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The Not-So-Secret Secrets to Making It Big

"Benevolent Dictator the Book"Five Surprisingly Doable Steps That Will Propel You to the Top

No, there’s no easy, top-secret, and foolproof recipe for succeeding in business. Instead, says OfficeMax Cofounder and former CEO Michael Feuer, the components of reaching the top are available to everyone, and they revolve around focus, discipline, and follow-up.

Have you ever said to yourself, How in the world did [insert name of powerful business executive] get to where he is? He’s not any smarter than I am! Well, chances are you’re right. That executive who made it big probably doesn’t have more powerful brain cells than you…but what he (or she!) probably does have are three non-glamorous but crucial qualities: focus, discipline, and follow-up.

These three qualities might not sound extraordinary, but they can truly set you apart,” says Michael Feuer, cofounder and former CEO of OfficeMax and author of the new book The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition. “The truth is, there isn’t a simple magic bullet that will propel you straight to the top. Success in any endeavor, especially business, really comes down to specific character traits and habits. If you have those qualities, you’ll excel. And if you don’t, you probably won’t.

Feuer (pronounced “Foyer”) speaks from experience: He has launched a number of successful business ventures, including OfficeMax and his newest business, Max-Wellness, a new and unique health and wellness chain. And he insists that making sure that you constantly work with focus and discipline, and always, always follow up are crucial ingredients of getting the results you want—whether you’re launching a start-up, leading a team of employees, or going after that big promotion.

“Before you ever craft a sales strategy or walk into a client meeting, whether or not you have a chance of success has already been decided by how you think about your work, what you have to do, and how you do it,” Feuer asserts. “Outcomes are shaped by your focus, discipline, and commitment to follow-up…or lack thereof. It’s important to remember that achievements are often less dependent on your technical know-how and more dependent on how you organize and think.”

Read on to learn what these three qualities look like in practice, and how you can make them work for you:

Take good notes. Taking notes in business is just as important as it was in your advanced economics class in college. Your brain isn’t always as powerful as you think it is, and having a written record of your boss’s project analysis or your colleague’s sales strategy can save you from having “oh darn” moments, and can set you apart from the pack and put you on a straighter path to success.

“I’ll frequently dictate the notes from a meeting the second I walk out, or appoint someone to act as a scribe beforehand,” Feuer shares. “I keep all of my past notes in a folder on my computer, and I also always make sure to jot down next steps. These habits ensure that nothing falls off the radar unintentionally, and that I always have a good idea of what needs to happen next. Oh—and I often shock new team members by writing the letters ‘FU’ and a date at the bottom of my notes. New people are always relieved when they learn that those letters aren’t a pejorative, but a shorthand I use as a reminder to ‘Follow Up’ by a specific date!”

Do what you say you will, period. In today’s dog-eat-dog environment, a person’s word isn’t always his or her bond. And that’s a shame. When you fail to follow through on promises and commitments, you imply that you lack discipline and—perhaps—shouldn’t be trusted with more important tasks and objectives. However, if you cultivate a reputation for being completely reliable, you’ll enjoy more responsibility and success as well as better business relationships.

“I routinely tell my employees that I’m not their father and won’t babysit them, and that if they tell me they’re going to do something, they’d better make good on that assurance,” Feuer says. “I can’t afford to have people on the team who are undependable. However, I do provide alternatives by giving everyone three acceptable ‘outs’: They can tell me that they can’t finish on time, that they don’t want to do it my way because they have a better idea, or that they think their assignment isn’t worth the effort and can convince me why.”

Give homework assignments. A leader’s job is to make people think and discover alternatives. It’s a great way to determine who on your team you can rely on and who is capable of taking a project to the next level. You can afford to invest in developing someone who is interested in developing.

“When I give assignments, I keep a running tally of what happened or changed from previous sessions on the same topic or project,” Feuer elaborates. “No matter if you’re on the giving or receiving end of homework, remember that the way these assignments are handled is a great way to gauge attitude, commitment, potential, reliability, and whether or not someone is a player.”

Scrap your iron-clad five-year plan. Being able to work with focus and discipline is generally a good thing…unless you’re focusing on things that won’t help you or propel you forward! To help prevent this, Feuer recommends developing a short-term plan with a six- to nine-month outlook. This plan will help you get through the year. He also recommends creating a longer-term plan with a seventeen- to eighteen-month strategy. It will encompass the goals and benchmarks you need to achieve during this time period. Why have two plans instead of one? Well, the world is simply evolving too fast to rely on a one-size-fits-all five-year plan.

“I’ve found that many organizations spend too much time thinking about what’s going to happen way down the road when all they’re doing is guessing. And when their predictions turn out to be inaccurate, they find out too late that they’ve been focusing their efforts on the wrong things,” he says. “You must always be ready to modify your plans when necessary, change quickly, and deal with the unexpected. That’s what will make the difference between a company that might get by and one that is good or even great.”

Use a rifle, not a shotgun. When you fire a shotgun, your shot hits a wider area, but it lacks focused precision. In business, a shotgun approach gets the job done…but usually doesn’t yield outstanding results. Sure, you’ll hit something with a shotgun, but the price in doing so seldom provides the big payback. Yes, a rifle or laser-sharp approach will take more planning and forethought, but in the end you’ll probably save time and resources. It pays to identify exactly what needs to be done and then focus relentlessly on accomplishing those objectives.

“Trying to cover a wider area and hoping that something resonates is inviting your efforts to fall short of the mark or even backfire,” Feuer asserts. “A laser-sharp strategy is much more practical, productive, and economical. So make sure that you’re ready, and that you aim well before you fire!”

“When you take the time to focus, have discipline, and require follow-up, whether you’re a business owner, a manager, or an employee moving up the ladder, you’re creating a road map that documents what has to be accomplished and by when,” Feuer concludes. “Few things ever fall through the cracks when you follow this process. It is the most direct way I know to set yourself up for success!”

About the Authors:

Michael Feuer cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010. After opening initial laboratory test stores in Florida and Ohio, a national roll-out is now underway.

Dustin S. Klein, contributor and editor of The Benevolent Dictator, is the publisher and executive editor of Smart Business Network, publishers of Smart Business, the nation’s second-largest chain of regional business publications. He has interviewed thousands of senior executives and civic leaders across America. He is a regular presenter on business-related issues for public and private business audiences and is a frequent guest on television, radio, and Internet programs.


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  1. Ann H. Shea says:


    Great post. I appreciate your distilling this book into this excellent summary of key points. It does sound like a great read, and I think I’ll look for it, but until then will hammer these ideas home. I’m already a big note-taker, and that helps me key my eye on a LOT of detail. In fact, I use excel to manage the notes from emails to track projects. I also keep a lot of different running Word docs to compile notes on upcoming tasks or writing projects, like future blog entries. Screen captures are great too, to show what happened, needs to happen, and teach others. One of the problems is I get tasked to be the note-taker for all the teams I’m on. Wish I could delegate some of this or teach others this skill.

    While social media keeps luring the wide-eyed explorer in me out, I like the rifle focus analogy and will keep in mind in the work week that’s just starting.

    thanks again for the useful post. Hope others will read and take note!

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