Building Business Sense & Financial Cents with Diversity

31-Jul-12 Published in: Small Business Monthly Author: Julia Paulus Ogilvie

Often when the importance of incorporating diversity into business is discussed, the direct link to the company's finances isn't made. In the following Q&A, Dr. Benjamin Ola Akande, professor of economics, dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology, and chief of the Office of Corporate Partnerships at Webster University, explains why he believes embracing a well-thought-out diversity plan will contribute to your bottom line through what he calls "return on diversity."

Please explain what you mean by "return on diversity."

Pursuing diversity as a strategic intent should not be confused as a philanthropic quest to help others or to bring people of different backgrounds together. Return on diversity (ROD) is the ability to demonstrate that your action is measurable and that it effectively contributes to the bottom line. Return on diversity is when an organization is focused on issues of importance and urgency to your customers. You don't want to be known as being an expert on what used to work. There is absolutely no future in that type of strategy. My proposition is that a well-thought-out, effectively delivered diversity plan can make business sense and a lot of dollars and cents.

How can diversity be a competitive advantage for small business?

My definition of "competitive advantage" is what you do that nobody else can do even if they wanted to. So a well-honed diversity strategy keeps you a couple of steps ahead of your competition. The competition are those with the singular intent of taking your customers and encroaching on your market shares. One example that comes to mind is a simple one. If you are a small business selling any item that can be purchased at Wal-Mart or Walgreens and you are in close proximity to these retail giants, you are not going to be around for long unless you have a clear distinction that convinces the customer that they need to come to you and not go to them.

So, what does this have to do with diversity?

Well, your diversity strategy may entail appealing to a diverse generation of customers - say, the iPoders, who use social media as an effective tool to communicate. You may provide a forum for them to offer ideas on what they are looking for that they can't find elsewhere. To do so, you will need to embrace the iPod generation as critical members of your workforce, engaged on your leadership team; you need to listen to them and have the courage to take their advice. I look at Blockbuster video as a living example of a wonderful idea that effectively succeeded for a long time in relative terms, but they became unaware or chose to ignore the changing dynamics around them. Technology and new products neutralized their delivery methods, which was having the customer come to them instead of being accessible to the customer at all times. Blockbuster missed the opportunity to make some strategic acquisitions, to recruit a whole new generation of talent (generational diversity) and thereby extend their life cycle. They chose instead to stick to their original well-tested, tried-and-true business plan, coupled with a strong dose of denial, discounting the phenomenon called Netflix, iTunes, etc. Well, you may still find Blockbuster in a few places in America today, but they are not the Blockbuster they were. Blockbuster would have benefited from a diversity strategy.

How can the bottom line of small and midsized business improve from diversity?

Organizations can improve when they successfully execute a strategy anchored on the critical balance based on intellect, generations and a crucible of experience, which will drive business change and deliver economic advantage. Another term for this strategy is "inclusive excellence," where you give access to a broader scope of perspective and enable employees to test ideas by bringing different filters to issues and questioning current practices. These are simple propositions that organizations tend to ignore because they don't see the value of diverse perspective. A good diversity strategy is utilizing the diverse perspective you already have within your organization to explore new customer opportunities and to better utilize the existing relationships you already have with your customers.

Why should every company, large and small, have a diversity plan?

The future belongs to only organizations that can see around corners. A diversity plan will give you a peek of what the future looks like. The challenge is that some organizations are in a state of hospice, living on past glory, coasting on past successes with absolutely no strategic direction. Their strategy is based on hope.

What are the steps to creating a diversity plan?

I will tell you where most organizations go wrong when it comes to developing a diversity plan. There is a lack of ambitious initiatives, there are way too many goals, it lacks urgency, there is no timeline to keep them honest and their plan is the "all things to all people" plan.

What are the top benefits of a well-executed diversity plan?

The entire employee base will become engaged, there will be support from leadership, management practices will be integrated and aligned with the plan, and compensation and promotions will be tied to its success.

How can it be measured each year just like ROI?

Ask: Does your plan increase your customer base and your bottom line? Does it help retain your best talents?

Why do diversity plans fail? How can business owners avoid these pitfalls?

A plan without measurements is a slogan. The plan should be led from the top and not be handed to the HR department. What I notice is that most diversity initiatives are parked in HR. Diversity initiatives should be led from the top of the organization. IBM is a classic example of an organization that has reinvented itself by implementing a diversity strategy that enabled them to capture new markets - a case in point, their multicultural and women-owned niche business for minorities. It's a strategy that contributed to their bottom line. Return on diversity is the true measure of any organization’s real commitment to a diversity strategy that makes cents.

Boycotting BP gas stations would miss the mark, experts say

26-June-2010Published in: St. Louis Post Dispatch Author: Matthew Hathaway
Consumers can change the world simply by not buying — but boycotts don't always work that way.

Twenty years ago, South Africa was in the throes of cultural and economic isolation largely because consumers vowed to punish any companies doing business with the apartheid state. That international boycott is credited with helping bring down the country's racist system, and today a transformed South Africa is the focus of international sports as host of the World Cup.

If South Africa is the best example of just how mighty a consumer boycott can be, the campaign to punish BP might be its opposite - an ineffective response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that will most harshly affect small-business owners who had nothing to do with the disaster.

Yet this week, the Facebook page Boycott BP gained its 700,000th supporter.

And, in the real world, plenty of St. Louis consumers have stopped buying from BP stations, said Tracey Hughes, a spokeswoman for Wallis Cos. of Cuba, Mo., a distributor of gasoline to about 60 area BP stations.

"Everybody is feeling the impact, although there are pockets where the consumer backlash is stronger," said Hughes, who said some stations have reported double-digit declines in sales recently.

On Thursday, in a commentary published in USA Today, Public Citizen President Robert Weissman renewed that group's call for consumers to avoid BP stations for at least three months.

Innocents will suffer from a boycott, Weissman acknowledged, but "that can't be reason for consumers to forfeit their collective power to influence or punish bad-actor companies."

For a consumer boycott to work, business must feel its sting, either from lost sales or tarnished reputations, and they need to have a clear path to winning customers back. The apartheid-era boycott worked because it met both these criteria; the BP boycott does not, said Benjamin Ola Akande, the dean of Webster University's George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology and an expert in energy economics.

Boycotting gas stations flagged with the BP brand is, at most, a symbolic act that will have an insignificant impact on the company's bottom line, Akande said.

That's because BP owns fewer than 200 of about 11,000 stations bearing its logo. Those stations are owned by independent operators, and the gas they sell may or may not have been drilled by BP.

The oil giant does make money from these stations, but the company won't say how much. Industry experts have said that they believe it's insignificant and that the flagged stations' real value to BP are as platforms for corporate marketing.

Under a boycott, the flagged stations could become liabilities. They are the battlegrounds where boycotters can chip away at BP's cultivated public image, or at least that's the position of Public Citizen. In the long run, BP will suffer.

In the short term, the collateral damage of a boycott is overwhelmingly borne by independent operators who had no say in BP's drilling operations or gulf cleanup effort.

"If you're boycotting, you're missing your intended target," said Ronald Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. "You're hurting local businessmen, their employees, the people they buy products from ... even the Little League teams they sponsor."

To make any BP boycott even more difficult, the company makes plenty of money from stations not bearing the BP logo.

For instance, angry consumers could end up skipping BP-flagged stations that, in fact, are selling fuel that was drilled by other firms and taking their business to another chain — or a non-branded service station — only to fill up their tanks with petroleum that was drilled, transported and sold by BP.

Patrick Welch, an economics professor at St. Louis University, compares the BP boycott with car buyers shying away from Toyota after that company's recall of more than 8 million vehicles because of unintended acceleration problems.

Toyota must respond to consumers' concerns because it has no other choice. The automaker can't simply sell its inventory to a competitor. But because BP has that option, "it can, to a large degree if not completely, dodge the bullet of a boycott," Welch said.

Leone agrees.

"Let's assume a boycott works, it ultimately isn't going to hurt BP corporate because they'll just sell their crude on the open market," he said. "It's not like the product isn't going to be sold."

10 Tips to Improve the Quality of Your Networking

6-July-2010Published in: Author: John Rossheim, Monster Senior Contributing Writer

In this age of metrics, it's tempting for job hunters to seek solace in the sheer numbers of their effort: 200 job postings answered, 300 resumes mailed, 400 business cards collected for the purposes of professional networking.

But if you think about how these brute-force employment campaigns affect the professional on the other side of the desk -- the HR recruiter, the networking contact in a powerful position -- it quickly becomes apparent that the rack-up-the-numbers networker is on the wrong track. That's because these days employers are looking to select a very few outstanding professionals from a tidal wave of good people who just want a job.

So in the end, the quality-oriented networker, the thoughtful individual who always tries to give better than he gets, should have the advantage. Here are 10 points to keep in mind as you emphasize quality over quantity in your professional networking.

1. Quantity Is a Turnoff

If you hand out business cards like you're dealing poker, most folks will fold. "People don't want to do business with a card thruster," says Shel Horowitz, a marketing consultant in Hadley, Massachusetts. In fact, speed networking probably does not yield the best return on your investment of time. "Quantity networkers are forgettable individuals," says Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster University's George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology. "If a guy is just looking for his next consulting contract, I don't want to know him."

2. Don't Work the Room

Don't kid yourself: If you're always on the lookout for the next professional hookup, people will take offense. "When people spend 50 percent of the time looking over my shoulder, I don't feel warm and fuzzy," says Sally Haver, a senior vice president at The Ayers Group, an HR consultancy in New York City.

3. Take Time to Make a Real Connection

When you and a new acquaintance seem attuned, take time to explore how you might help each other out. "A lot of people figure that coming back from a networking opportunity with just one contact makes it a failure," Horowitz says. "But my hour with one good contact makes it a success."

4. Make Your Case for Building a Relationship

Recognize that if you're between jobs, you probably have more discretionary time than most of your valuable networking contacts do. "People are overrun with requests," Haver says. "Unless there's a compelling reason for someone to meet with you, they won't make the time." So work hard to make yourself useful.

5. Exchange Stories

Don't forget that you are more than the professional objective at the top of your resume. "Networking is about telling your story, describing your human competitive advantage -- what you do that nobody else can do," Akande says. And ask a new contact to tell you her story. "At the start of a professional relationship, I ask questions to get unique pieces of information about the person," Haver says.

6. Respond to Others' Challenges

There's no better way to establish a business networking relationship than to contribute to the solution of your new contact's pressing problem. "If someone states a challenge that they're facing, respond -- no later than the next morning -- with something of value that addresses their issue," says John Felkins, president of Accelerant Consulting Group, an organizational development consultancy in Bartlett, Tennessee.

7. Set Yourself Up for the Next Contact

If you intuit that a new contact will have lasting value, start building a bridge to your next exchange before you say your first good-bye. "I ask people what they�re working on right now, which gives me a segue to another contact," says Akande. "I make notes so that the next time I can say, 'You mentioned in our last conversation...'"

8. Make Yourself Useful, Again and Again

"If you consistently position yourself as a resource to others -- fellow college alums, former colleagues -- it will make you more valuable to your contacts, and, in turn, their contacts, as time goes by," says Amanda Guisbond, an account executive in the Boston office of PR agency Shift Communications.

9. Don't Forget Social Media

Social media are powerful tools for professional networking when used judiciously. But spam is distasteful no matter what the social medium du jour. So be selective, and use virtual contacts to supplement, not supplant, face-to-face meetings. As Horowitz puts it: "Social networking is deeply reinforced by an in-person connection."

10. Mind These Three Watchwords for Quality

Looking for a slogan to sum up quality networking? Try Haver's: Selectivity, discretion, mindfulness.

2010 Business Salute evokes emotion

17-November-2010Published in: St. Louis American

Michael Kennedy Sr., chairman and CEO of KAI Design & Build, helped to transform part of the former Pruitt Igoe site into an interactive science and math middle school.

For the last decade, KAI's designs have turned rundown neighborhoods in North St. Louis into contemporary affordable housing.

The firm's work on the new William L. Clay Sr. Early Childhood Development/Parenting Education Center at Harris-Stowe State University has won multiple awards.

His work uplifts the community.

Recognition of Kennedy's work, along with the work of many others, embodies the mission of the St. Louis American Foundation. On Nov. 10, the foundation awarded Kennedy the 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year award at the 11th annual Salute to Excellence in Business Awards and Networking Luncheon, which drew some 500 people to the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton.

The United Way of Greater St. Louis received the 2010 Corporate Diversity award.

June Fowler, vice president of corporate and public communications at BJC HealthCare, was named 2010 Corporate Executive of the Year.

And Rod Jones, president and CEO of Grace Hill Settlement House, received the 2010 Non-Profit Executive of the Year award.

Fighting away tears, Kennedy said, "This is yet another example of when we honor God, God honors you. I want you to understand that this is really a momentous moment in my life."

Orvin Kimbrough of the United Way used the occasion to announce that the African-American Leadership Giving Society, the Charmaine Chapman Society, raised $1.8 million for the 2010 United Way campaign, topping last year's amount, with 820-plus members in 2010.

As many did, June Fowler thanked Donald M. Suggs, publisher of The American and the foundation's founder, calling him one of her personal heroes.

"What you do to lift up the African-American community is so important - for us and for our children to see the good," Fowler said. "And Donald, I thank you for doing that each and every Thursday," when the paper is published.

Dr. Henry Givens Jr., president of Harris-Stowe State University,who introduced Kennedy, used the event to announce a new Donald M. Suggs Excellence in Business Scholarship at Harris-Stowe that will provide $40,000 to the recipient for all four years.

Rod Jones said the award reminds him of his vocation at Grace Hill.

"This is a blessing, and I appreciate the recognition," Jones said.

"I come to work every day with the notion that what we do every day allows people to be in a better social class for generations to come."

Silence for Earl

The room of about 500 people held a moment of silence for Earl Wilson Jr., the founder of the Gateway Classic Foundation and the 2005 Salute to Excellence in Business Non-Profit Executive of the Year, who died on Oct. 29 from pancreatic cancer. The event's emcee, Carol Daniel, a radio host with KMOX, told a personal story about Wilson. She said she always volunteers at Gateway Classic events, and one time she asked Wilson for an honorarium.

"Earl told me, 'Now, Carol, you don't need $100. You know what I’m trying to do; I'm trying to raise scholarships. Now come to the event and help me out. You want those kids to go to college, don't you, Carol?'"

Many of the attendees laughed, remembering how Wilson's upfront manner and big heart helped 108 students through college with scholarships.

At the 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business, the St. Louis American Foundation also introduced a new group of younger professional awardees.

The inagural Excellence in Business Performance Awardees were Karen A. Davis of Regions Bank, Roger Macon of Edward Jones, Gail Holmes-Taylor of Energizer and David Walker of Brown Shoe Co.

The St. Louis American Foundation also cited the top 25 African-American businesses in the St. Louis region.

Awardees were joined in support by their staff, family and friends as they went onstage to receive their awards.

Karen A. Davis said she appreciated the fact that she could celebrate amongst "like-minded people," people who have a passion for giving back and uplifting their communities. Davis was accompanied by her mother, who gleamed as her daughter received the award.

After being in St. Louis for three years, Davis said, this recognition "validates this is where I need to be." Davis moved to the St. Louis area to expand and elevate community outreach at Regions Bank.

"I have met some wonderful people, and to be here with all these people is very inspiring," Davis said.

Stories with Akande

After all the recipients received their awards onstage, keynote speaker Benjamin Akande, dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University, reminded the audience of the importance of storytelling in business.

He spoke of one of the greatest tales he had ever heard – a story about risks.

"It's a story about failure and perseverance," Akande said. "I find it very relevant to the challenges our country faces in the most severe economic downturn in our generation."

The story revolves around an anthropomorphic egg who was bent on defying the odds and was met with interest and results, he said.

It is the story of Humpty Dumpty. He asked the audience to join him in reciting the poem:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty together again.

Akande emphasized that the key word is the last word – "again."

"This confirms that this is not the first time that Humpty had fallen," he said. "Humpty Dumpty was a serial risk taker. Humpty was bold. He was fearless. He was unrelenting. He was an entrepreneur."

Many people in America now find themselves confronting the greatest wall of their lives. Although they are often called slowdowns, recessions shake things up, he said.

"Recessions reward strength and expose weaknesses," Akande said. "Recessions create new opportunities and break down old habits. Recessions destroy old business models. Recessions make talented unemployed. And just like Humpty Dumpty, how do we get up again?"

Even when people do everything right and remain loyal to their employers, sometimes they fall short. But Akande reminded the audience that courage does not occur without fear.

"You cannot be courageous if you are not first afraid," Akande said. "Courage takes place after you are afraid."

Akande also shared snap shots of his life through stories of personal and professional failures and successes.

Rosalynn Smith, an attendee at the luncheon, said Akande's personal stories were motivating to her. Akande, now a business school dean, had said he was once ranked last academically.

"You would never know that now," Smith said.

Awardee Roger Macon said he was "intrigued by Akande's use of humor and metaphors."

In addition to Humpty Dumpty as "a serial risk taker," Macon was struck by Akande's metaphor of climbing a wall or a mountain.

Akande said, "God does not promise mountaintop life experiences, because there is no room for growth on the mountaintop."