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Becoming an "Enlightened CEO"

Small Business Podcast: Hello, everybody, welcome back to Thanks very much for joining us for another interview this week. As usual, we're going to remind you to sign up for the email newsletter because we've send out exclusive interviews for email newsletter subscribers that aren't available on the website or in our RSSB so make sure you get to signed up for that. It's in the top left-hand corner of every page at Our guest today is Bob Fifer. He is an author. He has written a book. Actually, while ago, the first was "Double Your Profits" because the book that Jack Welter, GE, promoted to his people had kind of a required reading for the executives at GE. He has written another book that's coming out soon called the "Enlightened CEO" has succeeded the toughest job in business. We're going to talk to Bob about how maybe some of the things that common to the book that he's talked about, his experience as a CEO, what good CEOs have in common and the things we can do as small business owners and CEOs of our small enterprises to do this and be successful as well. So, Bob, thanks very much for joining us on the show today.

Bob Fifer: It's my pleasure.

Small Business Podcast: Well, talk about what was the impetus first of all for writing this second book. What made you think that there was a need out there for a book about how to be a good CEO?

Bob Fifer: Well, I probably know over the years a couple of hundreds CEOs as friends, as clients, has been one myself, and I think the secret that we CEO share that many of our employees don't always realize is, we're never quite pleased with our own performance or with the performance of our companies and most of the CEOs I know are quite frustrated. They have a vision for where they want to take their company and they're very passionate about it, and they worked very hard but, you know, it's three steps forward, two steps back and there's a lot of road blocks. There's a lot of things that don't go as planned. The common momenta here is sort of a sense of powerlessness, you know, why can't I get this company to do what I see needs to be done? Why can't I get my people to follow through? And, myself and my co-author, Gordon Quick, who has had a similar background, really try to put together. We took years to think about it and talk about it among ourselves and really try to think about what are the things that separate the more frustrated from the less frustrated and what are the mistakes we all make and whether some, you know, if we could share with people the mistakes we've made, others have made, maybe go and make few of them themselves and get their companies where they want to get them faster.

Small Business Podcast: Do you think that the strategies that small business CEOs have and CEOs of Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 companies are similar? Do they do the same things to get to the same place?

Bob Fifer: No. I think the job is very different in a couple of respects. In one respect the small business CEO has a huge advantage. In one respect is a huge disadvantage over the Fortune 500 CEOs, and I've worked with both. I worked with Fortune 500 for about 18 years and the last seven or eight years I worked almost not exclusively but 90% with small company CEOs. So I've seen the contrast and I've been a small company CEO myself for medium-sized company. I think the disadvantage that the small company CEO has, is just resources at its disposal. Particularly with the advance of technology, so many of the systems you need to market, to operate your company are technology answers now, and there's a real scale factor in technology, and I got clients who run, you know, good-sized company, not huge companies but near 200-, 300- or 400 million-dollar companies, 30 million-dollar companies, 500 million who find that they can't quite afford the really sleek technology solutions. So, I think the advantage of big companies have is they have the scale to, if they can figure out the right system, they can spend the money to put it in place and will make that money back. It's a little bit harder for small companies to do that. The big advantage that small company CEOs have and the reason why I'm enjoying the last six, seven years working with them so much is they have much more ability to impact their companies than the big company CEOs have. I mean when you're running a company with 150,000 employees, it is really hard to move the needle and it is really hard. It can be done and there are some CEOs who are good at it. But, boy! It's really hard to get a 149,999 other people to move in the direction you want. When you're running a small company and you've got your hands on so many more things and you're proportionally such in larger percentage of the company, if you can get you're own act together and stay focused, you can have much greater impact. So, if you can figure out your niche in how to conquer some part of the world with limited resources, you have much more control to determine the outcome.

Small Business Podcast: And one of the things that CEOs whether I think it's small or big businesses have to do is, of course, sell their plans and motivate employees and other people underneath them to buy under the same ideas that they have to grow the business. What do you see in some of the most successful people that do that? What characteristics do they share?

Bob Fifer: I think that's the crucial question in the book. I mean there's a couple of dozen crucial questions in the book but if you ask me for this single central one, that's really it, and I'm glad you asked the question. Let me briefly start by sort of saying what doesn't work because I think that might paint the picture even better. We all make a few...we all make different varieties as a few mistake. One is afraid to tell our employees the truth. You hide them. The high the bad news, you're constantly telling them how rosy the future looks when they come to you at the very real problem they're facing in the marketplace or with implementing some part of your operational system. You tell them things are great. Everything is going to be wonderful tomorrow. Don't worry about the market. Everybody just go work harder. The problem with that approach is employees are smarter than that. I mean, they are out there in the real world. They know that things aren't great, and relentless optimism is not leadership, and I see many CEOs who refuse to sort of face reality with their employees. I also see CEOs who are afraid to bring the management and employees they have to no matter how small or big your company into the decision-making loop and system making all the decisions themselves. And, in fact, I had an, you know, 18-year-old career at one company and I had stretches of that but the company did very well, and I had stretched where we plateaued and things went less well. And as I think back with 20/20 hindsight the years when I thought I knew it all and didn't need a help because I was the smartest guy in the company or the most experienced guy in the company, with the years, we plateaued. The CEOs who succeed are the ones who recognize that although they are the leader and have to set the course and inspire, a very small percentage of the answer is going to come from their own head, that every single person who works for their company and indeed their suppliers, their customers, even their competitors are really smart people who have great ideas; and if you can develop a mindset that you are remaining open, you don't get defensive, you don't get protective of your own answer, you don't get protective of the answer you had yesterday, the whole purpose of CEOs is because we push some answer last week, last month, or last year and now that answer is no longer right because things have changed. We don't want to look bad. So we keep pushing the old answer and, you know, I wish I could turn the clock back. I think the strategies I've stuck to two years beyond their shelf life because I didn't want to look stupid, and if I would be willing to put my ego, you know, in a bottle and push it aside and listen better, my company would have been five years further ahead because we would've made the change faster. So, to summarize and try to answer your questions succinctly, the three words, that we say in the book capsulized how you motivate your people, are to be open with them, to let them know as absolutely as much as possible. And by the way, and your company is the epitome of this but one of the epitomes. In this Internet age, you can't keep secrets anyway? I mean your employees are going to find everything out. You might as well be the one to tell them. Anyway, be open with them because the more you tell them, the more they can help. Be honest with them because employees absolutely hate to be lied to. They hate when you talk down to them. They hate when you're too optimistic. They hate when you are less honest in order to get them to do something. They respect being treated honestly, so open and honest. And lastly, to treat the people in your company with respect, too many CEOs when they're under pressure become bullies and try to intimidate people into doing things. You know, if you would survey the employees of the world and say, "Are you giving your all to your company?" The ones who give their all to the company are the ones who are brought inside the tent who were treated with openness, honesty and respect. When you, out of the pressure of the day, resorts to less enlightened styles, that's when you're going to find, you pushed really hard and the ship doesn't move because the other people aren't pushing really as hard as you need to.

Small Business Podcast: And isn't it really interesting that probably the reason they got to this position in the first place is because of the confidence that they have, so finding a balance there is probably tough for a lot of CEOs?

Bob Fifer: It's really tough. There are a lot of balances that have to be struck and that's what makes it such an interesting job. I think all of us that are CEOs are attracted to the job because it's a very complex and difficult job and we want a challenge. There are other attractions of the job. Hopefully, good finances, you know, pay and all that. But at the core, it's the complexity of the job. If we wanted something simple, we would have been, you know, something more narrow. I think that to rise to the top, to have the guts to start a company if you're an entrepreneur which is a scary thing to do and put yourself on the line and your finances on the line, to rise to the top of the big companies for that matter, you have to stand out, you have to be bold, you have to be willing to step up. These people tend to have big egos. Most CEOs, myself included, have big egos and that's not a bad thing, but you somehow need to learn which the right way for that ego to manifest itself and what are the wrong ways, and the wrong way is to shut up the input of other people. That's a real tough one and even more critical balance is my last book as your reference was called "Double Your Profits" and it was all about cure some hard-nosed, fast, surefire ways to double, triple, quadruple the profits of your company, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and not only wealth as you've mentioned but many Fortune 500 firms and smaller companies made it their religion, but with 14 years hindsight, I wrote that book in 1993. What that book gives short trip to is treating people the right way. It's a very hard-nosed, tough book and I think most of the book is still right but with this, the reason... I thought it was time to write a new book is because 14 years later I'm going older and wiser. I would like to think it's how do you balance to that balance, how do you profit maximize, how do you push hard because it's a competitive world out there. Unless you push your people in your company, you're going to fail. But at the same time, big people feel good about it. They're going to treat them with the respect that they deserve as human being. So, that's a very tricky balance and there's a lot's a hard thing to summarize in 30 seconds, but there's a lot of worse stories on the book about how do you do both at the same time.

Small Business Podcast: And should I be soliciting this feedback from maybe colleagues or CEOs and a CEO group I meet or should I be asking my vice-president, "Hey, tell when I'm wrong and feel comfortable telling me that or how should I check myself?"

Bob Fifer: Well, absolutely. I think you should encourage people. Both of those are good ideas. Certainly, the people who work for you and if you're a small company entrepreneur may not even be your vice-president. You might only have eight employees in which case you should be soliciting feedbacks from all eight of them. You know, it doesn't matter what's someone's educational background is, you know, if they care about your company and they're good observers, they have something they can tell you that will be good feedback. I think, you know, going to peers is also a good place to do it. The real key is people will give you feedback whether you ask for it or not. I mean we get it all the time. How do you react when you get it? At least half of the CEOs of this world do, I dare say, 75% to 80%. If someone gives you some feedback thats not a 100% positive, and you verbally or sub-verbally express that you're not too please with the feedback, you know, you acted in some aggressive way towards them or some annoyed way, or you put them in the dark house. Well, that's the last time that person is ever going to be honest with you, you know, because people are, you know, not masochist. If you beat them up when they tell you the truth, they're going to stop telling you the truth. So, the real key is, when you hear something, do not be threatened by it. Remember, you're the CEO, you know, if you are a small company, you probably own the company or you certainly, most CEOs are not, you know, likely to be fired the next day. Certainly, not by the person giving the feedback, and don't be threatened by it. Take a deep breath say, "I'm in charge here. These people cant hurt me." Listen for the truth on what they're saying. And even if two-thirds of what they're saying you think is wrong, find kernel of truth and listen to that input. The number of CEOs who refuse to hear the bad news going in the marketplace, they push their salespeople, "Go out and sell. Go out and sell." And the salespeople say, "Here's the problem I'm running into." And I say, "Sell harder." Well, you know, that's half right and half wrong. Yeah, you got to sell harder, and yeah, you got to push your salespeople. But there's also learning that those salespeople have that might mean you have to change the pitch, change the marketing message, change the product, change the sale system, and you're so afraid to hear the bad news that you don't act on the bad news.

Small Business Podcast: Now, one of the things you kind of talked about a lot, too, which some books don't is the followthrough and that translating it into action. Lot of books talk about, you know, communicating and the plan but really kind of fall short when it comes to talking about, "OK, how do we do this?"

Bob Fifer: Right.

Small Business Podcast: And you really make that an important point.

Bob Fifer: We spelled it out in a lot of detail, and it's personally a very pointed one to meet because we talked about the six roles of the CEO in the book and I won't list them in at this time although you're hitting on several of them. But if I'm going to rate myself in prior life as a CEO, of the six to follow through was the one I was worst at. I had this notion as many of my CEO friends and colleagues do that if I say something...if I come up with the right strategy and if I say it eloquently enough and passionately enough, I'm a good public speaker as many CEOs are and repeated enough, it will happen and, willing to hold six months, later, nine months later, it wasn't happening. It was only happening 50%. The book really talks about rolling up your sleeves. And whether the questions you need to ask, whether the systems you need to put in place, no matter how small your company, to make sure that it actually gets done and it doesn't mean you do it, your employees can do the work and should do the work in your management, but there's a few key checkpoint and a few key questions and most important of all there is coaching. The most important role of the CEO is coach. OK, you are the most experienced person in your company that's why you have that title and you're a teacher. If you don't like to teach, you probably shouldn't be a CEO. Your people need help. The real simple truth that you have to wrap your mind around is that when your people aren't doing something, it's not because they're not working hard enough. Everybody want to succeed. Everybody wants to please their boss. That's human nature. It's because they can't figure out how to succeed and you need to sit down with them. Break the problem down. Figure out of the four things you need know need to get done, which is the one that's stopping them and then work with them, teach them, show them the way around it. Get them help and we lay out sort of a very simple-minded mental framework to check those boxes to make sure you not only come up with a strategy but you actually follow it through the action. If every small-company CEO just did that, I think that would really move the needle on your company and they'd be less frustrated.

Small Business Podcast: And talking about balance again, again another place of balance, where you're too hands off versus too micromanaging and finding what works with your employees.

Bob Fifer: That's right. These in that's very common to make the mistake of either extreme. I mean, there are the CEOs that are insistent going in and doing everything themselves and that you'll never build a team and never build a company. You might have a three-person company, you might have a six-person company, but you will plateau with a very small size because good people won't work under those conditions. Bad people will stay if you do everything for them and every time they get stuck you just step in and step on their toes and do it, but the good people will leave. The good people want the opportunity to grow and not be squashed by the CEO at every turn. So, you can't do it for them and you can't fix things yourself, but neither can you step back and say I'm a good delegator. That's an equally bad problem. Delegation is fine but checking up in appropriate ways at appropriate intervals done with respect and then coaching and helping where it's needed is the balance that has to be strived. Either extreme will get you in trouble.

Small Business Podcast: Well, of course, we're going to link to the book "Enlightened CEO: How to Succeed at the Toughest Job in Business." Bob, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

Bob Fifer: It's my pleasure.