Start the Engines for Economic Revival

I'm tired of the pessimism and negativity. Aren't you? In optimistic anticipation of economic recovery, it is imperative to appropriately align workforce planning efforts to stay competitive and innovative in terms of attracting and deploying talent most effectively. Below are three ideas to help chief executive officers and senior leaders deploy saved-up financial and human capital to accelerate their business growth.

1. Engage and Communicate. You have always played a critical role in communicating corporate goals. Practice what you preach and preach what you practice even more so now. I eat regularly in the company cafeteria and host "Coffee With the CEO" and "Question Hour With the CEO" lunch sessions so employees at all levels can discuss what's on their minds and ask questions about the business. Sometimes I hear comments I didn't expect, so feedback can be the most valuable result. Now that the economy is turning around, you want to ensure that quality employees stay with you because they want to, not because they have to. Listen to their ideas and concerns.

I also believe that it's critical to be visible and available to hear people's concerns and listen to their questions. "The answer is always 'no' until you ask the question." Granted, the answer may still be "no," if the question is asked, but at least the issue—and the answer—will be out in the open. People can deal with information. They can't deal with not knowing. Informed employees will feel more engaged.

A few months ago, we worked with Harris Interactive to survey Fortune 1000 executives about enterprise innovation; only about one-third said their company provided access to funding or forums for fostering education or sharing ideas. Now more than ever, make innovation a core of your leadership agenda by modeling the right behavior and increasing the type and frequency of communication opportunities with employees.

At Olympus, we're optimistic about the future and we're spending money on enterprise innovation in areas we know will have longer-term returns. We've recently launched an implementation from SAP that's being deployed throughout our businesses to transform business processes and services; this investment will improve the service we provide to our customers and provide employees with tools needed to assist them with their work.

2. Sponsor and Encourage Innovation. I'm not referring to product innovation or the byproducts of invention. Invest in enterprise innovation—the business processes, practices, and organizational planning and models prerequisite to effective, profitable, and competitive operation (and later, product and service creation).

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of executives surveyed thought enterprise innovation was extremely or very important for driving business growth and profitability, as well as to attract and keep talent. More than four in five agree that enterprise innovation is a prerequisite for generating product innovation.

Here is the big opportunity: Although many executives think it is the CEO's role to provide tools that promote innovation, nearly half of respondents report their company doesn't have a team, process, or system for vetting new ideas in order to decide which to invest in.

Leaders need to remove barriers to enterprise innovation and to inspire and support the management necessary to make change happen. I'm now holding myself and my employees more accountable for innovation-focused goals. For example, we've added a question to our midyear review process that centers on the innovative processes or ideas an individual or department created and why they worked or didn't work, so we can focus on inhibitors to innovation in our company. And we're measuring quality improvement with specific metrics.

3. Hire. Convert that cash on your books into the most essential corporate asset—human capital. Hire future leaders and invest in training them. There is a rich pool of recent college graduates who want to work, as well as potential employees who've been displaced midcareer. Show your stakeholders that you're investing in talent for the future.

During the last two years, for example, Olympus increased head count in strategic areas that improved our customer-relationship and employee-leadership development programs. We invested more in research and development to support future marketing and sales efforts. We're also launching a new management-development program this fall and we have increased overall learning and development budgets to prepare us as a "best trained" organization at all levels, for our success and our employees' success.

We're beginning to see positive development in promoting areas of our product portfolio that have not been given the attention they needed when the market was "normal." The 80/20 rule applies not only to where your business comes from with your customers, but also with your product sales. Look at areas of your portfolio that have been underperforming and charge someone to come up with a business plan to change the situation. We have done this, and the return on investment has been so significant that we have been able to justify adding talent to pursue other underperforming areas. The investment will have long-term benefit, but it's great to see the result now. It's a positive story for us to share across our company, encouraging others to look at which areas were underperforming when things were good.

Participation in enterprise innovation must be institutionalized to be successful. Let's not let short-term fears hold us back from long-term success or we'll miss the upside of economic recovery, just as we got caught in the downturn. Control those things you can and be positive. It's infectious. You'll be surprised by the response.

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