About Erika Andersen

Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

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Archive for June, 2012


Steve Wiehe of SciQuest: Hugging the Elephant in the Room

When Steve Wiehe’s publicist reached out to me last month and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing him, I was simply curious. But once I’d done a little research into Steve’s background, I was enthusiastic: Steve’s a successful, engaging leader whose ideas and experience I find both useful and inspiring – and I hope you do, too.

Steve is the CEO of SciQuest, Inc (Nasdaq: SQI).  Over the past decade, he’s taken SciQuest from a struggling company on the brink of failure to a solidly performing organization with a strong senior team that executes well and consistently (and seems to be having a good time doing it). Here’s how Steve responded to the questions I asked him:

When you had the chance to take over at SciQuest, what was the most important thing you believed you could bring to the party – your ‘superpower’ that would be most helpful to them?

When I took over at SciQuest, it was in significant distress. Its market cap had gone from $2B to $60M, and it was burning approximately $25M per quarter. It was a rowdy atmosphere, with cool perks and a cool office space, but it was a broken company — partly because it had developed a business culture with a “free lunch” perspective. I felt if I could fix the company and turn it into a successful business, it would be the crowning achievement of my career. 

So to answer the question, the “superpowers” I brought to the table were my natural inquisitiveness, my view of SciQuest as a personal challenge and my drive to build a solid, well-executing company.

What did you know, a year after starting at SciQuest, that you would have told the you who was about-to-begin-that-job?

We had to slow the burn rate of the company, so we downsized the employee base from 550 to approximately 85 over an 8 month period. It wasn’t easy or pleasant to impact so many employees many of whom had nothing to do with the company getting into trouble in the first place. While one’s natural instinct may be to avoid confronting truly difficult situations, I learned through this process that if you do the tough but necessary things while treating people with respect, honesty and openness, they will reciprocate.

I held several large “all-hands meetings” where I showed the company our financial position, so they knew our situation, then did a large layoff. When I started, employees didn’t understand the financial shape of the company even though we were public. Once we walked them through the situation, they got it. While nobody enjoyed being laid off to be sure, we were never sued and the process was relatively quiet. We showed the employees respect and transparency by giving them the data, explaining what we were doing and why we were resizing. They gave us respect back – they didn’t like it but they respected it.

This was the first time I had to face a ‘hostile crowd’ with bad news, but I knew it was the right thing. So, I would tell myself, You will have to make some really tough, unpopular decisions. Do it with honesty, transparency and respect, and you will get it back — you reap what you sow.

How do you get a team on the same page and heading in the same direction?

I’ve been described as a “microdata” manager, vs. a micromanager. I am very interested in getting the microdata about how and why things are happening, and I ask a lot of questions. This goes back to my youth, where on car trips my parents would literally have to limit me to 20 questions. I want to understand every aspect of what my teams are working on so that I can empathize with them, but I still want the team or individuals, on their own, to come up with the way to build and evolve whatever they are working on.

I actually define four stages of this discovery process. The first is that you need to listen to understand. Many people jump right from listening to drawing conclusions, but this is a flawed process. Instead, you need understand in order to empathize, and only after you’ve empathized can you affect change. If you skip empathy and go directly from listen to change, many times you end up forcing things onto people, which often does not fit. You also cut off the opportunity for insightful and helpful ideas to emerge.

I also believe that business dilemmas get solved by addressing ‘small-fire’ issues head on. If people across the company can learn to be comfortable with the bad news then we don’t risk having problems that gather momentum and rise up to bite us in the future—that’s the difference between success and failure in my mind. If we really take the time to understand the problem in a safe and open discussion, then the solution becomes simple and we only have to solve it once.

To illustrate this concept in action, we’ve implemented what we call a customer grading system where each of our customers gets assigned a grade—A, B or C—based on how efficiently they are using our technology to save money. We have a monthly meeting devoted to “C” customers, and it’s my favorite meeting of the month. I’m probably one of the few CEOs who takes great pleasure in talking about unhappy customers and what’s broken — because it means we’re fixing problems and setting the stage for long-term success.

I call this process “Hugging the elephant in the room.”

How would you describe the culture you’ve built at SciQuest, and how does that show up, day to day?

At SciQuest, I run the business like an Open Kitchen, which is based on an experience several years ago when my senior team and I showed up late one night at the restaurant Buca di Beppo and the only available table was in the kitchen. It impressed me that they would seat us in the kitchen because it showed they had the utmost faith in their product and standards. I believe our employees and customers should likewise have a view into the company’s inner workings. Our programmers should know how to read our financial sheets. Our customers should know how our business is managed. Internally, we have regular sessions where one management group learns about everything that’s going on with another, and vice versa.

As for the customer side, going back to our A, B, C grading system, when we show up on the customer’s doorstep and share with them what they’re doing with the technology and how they could be getting more out of it, that is quite refreshing for them. Again, it creates a much more open and insight-filled customer engagement.

Ultimately, however, it all boils down to respect. I am most proud to have built a culture that is based on respect. The Open Kitchen concept helps to foster every individual’s respect and empathy for his or her colleagues and the job each one is doing.

If you were talking with a group of young professionals in their first management jobs, what would you most want to share with them?

I believe there are two primary paths to success in business. The first is to define the problem; that should be 95 percent of the effort. I’ve spoken about that above.

The second – it’s a corollary to the first – is to focus on the journey, not the destination. What this means is that every action must be devoted to building a company that meets the needs of customers, employees and shareholders. That’s the journey. You cannot do anything that benefits one of these constituencies at the expense of another. As long as you do everything in the service of helping each of these groups, you will have a great company.


Mental and Physical Rejuvenation

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I made a commitment, when I started the blog in January of 2007, to blog at least once a week except when I’m on vacation.  And you might have noticed that my last post was on June 10.

So, yes – I’ve been on vacation. I’m a midlife convert to the power and efficacy of vacations. I didn’t take them when my kids were small – it just seemed like there was too much to do, what with being a wife and mother, starting and running a business, etc., etc.  In fact, the first time I ever took a two-week vacation as an adult was 13 years ago, when my kids were 11 and 15.  It was a revelation. When we got on the plane to go to Wales, I felt tired, overwhelmed, stretched thin. When I came back, I felt energized, clear, ready to rock.

As the years go by, and I seem to get busier and busier, and to be involved in pursuits that are ever more challenging (primarily fun and satisfying, but challenging nonetheless), vacations seem both more necessary and harder to make happen.  I find that I really have to discipline myself not to work (much) when I’m ostensibly vacationing, or I lose the benefits.

So I’ve established a kind of 90-10 rule for myself.  If, while I’m on vacation, I generally only work an hour or two on any given day (checking email and writing, mostly, but having the occasional phone call as well), and have at least a handful of days where I don’t connect with work at all – I seem to get the full rejuvenation benefit.

And when some of the vacation time happens in Wales, as it did last week, that seems to further magnify the renewal effect. And the fact that our darling granddaughter Hannah was there, serving as a model for all of us of how to fully enjoy every minute of being alive, amped up the wonderfulness factor even more.

In fact, I notice even as I’m writing this that my synapses are firing a little faster and more effortlessly than they were a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s to giving yourself a chance to recuperate, reposition, and re-engage!


Rajesh Setty, Business Alchemist

I met first met Raj Setty at an 800CEOREAD Author Pow-wow in 2007. I found him intelligent, kind and curious – a wonderful combination.  Rajesh is an entrepreneur and a business alchemist. His mission in life is to help bring new ideas to life, with love. His core belief is that while good ideas matter, the magic really is in amplifying them. Raj has co-founded a number of technology companies and a publishing company over the last few years. He consults and speaks on the topic of leverage, the secret ingredient that will bring an unfair competitive advantage for any company.

You describe yourself as an ‘alchemist.’  Can you say a little bit about what you mean by that, and why it’s important?

At my consulting company, Foresight Plus, the focus is on amplifying ideas – either we bring new ideas to life or bring new life to current ideas. In both cases, there is a need for business alchemy – the process of mixing the right ingredients in the right proportions to bring out the gold (in this case, more revenues and profits).

At FP, there are many business alchemists at work – we can combine seemingly unrelated things to produce good results. Business alchemy is important today because it focuses on making the most of everything we already have, rather than trying to find the missing piece of the puzzle to reach our goals.

You’re passionate about helping entrepreneurs succeed.  What are some of the key things you believe are required for entrepreneurial success?

I can sum it up in two words: “Pay twice.”

Entrepreneurs have to be ready to pay a price to get what they want. This price is not just in terms of the time, energy and money they put in but also all the sacrifices they have to make along the way.

They also have to pay a price way before they begin pursuing their entrepreneurial dream. This price is the investment to build their network – sort of digging their well before they are thirsty. As an entrepreneur, your best bet is to create an environment where you have “an over-capacity of help” you can draw upon. Paying twice (once during the journey and once before you start the journey) will ensure that you build the mutual obligations that will produce that over-capacity of help in the future.

Lots of people are interested in writing books.  You’ve done it – again and again.  What advice would you offer to someone who wants to be a writer?

Here is what I share with most new authors in the publishing firms I am involved with:

  • Write more: This seems too basic but it’s a fact of life – if you want to be good at something, you have to practice more of it.
  • Don’t try to solve Friday’s problem on Monday: Many times new authors are overwhelmed by trying to figure out everything before they put pen to paper. The first step is to start. Now.
  • Get good help: Writing seems like a lonely adventure. It can be, if you treat it that way. For you to succeed in writing, you need to surround yourself with a great team.
  • Drop your ego: Not everything you write needs to be published. Not everything you write will be good. Check your ego at the door so that you don’t get too attached to what you’ve written.
  • Read about  writing: There are a lot of good books written about writing. Learn from the masters and grow.

What are you most excited about these days?

Nowadays, I am excited about four things that can be summed up by the acronym SAAIL:

S – Significant Projects: I love important work that has the potential to change the game in new and interesting ways. If I am helping people who are pursuing significant projects, they will automatically be smart, ambitious and good-hearted people. Then, work no longer feels like work.

A – Amplification: My expertise is in amplifying ideas. I come up with some of my own ideas but I also totally enjoy amplifying the ideas of others.

A – Alchemy: In the quest to do new things or improve old things, people tend to forget how things can be mixed up to produce gold. I have personally been part of many business alchemy projects. They are fun and provide a great ROI.

I – Innovation: There is always a better way of solving a problem or capitalizing on an opportunity.

L – Leverage: Nobody has unlimited resources (especially of time and money). By employing time-tested principles of leverage, outlined in my upcoming book, The Art of Leverage, you can get a big output with a relatively small input.

I am happy to say that I am surrounded by projects that will fit into the SAAIL thinking. And I am always looking for more such projects.

If you could change one thing about the way most people approach business, what would it be?

If I have to pick only one thing, it would be the mindset with which they approach business. Most people overestimate their own positive impact on their business and underestimate the impact of good help from others. If they can reverse this, it would make a huge difference.

You can follow Raj on his blog at www.rajeshsetty.com/blog or on Twitter at @RajSetty


Practicing What We Preach

My business partner Jeff and I are unlike in a whole variety of ways – he’s younger, I’m older; he’s male, I’m female; he’s a true oenophile, while I barely drink.  Our brains work very differently, too – we approach nearly every challenge or situation from two different directions.

Our differences – for the most part – enliven and enrich our work together, though, because we agree on the important things.  We want to interact with love, honesty and mutual support; we want to support our clients to create better businesses and better work relationships; we want to be illuminating, strengthening and trustworthy with our clients and with each other. And – this one is important – we want to practice what we preach.

Before I started Proteus in 1990, I observed (and worked for) consulting companies where the employees didn’t hold themselves accountable for doing the things they encouraged their clients to do. I always found this “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy really disturbing, and I promised myself that when I started my own company, I’d do everything in my power to make sure that we ourselves did what we recommended to others. Jeff, I’m happy to say, feels exactly the same way.

Proteus Admin team in our Minneapolis office

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been growing fast – and so we have a number of new employees in our two different offices (Minneapolis and New York) who barely know each other, and who are trying to keep up with our growth using processes that are in some cases ill-defined and in others not very scaleable, fulfilling roles that seem to change almost daily.  All in all, given human nature, a prescription for misunderstanding, miscommunication, frustration and some tension.

So, as Jeff and I started to realize what was happening, I’m happy to say that we did what we would have advised clients to do in a similar situation.  Last week, we got together with our administrative staff for the better part of two days and used our own “High Performance Team” process to iron things out.  It was great:  we worked together to define our roles, improve our processes, and increase our trust.  Everyone seemed newly energized and clearer about how to move forward.

Jeff calls it “eating our own caviar.”

And it makes me wonder why more people (consultants, especially) don’t do it.  If you’ve got good stuff, and you really believe in it – wouldn’t you want to use it yourself? Hmmm….