How to Win Business in a Competitive Marketplace

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on March 5, 2019

All business leaders face the issue of how to win business in a competitive marketplace. Price the product or service too low, and you are leaving money on the table. Price it too high, and the customer or client will go to a competitor.

While I was national sales manager of PQ Corporation, a producer of both commodity and specialty chemical products, they constantly faced competitive pricing decisions to retain current customers’ business was well as win the business of new customers.

Many of PQ’s customers and the customers of our competitors were supplied under the terms of sales contracts that were one or more years in duration. Before the end of their supply contract, many of these customers would put their business out for bid for the next contract term.

In the competitive marketplace, this was an opportunity for us to win a future customer’s business currently supplied by a competitor, and an opportunity for a competitor to win the business supplied by our company.

We worked hard to differentiate ourselves on customer and technical service, as did our competition. Price, however, played a large factor in whether we won or lost the business.

So, as a business leader, how do you increase the probability that you will win in the competitive marketplace?

Work to be the preferred provider

At PQ, we were always on the journey to be the preferred provider by providing a great customer experience. We wanted to be the company that every customer would preferentially buy from. Our goal was to help our customers be successful in their businesses by being a great supplier.

Our products always met specifications, our plants were responsive to emergency deliveries and our sales and customer service people worked to resolve any issues with the account.

Build strong customer relationships 

The larger and more strategic the customer, the more we called on them and developed relationships with the leadership hierarchy within the customer’s organization.

Our sales representatives “owned” the customer relationship — they were the ones who kept in frequent touch with the customer to understand trends in their business and any issues they faced with the use of our products. They brought in our knowledgeable technical service people to trouble-shoot and resolve issues.

The regional sales manager as well as the national sales manager would develop relationships up through the customer’s organization. After I was appointed the CEO of PQ, I developed a relationship with my counterpart —the CEO, or if more appropriate, the group president of the business purchasing our product.

Get the “last phone call” 

If a competitor out-bid us for a customer, we needed to know about it before the competitor was awarded the business. We wanted the opportunity to convince the customer of the value we brought to the supply relationship beyond just the product price, and if necessary, meet the competitive price. That is the value of developing a strong customer relationship — to get the last phone call before the business is awarded.

When I was president of PQ’s Canadian subsidiary, we were working on a 10-year contract to supply a pulp and paper mill in Whitecourt, Alberta, with product used in pulp bleaching. Our plan was to build a production plant adjacent to the customer to ensure a reliable supply of product.

One afternoon, the business manager responsible for negotiating the supply contract with the customer came into my office in Toronto and told me he just learned that we had competition for the business — a U.S.-based supplier.

This customer was strategic for us. The plant we would build to supply their pulp and paper mill would be strategically placed to supply other pulp mills throughout Alberta. We didn’t want this opportunity to go to a competitor.

I asked our business manager to make an appointment with the customer’s CEO. I wanted to meet with him to close the deal.

We arrived in Whitecourt the next day and sat across from the CEO and his team. We presented how our company was in the best position to supply not only their product requirements but also their technical service needs, and how our multiple plants in Canada would be there as backup to provide product to their pulp and paper plant.

We didn’t need to cut the price we originally offered — all we needed to do was freeze the price for three years, something the U.S. competitor wouldn’t do. At the end of the meeting, the CEO and I looked each other in the eye, stood up and shook hands across the table. I knew we had a deal.

Without the relationship previously established by our business manager and the non-monetary value we could deliver to the customer, in addition to being able to freeze the price for three years, I am not sure we would have prevailed in winning the business.

Be dedicated to continuous improvement

In PQ’s commodity chemical business, where our products and those of our competitors were the same chemically, price was an important competitive differentiator. A strong commitment to continuous process improvement to drive costs down was critical to the ability to compete.

In our specialty chemical business, where our products and those of the competition were differentiated based on product cost/performance, this metric must continually improve at a pace greater than that of competition. Continuous improvement can be incremental or step-wise, with large improvements based on innovation and a change in paradigms. This permits greater pricing flexibility than a competitor, whose improvements may lag, and is key to long term competitive success.

When going up against a competitor, you want them to think, “Oh no. Not those guys.” That’s how good you want to be. That’s how you win business in a competitive marketplace.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at

How to be an inspiring leader

Learn How to Be an Inspiring Leader

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on February 26, 2019

What makes a truly great leader? In part, it’s the ability to inspire followers toward an aspirational goal. I miss the inspirational leadership of three former leaders, whose words and their delivery of those words inspired many of us.

Former President John F. Kennedy, in his Sept. 12, 1962 speech, announced the national goal of sending men to the moon and returning them safely to Earth before the decade was out. As a high school student at the time with the goal of going to college and earning a degree in chemical engineering, I was inspired by not only Kennedy’s audacious challenge to overcome the immensely difficult technical and engineering barriers, but also by his confidence that the goal could be achieved.

Former President Ronald Reagan, in his Jan. 20, 1981 inaugural address, spoke of the exceptionalism of Americans in a very positive, uplifting message, describing the “will and moral courage of free men and women,” and how committed we are to defending freedom. Reagan’s eloquent speech was a call to action for all Americans to be the best they could be, and serve as an example for the rest of the world to emulate. He is the president I most admire.

Former British prime minister Winston Churchill on June 4, 1940 delivered his “we shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament to rally his citizens during World War II. Churchill’s speech, reenacted by Gary Oldman, in the film, “The Darkest Hour,” is an inspiring example of how a national leader can mobilize a nation’s citizens toward the most challenging goal it has ever faced – national survival. In the film, one can overhear the comment, “He mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle.” Unfortunately, not very many leaders can do the same today.

So, what did Kennedy, Reagan and Churchill have in common? They had wonderful command of vocabulary and knew how to inspirationally communicate their goals and beliefs with emotion in an up-lifting way that won the hearts and minds of their citizens. They united the nations they were leading at the time.

How does a business leader win the hearts and minds of those they lead? How do you become an inspiring leader? Certainly, it takes more than great communication skills. Inspirational leaders have other skills as well.

Lolly Daskal is a leading executive leadership coach and founder of Lead From Within. In her article, “Six powerful traits of the most inspiring business leaders,” Daskal identifies these traits as people skills, credibility, authenticity, emotional intelligence, motivation, and positivity.

Murray Newlands, an entrepreneur, business advisor and speaker, in his article, “Seven characteristics of inspirational leaders,” says that inspirational leaders have a clear vision of the future, express unerring positivity, listen to their people, are grateful to their team, communicate impeccably, are trustworthy, and are passionate about what they do.

Based on my own experience as a CEO and director on the boards of numerous companies, I would like to add to the list of characteristics and traits of inspirational leaders identified by Daskal and Newlands, as follows:

Is genuine in words and actions, and is a person of high ethics and integrity

A leader who is not genuine and lacks ethics and integrity will not earn the respect and trust of the people within their organization. They will certainly not inspire followers to achieve great results. Board members, be sure you hire a CEO with these traits.

Communicates the importance of the company’s goals

The senior leadership team of the company needs to communicate the importance of the company’s goals in both group meetings and in one-on-one conversations with key opinion leaders within the company.

Employees need to feel that the goals are meaningful and achievable and will have a positive benefit for them and the organization. The goals should be aspirational, and stretch beyond the normal reach of individuals.

Identifies the role that employees play in attaining the goal

After completing a new strategic plan, as the recently appointed CEO of PQ Corporation, I communicated the goals of the company to our business units, and just as importantly, the role each business unit had in achieving those goals. The role of our low-growth commodity chemical business was to generate cash flow, through very heavy emphasis on continuous improvement. This cash flow would be invested in our high-growth specialty chemical and catalyst businesses.

After I made my presentation to the employees of our commodity chemical business, one of the employees commented, “This is the first time I was told what our role is in the achievement of the company’s strategic goals.” In my former position as COO of the company, I was too close to the strategic planning process to realize that the different roles of business unit employees to achieve the company’s goals had not been explained to them. All individuals who take part in achieving the goals of the company should have a personal ownership of the role that they themselves play in the achievement of those goals.

Frequently provide updates on progress

By frequently sharing updates on the progress towards achieving the company’s goals, an inspirational leader has the opportunity to keep the focus on what the company is trying to accomplish. It keeps the company’s employees in the game.

Great inspirational leaders have great communication skills. To those that have a fear of public speaking, you can conquer that fear by facing it head on, by receiving coaching and taking every opportunity to publicly speak. You will never regret that you developed this skill. Someday, you, like Churchill, Kennedy and Reagan, may be able to mobilize the English language and send it into battle.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

Get out of Your Comfort Zone & Push Through Your Self-Perceived Limitations

Get out of Your Comfort Zone & Push Through Your Self-Perceived Limitations

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on January 15, 2019

People often share with me the real and perceived limitations they face in pursuing their goals. As we enter 2019, I would like to share with you this look back at an article I wrote in December 2015 headlined “Advice for the New Year: Push through your self-perceived limitations.”

Why do people experience various degrees of success over the course of their careers? During my career, I have observed many successful people and those wanting to achieve success. There are those who succumb to their self-perceived limitations, and those who find a way to push through them.

The proverb, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right,” is ascribed to Henry Ford. Your attitude and your ability to push through self-perceived limitations play key roles in how successful you will be.

A friend at my gym drove this home for me a number of years ago. I had been doing assisted pull-ups on an exercise machine that uses counterweights because I believed I did not have sufficient upper-body strength to do a pull-up without them. My friend came up to me and said, “I know you can do pull-ups unassisted.”

I told her that I hadn’t done unassisted pull-ups since high school and I couldn’t do them now. She egged me on, challenging me to do just one. By now, a crowd was gathering, and I felt huge peer pressure to try to do one pull-up. I walked over to the machine without counterweights and, with my friends watching, nervously jumped up six inches and grabbed the pull-up bar. To my surprise, I was able to do two!

I never used the counterweight machine again. Over the subsequent three months, I pushed hard and worked my way up to three sets of 10 unassisted pull-ups. I learned a valuable lesson from my friend: You are only limited by your own self-perceived limitations. Thank you, Patti Morris!

Sometimes it takes a friend, colleague, coach or mentor to inspire you to the next level. When you move to that next level, you never look back – you only look forward. As leaders, our job is to inspire others around us – to help them move to that next level.

To me, one such individual is Seth Godin, the author of “The Icarus Deception,” who writes about Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who flies too high and too close to the sun. His wings melt off and he crashes into the sea.

Godin writes: “It is far more dangerous to fly too low than too high, even though it might feel safer to fly low. You settle for low expectations and small dreams, and guarantee yourself less than what you are capable of. By flying too low, you also shortchange not only yourself, but also those who depend on you, or might benefit from your work.”

People fly too low due to fear and self-perceived limitations. If you fly too low, you are not preparing yourself for a time that may come when your job or profession becomes obsolete and you must re-launch your career. So, during your career, be sure you don’t fly too low. Take risks and fly high, and if you crash, you will pick yourself up and fly again.

Get out of your comfort zone and take on new challenges. Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” You differentiate yourself among your peers by trying new things, sometimes failing, but moving forward. This trait will help you land your next job. Employers, hire those who embrace change, rather than those who don’t.

The type of company at which you want to work should value employees who are not afraid to innovate, embrace change and, yes, occasionally make mistakes and learn from them.

Your attitude, which is apparent to everyone you interface with, plays a significant role in your success. Be a person who sees a world of abundance and possibilities, not one who sees a world of limitations and scarcity. Push through self-perceived limitations. You never know what the future holds or where it will take you.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership, and is the former CEO of PQ Corporation. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

How to navigate office politics

How to Navigate Office Politics

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 2, 2018

I am periodically asked how to successfully deal with office politics. I often share an article I wrote in August 2016 on this subject. This is an update of that article.

Throughout my career, I have watched the game of office politics play out in many organizations, including my own. Office politics can have negative implications for the people playing the game, their co-workers and the organization itself.

Why do people play office politics? They feel that the only way they can advance within an organization is at the expense of others – making themselves look good, while making others look bad. They deflect responsibility and often blame others, both peers and subordinates, for their own failures.

They take undo credit for the success of initiatives beyond their contributions, and misrepresent the facts to cast themselves in a favorable light. They are good at “managing up.” To the senior leadership of the organization, they heap undo criticism on their peers. They destroy trust, and when trust is destroyed, the organization becomes toxic and dysfunctional.

I have often wondered why the boss puts up with the actions of employees who play office politics. Either they are blind to it or think that they will achieve better results than if the organization performed as a high-performance team in which employees trusted each other. They are wrong.

Bosses will often try to counsel employees who play office politics to get them to change, with mixed results. The employee will often deny their destructive behavior. Many times, their political behavior is due to their personality. They won’t change. That is who they are.

I have written extensively on the importance of tone and culture within organizations. Those managers who undercut their peers and play political games are setting the wrong tone and culture, which will be emulated by those within their group, undermining trust with employees in other groups. Silos are created and information is not shared, to the detriment of the entire organization.

As part of every manager’s performance review, tone and culture need to be assessed, including that of the CEO. If the tone and culture are wrong, regardless if the manager is currently achieving results, the results will not be sustainable.

Eventually, employees who play office politics are recognized for who they are and the damage they cause. They are either terminated, or depart on their own when their political gamesmanship has been uncovered and is no longer useful to them at their current company.

So, as an employee within an organization, how should you defend against those who are playing political games to undermine you?

There is an old saying, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” ascribed by some to Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu in his book “The Art of War” (circa 400 BC), and by others to the 16th century political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli in his book, “The Prince.” This saying can also be applied to office politics.

By keeping your adversaries close, you can get insight into what they are doing and thinking. You also have the opportunity to sway their thinking, and show them that undermining you is not a productive use of their time. You may be able to co-op them, and get them to be one of your supporters rather than a detractor. However, once they violate your trust, you may never fully trust them again. Once lost, trust is very difficult to regain.

On various occasions during my career, I have been the subject of political attacks by others. Did I ever confront the individual? No. I felt that would be counter-productive. Whether or not to confront someone is a personal decision, and depends on each individual situation.

How did I successfully cope with these attacks? I built a strong informal organization through which I got things accomplished. I built alliances with others by helping them accomplish their objectives. Through these alliances, I was made aware of political attacks that were not visible to me. I did the same for those with whom I had developed alliances. Did this strategy work? I was the one who rose up through the organization, not them.

So, how can you rise above office politics? Meet your commitments to others. Build trust with your peers. Develop alliances. Keep your adversaries close. Build political capital. Most importantly, do your job and achieve results, and let those results speak for themselves.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

Rex Tillerson remarks on toxic individuals

Dealing with Toxic Individuals in the Workplace

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 10, 2018

At some point in our careers, nearly of all us will find ourselves working with bosses, direct reports or peers who lack ethics and integrity. These people are toxic and hinder the organization’s ability to achieve its objectives.

Toxic people will throw others who stand in their way under the proverbial bus for their own purpose of advancing through the organization at the expense of others. They will complain about others and talk behind their backs to undermine them.

Those who are toxic are not trusted by their peers or direct reports. The actions of everyone they work with have a defensive component, which hinders any group from becoming a high-performance team. Toxic people within the organization don’t realize that their personal integrity and reputation is a valuable asset. It determines if people want to deal with them.

Toxic people are good at managing up, so their behavior may not be transparent to their boss. Eventually, the boss learns about them and everyone hopes that sooner or later they will be terminated.

So, what do you do if:

You work for a toxic boss

Do your job and do it well. More than likely, you will not be permitted to make many decisions without the boss’s approval, so over-communicate to make sure you are both on the same page.

Ensure you are part of an informal network within your organization. It’s a source of mutual support on developing strategies to deal with toxic individuals.

You may decide to transfer to another position within the organization or the company. Or, you may decide to wait until your toxic boss leaves the company or is fired. You need to weigh your alternatives and decide on your personal course of action.

You work with a toxic peer

As in the case of working for a toxic boss, do your job and do it well, and develop informal alliances with others. They are a great source of information as to what your toxic peer is saying about you. Be on guard for criticism of your work behind your back.

Don’t play the same game as your toxic peer. Let your results speak to the quality of your work.

You have a toxic direct report

If one of your direct reports exhibits toxic behavior, that individual must be confronted and told to stop. They will deny the accusation. Expect them to be defensive. They need to know that if their behavior continues, they will part company with the organization.

How can you understand the interpersonal styles of the individuals that report to you? How can you tell if you have a toxic individual working for you?

As the leader, you need to periodically talk with those within your organization below your direct reports. Hold skip level meetings with them and ask how things are going and what they are working on. Ask questions for understanding, but never violate the chain of command by telling them what to do.

If the people within your organization trust you, they will tell you if there is a toxic individual within the organization. If one of your managers objects to you talking to their direct reports, it’s a dangerous sign they want to keep information from you.

The other way of obtaining information on your direct reports is through a 360-degree interview process, where information about an individual’s effectiveness is obtained through interviews with those within the organization with whom the individual interfaces.

There are those who say that 360 results should only be shared with the individual for personal performance improvement. I disagree. The results also should be used by the boss for a performance assessment.

You are a toxic individual

As a toxic individual, you need to realize that your behavior will not lead to sustainable success. Eventually you will be terminated, and your reputation ruined. No one will trust you nor want to work with you. There is a valuable adage, “never burn your bridges.” So true.

Rex Tillerson, former chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil and the former secretary of state under President Donald Trump, in his departure comments to employees of the U.S. State Department, stressed the importance of “honesty and integrity in all that you do.” Tillerson said, “Never lose sight of your most valuable asset, the most valuable asset that you possess – your personal integrity.”

He continued, “[Your integrity] … belongs to you, and [will] always … belong to you and you alone. Only you can relinquish it or allow it to be compromised. Once you’ve done so, it is very, very hard to regain it. So, guard it as the most precious thing you possess.”

Tillerson’s comments are an important message for all of us. Don’t do things that will damage or undermine your integrity or reputation. Aside from being the wrong thing to do, it’s just not worth it.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.


9 Ways to Build Effective Business Teams

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on March 27, 2018

There is no shortage of advice offered to business leaders on how to build teams and lead effective organizations.

As a business leader climbing the ranks of my company and eventually reaching the position of CEO, I have learned much from my own experiences. I have also observed other leaders and learned from them.

I offer the following list of what to do and what not to do if one wants to be an effective leader and build a thriving business.

1. Communicate to your team what you are trying to accomplish

The Holy Grail of any business should be to become the preferred provider of products or services to its markets — the company that customers and clients go to first. Develop strategies with your team to be on a journey to become that preferred provider and share with all employees why this is important.

2. Choose your employees wisely

Your employees represent you and your company. The results they achieve or fail to achieve and the ability to work cohesively as a team have a direct impact on your reputation as an effective leader. Ensure they have common sense and good critical judgment and can see themselves as others see them.

Choose direct reports that you can trust and whowill be trusted by fellow team members. Don’t tolerate individuals who play destructive politics at the expense of others. These people are toxic and can cause significant damage to your business. Fire any employee who acts in this manner.

3. Don’t undercut those in your organization

Empower your people and give them the authority to do their jobs. Give them space to disagree with you. Insecure leaders hold their people to a tight script and lash out if they say the wrong thing. If questioned why a member of your team has a different viewpoint than yours on an issue, just say you respect that view, but this is the direction the team is going.

If, however, a direct report cannot get onboard and impedes the direction you are taking, you need to part company with them, but in a respectful way, so they can maintain their dignity. Personally tell them, face to face. Jointly write the announcement. You will be judged on how you handle their departure.

4. Don’t criticize a team member publicly

If you don’t like their performance, talk with them one-on-one. Public criticism not only undermines that individual and their ability to do their job, but it is also a bad reflection on you.

Public criticism destroys their ability to get things done. Put yourself in their position. Would you want to be publicly criticized by your boss?

5. Chaotic organizations are ineffective

Build a stable team. Chaos is bad for the organization. People need to build working relationships and trust among team members as well as those they deal with outside the company. Frequent turnover prevents this from happening and inhibits the achievement of your objectives.

Customers will be reluctant to believe any commitments made by an individual who has been undermined by their boss because he or she may only have a short tenure. They will think, why cut a deal now, when I might be able to cut a better deal with the next individual who is appointed to that position?

6. Engender trust by being consistent in your policies and decisions

You need to be readable by your employees. This provides them with guidance on how to act in various situations. Being consistent also engenders trust with those you deal with outside the company.

7. Don’t hire people who lack credibility to do the job

It is a bad reflection on you, the leader, if you send a lightweight to do a job that requires an experienced heavyweight. You also harm the reputation of that individual if you give them an objective they don’t have the skills and experience to accomplish.

8. It’s okay to admit you were wrong and change direction

If an initiative you previously committed to becomes impractical or has unintended adverse consequences not initially foreseen, it’s okay to admit you were wrong and to change direction. The worst thing you can do is continue to pursue a bad initiative because of a previous commitment. Not acknowledging issues is a sure way to lose trust, and once trust is lost, it is hard to gain it back.

9. You want to be respected and not feared

Respect keeps lines of communication open. Fear shuts them down. You want everyone in your organization, regardless of position, to feel comfortable in sharing things with you. You can’t resolve issues if you don’t know what they are.

Leaders who self-aggrandize are insecure and lose respect of their organization. It’s not about you. It’s about serving your customers, and how well you do that brings long-term sustainable success to your company.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.