Small Business…BIG Impact

When you are talking about economic impact, small business is a BIG deal.  For two years I had the opportunity to serve as the CEO of the Arizona Small Business Association and and on the Board of Trustees of the National Small Business Association.  During that time.  I sat and talked with many small business owners, toured their offices and factories, listened to their stories,  and then traveled to the Arizona Capitol and to Washington D.C. to share those stories with Senators and Representatives. Continue reading

Riding the Entrepreneurial Roller Coaster

Diamondback Roller Coaster, Kings Island, Mason OhioHave you ever wondered about our fascination with roller coasters ? People from all over the world have been flocking to ride these engineering  marvels since as far back as the 17th century, although the earliest ‘thrill’ ride did not have rollers or wheels at all but rather flew on tracks of ice. 

Roller coasters, as we know them today, have come a long way from the ‘ice mountains’ in the time of the Russian Czars, but some things still hold true.  They fascinate us, they can make us nauseous, and often have us screaming as we fly up to the peak and rush headlong down into the valley.  Step right up to the roller coaster.  It is guaranteed to provide a rush of adrenaline and a wild ride. (History of the Roller Coaster – Wikipedia)

As I sat working on business plans and reviewing financing packages today, I suddenly struck me how much in common the roller coaster and the entrepreneurial journey really do have in common.

Think about it, entrepreneurs fascinate us, we watch successful ones like they are rock stars, and look away with a gulp at the poor guy who is losing his lunch – or his business – as he staggers away.  Any entrepreneur will tell you,  THAT can happen to anybody.

Like roller coasters, most entrepreneurial ventures labor rung by rung up that first great grade to reach that first big win, opportunity, or investor.   And  then reality hits, and there is so much WORK to do, and you are sliding down, before you begin the next great climb.  It’s a wonder more of us are not throwing up our arms and screaming!  If you stay the entrepreneurial circuit long enough, you are sure to hit its highs and lows. Even the legendary entrepreneurial success stories like Microsoft and Cisco have had their fair share of peaks and valleys along the way.

Like roller coasters, that struggled financially and almost disappeared completely during the Great Depression, entrepreneurs have faced times when economic conditions where almost too much to take.  But then a spark of innovation, or a new idea gets them fired up all over again.

That’s the thing about veteran entrepreneurs, just like veteran roller coaster riders, as soon as the ride is over, they often get right back in line to take the journey again. 

I wonder if a study has ever been done on what percent of entrepreneurs LIKE to ride roller coasters.   Or, if serial entrepreneurs are especially addicted?  It might make for interesting reading.

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

One Twitter User’s Guide to House Cleaning

Is your Twitter account starting to look like the house of that little old man down the road who never weeds his yard and never throws anything out?

Is it full of clutter, empty boxes, things that are broken, or that you never use.

Do you still have people on your Christmas Card List that  sent you a card in 1995 and you have not heard from since?

Perhaps when you read this, you may think I have  taken a page from Oscar the Grouch, but there are times when you need to bite the bullet and Clean Your House.Continue reading

Leaders to Follow

Leadership is a popular topic.  The role of a leader is one that many aspire to.  Books and articles tell us that we need to be helping our children, our employees, and others around us to become leaders.

But what is a leader and why do we follow them?  For following is a key element of a leader’s definition.

You are not a leader,

if no one is following you.

If only there was a key we could press to make a great leader and cause others to choose to follow.  Unfortuantely, there is no one answer or simple magic key to press.  Most would agree that the road to leadership is a journey.  You are not born a leader, you BECOME one.

Belong… to a community

Leaders do not stand alone on top of the mountain looking down upon their followers.  They are part of their communities.  We follow them because, by listening to what they say and watching what they do, they take us to a better place.  They lead the way for us and we follow their footsteps.

Engender … Trust

When words and actions are authentic, congruent, and consistent, we feel secure in their leadership and in our following.  We know what we can expect from them and as followers we trust them to lead us in the right direction.  When our leaders get lost or confused, which often happens, leaders are human after all, some followers will drop away, while others will rally around to help a trusted leader get back on track.

Cause … things to happen

Leaders act as catalysts, as agents that provoke or speed significant change or action within their communities, their businesses, or whatever their sphere of influence may be.  They do not act alone, but bring things about in concert with others.  They inspire others to think, to act, to do, to change.

Open….  up to new opportunities

Leaders are innovators.  They find new ways of doing things that make life better for their followers and for those around them.  Leaders understand that the most traveled path may not always be the best one.  They take the time to explore the options – old and new – to find the best way to travel towards their chosen destination.

Mentor… develop, and support

Leadership may be immune to the passage of time, but leaders are not.  Leaders come and leaders go.  That is why true leaders develop future leaders.  They know that being the sole leader in any group is a lonely job – but when you lead in the company of leaders, the journey get’s shorter, and the road you travel less difficult. And most important of all, that when your time as a leader is through, there are others ready and able to continue the journey.

Excel…  at putting the needs of others before their own

Leaders excel in putting the needs of the whole before their own.  It seems at times this gets forgotten.  And these are the times when we see leaders get into trouble.  We’ve seen it in politicians, in the kings of industry, with sports heroes, and in the Mom at the PTA.  When the person in front stops caring for the people behind them – sooner or later – those people will be gone.  And without followers, you are a leader no more.

True leaders rarely have to shout.  Some of the most powerful words are spoken softly.

They issues orders – when they have to – and sometimes they do.  But more often than not, direction is provided through stories and shared experiences.  They lead the way through instruction, by demonstration, and sometimes by the simple act of taking another by the hand.

The words of leaders may be written…

so we can share them with others long after the leader is gone.  Take a look at the list of the best selling books of all time.  According to Wikipedia, the list of best-selling books includes in it’s top rankings the books on spiritual leaders: The Bible, Qur’an (The Koran), Book of Mormon, and  The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life.  They are joined by the writings of a political leader – agree with him or not – Chairman Mao knew how to leverage the printing press with his Little Red Book, a manual for raising young leaders, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship, and fictional journeys of life and leadership including A Tale of Two CitiesThe Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit. Shakespeare of course wrote stories of leaders and leadership too.  But since his were plays, not books originally, they did not make this particular list.  But it is not just the beauty of his words that made him immortal, it was the stories of leaders, of emperors, princes, and kings – be they mortal or fairy – that have stood the test of time.

The world is looking for leaders

From the beginning of human time until its end, there will always be a place in this world for leaders.  We need them in our homes, in our businesses, and in our communities.  We need them to get things started, to help us along the way, to instruct, to inspire, and at times to console.

Yes, the world is looking for leaders.

Are you ready to make the effort – every day – to BECOME one?

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

When I grow up, I want to be… an Economist

When you are sixteen years old, you know everything.  At least I thought I did. 

It was the summer before my freshman year of college at the University of Delaware.  My Dad took the day off of work to take me to the main campus in Newark for freshman orientation.

We met with counselors, took a tour of the campus, signed up for meal plans and went to the parent/new student barbecue.  Over hot dogs and corn on the cob – my Dad asked me a question –

Soon you will be in college.  What will you study and what will you do with it?

With the unbounded certainty of youth, I declared.

I want to be an Economist.

I had done my home work, researched careers, done summer internships to rule out what I did not want to be and to uncover what I did.  I was going to study the science of business, of nations, of the the funds that flow through them, and the people who drive them…  I was going to learn to predict the future.

It was not until my senior year of college that I was introduced to a then comparatively new field of economic application – econometrics.  The link will take you to a broader definition, courtesy of Wikipedia, but in short, econometrics combines the theory of economics with quantification and statistics to actually measure and predict economic outcomes.  Using punch cards and a Burroughs 7700  (a computer you now find only in museums) we learned to model past and present outcomes of the national and world economy.  We learned about variables and assumptions and the impact they would have when combined together.  And then came the rub.  The greatest variables all of – perceptions of outcomes and the changes in people’s behavior that would result from them.

That’s when it  hit me.  Once economists tell people what will happen – using their computerized crystal balls – people react to that information and change their behaviors.  And, in that case, your model and your predictions would often be WRONG.

Maybe I didn’t want to be an economist after all – I hate to be wrong!

And so on graduation, I went into the world of business.  Starting in banking, moving on to the emerging field of electronics and technology, and later into entrepreneurship.

Almost 20 years after freshman orientation, I went back to school again.  This time at Arizona State University in their executive MBA program.  I did not go back to get my MBA for the degree – but for the learning.  After almost 20 years in business – things had changed – the rules were different, and my crystal ball was in jeopardy of getting cloudy.  And I began to see that it was not just my crystal ball that was flawed.  We were at the peak of the Dot.Com Bubble – soon for many of us in the technology industry, the bubble would burst and our crystal balls would clear to show some serious cracks.

In class, we learned about the many bubbles throughout history from Dr. Stephen Happel and the Blue Chip Forecasts from Dr. Lee McPheters.  We went to Washington D.C. to see how it worked from the inside, and later to Europe and China to see the changes in our world first hand.  But equally important, I learned what was happening in a wide range of businesses from my fellow students , leaders in healthcare, investments, and industry. 

It was a reminder of what I had learned long ago.  That economics is not a subject but a study… of business, of nations, of the funds that flow through them, and the people who drive them.  And so I began to study economics again on my own.

As business people, perhaps we all should pay more attention to economics. 

You see, it’s not what we study or even the answers that makes a difference.

But what we do with the knowledge, once we find it, that most surely will.

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay tuned.

Joan Koerber-Walker

Curing Healthcare – you have to start somewhere

As a leader, one of the most damaging things that you can do in times of crisis is to do NOTHING.  As I have been listening to and reading about the ongoing national healthcare debate, one question keeps running through my mind.

When are we going to stop talking about it …

and start doing something about it?

At one point in my career, from December of 2006 to December of 2008, I had the honor of serving as the CEO of ASBA, the Arizona Small Business Association, and on the Board of Trustees at NSBA, the National Small Business Association.

As the owner of a small business myself, I had seen the challenges faced by small business owners when it came to the accessibility and affordability of healthcare insurance.  At  the time, it was a personal issue I dealt with and not a major focus of my attention.

Then came my role at ASBA  and a day when solving the healthcare problem, at least for small businesses in the State of Arizona, became MY problem.  This video is a clip from a talk I gave on the topic of Healthcare when ASBA  launched its solution for Arizona Small Businesses in 2008.  It started like this…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKOfXlB_3Wo]

Putting the health back into healthcare in the United States is not a simple problem.  In fact it’s complexity is staggering.  Here are just a few of it’s components – I know I will miss many more.  Don’t pillory me for it.  Instead I encourage you to add to the list in the comments section of this post. (For more information, click the links to articles in each description.)

Structural issues

Right or wrong, our current system is is supported as an insurance based system.  Healthcare is paid for by Medicare/Medicaid (public insurance) or private insurance in most cases.  For those without adequate coverage, the costs can be financially crippling and their unpaid bills get paid by everyone else in the form of higher premiums as explained in this article from Arizona State University’s Knowledge@WPCarey.

Ethical Issues

What should we do?  Who should we help?  What should we pay for?  What should we not?  The answers to these questions reach into much deeper ethical, moral, and legal discussions on highly volatile issues including aging, illegal immigration, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, and the quality and accessibility of care.  An that’s just the tip of the iceberg! The study of BioEthics now even has it’s own Presidential Commission.

Financial Issues

If you think this is all about health, think again.  The healthcare crisis in the US is a major economic issue as illustrated in this article from Forbes on July 3, 2009.  In this report from the Congressional Budget Office total spending on health care in the economy has doubled over the last 30 years to a current level of about 16% of GDP. CBO estimates that this percentage will double again over the next 25 years to 31% of GDP.  Today, it is estimated that as much as 60% of personal bankruptcies in the US are tied to healthcare related issues.  But if we do not get the costs,  and the resultant Federal deficits under control the fall out could be the greatest financial mess the world has ever seen.

Solving the problem will need to address how to find new cost efficiencies in healthcare delivery, behavioral changes among the US population to reduce health risk factors, new protocols for treatment and cost management, and many many more issues.

We will also need to redesign our reimbursement systems.  Today, the set payment schedules for Medicare and Medicaid are below the actual costs the doctors and hospitals incur.  The short fall is then passed along to the costs charged to private insured and private payers  – a practice called cost shifting.  But as we have seen, even this has not been enough to keep many medical centers and hospitals financially healthy – see this July 7, 2008 article from the Washington Post for a good explanation of the problem and since this was written the problem has only gotten worse.

Technology Issues

In recent years, we have looked to technology to solve other problems – it will work for healthcare too, right?  Unfortunately not.  While US healthcare, for those that can afford it, is some of the best in the world, each advancement has a price and contributes to the rising healthcare costs.

E-medical records, a popular topic earlier this year when major funding was allocated as part of the stimulus package by Congress will pay off over time, but not in the immediate future as it carries a high price for implementation.  This presentation by Michael H. Zaroukian, MD, PhD, FACP of Michigan State University helps break it down.

Break throughs in Pharma and Biotech will help us improve quality of life, aid in early detection, and treatment of chronic diseases.  (A major portion of today’s healthcare spend.) But, today’s legislation has little to do with funding support for these technologies at they level that will be required to really speed up the process.

State Sovereignty Issues

Many of the factors that are driving up the costs of the healthcare system are legislated on a state by state basis.  Congress will have a problem making any real change here without overriding or preempting many state laws.  These include the costs of defensive medicine and malpractice insurance costs that will continue to escalate until we reform our tort systems at the state level. In addition, mandates on a state by state level require that certain care or services be provided and covered.  Each and every one of these items has a cost.  Thus the cost of providing healthcare can fluctuate significantly from state to state.

Personal Responsibility Issues

If you have noticed, so far, the focus has been heavily on what ‘they’ have to do to fix the problem.  But there is another major issue that can not be overlooked – and that is our own personal behaviors.  It has been said that the US has a sick care system, not a health care system.  But the shift from sick care to a health focus is not in the government’s hands, it’s in ours.  It has been estimated that regular check ups can play a major role in early detection of chronic disease and that early detection leads to major cost savings – not to mention longer lives.  Yet at the same time, a large majority of those of us who have a wellness plan as part of our health insurance don’t even use it. Health in the US population did not get a great score on it’s report card in 2008 as you can read in this article from Time.

Uncertainty Issues.

And running through it all is  the issue of uncertainty.  None of us know what is going to happen at this point.  Businesses are putting off health insurance decisions and states are in a quandary as to what they should be doing – if they could even pay for it.

Hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies alike are delaying the launch of new programs that could help make a difference because they have yet to learn the new rules of the game.  Basically, progress has stopped!

The Ugly Truth

No one piece of Federal legislation will have the magic prescription to solve this problem.  And for all the shouting, the final bill that will be voted on by the House and the Senate does not even exist yet.  Then and if they can get it through Congress this session, it will be an ongoing process for years to structure all the regulations, set up systems, start a never ending process of revisions, and have any lasting effect.

No matter what we do or how the system changes, some will benefit more than others. Some people will pay more, and some will pay less.  New systems will emerge, and others will fail.

But we will never have any improvements if we do not take the first step.  And If we fail to make improvements, our healthcare structure will ultimately fail.  We already  know that the foundation is seriously damaged.

To wrap things up, there is an old fable about a man who claimed he could eat an elephant.  When other’s scoffed that it was impossible to do so, he simply shared his strategy…

You do it one bite at a time.

Well today, putting the health back into healthcare is our elephant – and it is well past time we took that first bite.

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker