Minding My Own Business

Listening between the lines

April 7, 2006

Remember those television commercials? Two friends are chatting in a public area - a restaurant, stadium, commuter train - and one laments the performance of his investments. The second quietly responds: "My broker is EF Hutton, and EF Hutton says…" Suddenly, the camera would pull back and everyone even remotely within hearing distance would be indiscreetly (and often comically) leaning in to hear just exactly what EF Hutton did say.

Around the same time, another popular commercial aired, this one for a perfume, I believe. American vernacular will forever relish the oxymoronic tag line "If you want to attract someone's attention…Whisper." (Who among us does not recall mocking this line with the scenario of a drowning swimmer, flailing about, and whispering for help?)

These advertising campaigns of yesteryear highlight a couple of key attributes required of today's business managers. The Hutton message stresses the importance of always being on the lookout for good advice. You never know where you can pick up some piece of information or wisdom that can benefit you or your endeavors. In David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, the advice drilled into every salesman was ABC - "Always Be Closing". A good mantra for today is ABL - "Always Be Learning."

If the key to personal and organizational growth is learning, then the key to successful learning is listening. This involves more than just sitting through seminars and instruction webcasts. I recently read a quote attributed to Ralph C. Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International (a public speaking club), who observed, "Real communication is impossible without listening." Our businesses are built on communication - with vendors, customers, superiors, peers, and subordinates - so it follows that business success is impossible without the skill of listening.

Within our industry, there is perhaps no individual I have met who better exemplifies this trait than Alon Bar Shany, the vice president of HP's Indigo division. What sets him apart from other executives is his astounding ability to listen and absorb. He listens in the truest sense of the word - to superiors, to subordinates, to customers, and to vendors. And it is obvious to all those who come in contact with him, because when Bar Shany speaks, the ideas and wisdom of others are incorporated into his thinking and decision making. I've personally witnessed Bar Shany spend an entire day in a conference room listening to his customers debate and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of his company's products and services without interrupting or correcting anyone for hours at a time. It must be so hard to sit there all day, being the smartest person in the room, the most experienced, and knowing full well that you know more about the subject being discussed than the rest of the participants combined. But Bar Shany's silence encourages the sharing of honest opinions, illuminating for him alternate perspectives that his vast knowledge and experience could never provide.

We deride those who live and make decisions in the proverbial ivory towers. Why? Because we intuitively know the value of real world experience. That experience, communicated through discussion, is what we speak of when we laud the importance of learning. Bar Shany will never, ever be accused of decision making from an ivory tower, and the Indigo division of HP is a better company because of that.

I've recently attended several conferences, including the traditionally enlightening TLMI Converter Meeting. It is always a thought provoking exercise to digest the many ideas, perspectives, buzzwords, and real-life stories that emerge from these meetings. As usual, they ranged from the boringly clichéd and outdated to the downright fascinating and imaginative, with several eye-opening concepts that to me served as a call to action.

Certain keywords continually arise in almost any discussion. These include linguistic stalwarts such as vision, innovation, leadership, and of course, thinking inside, outside, on top of, below, and around the proverbial box. I think it's pretty safe to say that we can all agree that raising quality and service standards and exceeding customer expectations are good things, our destiny truly is in our own hands, failure just is not an option (yes, I actually heard a speaker offer that pearl), and we must all strive to make the whole equal to more than the sum of the parts.

But beyond the pop rhetoric, I did capture quite a few genuine insights and useful observations. Certain words or phrases, without any commentary, seem to really capture elements of today's progressive converter's state of mind:

-    It's execution that matters

-    Avoid self-imposed obstacles

-    Make courageous decisions / the courage to fail

-    Profitability vs. prosperity

-    Innovation requires battling

-    Code of customer loyalty

-    Mistakes are seldom fatal; failure to make mistakes can be

As a devout believer in brand equity, I was fascinated by the perspective provided by one speaker's observation about Coca-Cola. Rejecting the premise that you need to exceed customer expectations to succeed, this point of view hails Coke, which has built its franchise on consistently meeting customer expectations. When was the last time anyone ever took a sip of Coke and got more than they expected? But you always get exactly what you expect. What a revelation: Sometimes it is more effective to become extraordinary at meeting expectations than going all out to exceed expectations. Broken down to its most basic level, the best brand builder is consistency of performance. Conversely, the biggest brand killer is inconsistency.

One issue that seems to be percolating in many a converter's consciousness is training. Almost every presentation one hears these days that covers the topic of training has some variation of this wry exchange:

Converter: What if I spend the time and money to train them and they leave?

Guru: What if you don't… and they stay?!"

In an industry that places such a premium on talent and craftsmanship, the lack of formal training programs among converters of all sizes is staggering. Perhaps that has been because companies don't have the time or resources to conduct such training in-house. In the past, outsourcing training was difficult and unreliable. Today, however, there are quite a few routes the converter can take.

In many states, there is public funding available through regional grants or low-interest loans related to employee training, workforce expansions, and in some cases, manufacturing or process related (i.e., Lean Manufacturing or investments into new technologies). At the TLMI/FTA Technical Conference this past September and again at the TLMI Converter Meeting in March, several companies discussed how they secured outside funds and resources earmarked for training that would improve their ability to compete. This was yet another case of listening to converters tell their stories - and following up with them to learn the details of the how, when, who, and what was required to succeed on this front.

Another source of training that is available (in many cases at no charge) is from our industry's vendors. I have frequently led the charge when I felt vendors were treating converters unfairly. In this case, I think the training offered by vendors to converters not only achieves the vendor goals of deepening their relationships with the converters, but in many cases, also provides those converters who take advantage of the offers with difference-making capabilities and cost-saving techniques and skills. In most cases, vendors conduct the training at their own facilities. However, for a cost-covering fee, most vendors are flexible enough to bring the training to the converter's facility. It is hard to imagine the company so superior in each and every aspect of its operation that it could not significantly benefit from in-depth training in some particular area.

Third party organizations, including the FTA, TLMI, and certain colleges (Cal Poly and Clemson spring to mind), offer a wide variety of training courses, seminars, and materials. Depending on a company's particular needs, these solutions can prove both cost-effective and easy to implement. For those companies seeking entry level-to-expert pressroom training can choose from a burgeoning crop of flexographic training schools and other organizations offer training courses and seminars. Of course, as in all industries, there is a plethora of consultants who will develop customized regimens based on your particular company's training needs and requirements.

Look at it this way: Few companies have the kind of proprietary technology that will translate into cash. Equipment is the great equalizer, as there is precious little in the realm of unique capabilities. For most companies, the only point of differentiation is, as unbelievably clichéd as it sounds, their people. If you agree with me to this point, ask yourself what your training budget is for 2006. If you have one, congratulations. You are already ahead of 90 percent of your competitors.

Listening. Learning. Training. Not on the top of a typical converting executive's to-do list. My point is that perhaps it should be. That's up to you.
Elisha Tropper is president of Prestige Label Co., headquartered in Burgaw, NC, USA.