Michael Feuer's columns

Column: An exaggerated sense of your own importance can stifle new ideas

As an executive, do you walk down the hall of your office, store or factory with your head down, lips sealed and eyes riveted to the floor? If you do, you’re creating a barrier that is sending signals that say, “Don’t speak to me, I am not approachable, and I don’t care about your opinion or ideas. I’m the head honcho; I already know it all.” Conversely, if you traverse the halls and byways of your facility with your head up, a smile on your face and making eye contact with those you encounter, you’re telling employees, “Talk to me, tell me what you think, suggest how can we do it better.”

Nonverbal communications speak volumes about your style of management and how receptive you are to new ideas without worrying about who comes up with them. The best CEOs are the ones who know their people’s first names, a little bit about their personal life and their jobs. They also regularly communicate with their associates by asking questions and seeking suggestions. If you don’t want to speak to anyone, just don’t look at them, and they’ll get the message, but you’ll run the risk of ignoring that low-hanging fruit that is always there if you just look for it.

Many good ideas come from people who spend their time in the trenches, building the product, dealing with your customers, or listening to their concerns and complaints. The best ways of turning negatives into positives are first understanding the problems and then discovering alternatives to prevent them in the future. No one knows these issues better than the people in your organization who have to deal with them every day.

To get your people to open up, first you have to get out of your own office and become visible. When you’re visible on a continuous basis, you become accessible. Accessibility leads to innovation as well as creating solutions to issues from the mundane to the complex. Once you start walking about on a regular basis, you also have to learn how to ask questions when the opportunity arises. Certainly, it’s fine to ask someone, “How are you doing today?” Not only is it polite, but it also reflects that you care about the individual. However, combining that inquiry with one of more substance that deals with known problems can lead to effective solutions or put you on the right path to solving the problem by getting input on the circumstances that may have caused it in the first place. Most everyone has an opinion, and all of us want to have a sounding board. If that sounding board is a top executive or the CEO, that’s even better. Asking relevant questions engages employees and encourages give-and-take communications.

Try this technique the next time you walk through your facility. Before you get up from behind your desk, ask yourself what the problems du jour are and what do you need to know so that you can solve them. As a simple example, if there is a known bottleneck in the shipping and receiving area, instead of just reading a memo about the problem from the supervisor, take a stroll over to the loading dock with a couple of questions in mind. There is no law that only good ideas have to come from you and your management team. By asking those involved with the process why there are problems, you might just get an answer or two that spawns the fix you need. Listening is a skill that all of us have to develop and nurture. But, before you can listen, you have to be sure that your people are willing to talk to you and with you.

It’s almost guaranteed that if you have an exaggerated sense of your own importance, you’ll not only stifle new ideas but you might never find answers to nagging problems. One little gem, one golden nugget of information can translate into bottom-line improvement. An ongoing string of these gems can help make your company an industry leader while enhancing your employees’ sense of importance and ownership in the process. These methods also show you value employees’ opinions and you expect them to have opinions on how to do their job better. Tomorrow, leave your ego at home and start your discovery process, then watch your business grow.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in late spring 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.