Although music provides a solid foundation in harmony, it also contains just as much grit and competition as the football field. Music groups compete in regional and national championships just as athletes do, and solos offer opportunities to self-select and advocate. Hell hath no fire like a second seat musician who dreams of being first chair.

Self Confidence

Unlike sports, music is accessible to those who might struggle with finding confidence. There are no “best” requirements to play—regardless of height, weight, and other characteristics that nobody has any control over—nearly anyone can pick up an instrument or find their voice. This perhaps may be the greatest gift that you can give your child, the confidence that no matter what they look like they can excel.

As your child begins to consider the different activities that will help them build toward their future, don’t discourage them from pursuing a musical path. When they have to stand in front of an audience of their peers and deliver a presentation with an unwavering voice, they’ll thank you for the years they spent getting comfortable in the spotlight. Especially if they pursue entrepreneurship!

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Business Entrepreneur

The 6 numbers every small business owner should have on speed dial

(ENTREPRENEUR) Don’t wait until you have an emergency to have proper business contacts, make sure you know at least these six people for your speed dial.

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As a small business owner, it’s easy to feel like you’re on your own island. But if you ever find yourself stuck in this mentality for too long, it’s probably because you’re unintentionally isolating yourself. What you need is a deep network of business services, partners, and contacts to help you succeed.

Regardless of what business you’re in, what your budget looks like, or the professional skills you have, it’s smart to develop business contacts with as many people as possible. Here are a few contacts you should always have at your fingertips:

1. Lawyer

Most small business owners think, “I can’t afford a lawyer!” But the truth is that you can’t afford to not have a lawyer. You don’t need an attorney in-house – or even need to keep one on retainer – but it’s wise to be on a first name basis with a business attorney whom you can call when you have a question or issue.

Not only will this save your rear end, but it’ll also significantly lower your stress level.

2. CPA

If you’re currently doing all of your month-to-month financial statements, expense filing, taxes, and financial planning, you’re not operating at your peak potential. Accounting is important, but it’s not something you should do yourself.

By hiring a CPA – whether through an outsourced accounting firm or as a full-time member of your team – you can keep your financials in order and free up your schedule to focus on the tasks that really matter.

3. Notary

You may or may not need documents notarized on a regular basis, but every business owner will encounter the occasional situation where a quick notary is necessary in order to push a project forward. It’s best if you have an in-house notary.

It’s not very difficult to become an official notary, so you can always encourage one of your administrative assistants to embrace the role.

4. Printing Service

Access to affordable, 24/7 printing services is a must. This enhances your flexibility and gives you the opportunity to quickly produce things like booklets, catalogs, brochures, calendars, and other promotional items.

An online service like PrintingCenterUSA is the most convenient option.

5. Banker

Having a reliable banker is good for a couple of reasons. First off, it gives you access to the right banking plan or package that fits your needs. (This cuts down on costs and ensures proper access to your liquid assets.) Secondly, it helps you with loans, lines of credit, and other financing services that are important to growing and scaling your business operations.

6. Insurance agent

Insurance isn’t something anyone enjoys talking about, but it’s one of the more integral pieces of maintaining and growing a successful business. Without the right insurance policies, you face higher risk and lower certainty.

By aligning with an insurance professional – preferably a broker who isn’t associated with one company – you instantly gain access to all of the best products that are available in the marketplace.

Most importantly, never stop networking.

People often think about business networking in terms of finding new clients and customers. However, it’s equally important to network for the purposes of establishing mutually beneficial partnerships and relationships.

Not sure where to cultivate genuine business connections? The answer is everywhere. From structured environments like small business conferences and trade shows to impromptu encounters at the supermarket or in your neighborhood, you’re surrounded by opportunities.

If the thought of putting yourself out there and networking with total strangers makes you nervous, preparation is the greatest remedy.

As entrepreneur Alyssa Gregory explains, “One of the best ways to ease any anxiety you may have as you prepare for a business networking situation is by developing an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short description of what you do, who you work with and the value you offer to your customers or clients. The goal is to be able to deliver this ‘pitch’ in 60 seconds or less, in a conversational way.”

“Conversational” is an important word in the larger context of networking. Whether you’re building a relationship with an accountant or an investor, you don’t want the interaction to feel forced and scripted. Being genuine and relatable is the best approach.

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