Reflections on principles of success

7 Principles for Building an Enduring Business

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on June 4, 2018

This is my 200th article published within American City Business Journal’s various publications, including my hometown Philadelphia Business Journal. In those articles, I have written about many principles for building an enduring business.

In this article, I share with you the seven most important principles, based on my own experience rising through the organization to the position of CEO of my company and as director on numerous boards observing other CEOs and their leadership teams.

1. Become the preferred provider to your markets — the Holy Grail of any business

This is a universal principle that all businesses need to pursue and that I frequently write about.

What is a “preferred provider?” It’s a provider that a customer or client favors when purchasing a product or service versus its competition. A preferred provider has a significant competitive advantage over all other providers, because it is the “go-to” provider in the marketplace.

How does a business become the preferred provider to the markets it serves? It differentiates itself from competitors by excelling in the following six areas: it offers high-quality reliable products and services; is on the forefront of technology; provides a great customer experience; is trustworthy; is committed to the process of continuous improvement; and is on a journey to be the best in the world at what it does.

2. Set the right tone at the top and organizational culture

Tone at the top is set by the CEO and the senior leadership team and reflects the ethical climate of the organization, while culture reflects how employees within the organization deal with each other and with customers. As the leader of your business, ensure that you set the right tone and culture. They become the behavioral norms of your employees.

Both tone and culture determine whether employees will trust their leaders and their fellow employees. Employees should be focused on growing the business and exceeding the expectations of their customers, and not worrying about whether they are about to get thrown under the bus by a fellow employee.

One only has to look at Uber and Wells Fargo to see how poor tone and culture can cause the loss of talented employees and customers, as well as the damage that can be done to an organization’s reputation.

3. Act as if your competition is trying to eat your lunch

Why act this way? Because that’s what competitors do. It may not be across the board, but it happens in a business niche where they feel they can take advantage of your weaknesses and exploit their competitive advantages.

Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel Corporation, was right when he said, “Only the paranoid survive.” Ensure that you not only survive but continue to thrive.

4. Listen to the brutal facts of reality

This is a critical principle taught by the January 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.

After being warned by Thiokol engineers Roger Boisjoly and Robert Ebeling not to launch the shuttle due to an ambient temperature below the design temperature for the O-ring seals on the solid fuel rocket boosters, NASA launched the shuttle anyway. The O-rings failed, resulting in the catastrophic loss of the lives of seven astronauts.

In response to the warning, one NASA manager is quoted as saying, “I am appalled by your recommendation.” Another NASA manager said, “My God, Thiokol… when do you want me to launch — next April?” It’s obvious that NASA did not want to hear the brutal facts of reality, resulting in tragedy.

Leaders need to listen to their experts and to be open to hearing unwelcome news. They need to create an environment that welcomes this input.

5. Treat your employees as you would like to be treated

Act in ways that will encourage employees throughout your organization to talk with you. Walking around, asking questions and listening to how things are going will help break down barriers in communication. Don’t violate the chain of command by giving orders on what you want them to do. Discuss it with your direct report responsible for that area.

Don’t act like an imperial leader. It will reduce the likelihood that your employees will be comfortable talking to you, hurting your ability to learn about issues that need to be addressed.

Quoting entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder, chairman and CEO of Virgin Group, “The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.” Wise advice.

6. Empower your employees to continuously improve their area of responsibility

Create an environment in which your employees have a feeling of personal ownership in what they do. Empower them to launch improvement initiatives within their area of responsibility, and to propose improvement projects above their approval authority.

Share with employees your expectations and hold them accountable for results. Don’t micro-manage.

In my experience, a philosophy of continuous improvement, led by the CEO and embraced by all organization levels, is a huge source of competitive advantage.

7. Hire people who are change agents — they will help you break paradigms

There are people who have a positive attitude, see a world of opportunities and abundance and are not afraid to take risks, and there are those who have a negative attitude, only see a world of limitations and scarcity and never leave their comfort zone. Hire the first type of individual.

Following these seven principles will give you the best chance of building an enduring business.

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.

Close up of college graduates holding diplomas walking down the isle.

Graduates: Take Risks, Fly High and Never Compromise on Your Ethics or Integrity

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 21, 2018

As the former chairman of the board of Drexel University’s College of Medicine and as the current vice chairman of the board of Drexel, I have the honor each year of addressing the University’s College of Medicine graduates. I always try to share some advice that may help them navigate their careers.

At this year’s commencement, I shared the following message:

Graduates, you have just completed an enormous undertaking. As you seek solutions to work or life’s challenges, I urge you to remember what you learned here about the power of teamwork, and the importance of interpersonal skills in accomplishing your goals.

Many of you will dedicate your lives to the practice of medicine, healing the sick. Others will become researchers, or work in other areas of the healthcare profession. You will be making a difference in the lives of others, working towards the betterment of the human condition.

The best advice I can share with you as you pursue your careers is to be open to new opportunities that come your way and embrace change – the only constant in life. In addition to taking advantage of opportunities that come your way, I encourage you to be proactive and create your own opportunities. You never know where these might take you.

I am a chemical engineering graduate from your University, who just happens to be the vice chairman of its board. Now, how does that happen? How does an engineer become the vice chairman of the board of his alma mater?

Shortly after becoming CEO of my company, I was honored to be asked to join the Drexel board of trustees. The following year, I was named chairman of the board’s finance committee. A number of years later I became chairman of Drexel’s College of Medicine, followed by being named vice chair of the University’s board of trustees.

I can look back to the first day after my commencement and recall the steps along my career pathway. I took advantage of opportunities and accepted assignments outside of my comfort zone to learn and to broaden my knowledge and experience. I took risks. Sometimes I failed, but I never let that stop me from moving forward.

Tomorrow is the first day after your commencement. Take risks, and step out of your comfort zone. To quote Stephen S. Tang, president and CEO of the University City Science Center, “Failure is a valuable experience. It is a natural consequence of [taking] risks.”

Always take advantage of opportunities to do something new and different. And someday, you may have the honor of addressing graduates at their commencement ceremony, as I am doing today.

The story of Icarus, a character in Greek mythology, is a great metaphor for how one should manage their career. According to legend, Icarus flew too high, too close to the sun. The wax holding the wings to his back melted and he crashed into the sea.

Should Icarus have played it safe, and flown lower, avoiding the risk presented by the sun?

Seth Godin, the author of “The Icarus Deception: How high will you fly?” writes, “It is far more dangerous to fly too low than too high, because it feels safe to fly low. We settle for low expectations and small dreams, and guarantee ourselves less than what we are capable of. By flying too low, we shortchange not only ourselves, but also those who depend on us, or might benefit from our work.”

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.

The following achievements and personal attributes will help you advance in your career:

  • your commitment to yourself and others to always strive for excellence,
  • how you differentiate yourself by doing new things, and proactively implement positive change in everything you do,
  • your interpersonal skills and how you lead others,
  • your good critical judgment and common sense,
  • your contacts and personal network, and
  • your ethics, your integrity and your professional and personal reputation among your colleagues, your patients and the public.

During your career, be sure to protect your good name, integrity and reputation. Once damaged, you never earn them back.

There is a passage in the West Point Cadet Prayer that reads, “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” Remember this, especially when you run into situations that require difficult ethical decisions.

Good luck, and may the wind always be at your back.

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.