April 7, 2014

Local author demystifies successful executive business strategies

Q&A talks with business author and consultant James M. Kerr, who recently joined West Hartford accounting and consulting firm BlumShapiro and published a new book called The Executive Checklist.

Q: You've written a new book called The Executive Checklist. What's the basic theme of the book?

A: The basic theme is to make life a little easier for executives and those who aspire to become one.

From David Letterman to Santa Claus, everyone loves lists. So, when I was first contemplating writing The Executive Checklist, I thought: "Why not write a book for my senior leadership clients that highlights the essential elements for setting direction and managing change, and present it in an easy to consume format — one that will make them want to come back, time and again for more ideas and content?"

Q: The book is designed to bring real-world examples of successful business strategies to a larger audience. What have corporations like Zappos, Whole Foods and Pixar done right to be mentioned in your book?

A: I tell the stories of these winning companies, to illustrate how the concepts that I'm promoting in the book are being applied by businesses today.

Zappos provides us a great example of how firms can better engage staff by being deliberate in culture building. For instance, they have a policy that pays a new hire $2,000 to resign, if the person is finding it too difficult to assimilate quickly into the firm's vibrant and creative work setting.

I write about Whole Foods because it provides a wonderful example of what C-level executives, like their co-CEO John Mackey, can do to build trust within their businesses. Mackey is very vocal about his belief that employee needs come first, even before those of his stockholders. He has gone so far as to reduce his salary to a dollar a year, so that there's more money available in the company to share with its employees. As a result, you can bet that trust is high among staff at Whole Foods.

The Pixar example is a story about collaboration. Even their headquarters is designed to promote employee contact and teamwork. All of the offices and workspaces shoot off a main atrium, which provides an opportunity for staff from different parts of the organization to come together and interact.

Q: Why are people attracted to books like The Executive Checklist? Won't most executives already have learned the value of keeping a to-do list?

A: It goes without saying that many executives have their own tools for success, but this is more than a book about keeping a "To-Do" list.

Rather, the book identifies the 10 things that every senior leadership team should do deliberately and perform excellently in order to keep their organizations vital and competitive, including:

Establishing leadership; building trust; setting strategy; engaging staff; managing work as projects; renovating the business; seamlessly integrating technology; transforming staff; renewing communications practices; and re-imagining organizational design.

Why these topics? For more than 20 years, clients big and small, including Connecticut firms like The Hartford, Aetna and Insurity, have asked me to help them develop strategies and plans within these topic areas.

It focuses attention on the right stuff and offers an easy means, through the use of checklists, of demystifying complex topics and organizing them into "bite-sized chunks" that can be readily used.

Q: In an interview at Management-Issues.com, you were asked about Renovate to Differentiate. What is the thinking behind that philosophy?

A: I'm not a proponent of improvement for the sake of doing things differently. Instead, I counsel clients to renovate in order to strategically differentiate their organizations from the competition.

To be the "organization of choice," for example, suggests that we offer the right products, at the right price, through the right distribution channels while providing the right customer experience. It does not automatically imply that we offer the lowest price or the best product in order to be "of choice." Quite the opposite, in fact. It proposes that we possess the optimum combination of elements to make our firms stand out within the markets in which we compete.

Q: One of your checklist items is not tolerating bad leaders in your midst. How does a C-level executive accomplish this? Do you retrain them or remove them?

A: The answer is both.

I write about several bad leader types, including the micro-manager, slave driver, bully, egomaniac, deceiver and mad scientist. All can bring dreadful results to an organization. All should be removed from the mix in one way or the other.

Please don't get me wrong, I strongly believe that people can change. But as an organizational behaviorist, I can tell you that we can't change anyone except ourselves.

So, yes, rehab those who want to change, and remove those who prefer not to.n

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