Jennifer Prosek: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 14th, 2011 by bobmorris

Jennifer Prosek

Jennifer Prosek is the founder and CEO of CJP Communications (CJP), where she leads many of the firm’s key accounts. Under her leadership, the firm has become a leading international public relations and financial communications consultancy with offices in New York, Connecticut and London. With more than 70 professionals, the firm ranks among the top 35 independent public relations firms in the US, and among the top five financial communications consultancies in the UK. The secret to CJP’s success has been Prosek’s ability to develop, motivate and deploy her employees to be more entrepreneurial within their own positions. This strategy is the premise of her first book, Army of Entrepreneurs: Create an Engaged and Empowered Workforce for Exceptional Business Growth, which is based on the unique business model of CJP and is now available from AMACOM, a division of the American Management Association.

Prosek received her MBA from Columbia and is a frequent lecturer at leading business schools, including Columbia, and entrepreneurial and business groups. Recent speaking engagements include the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, Forté Foundation, The Royal Bank of Scotland Marketing Summit and British-American Business, Inc. She is on the board of directors of the New York City Partnership for the Homeless.

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Morris: Before discussing your book, a few general questions. First, when and by what process did you formulate the management strategy (i.e. “Army of Entrepreneurs”) based on a military model?  Was CJP Communications founded before or after that?  To what extent (if any) are the strategy and the firm related?

Prosek: CJP was founded before the Army Model was born.  The Army Model was started after a few frustrating years of failing to grow the business at the desired pace, and coming to the realization that perhaps we had not tapped our employees to the greatest degree.

We asked ourselves whether we could teach our staff to think more like owners and encourage them to contribute to the business in new ways.

We started with the notion that, if they understood more about how the business ran and were included in idea generation and decision making at all levels, they could be more effective.  This premise led to the “Army of EntrepreneursTM” model, which helped us achieve the business growth we were seeking.

At this point, we have been engaged in the model for more than 10 years so it’s hard to separate the company from the model.  The company is the model.  I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, who talks about something called the “talent myth.”  He says that it is important to make the system the star in a company; I couldn’t agree more.  This is what we have tried to do with the Army of EntrepreneursTM.

Morris: What are some of the most common – and perhaps dangerous – misconceptions about employee empowerment?

Prosek: Among the most dangerous misconceptions is that a program or model can empower all employees.  True empowerment is authentic and individual and is expressed differently by each employee.  Too many companies launch campaigns and slogans that are more “flavor of the month club” empowerment programs rather than true commitments.  Employees are smart, they will respond when employee empowerment efforts are real.

Morris: Much has been said and written in recent years about “followership.” My own opinion is that there are times when supervisors lead and other times when they defer to direct reports who then “take the lead.” What are your own thoughts about it?

Prosek: When people are confident and inspired enough to handle new tasks – whatever the level – they should be empowered to do that, with guidance from a supervisor. It’s tricky because you need supervisors, but those supervisors must be talented enough to know when to pull back and let someone run, and when to step in. As an entrepreneur I’d rather give them a long rope and if they trip, let it be a teachable moment. Great people almost always avoid tripping; they simply surprise themselves by being able to do things they never expected they’d be able to do.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) about 360º feedback. Some want it to be transparent, others want it to be anonymous, and still others want to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Your own thoughts?

Prosek: I think feedback is essential. We do like 360-degree feedback and generally keep it anonymous so that it is indeed authentic.

Morris: During the course of my career, I headed my own public relations firm and then sold it to a major advertising agency and headed its PR division in the Southwest. William Hill once characterized public relations as “truth well-told.” Here’s a two-part question. Do you agree with Hill? Whether or not you do, why is PR now held in such low regard by so many people?

Prosek: I absolutely agree with Hill. I’d say its “truth well packaged” v. told. Truth itself is not always compelling or differentiated. PR folks are held in low regard likely because they’re seen as willing to bend the truth. Spin has become synonymous with lying. Packaging, in my view, is not spin.  It is using language to find a way to express truth that creates ultimate engagement.

Morris: What lessons can be learned from CJP Communications that can help to increase the percentage of actively and positively employees in workplaces elsewhere?

Prosek: Over-communicating company information and allowing employees real insight into how the company works and makes its money are ways to get people engaged.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Army of Entrepreneurs. Please explain your decision to use military nomenclature to express your thoughts about the business world.

Prosek: “Army” is used in the lightest way. It wasn’t meant to be too heavily linked to the military. Having said that, a well-operating army works seamlessly to accomplish very difficult tasks and to “win”. Business is like war in that there is a focus on winning. It’s important to get everyone to understand what winning means for their business.

Morris: Given the military model, to what extent are empowerment and engagement different?

Prosek: Our army is an Army of EntrepreneursTM, which suggests levels of teamwork and discipline and togetherness, as well as freedom and creativity, that a traditional military model wouldn’t necessarily afford. To some extent, it’s an oxymoron.

Morris: What is the “new approach” to building a business to which you refer in Part I? What differentiates it from other approaches?

Prosek: The army model is not necessarily new; CJP and other companies have been operating this way for a while. It’s just that we’ve been in the minority. I believe there is a shift afoot that will force traditional 1950s-like corporate structures to change in ways that will be very new to them.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of those who “think entrepreneurially”?

Prosek: They are intellectually curious, they ask “why not?” and they crave seeing their ideas and efforts make an impact. And perhaps most importantly, they’ve never viewed their work as work. It’s more like, “It’s just what I do.” It’s like breathing.

Morris: In Chapter 4, you explain how to “teach employees the [given] business.” What specifically does that involve?

Prosek: It involves a commitment by the company to teach employees the business of the business. Most companies concentrate on developing skills the employees needs to do his or her job, but they don’t teach how each employee’s contributions fit into the bigger picture.

I’m suggesting that every employee should know what receivable, payable, profit margin and collection mean. By teaching people how the business functions and makes money, you are allowing them to become more owner-like and they will begin to make decisions in a more owner-like fashion.

Morris: Please explain what you mean by a business “boot camp.”

Prosek: Simply put, it’s an off-site professional development session that is dedicated to teaching the employees the business or focused on a specific topic.

Morris: Years ago at one of GE’s annual meetings, Jack Welch explained why he admired entrepreneurial companies and why he was determined to make GE more like one. Here’s part of what he said:
“For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

Here’s my question: Why are the leaders in so many companies unwilling and/or unable to create the organization that Welch describes well.

Prosek: It may be because the leaders in large companies have never had an entrepreneurial experience or worked in a small company. When you grow up within a bureaucracy, all you know is the bureaucracy. For example, it is easier to spend a budget when it is viewed as “other people’s money” vs. your own.  Entrepreneurs must make decisions every day based upon their personal pocketbooks.  That mentality, applied to running a company, typically leads to more careful fiscal management.

Morris: My own opinion is that the “enemy” that every company must “attack” and then “conquer” is, in fact, the company it is today. Jen, what are your own thoughts about that?

Prosek: I couldn’t agree more.  It’s important to continue to evolve and change even if things are extremely positive.  The Japanese call this “kaizen,” or a commitment to continuous improvement. Kaizen is a system that involves every employee – from upper management to the cleaning crew. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a once a month or once a year activity. It is continuous. At Japanese companies, such as Toyota and Canon, a total of 60 to 70 suggestions per employee per year are written down, shared and implemented.  Sounds like employee-driven innovation to me.

Morris: All organizations have “foot soldiers.” Not many of them are both willing and able to become senior-level executives but they are important to success of their organization nonetheless. How best to reassure them of that?

Prosek: Reassuring any employee of their value to the organization and how their contributions make an impact is part of great management. We strive at our firm to be extremely communicative with individuals on a regular basis. In addition, at our firm we break down the qualities of key staff into four buckets – finders, minders, binders and grinders.  Senior people do all four things but most people concentrate on one or two. Folks who are foot soldiers are typically grinders and everyone in the organization respects, admires and needs them. Without them, the organization folds.

Morris: Of all the companies you have studied, which comes closest to exemplifying the values that you affirm in your book? Please explain.

Prosek: Virgin Atlantic is one.  The company could never have grown from Student magazine to a group of more than 200 companies were it not for a steady stream of intrapreneurs who looked for and developed opportunities. Richard Branson wrote a terrific column in Entrepreneur Magazine about it (click here to take a read).

Morris: To what extent does Army of Entrepreneurs in final form differ from the book you originally envisioned?

Prosek: My editors pushed me to create practical step-by-step tools at the end of each chapter to ease implementation. That made the book part philosophy and part workbook. So it’s probably even more useful than I even expected.

Morris: In Chapter 12, you suggest how to respond to the naysayers. Presumably you do not include among them those who – in what Warren Bennis characterizes as a “culture of candor” — offer principled dissent. Is that correct?

Prosek: Naysayers are those who are simply dismissive without reason. Candid, thoughtful dissent is actually constructive and welcome. Hey, like any great idea, there are risks and pitfalls. The army model isn’t perfect but, in my experience, it’s worth the potential risks and flaws for bottom line growth, and the growth of the team.

Morris: How best to cope with a major client who is a naysayer?

Prosek: I would suggest open-mindedness, listening, polite agreement to disagree and willingness to implement their ideas if they strike a valid chord

Morris: Let’s say that someone has read (and, I hope, re-read) your book and then formulated frank and comprehensive answers to the ten questions you pose in Appendix A. That person decides to amass an “army of entrepreneurs.” Where to begin?

Prosek: Begin by evaluating your current culture and leadership style and deciding whether you’ve got the proper foundation to implement. For example, are you ready to over communicate, to dedicate the time to professional development? This foundation and commitment are critical to success.

Morris: What has been the most fun you’ve had since becoming an author?

Prosek: Connecting with business owners and helping them break through their growth ceilings has been fun and gratifying.  Just the other day a woman who ran a design firm told me she implemented the Commission for LifeTM program and one of her junior employees booked a meeting which turned into a $500k client for the firm.  WOW.

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Jennifer Prosek cordially invites you to visit these websites:

Please click here to visit her firm.

http://www.cjpcom.com/4-prosek.html

Please click here to visit her book:

http://www.armyofentrepreneurs.com/

Twitter:

http://twitter.com/EmployeeArmy

 

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