Breaking Free

Break Free-web

February/March 2018—

We all have the same 24 hours in a day.
Here’s how to make the most of what you’ve got.

Horace Mann once called education the great equalizer, an accurate assessment in his day.

For today’s furniture retailers, however, the great equalizer is time. No matter how big or small your operation, every executive has the same 24 hours to make it happen.

It’s a lesson executive leadership coach Eleanor Beaton had to learn when her business reached a plateau in terms of revenue. “I was getting up at 5 a.m., and working at maximum efficiency,” says Beaton, an award-winning journalist, speaker and podcast host who has made a career out of coaching women executives, including the likes of former Canadian First Lady Margaret Trudeau. “I had little kids and I knew I didn’t have any more time in the day. I realized that you can be very effective at moving around in circles.”

Beaton believes efficiency “is about doing things quickly, with as little effort as possible. Early in my career I focused on being very efficient. But having an uncluttered inbox wasn’t getting me to my goals. So eight years ago I began to shift my attention, focusing not on how many things I can get done today, but on how I can move my organization forward today. I became much more focused on outcomes versus tasks.”

She points to the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs as a model. “At the end of his tenure, he spent most of his time meeting with customers. He chaired only one meeting per week and that was a three-hour marketing meeting. He focused on the things that were going to drive Apple forward the most.”

Specializing in communication strategies as a consultant for numerous powerhouse leaders, Beaton learned effective time management through observation. “I paid attention to what they were doing, and I asked myself, ‘Why is it when I meet with them they seem very busy, yet they have all the time in the world?’ And how is it that lots of people talk about doing great things, but only some people actually do them? If you walk into a room filled with 100 people, you are going to hear 100 different dreams and goals. The fact is that everybody can dream and come up with the strategies, but very few people can execute them. And that’s what time management is really about: Can you execute on the things you say you’re going to do?”

Ditch the Daily To-Do List

For those who equate time management skills with daily to-do lists, Beaton’s approach to getting it done may seem a bit counter-intuitive. “Every year I sit down and come up with 100 things that I want to do in that year. This forces me to think big.” Everyday thereafter she goes back and reads the 100 again. “It’s part of my morning routine: I do meditation, I have some tea, and I read through my 100.”

Overly-caffeinated, harried, beat-the-morning-commute Type As take note: Slowing down can actually speed positive results. The morning ritual “keeps reinforcing the things that I want, and some big things I wanted to achieve that I didn’t feel I was consciously working on started to happen,” Beaton relates. “Reinforcing what you want in a ritualistic way helps to move you in the direction that you want to go at a subconscious level.”

Call it setting intentions. “Think about masters and amateurs,” Beaton counsels. “Or, look at the world’s top performers in athletics who make it look easy. A master is never hurried or rushed. If it’s all about completing our to-do lists, nobody’s ever going to get finished. But at the end of the day, if I achieve the one thing that I knew would genuinely move me forward, that is enough.”

According to Beaton, quarterly goals are critical. “The CEO’s job is to advance what’s important, not only what is urgent,” she says. “The biggest time management trap that I see executives falling into is that they are constantly putting out fires. But the really important things are never urgent, and the urgent things usually don’t have long-term importance. As a CEO, it’s vital to be clearly focused on what’s important, because the important tasks advance your long-term objectives. So set one critical, quarterly goal that has long-term value to your organization and move it forward.”

Next, she says, “become a master at reverse engineering. Look at your goal, and ask yourself, ‘What are the least number of steps I can take to get me where I need to go?’ Most people will say, ‘here is my goal, and these are the 100 things I need to do to achieve it.’ That’s why execution is so bad and people often miss their target. Instead, back-track your outcome to the starting point, and figure out the elegant moves you absolutely must make to get there.

“Suppose a retailer wants to increase his sales by 5 percent,” Beaton says. “He reverse engineers his goal by choosing three actions that will get him there: One, improving online presence, two, driving more traffic to the store and three, selling more to existing customers.”

Develop a Serious Case of Mono-Tasking

No doubt thinking through those elegant moves requires intense focus. And there’s the rub, according to Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and author of books like 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think; I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time; and What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. The problem, she says, is that too many fall into the multi-tasking trap.

“It’s a bad habit and we do it because we think we’re being productive, but almost inevitably, we’re not gaining nearly as much as we think. The modern reality is that we can always be doing other things. But the truth is that people aren’t ever really doing two things at one time. They’re switching their attention back and forth between both things. That can be OK if you don’t care about either thing. But if you do, understand you’re probably being less efficient and effective at both. If you’re checking your email while on the phone with a customer you will miss something they said, and that will create bad feelings and errors.

“As a business owner, you wear many hats,” she says, “but even if you mono-task for small amounts of time, you’ll find that you stay on top of your work better. You need to realize the world is not going to end if you don’t immediately answer that email, and you’re not going to lose a customer either. The reality is that you can’t answer everything immediately and run a business.”

Vanderkam suggests the multiple screens many executives carry in their pockets have created a false sense of urgency. “Once you get sucked into the responsive stuff, you can never make time for the other bigger things,” she says. “Whereas, if you start with the bigger things; you will find time for the emails.” She encourages retailers to get into habits like calling their best customers in the morning, and going into “responsive mode and dealing with crisis after lunch. The person who does that is so much more effective than the person who says, ‘Let me clear the decks this morning, get through everything, respond to everything, and then I’ll start doing business.’ Well guess what? Your day is over.”

As for trying to do everything yourself, also known as micromanaging and the bane of many a second- and third-generation retail business: “I would not want to be the best person for any job,” she says. “No one lives forever. Maybe nobody really can do it as well as you, but you need to ask yourself, ‘What are the tasks/projects where at least 80 percent perfect is OK?’ Those are the first things you can teach someone else to do.”

Walk This Way

HFA member Mike Cohen, president of Walker Furniture in Las Vegas, learned his organizational skills from being around great leaders throughout his career. Best known for his stints on the manufacturing side of the furniture business—Guildcraft, Emerald, Coaster—Cohen was actually returning to his retail roots when he accepted the position with the Top 100 retailer 16 months ago. He began his career at JW Mays and Fortunoff’s, where he was mentored by the legendary Margie Fortunoff, and later moved west to take a position with Eastman West Furniture before signing on with Guildcraft. “At Guildcraft,” he says, “we were all ex-retailers, so we understood exclusivity and how to protect our dealers, and what it took to help products sell on the floor without a salesperson, meaning point of purchase.”

Regarding his decision to return to the retail side of the business he says, “At Coaster, I worried about a thousand retailers and their businesses. I was always trying to be the best value, and give them something they felt was exclusive, when someone else in the market was buying similar goods that looked no different in an ad. I started to realize that I was in a rat race I couldn’t win. That’s when I decided, given all the knowledge I had learned from all the best retailers around the country, it would be a great time to go back to retail and worry just about my store. And with everything I had learned over the years, I knew I could be of value.”

At Walker, he would put all of his experience to use. “We were very big promoters of ‘save 50 to 80 percent off’ when I first came in,” Cohen recalls. Cohen slowly began to wean customers off that addiction. “People tend to wait for the next big sale, but we want customers to come in on their own terms. So we’ve done a complete flip in marketing.”

In addition to marketing, big changes were required in Walker Furniture’s inventory and warehousing, merchandising, personnel, even revamping the company’s outdated employee handbook.

“You can’t look at what you’re doing right; you’ve got to get into every part of the business and find all the things you’re doing wrong,” says Cohen, who quickly set a course for continuous improvement. “If you look at the business today compared to six months ago, it’s a different operation.”

Cohen accomplished his goals the old-fashioned way: With notebook and pen. “Generally, you’ll never find me without a piece of paper,” he says. “Some people are attached to their phones all throughout the day and they’re texting and they’re on emails. If you really look at the lack of productivity when you do that, you’ll see it’s really damaging, because it means you’re not paying attention to what’s in front of you.”

Cohen says his approach is to be “very focused on who’s in front of me. I try to look at emails once late morning, and again in mid- to late afternoon. I set aside specific time. Sometimes it’s an hour; sometimes it’s two. And then once a week I meet with all the department heads individually. It might be a 10-minute meeting, it could be a half-hour. But it’s to review whatever we discussed the previous week, what’s happened since, and what’s happening next week. It’s a snapshot in time and of what’s on their plate. When you have so many things you want to improve, you are constantly moving like a school of fish in the same direction.”

Cohen also leads a staff meeting every six to eight weeks that includes all the department heads in one room, something the company never did before. It limits finger-pointing and sometimes even resentment. “I call it Success and Failure, and we all talk about it. Everybody gets five to seven minutes and we talk about the challenges they are up against that everybody in the room can help resolve. That goes a long way toward building teams.”

It’s a key strategy, considering that Walker employs some 300 people to staff its two stores and a 400,000-square-foot distribution center which includes a 55,000-square-foot clearance center. It’s also no secret that “we’re building another store, and we want to be a destination place for people in the industry because we want to do a lot of fun things,” he says. “We’ve engaged Martin Roberts, who’s a very good talent, and we’re getting our house in order so when we open that store it will be just like opening a lock on a door.”

In managing his time to bring it all to fruition, Cohen plans his schedule using Google’s calendar, reviewing it each night to plan for the next day. He also handles new employee orientation working in tandem with the human resources director.

“I learned that from (American Furniture Warehouse CEO) Jake Jabs,” he says. “I want them to know about our culture, integrity and family values and to be friendly, kind and knowledgeable; the things that mean a lot to me. I keep an open-door policy and encourage them to come in if they have a challenge. I always say hire great people and let them be great, but what generally happens is we hire great people and then hold them back by micro-managing.”

Cohen avoids that time-sucking trap by “encouraging people to make decisions. When they make the wrong decision, you remind them that there were probably 1,000 light bulbs attempted before the first one lit. So learn from it and move on. Before I arrived we had buyers, and buyers buy. A buyer buys items with no rhyme or reason and you end up with a lot of bad inventory. Sometimes you end up with things in your warehouse that are not even shown on the floor because you forgot you bought it.”

Today, Cohen has decreased the $10 million in inventory he was faced with when he joined the company by 35 percent and now Walker employs merchandisers.

“A merchandiser has full responsibility for everything they buy. I tell them all the time, ‘You’re going to buy things that are not going to sell. No one is ever going to be that good.’ The question is whether you have an exit strategy in mind when you buy the product, so if it is a mistake, you know how you’re going to get out of it.”

About the Author

Kimberley Wray
Kimberley Wray is an award-winning business writer and marketing strategist who couples her in-depth understanding of the needs of consumers, retailers and manufacturers with a passion to see the industry innovate.