From the October 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Got Anything Smaller?

With the recent recession walloping their ranks, corporate executives are rethinking their career prospects. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. recently found two out of three laid-off execs preferred to join a small firm.

That's the good news. Unfortunately, you'll have plenty of company trying to land a financial analyst or operations manager. "There's more action for salaries over $200,000 at firms with less than $50 million in revenue than at firms with more than $50 million in revenue," says Wayne Starr, CEO and founder of executive resume distribution service WSA Corp.

One of those executives is Dave Van Dyke. A 30-year veteran of the broadcast industry, including a 14-year stint at Viacom, he decided to take a position with Finology Inc., a 15-employee Los Angeles company that funds radio stations and plans to grow to 100 employees in the next 12 months.

"I was looking for a position where I could excel once again," he says. With expected growth of 20 percent, it looks like he's found it. Is it any wonder that the right inducement can win you the big-time talent?

Any Questions?

Brainstorming sessions can become a tedious exercise, usually dominated by a few individuals. There are moments of silence as everyone else wracks their brain for one more idea because nothing on the white board really knocks your socks off.

"You end up with a short list that never gets at the meat of the issue," says consultant Perry J. Ludy, author of Profit Building: Cutting Costs Without Cutting People (Berrett-Koehler Publishers). Maybe you shouldn't be asking for answers, he says. You should be asking employees what questions they have about the problem.

Despite brainstorming mantras that there are no wrong answers, many of your employees are afraid that opening their mouths will make them look like dolts. Questions, by contrast, show everyone's ignorance. They are more democratic and make sure employees are less intimidated. They'll develop a longer list of questions than they ever will of answers. "Questions become the fuel for the overall process," says Ludy.

Once you've got your list, assign individuals on the team to find answers. Have them report back at a regularly scheduled meeting, say in two weeks. The answers they find can illuminate solutions never imagined.

Ludy cites the example of a firm that is seeking to reduce the cost of its employee benefits. A quick fix is to cut the company's 401(k) plan contribution. If brainstorming participants question why the plan costs so much to administer, they might ask whether administrative costs are negotiable and cut costs that way.

"The more you ask questions--to yourself, your team, your vendors--[the more] you develop a skill of getting to details," he says.

To get the ball rolling, Ludy suggests running down your profit-and-loss statement. Ask questions about each line item until you've got a list of 10 to 20 questions. If you don't have many employees, contacts from a chamber of commerce meeting or networking session will be equally adept at fleshing out your list.


Business writer Chris Sandlund works out of Cold Spring, New York.

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