The Upper Crust

Traditional pizza concept takes a page from fast casual’s playbook.

The fast-casual pizza category is booming with its more personalized customization experience, and traditional quick-serve pizza brands are taking note. Earlier this year, Pizza Hut unveiled its Hand-Tossed pizza as a fresh new option with a lighter crust akin to the fast-casual segment’s artisanal offerings.

“We’ve heard from our consumers that they’re looking for a little more uniqueness in their experiences,” says Doug Terfehr, spokesman. He says the company responded with the most popular way that people get pizza: tossed by hand.

“In our opinion, pizza … has always been made to order,” Terfehr says. “Bringing it more to the … top setting is new and a trend that we’re definitely paying attention to.”

Rachel Kalt, creative solutions manager for restaurant consulting firm The Culinary Edge, says there is a growing desire from increasingly knowledgeable consumers for a more authentic eating experience.

A lot of these fast-casual concepts that you see are pizzas being hand stretched in front of you and using high-end ingredients,” Kalt says. Pizza Hut realized hand-tossed crust can speak to an authentic, elevated experience, she says.

Jim Reynolds, corporate chef and director of R&D for consulting firm Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations, sees quick-serve chains trying to shed their corporate image and the notion of mass-produced items.

“This Pizza Hut concept … [is] trying to bring back the art in food, trying to be able to tell a story about food, really trying to make it seem like it’s produced here,” Reynolds says.

IRS Taxing Tax Day Freebies?

The list of Tax Day Freebies and discounts grows every year. Tax Day can be painful, so collecting fun perks that also help businesses seems like a win-win. But could they themselves be taxed? It’s not a silly question.

If a merchant gives you a free burger on Tax Day, the merchant treats it as a promotional expense. Selling two for the price of one? Same. Usually, the IRS can’t impute income when you get something discounted or for free, but sometimes it can.

More important, sales tax authorities commonly treat freebies as taxable sales. Often, the retailer is treated as the consumer. That way the state gets the tax. Many items given away are really sold, just for less.

When a store pays your sales tax for you, it actually reduces the price of the item. What if your employer grosses-up your year-end bonus to cover your taxes? That gross-up is additional wages, a tax issue that’s circular, so you need a formula to solve it.

For the 4th year in a row, Arby’s is giving away free snack-sized curly fries on tax day.For the 4th year in a row, Arby’s is giving away coupons for free snack-sized curly fries on Tax Day.

If you receive $100 but must give half to a family member, partner or colleague, you might assume you’re only taxed on $50. Not always. You might be stuck with $100 of income even though you gave $50 away. Find a diamond ring? Its fair market value is taxable even if you don’t sell it. See Who Pays Tax On Hef’s Engagement Ring Sale?

In short, many bargains are taxed. Sure, most Tax Day freebies are small-scale. But if one customer wins a free trip to Paris or a free car? You guessed it, it’s taxed. If you pay $5 for a $20 meal on Tax Day for yourself, there should be no tax effect. But if an employer gives Tax Day freebies to employees?

Depending on the employer’s line of business, it may be taxable as compensation, perhaps at the full $20 value, not just $5. If you get a Tax Day freebie and share the wealth with family and friends, there could be gift tax, although these gifts should fall within the $14,000 annual gift tax exclusion!

Still, get used to thinking that taxes apply everywhere. If you win the lottery, win cash in a game show, or hit it big at the casino, you pay tax. If you win goods instead of cash, their value is income. When Pontiac gave away cars on Oprah, the recipients were on the hook for taxes even though they didn’t receive cash.

You name it, it’s taxed. In employment, your employer must withhold extra taxes from your cash pay to make up for any property you get in kind. Can’t you claim it was a gift? Many people try this, including John Edwards with his “it was a gift, not a campaign contribution” defense. See Surprising Tax Lessons From John Edwards’s Indictment.

How to distinguish between income and gifts? Gifts involve “detached and disinterested generosity.” A briefcase or a country club membership from your boss is meant to reward you for a job well done and help secure additional services in the future. There is an exception for small holiday gifts to employees. The IRS says you can hand out turkeys or holiday baskets to employees provided the gifts don’t exceed $100 in value.

Suppose an employee puts in unpaid overtime and you reward her with tickets to the Super Bowl? They are wages. You’re supposed to increase the withholding on her cash wages to cover the value of the tickets. But that works only if you pay with a combination of cash and goods. If a buddy who isn’t a regular employee helps out at your business occasionally and you thank him with tickets? The IRS says to report them as pay on Form 1099; they’re not a tax-free gift.

Back to Tax Day? Seems like every day….

Week Ahead: No Hiding Place For Stocks

Under-pressure stocks have no place to hide in the coming days, despite the possibility of lighter trading due to Passover beginning on Monday and U.S. stock and bond markets closing for Good Friday in the Easter week ahead.

The next four days brings an onslaught of earnings from more than 50 major companies in the S&P 500, speeches by Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, and a slew of economic indicators in the United States and China.

Also planned in the coming week are a number of high-profile initial public offerings (IPOs) of stock that will test the market’s appetite amid the rout of the techs.

Traders already twitchy cannot afford to switch off amid this flurry of economic and corporate news before the Easter break.

Investors may seek the perceived safety of blue chip shares as the rout in so-called “momentum” stocks in tech and biotech continues.

The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index is down almost 5 percent for the month, the S&P 500 is down 3 percent, and the Dow Jones index is down 2.6 percent.

The real bloodbath has been in biotech shares. According to Reuters data, the Nasdaq biotechnology index has fallen 21 percent from its record high in February. The price-to-earnings ratio on this index is 34.4, compared to the forward price-to-earnings ratio for the S&P 500 of 14.9 — so the pain in these stocks may not be over.

The earnings news this coming week may not bring too much respite.

Analysts say that in the first quarter, growth in profits for S&P 500 companies is expected to have increased just under 1 percent from a year ago, way down from a January forecasts of more than 6 percent growth.

Only the brave bet against the U.S. stock markets, but the next few days will certainly test optimism.

Monday brings updates on U.S. retail sales for March, U.S. business inventories for February and earnings from Citigroup C -1.19%.

On Tuesday, Fed chair Janet Yellen is expected to speak by video to a conference in Atlanta in Georgia, the Consumer Price Index is due for release, investment bank Moelis & Co launches its IPO, and companies reporting earnings include Yahoo YHOO -1.62%!, Intel INTC -0.93%, Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola.

Wednesday is a huge day for economic and corporate news in the United States and China. Data on China’s first quarter growth and March industrial production, investment and retail sales will be released as traders watch with anxiety.

Wednesday also sees data on U.S. housing starts, building permits and industrial production for March, the release of the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report on economic conditions in its 12 districts, and a speech by Fed chair Janet Yellen in New York.

Yellen’s recent hint that interest rates could rise back toward normal levels a little bit faster than expected put many investors and traders on edge and they will watch her language closely this coming week.

Further, Wednesday also brings expected IPOs from travel software firm Sabre and Chinese microblogging company Weibo and earnings from American Express, IBM, Bank of America and Google.

Thursday brings big earnings news from Goldman Sachs, BlackRock, Morgan Stanley, General Electric, PepsiCo and UnitedHealth, as well as updates on U.S. initial weekly jobless claims and the influential Philadelphia Fed survey.

It promises to be yet another week where anything could happen. Hang on to your hats.

Why You Should Open A Roth IRA By April 15

For most people, April 15th is known only as the dreaded tax day. But it’s also the deadline to make contributions to an IRA (and an HSA if you’re eligible) for 2013. Contributing to a Roth IRA can be particularly beneficial. (Income too high to contribute to a Roth IRA? Check out this back-door method to get around the income limits.) Here are 10 reasons why:

1) You don’t have to make changes to your tax return. Unlike an HSA and possibly a traditional IRA, Roth contributions aren’t tax-deductible so they won’t alter your tax return if you’ve already filed it for 2013.

2) You still have access to your contributions. Another difference with HSAs and other retirement accounts is that you can withdraw the sum of your contributions at any time and for any purpose without tax or penalty. That means if you have some money sitting in a savings account for emergencies, you might as well put it in a Roth IRA since you can still access the contributions if you need to. You just need to fill out a withdrawal form, which can actually discourage you from spending the money frivolously. Be aware that if you withdraw any earnings, they may be subject to taxes plus a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59 1/2 or haven’t had the account open for at least 5 years but all the contributions come out first. If your Roth IRA is in cash, there probably won’t be a whole lot in earnings anyway given today’s low interest rates.

3) You have a lot of investment flexibility. Unlike your employer’s retirement plan, you’re not limited to a fixed number of investment options. You can generally open a Roth IRA at your favorite financial institution and invest it in everything from an FDIC-insured savings account to individual stocks. In a self-directed Roth IRA, you can even invest in gold bullion and direct real estate.

4) You can use the earnings tax-free for a down payment on a home. In addition to withdrawing the contributions tax and penalty-free, you can also withdraw up to $10k of earnings penalty-free towards a home purchase as long as you haven’t owned a principal residence in the last 2 years. If you’ve had the Roth IRA for 5 years, those earnings would also be tax-free.

5) You can use it for education expenses. Earnings can also be used penalty-free for qualified education expenses for you, your spouse, or your dependent children. Since it’s considered a retirement asset, it’s also generally not considered in calculating eligibility for financial aid.

6) Your money can grow to be tax-free for retirement. Speaking of retirement, the main benefit of a Roth IRA is that any earnings you don’t withdraw will eventually be tax-free as long as you’ve had the account for at least 5 years and are over age 59 1/2. This can help you avoid higher tax brackets. For example, taxable income up to $73,800 for a couple is currently taxed at 15% or less. Once you go over that amount, your income will be taxed at 25%. A retired couple with $80k of income can withdraw from taxable retirement accounts until they hit that $73,800 limit and then dip into their tax-free Roth IRA(s) to avoid the 25% bracket. This would be even more beneficial if tax rates go up in the future.

7) You start the 5 year period now. Did you notice all the references to the account having been open for at least 5 years? Well, even if you can only afford to contribute a minimal amount, just opening the account starts the clock ticking on those 5 years.

8) It can make you eligible for more health insurance subsidies. That’s because the subsidies in the new health care law are based on your Modified Adjusted Gross Income, which does not includes tax-free Roth IRA distributions. Let’s say that same couple retires this year at age 62. Since they’re not eligible for Medicare until age 65 and they may not have retiree health insurance through their employers, they may need to purchase health insurance through the new exchanges. If they’re $80k of income was all coming from a taxable retirement account, they wouldn’t qualify for any subsidies and according to this calculator, they’re health insurance premium for a mid-level “Silver” plan may be $14,567 per year. However, if half of that income came from tax-free Roth IRAs, they could qualify for a subsidy of $11,256 per year, leaving them with a cost of only $3,312 for their health insurance.

9) It has protections from creditors. Under the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, an inflation-adjusted $1 million in total IRA assets are protected from bankruptcy. Most states also extend protection for Roth IRAs from creditors outside bankruptcy as well.

10) You don’t have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs). With other retirement accounts (including Roth 401ks), you have to start taking a minimum amount each year after you turn 70 1/2. With a Roth IRA, you can leave the money in there to continue growing tax-free as long as you like.

11) There are estate planning benefits. When you pass away, your Roth IRA can pass directly to your beneficiaries without going through the time and expense of probate. Your heirs can then continue to benefit from tax-free growth by stretching the account over their lifetime.

12) It’ll make you feel better about yourself. Doesn’t the sound of having a Roth IRA just make you feel more financially responsible?

The earlier you contribute, the longer your money can grow to be potentially-tax free and enjoy these other benefits as well. You have nothing to lose and much to gain. So if you haven’t contributed to a Roth IRA for 2013, what are you waiting for?

Erik Carter, JD, CFP® is a senior resident financial planner at Financial Finesse, the leading provider of unbiased financial education for employers nationwide, delivered by on-staff CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals. For additional financial tips and insights, follow Financial Finesse on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.

Bad News For Big Banks: Profit Falls At JPMorgan Chase

JPMorgan Chase JPM -3.24% & Co., the nation’s biggest bank, kicked off big bank earnings season in a bad way on Friday, reporting net income of $5.27 billion, or $1.28 per share, missing analyst expectations of $1.40 per share. The bank’s first quarter profits in 2014 dropped sharply from the previous year, when JPMorgan Chase reported $6.53 billion in earnings, or $1.59 per share.

The news was bad for big banks, suggesting that the weakness that had hit the shares of some big financial firms in recent weeks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley MS -0.82%, and Citigroup C -0.37%, would move to other large banks amid the general drop in the U.S. stock market that are either more diversified or have not been hit by recent scandal like Citigroup’s Mexico unit. Shares of JPMorgan fell by 3% in pre-market trading.

JPMorgan and its chief Jamie Dimon are coming off a tough year in which the bank agreed to pay some $20 billion in legal settlements, taking some big hits from both the federal government and private litigants. Dimon recently called it “the most painful, difficult and nerve-wracking experience that I have ever dealt with.”

Now, Dimon has to deal with weakness across his bank’s business, from bond trading to even loan growth as the economic environment for banking appears to have become tougher. JPMorgan reported that first quarter fixed income revenue had tumbled by 21% from a year ago to $3.76 billion in the first quarter of 2014. Mortgage originations dropeed by 68% from the first quarter of 2013 to $17 billion. Corporate banking revenue dropped 8% from the prior year to $2.7 billion and profits from consumer and community banking fell by 25% to $1.9 billion due to lower net revenue and higher provisions for credit losses.

There was some good news for Dimon and JPMorgan, out of their investment bank for example. But it looks like it could be a tough week for big bank stocks.

How Google Picks New Employees (Hint: It’s Not About Your Degree)

I’ve been having disagreements for years about the usefulness of college degrees as a measure of someone’s ability to be an outstanding employee. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s ever a bad thing to have a degree. I just think people make an assumption about formal education that’s often untrue. They assume that if two people are exactly the same in terms of age, life and job experience and demographics, and one has a college degree and the other doesn’t – that the one who has the degree will be a better employee and have a more successful career.

So I was thrilled to read an article by Thomas L. Friedman in the NYT a few months ago, called “How To Get A Job At Google.” Friedman’s article expands upon an interview between Adam Bryant of the NYT and Lazlo Bock, SVP of People Operations for Google GOOG +1.65%, where Bock goes into depth about the core attributes Google looks for when hiring. At one point, Bock says, “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.”

My point exactly. Someone can do very well in college and not have what it takes to succeed in the real world – and vice versa. Bock went on to say that an increasing proportion of people hired at Google these days don’t have college degrees. Bock then shared the five criteria Google does use when evaluating job candidates. I was struck not only by the list, but by the order. Here’s my understanding of what he said, and why it’s important for any job seeker:

5. Expertise. Bock noted that, except for making sure that people in technical jobs having coding ability, expertise is last on their list of five. They’ve found that the other four attributes (which I’ll get to in a minute) far outweigh expertise when it comes to predicting the abilities that Google has found they need in their employees. Bock notes that experts are more likely to simply default to the tried-and-true. I’ve seen this as well – when people self-identify as “expert” in an area, or as “highly experienced,” there’s a much higher likelihood that they will strongly defend their existing point of view when questioned, rather than being curious…their identity is all too often wrapped up in being the authority, vs. finding a better solution.

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4. Ownership. At Google, they look for people who take responsibility for solving problems and moving the enterprise forward – who feel passionate about making things work. I see the importance of this in my own company and in all of our client companies. In this era of daily change and upheaval in almost every industry and area of knowledge, it’s a huge disadvantage to have employees who are passive doers of tasks and order-takers. You need people who are internally motivated to figure out how to make things better.

3. Humility. At the same time, Bock notes that passion and drive toward responsibility has to be balanced by humility: an openness to someone else having an even better idea than you, or knowing more about how to make something work. In Bock’s words: “You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.” I’ve noticed that when someone has both these qualities – a fierce drive to make things better combined with a welcoming attitude, an assumption that others have as much to offer, or more – that person tends to be both enormously effective individually and a wonderfully useful member of any team.

2. Leadership. I love that Bock and his colleagues look for leadership at every level. And not, as he says, a traditional evaluation of leadership as in, “…were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” They’re looking for folks who can step in to guide and influence others toward an outcome when that’s what’s needed – no matter what their job or title may be. (And who also know – back to the humility criterion – when to step back and let someone else take that role. )

1. Ability to Learn. This is where I decided that Lazlo Bock and I are kindred souls; he notes that pure learning ability – the ability to pick up new things, to learn on the fly, to find patterns in disparate pieces of information and take the next step – is the number one thing hiring managers at Google have learned to look for in candidates. I could not agree more: I believe that people will succeed in today’s world to the extent they develop the ability to learn new things quickly and well. And that’s not only true in companies like Google or LinkedIn LNKD +4.19% or Amazon, companies that pride themselves on coming up with new ideas and new approaches on a daily basis. Every company needs employees who are curious, who are willing to make mistakes and go out on a limb and ask dumb questions in order to develop new capabilities and new solutions – that’s how organizations will thrive and grow into the future.

In the very wise and prescient words of Ari De Geus (he said this in the mid 90s): “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

If that’s true, what are you doing to become a master learner? And what are you seeing others do? Anything you can share will help all of us.

America’s 20 Favorite Bosses

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GM $449 Million Investment Doubles Down on Chevy Volt, City of Detroit

Dale Buss Contributor

Two beleaguered brands — the Chevrolet Volt and the City of Detroit — will be leaning on each other even more as General Motors GM +1.23% commits an additional $449 million to plants in Motown to produce the second generation of GM’s plug-in hybrids and some other models, as well as the lithium-ion batteries that power the hybrids.

GM will invest $384 million to upgrade its Detroit-Hamtramck plant to build the next generation of Volt, as well as the similar Cadillac ELR and, for Europe and other countries, the Opel Ampera, Gerald Johnson, GM North America manufacturing vice president, told the Automotive Press Assocation in Detroit.

That’ll bring GM’s total investment in the plant to more than $1 billion over the last five years. Johnson also vaguely promised some additional models for the plant, which currently also assembles the Chevrolet Impala and Malibu. But he declined to detail what sort of job expansion might come from the new investments.

President Obama visits the GM plant in Detroit in 2010.
Meanwhile, GM also will invest an additional $65 million at its Brownstown Battery Assembly plant in Detroit to support the next generation of its electrification technology. Johnson said GM prefers to “invest in [its] technology to support” the next version of the plug-in hybrids rather than to take advantage of America’s current overcapacity for lithium-ion battery output.

Johnson formally announced the investments in the company of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Duggan said he was impressed that GM hadn’t requested any tax incentives from the city for its decision to further expand the plant that sits on an area once known as “Poletown” on the old border of Detroit with its largely Polish suburb, Hamtramck. “It’s always nice when they come in and have $384 million to invest and don’t ask for a [tax] abatement,” Duggan said.

For his part, Snyder touted the “strong track record of [GM] reinvesting in Michigan” and how the new investments underscore the fact that Detroit “is still the epicenter of the auto industry” in America.

In fact, Johnson pointed out that GM has announced about $2.8 billion in manufacturing and technologies investments in Michigan facilities since 2009 and a total of $5.4 billion total in the United States, most of it in the Midwest.

Volt sales have remained disappointing because mainstream U.S. consumers simply haven’t embraced the car despite the high levels of satisfaction with the vehicle that are expressed by Volt owners. Sales so far this year through March were down by 15 percent compared with a year earlier.

It doesn’t even seem to matter that, with an on-board gasoline engine, Volt doesn’t saddle owners with the “range anxiety” that is a problem for owners of all-electric vehicles who worry about running out of power and being stranded. The company is said to be determined to boost significantly the electric range of the next versions of its plug-in hybrids.

Meanwhile, GM executives have higher hopes for the new Cadillac version of essentially the same car, ELR, especially after the stunning success of the all-electric Tesla Model S with high-end car buyers. ELR just went on sale in the first quarter.

Millennial Women Don’t Believe The Gender Pay Gap Applies To Them. Wrong.

By Caroline Ghosn

The goal of this article is to become irrelevant as soon as possible.

I wish that this article were being published in the midst of a controversy. That the mark on the calendar was one of hot cultural debate, one that pressed our buttons and caused us to stir as a country. It’s Equal Pay Day, the day a woman has to work until in order to earn the same salary as a man did the year before. It’s 2014 – how is this something we are comfortable with?

We at Levo League have been surprised and confused by the lack of urgency surrounding this day. And when we dug deeper, the facts were even more puzzling. Our internal research found that Gen Y women don’t feel that the pay gap GPS -2.47% statistics –77 cents to the dollar to as narrow as 91 cents to the dollar– apply to us anymore.

But facts are facts: a woman who leaves business school today already experiences a 7% wage gap upon graduation. I was saddened to discover that at Stanford University, which I have nothing but gratitude towards for one of the most incredible experiences of my life as a graduate of the class of 2008, the gap is closer to 21%.

And that gap only widens over time as the likelihood of asking for a raise decreases as she progresses over the course of her career. A woman who doesn’t negotiate her salary in her first job will lose an average of $431,000 by the time she’s 65.

Why does this wage gap exist? What is the exact right number to be talking about? Is it structural, or are women to blame for not exercising the right behaviors? Often times, the conversation around Equal Pay goes down a rabbit hole around this topic and we miss the point. The point is that the wage gap exists no matter how you cut it, and that the reason for its existence is multifactorial.

As institutions, let’s do a better job at evaluating ourselves internally to ensure that we are not perpetrating the wage gap without being aware of it. Here are some companies that we salute for caring enough about equal pay for equal work to pause and take a look internally.

As managers, we recommend going through a simple exercise as a litmus test for whether you are unknowingly propagating these behaviors on your team.

As individuals, we professional women need to learn how to raise our hands and ask for more throughout our careers.

On that last note, the research demonstrates that the wage gap is not just about money. We are seeing the surface manifestation of a deep-seated fear around being inconvenient or too aggressive and making the asks that we need in order to be successful.

The wage gap is about learning to flex our asking muscles, and we aren’t getting in shape fast enough. When we surveyed 10,000 of our Levo League members (comprised mainly of Gen Y women in the first 10 years of their careers), we found that 95% had never asked for anything in their careers. No responsibility. No mentorship. No raise.

You might think that you are immune to this issue, but you are contributing to it somehow. The key is figuring out how. If you are in a position of leadership, consider evaluating how your company allocates responsibility and compensation to your high performing employees. Then apply a gender lens and see how the picture changes.

If you are a professional woman, first and foremost find out how much you should be making on average for your job and location – you can see how you stack up to your peers using Bureau of Labor Statistics data here.You don’t get what you deserve – it would be amazing if life worked out that way. Doing great work and putting your head down will not get you your just reward.

Let’s learn how to share your successes and ask for what you need in order to be able to perform – take the time to follow this personalized action plan to juice up your asking muscle. So what are you waiting for? Let’s make this article a relic of an old-fashioned time when we decided half of our workforce working for free for 59 days a year was unworthy of a concerted cry. And, remember, #Ask4More.

Caroline Ghosn is the founder and CEO of Levo League, a social network dedicated to helping Gen Y women build connections to elevate their careers, and a speaker on social change, including The New York Times Women Innovate Mobile Mentorship Panel, the Women’s Forum, the French Institute Alliance Française Young French Leaders Luncheon and the World Economic Forum on behalf of the Young Global Leader program in January 2014. Follow @carolineghosn

U.S. Education System is Bad For Business?

If America’s future success in the increasingly global economy will be determined by our children – and specifically by the way we educate our kids to compete in that economy – then Amanda Ripley’s thought-provoking book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, raises cause for concern.

American kids have fallen far behind their peers in other countries, leaving them at a strong disadvantage in the globalized information economy, Ripley notes. In a ranking of student performance on an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which gauges the teaching of creativity and critical thinking – correlated with success in the workplace – the U.S. comes in below 36 other countries.

That’s bad news for America’s children and for American business. Today, academic excellence – especially in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) — is necessary for individual financial security; the next generation needs to be equipped with information to compete for high-skill, high-paying jobs.

It is also essential for America’s ability to compete and prosper. If we don’t fix our public education system and regain our status as an educational – as well as a business – superpower, it could prove devastating.

Business leaders know we need to constantly strive to do things better than our competitors. We know that to stand still and remain stagnant is to lose the battle. We know we need to attract and invest in the best talent, remain vigilant about meeting the highest standards, always strive to do better and achieve more.

These same rules apply in the realm of education.

Here are three lessons from The Smartest Kids in the World that apply in business as well as education:

1. We need to aim higher.

In the United States, the average eighth-grade math class teaches content targeted to kids learning at a sixth- and seventh-grade level, while eighth-grade classes in the highest-performing countries teach math at the ninth-grade level. What’s more, mathematical teaching methods in America, as a whole, have failed to evolve. Kids here often learn to approach math the same way they have for decades, whereas kids abroad may be given math strategies that are not only more advanced, but also more creative and connected to the ways they use math in everyday life.

In fact, as a culture, the U.S. may not place a terribly high value on math, Ripley notes. She cites a 2009 study of American parents that found most believed “it was more important to finish high school with strong reading and writing skills than with strong math and science skills.” Additionally, while most of those surveyed believed kids could improve at reading “through hard work and good teaching,” math was “considered more of an innate ability, like being double-jointed.” So if our kids lack the motivation and drive to overcome obstacles while learning math, we may have only our own attitudes to blame.

2. We need to attract and retain better talent.

Countries that have made the quickest and most cost-effective improvements in their education systems started by overhauling how they recruit, train and pay teachers. By making it more difficult, not easier, to become a teacher – compelling educators to attend highly selective education schools, for example – as well as more prestigious, and offering higher salaries, school systems are able to attract talent of a higher-caliber, raising the quality of the entire teaching corps.

In one striking anecdote, Ripley describes an Oklahoma high school math teacher who admitted to having chosen that profession only because he wanted to be a football coach. In order to coach, he said, he had to pick something to teach, so he rolled the dice and picked math – never mind that he had a low aptitude for the subject and equally low scores on teacher training tests. This fellow may be a fine football coach, but he’s probably not doing much to inspire his students to excel at math.

3. It’s not too late to commit to improvement.

Ripley suggests that all is not lost academically for America’s next generation. The educational systems she cites as successful examples have made great strides in only the last decade. By following their example, she contends, our schools can turn out “smart” kids – with the skills to compete and succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy — too.

That’s good for the future of our kids – and our businesses, too.

The Best Leaders Make Unforgettable First Impressions

Leaders that try too hard to win people over are the ones that end up losing the respect of their employees – especially when it’s not genuine. The most memorable leaders know how to naturally make a good first impression. They are mindful of what most employees do and don’t expect of them and want to create for them a safe environment that enables engagement. Leadership success is all about people and when leaders forget this fact, they are headed down a path of self-destruction.

First impressions are earned quickly, but it takes time for employees to figure out the impact you are attempting to create in your leadership role. I’ve seen many leaders attempt to use their power and influence to impress their employees only to find this strategy backfiring because they were too aggressive – rather than taking a more steady approach that invites other ideas and ideals into the fold.

Leadership is not about acting the part, but rather being your most authentic self to serve the organization and advance others, while avoiding the traps of self-promotion along the way. As such, first impressions should never be forced; they are opportunities to reveal who you are and what you represent as a leader.

After being hired to assume a senior executive role at the age of 30, making a first impression was important for me to begin to earn the trust and respect of employees (many of whom were 20+ years my senior). My hope was that the employees would give me a chance to work closely with them to turn around the organization’s performance and rebuild their brand’s reputation.

Instead of walking directly into my office (the first day of work), I began to greet people at their desks. I spent a good percentage of my time the first month on the job meeting with employees and asking them about their opinions regarding the state of the company, morale of the workplace, and their other concerns and recommendations. This was a company whose employees were loyal and that had never hired a senior executive from the outside. Prior to assuming my role, I obtained a diagram of the building with the seating designations of the employees, along with their job descriptions and personal information they had shared. I genuinely wanted the employees to know that I valued them, cared about their interests and wanted to immediately contribute to their professional goals and objectives. I encouraged them to ask questions, challenge my opinions and established an open-door policy. I didn’t want anyone to feel at-risk for speaking up, but rather give everyone an opportunity to showcase their talents, skills-sets and capabilities. This would be a difficult task if they were unclear of my style and approach and my intentions for the business.

You can never go at leadership alone. Making a strong first impression as a leader is about how people initially perceive you, but respect is earned through the consistent actions you take and the decisions you make that tend to the needs of the employees and support the goals and objectives of the business. Without an inspired and focused workforce – enabled to unleash their passionate pursuits of excellence and clear about leadership’s expectations and intentions – the business becomes vulnerable, at risk of losing its top-talent, and productivity begins to wane.

As you continue your leadership journey, become more mindful of the first impressions you are leaving behind for your employees, clients, shareholders and the industry that you serve. How does your first impression begin to impact performance, morale, attitude, trust and innovation? What can you do to leave a genuine first impression at a time when employees expect more from their leaders?

Here are 14 things every leader should consider if they want to make an unforgettable first impression. Read them carefully and ask yourself which ones you are doing and which ones you still need to introduce.

1. Warm Greeting

Being nice, attentive and making good eye contact is what is expected. A leader’s ability to find areas of commonality with their employees by telling stories that humanize their persona increases their likeability factor. Employees want to know that you relate to them, regardless of your hierarchy or rank.

2. Polished

Employees respect a leader that projects strong executive presence. Beyond presence, they want body language that is non-threatening and a polished demeanor (everything from manner of speaking and actions towards others to dress code and grooming). When you are respectful towards others, employees are proud to be associated with you – whether in front of clients or family and friends.

On the other hand, leaders with an ostentatious attitude will be quick to lose the support of those they are attempting to lead.

3. Friendly; Engaging

Not every leader comes across as friendly. In fact, they may be so focused on work to the point of social awkwardness. Leaders that genuinely care about their employees and make an effort to engage with them – starting with a powerful first impression – will go a long way.

4. Represents Their Authentic Self

Leaders are not always their authentic selves; this is why many are challenged to develop and live their personal brand as a leader. Being authentic is about consistently representing who you are and what you stand for — in everything you do and how you do it. Leaders must be courageous enough to let others inside their domain, where they can help elevate the talent around them and accelerate the implementation of the business strategy. When leaders can be themselves, others feel free to do the same without the pretense of asking permission.

5. Good Listeners

The best leaders listen to their employees because they want to learn about them and from them. Employees that genuinely believe that their opinions and points of view matter to their leaders are the ones that fully engage. Leaders that roll-up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and collaborate are the ones that value the importance of listening and translate this genuine effort into an ROI opportunity – for both the relationship and the business.

6. Are Interested In What Matters to Employees

Beyond listening, leaders that encourage employees to ask them the tough questions will quickly begin to build camaraderie and trust with their employees. Open-minded leaders that are interested in what matters to employees and make them feel safe to express the truth are the ones that build loyalty with their workforce. These types of leaders hold town hall meetings and consistently encourage a democratic setting where employees can share their perspectives regarding the direction of the organization and its future.

7. Embrace Differences and Acknowledge Accomplishments

Leaders that embrace individuality and differences in thought and know how to strategically apply them to stimulate growth, innovation and new opportunities for the business are widely accepted by their employees (especially when you consider the growing diversity in the workplace). These leaders recognize individual achievement and accomplishments and are creative at finding new ways to enable the full potential of the organization, its business strategy and talent pool.

8. Knowledgeable

This may seem obvious, but never assume that the leader knows the dynamics of the business as much as you might think. Respected leaders are students of the business, constantly studying and looking for ways to improve, adapt and course correct to market conditions. Many leaders are just figureheads but not those that make an unforgettable first impression. They are the ones that will touch the business just as much as they lead it. They will keep everyone on their toes to make the organization and its people stronger.

9. Accessibility

Accessibility to leaders has become one of the most important things that employees want to see from their leaders. Most leaders hide behind the politics, and are too calculated with their accessibility (what a waste of time!) Leaders that are accessible inspire their employees and cultivate an entrepreneurial attitude that helps the organization fuel its competitive advantage. This was the case with the new CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, featured in a recent USA Today article, who made a positive first impression throughout the organization when taking over for Steve Ballmer in February.

10. Sense of Humor

A leader that brings a positive uplifting attitude fuels excitement in the workplace. When a leader has a sense of humor, it balances the intensity that exists in a high-performance organization. Leaders that can convert complexity into simplicity with a little humor take the edge off and make work fun again.

11. Vulnerability

Leaders leave a positive first impression when they don’t flaunt their power and influence. By sharing their personal stories of their own career trials and tribulations they inspire hope in their employees, which in turn encourages them to unleash their passionate pursuits of endless possibilities. Vulnerability is a powerful driver of employee engagement that most leaders are too proud to reveal. We must not forget that everyone has problems, they are just packaged differently.

12. Consistency

A leader with a consistent style and approach towards others and the business is a mature leader who knows how to work well with others and is effective under pressure and in the trenches. A consistent leader is also the one that knows herself well enough to invest in the development of her personal brand – and has grown confident enough to live it every day. Consistency is important in a leader’s ability to earn the trust and loyalty of others. Conversely, a lack of consistency is one reason leaders lose the respect and trust of their employees.

13. Lead By Example

Leading by example is a surefire way to make good on an unforgettable first impression. Too many leaders observe the game, rather than activate themselves into it. When you lead by example, you set the tone for the organization and employees will respect you more for your ability and the energy you bring – rather than just your job title. My personal motto: never advise others of something that you have never done before yourself.

14. Motivational

Leaders today must be motivational and inspire hope. With the uncertainty that seems to never go away, employees need a leader that will help get them past the finish line. Let’s face it, the workplace has become a more intense, competitive place where we are all required to do more with less. Employees enjoy working with leaders that know how to activate the best in everyone and will go above the call of duty for them.

What will make these 14 unforgettable first impressions even more powerful is your ability to continue applying them – consistently and continuously – throughout the first six months of your leadership journey and beyond. If you have already been in your leadership role for some time, you may have to course correct and start over if you want to positively change your impact and influence. While technically you cannot leave a first impression anymore. you will be taking an impressive stance to improve your leadership approach for the betterment of a healthier whole.