Being a leader in dot-com times

It’s a dot-com world, incredibly fast-paced and ever-changing. And as a result, traditional catalogers are being threatened by new competition that doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of us do.

As mailers, we are challenged to creatively and efficiently put together our catalogs, keep faith with our established brand, maintain quality, and be consistent with our image and merchandise offering. Most of us have investigated and established procedures that are customer concentric but also cost-effective.

For example, we consistently and regularly evaluate all of our employees, and adjust salaries based on merit and growth. We put together concise one-and five-year business plans. We adjust and forecast based on trends that are above or below our established order/response/sales curves. We try to make a profit for our stockholders or ourselves.

But most of the dot-com companies don’t do any of those things. Web pure-plays put up sites that are seemingly changed daily. These online marketers are busy establishing their brands, yet many seem to change what their brands represent as they go.

Dot-coms don’t care about planning or cost-effective procedures, because they have all of that fresh venture capital money to spend. So what if they buy too much merchandise and it doesn’t sell? They’ll just get rid of it, add to their losses, and go out and score some more capital. Profit is a word that isn’t even in their vocabulary, let alone in their business models.

Many dot-comers are going after our customers with outlandish promotions that may change consumer buying habits for years to come, if not forever, with incentives such as free shipping and deep discounting. Dot-coms are also luring our employees away with the promise of greener pastures – stock options, a lot more money, the opportunity to work somewhere “really cool.”

So what is a manager, a director, or a president/CEO to do in times like these? At the risk of being simplistic, I think that he or she should lead. What does that mean? What do leaders do? How do they do it?

Leadership overload

A dictionary I consulted had 10 major entries for the word “lead” or “leader.” In summary, they are: To show the way by going in advance; to guide or direct in a course; to guide the behavior or opinion of; to inspire the conduct of; or to go to be at the head of.

And when you sign on the Internet and use Yahoo! to search, 1,539 sites on leadership show up that can be clicked on to get up-to-the-minute advice on leading, some more “new age,” some tried and true. If you search the Website for books on the subject of leadership, an astounding 7,347 books are available for sale, and that doesn’t count the CDs or tapes. And don’t forget the seminars conducted by respected teachers and consultants on the subject of how to manage and lead.

So there is plenty of advice out there on how to be an effective leader. How am I, with just a few words here, going to add anything to your knowledge of how to lead?

The only thing that I have to offer is a bit of experience. In working in several organizations that have had their share of ups and downs, I have used a few principles that have consistently helped me through many a trying time, some of which may also help you. Most of these strategies are certainly not unique to the business world, but in these heady dot-com times, we need to remember and focus on the basics. I have borrowed many of these ideas from people I have admired, adapted them to my style, and added and subtracted as conditions change. You will probably do the same.

– Ask for help

To start any of life’s endeavors, you need information about what you need to do. When you gather information from all of the business sources involved in your job, you are asking for input, data, opinion, and fact. You talk to your customers, associates, suppliers, vendors, stockholders, and board of directors. You talk to friends, read, listen, and watch the media. You are essentially asking for help. When you solicit facts and opinions from your team, you are asking for their help in formulating the plan. The same is true for all of the people involved in the process. You can and should have the vision, but the plan needs help from everyone concerned to be a meaningful guide to the future.

– Develop a plan

You need to have a formal plan. The plan can be simple or complex, but just having one gives everyone in the company whom you asked for help something to share in. The plan is the guide to accomplish your vision.

But remember that the plan is not absolute. It should be a guide and measuring device, but not something that’s set in stone. You may not want to have a “plan du jour” like so many of the dot-coms of the world, but you should believe that the plan is not a sacred document so much as one that needs examining often, adjusting frequently, and redoing as required.

– Be objective about yourself and your plan

It’s not easy being objective about yourself and the plan. Indeed, to step outside yourself and your company and look at yourself and the plan through the eyes of your competition, your boss, and your stockholders is to invite criticism and challenges to existing truths. But you must do it if you want to be able anticipate change and plan for “what ifs.”

– Keep your sense of humor

Keeping a sense of humor while running a business or in the midst of a crisis is an important part of being a leader. Yes, business is serious stuff. But seeing the humor in situations is a wonderful stress reliever and frequently allows for a renewed emphasis on the tasks at hand. Levity is also a good way to invite people to participate in the process who might otherwise be intimidated. Humor can break down barriers. The attitude of the leader sets the work environment, and is very often the reason good employees stay or go. Money is always important, but so is the atmosphere and general corporate culture at work.

– Be optimistic

It’s not easy to always look on the bright side, but as a leader, you must be optimistic – especially if a large number of your employees are defecting to dot-coms. Your attitude is infectious, so make it positive. People around you, inside and outside the company, will take your enthusiasm and translate it into new ideas, processes, concepts that will help the plan. You want to try to squelch all “what’s the use?” negativity that may prevent employees from pitching in. You need to be confident that you will weather the storm and be around when sanity returns. And it will.

– Keep your focus

Focus for a person, a company, or a plan demands a high degree of discipline. After all of the input, discussion, and planning, the established goals need to be achieved. There is always more to do, other things to consider, and often new ideas that spring from ideas inherent in the plan. The leader needs to keep the group focused on those things vital to success and bring in only those new aspects that are important to completion of the core items. This doesn’t mean that additions to the plan shouldn’t be included, because the plan must be flexible. But if the core goals haven’t changed, keep focus on what is important to achieving them.

– Follow up

Although a good leader needs to delegate, it’s also important to follow up to ensure the success of a plan. But you need to balance follow-up with letting your people do their job and take chances. Too much follow-up can stifle employee initiative.

On a final note, a leader must be informed about what’s going on in the company. You certainly need to employ strong and capable assistants because you can’t do it all yourself. But the more the leader knows about the people in the organization and the processes that are vital to success of the plan, the greater the chance that the plan will succeed.

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