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August 20, 2014
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August 17, 2011

Break the Innovation Chokehold: How Leaders Can Stop Ruling Like (Not-So-Benevolent) Dictators and Start Encouraging Big Ideas

In the spotlight: Michael Feuer, Founder and Former CEO, OfficeMax; Author, The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition

Do you lead your team like you're the great and powerful head of your own nation? Hidden away in your office, shielded from others, do you deliver orders that must be followed, never considering what your employees might think? Do you parade the halls, factory floors or store aisles of your organization, holding audience with only the small entourage of upper management trailing after you?

Okay, this might be a slight exaggeration. But even if you embrace a less extreme version of the old "command and control" style of leadership, founder and former CEO of OfficeMax Michael Feuer says you're blocking the natural flow of the life's blood of the company. Innovation.

"The boss must act as the 'external force' for continuous, systematic change and innovation in an organization," says Feuer, who is also the author of the new book The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition (Wiley, 2011).

"He or she must be poised to seize the moment and capitalize on unique opportunities when they're presented," he adds. "But they'll never be presented if you don't stir the pot by constantly listening to your employees and challenging them to think about 'What if?' in order to improve your products, processes, or procedures."

In The Benevolent Dictator, Feuer, who started OfficeMax with little money and built a $5 billion company in a relatively short period of time, covers many no-nonsense leadership lessons, culled from his time building OfficeMax and his new venture, Max-Wellness, a new and unique health and wellness product retail chain.

He notes that to achieve true innovation, you can't lead like an iron-fisted dictator, where your word and only your word is final. You should instead lead as a benevolent dictator—"benevolent" being the operative word—who always puts the company, the employees, and, most importantly, the customer, first.

"Yes, as the benevolent dictator, you have the final say-so at the point when debate, conversation, and analysis can't take you any farther," he says. "However, you'll never reach that point in the decision making process if you never open up the issues for input in the first place. And it's in that fertile time before you determine which fork in the road to take that innovation springs up and flourishes."

So how can you cull valuable ideas from your employees, benevolent dictator-style? Read on for Feuer's advice:

When you have a problem, ask the people in the trenches first. It may be difficult for leaders to admit, but their employees just might know the ins and outs of certain aspects of the business better than they do. After all, your employees spend all day, every day listening to customer concerns and complaints. They know which internal processes slow progress and which ones make it happen more quickly. The best way to turn negatives into positives is to first understand the problems and then discover alternatives to prevent them in the future—and that means establishing a give and take with the people in the trenches.

"Challenge your employees by constantly asking them if there's a 'better way,'" says Feuer. "A 'better way' might mean eliminating redundant and nonproductive measures, or simplifying overly complicated ones—all while finding new hot buttons that will better serve your customers."

He suggests you ask your employees to make two lists: one including the tasks they currently complete and a second that lists new initiatives that could potentially boost revenue and produce a return. And most importantly, make sure that you have a means of "measuring" these ideas. You can't just announce a need for change without creating a formal process to vet each worthy recommendation.

"When you openly challenge your employees rather than ignore them, they become more motivated, and you gain the opportunity to benefit from their innovation," says Feuer.

Start going on business walkabouts. To interact with your employees, you have to go to where they are. You have to get out of your office and be more accessible to them. When your employees see you often, they become more comfortable with you. They start to see you as another human and not as the big boss who shouldn't be bothered. And when they're more comfortable, they'll speak more freely.

"Business walkabouts have been an important part of my leadership style for years," says Feuer. "For me, they were always a great way of taking a quick break while assessing the organization by engaging in short conversations with staff members from clerks to vice presidents. It also let employees know that I was paying attention, was accessible, and, most importantly, that I cared. People like to have a sounding board, and when that sounding board is a top executive, it is even better for them. They feel their voice is really being heard, and that they are truly a valued member of the organization."

Ask relevant questions. Before you start your daily walkabout, think about what the problems of the day might be. Consider who the best employee or group of employees will be to ask about these issues. Then, ask the questions that will lead to solutions.

"For example, if there is a known bottleneck in the shipping and receiving area, go to the area and discuss the problems with the employees," says Feuer. "You might ask, 'How can we improve our intake process?' Or, 'Where does the process start to back up?' It's highly likely their answers will lead to solutions, and better yet, solutions that they themselves—because they have an experienced understanding of their department—can easily implement. Asking relevant questions engages employees and encourages give-and-take communications."

Remember, every idea deserves a fair shake. You may have little time (or little patience!) to entertain every piece of employee input that comes your way. But being too quick to dismiss their ideas will only discourage innovation. Meet them with negativity or put them on the back burner to be forgotten, and your employees will start to think, What's the point? Then, when you discover you do need their feedback, they won't be there to give it to you.

"Not every idea you hear from an employee or that you come up with on your own is going to be a gem," notes Feuer. "But almost all of them will deserve to be vetted."

Encourage employees to think carefully about their ideas before presenting them to you or their immediate superior, suggests Feuer. Teach them how to weigh the pros and cons. Before dismissing an idea, always ask, "Why?" Your employee's explanation just might spark a thought that puts their original idea in a new perspective.

"Employees understand that every idea won't work, and they don't expect every single suggestion they have to be implemented," he adds. "But simply giving them the respect of your consideration will motivate them to keep on thinking about ways to improve the company—and eventually they'll bring you a real moneymaker."

Find creative ways to override "innovation inertia." One of the truly fun aspects of being a boss is that, at times, you get to make up certain rules of exploration and engagement. You establish the goals, create expectations, and determine measurements. You also get to think up better ways to do what's already working, and you get to anticipate needs that customers have yet to recognize themselves. Yet one of the biggest threats facing small, medium-size, and, yes, even Fortune 500 companies is inertia. This can, over time, prove fatal to any organization, says Feuer — and it's unnecessary.

He says one effective method for avoiding innovation inertia and creating an environment where employees feel involved and motivated is to divide employees into innovation teams. When Team A is working on a product, process, or project, the next new-and-improved version becomes Team B's job. While Team B picks up the gauntlet, the original team starts on something completely different.

"Members of Team A feel satisfied by their accomplishments and can savor the moment while gaining enthusiasm for their next undertaking," explains Feuer. "Meanwhile, Team B is motivated to top its predecessor with improvements that the first group may not have even envisioned. This method will keep complacency at bay and help you create a culture of innovation where everyone is focused on two things: doing their current job at the highest level and constantly thinking about what's next."

"One of the most important lessons I've learned in my career is that respect doesn't have to be won by giving orders and demanding adherence to those orders," says Feuer. "It can also be earned when you show yourself to be a leader who cares about his employees and who values not only their work, but what they have to say.

"Being a good manager means accomplishing objectives through others," he adds. "Being a great leader means keeping the team focused and motivated, the lines of communication open, and the innovative ideas flowing."

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010.

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