Friday, August 29, 2008

Has your life wheel run flat?

How recently have you taken a look at the balance in your life? If you're like many of us you'll have been just rolling along without thinking about it until - Wham! - some event or situation feels like you just hit a really big pothole. Perhaps worse is when the air slowly leaks out of the wheel in a manner that you don't notice it until it drifts to a stop.

I'm not naive enough to think that there's a perfect model of life balance. I don't even believe that my model would work for you and vice versa. Then there is the influence of life stage - at age 22 it's all about social for many people, then in the 30's perhaps about family and career, then in our older years we start thinking about our beliefs and our contribution to the world.

The key here is in making a conscious choice. If you were to slice a circle into 6 pieces, the life wheel would consist of

  • Mental Development

  • Social Development

  • Physical Development

  • Family Life Development

  • Career/Financial Development

  • Ethics and Beliefs Development

Now fill in the slices of that circle starting from the center to represent what percent of your potential you think you're fulfilling in each of the areas as of right now, today. Be candid with yourself - nobody's looking. Now, if we were to erase the outer line of your wheel, what sound would it make as it's going down the street? If you're like most of us it would probably Thud! or at the very least have a bit of a bobbly bobbly sound.

I've found that if people have established written goals they're usualy in the career and financial arena. Thus, in many cases people find that work or concern about finances easily starts to crowd things like family and fitness out of the daily regime.

Other people place so much emphasis in one area that if that one area isn't going right the whole world seems not to be going right. For example, if it's all about our kids and our kids leave for college we're left with an empty house and a relationship with our spouse that hasn't received attention in years. If it's all about our job and we're downsized where do we get our identity?

Take a look at the balance in your life - no, not to make each section perfectly even, but to CHOOSE the balance that works for you. Then set goals and take action to help make it so. That's the key to a fulfilling life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Spot check - what's the condition of your pipeline?

Oleoduto (Pipeline)
Originally uploaded by Jim Skea

We're almost three quarters of the way through the calendar year. Are you hitting your numbers so far? If you find that you're behind the eightball in revenue generation, the first best step to take is to look at your pipeline - what's coming. After all, a magician never pulls a rabbit out of a hat without putting it in there first.

Near term flow

  • Are there pending projects or sales with existing customers that need some follow-up from you to get them moving?
  • Do you have connections with centers of influence who can introduce you to someone who is, if not already prequalified, predisposed to work with you?
  • Are there referral sources with which you can make contact to generate some new prospects, again who are potentially predisposed to work with you?

Longer term flow

  • If you're doing networking in person or online you will probably need to give before you get, so understand that time invested now might take weeks or months (or longer) to convert to new business.
  • Volunteerism is a great values-based way in which to get known, but it is like networking in that the goal is to do good. Making potential business contacts needs to come second if you don't want to blow your credibility.
  • Structure your business to make referrals easy for customers to make, and perhaps even structure referrals into the pricing for projects for you service businesses.

Building for the future

  • Take a look at your list of prospects, and beef it up if you haven't added anybody new in a while. It might take 5 or more no's for a prospect to say yes, so you don't want your future to rely upon a limited number of possibilities.
  • Image advertising can help you be the first name a prospect thinks of when they're ready to buy. You're preparing the soil, so to speak, for the seed to grow more readily.
  • Nurture marketing keeps you in touch with warm contacts. You want to keep the frequency of contact between 25 and 31 days - more and you might seem like a pest, less and your message won't stay top of mind. Always be sure that it's an opt-in process to prevent spam and a potential stain on your reputation.

Ultimately, though, you can have the best contacts and the best lists, and it's still not going to guarantee a vigorous flow of business unless you do something. Get out there, pick up the phone, stop in, set appointments. Even if you have a near-term trickling pipeline and it's causing you stress, the very act of doing something about it will help you renew your energy and enthusiasm and relieve stress.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Eight easy ways to demotivate your sales staff

Often over the years I've heard managers say that managing salespersons is like managing racehorses - they might be good performers, but they're a little skittish and temperamental. I'm not sure that I completely agree with that assessment, but if you want to see just how skittish and temperamental your salespersons can be, try one of the strategies below:
  1. Hire them and send them right out into the field. Don't want to waste time with too much product detail - after all, it's not their job to make it, only to get somebody to buy it.
  2. Make sure they aren't weighed down by piles of marketing material to take into the field. What do prospects need - for them to draw a picture?
  3. Let them find their own leads. What do they think you are - the Library of Congress??
  4. Pay them all the same. Wouldn't want to show favoritism, because they're all putting in the time, regardless of how much revenue they produce.
  5. Yammer at them about how they need to make more sales calls, then bury them in sales reporting requirements.
  6. Give them lots of territory - so much that they spend 80% of their week in a car or on a plane.
  7. When their territory starts to bloat their commission checks cut the territory into several pieces and distribute it among several people. If they're an outstanding performer give them the opportunity to start over several times so they can feel the thrill of accomplishment.
  8. Mess up the fulfillment of their customers' orders. You have the options of late delivery, partial shipments, rude service, or poor quality. You will have extra impact if it's the first order from this customer.

If you've found an effective way to start the pain train for your sales staff, send us a note. We are always looking for new ideas and would love to hear from you.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Planning around your ideal customer

It sure is great to have business - after all, bucks are bucks. But have you noticed that some customers are a better match for you? They are users of your complete portfolio of products or services and/or they are referring new customers to you. You can get a reasonable return from your transactions with them while making them happy. You like working with them. What would it do for your business if you could, in effect, clone them by focusing your business on serving the customers you serve best? Here are some steps to consider:

  • Start by taking a look at your sales and identifying the things that your frequent (and profitable) purchasers have in common. They might be demographic (women age 25-40 who are employed full-time) or they might be psychographic (early adopters, conservatives, safety oriented, etc.) If you have no method already in place to find out this information, conduct a simple survey.
  • If you don't want to guess about why they buy from you, ask them. Send your sales reps to do interviews, or if you have the ability to be in the field, make the rounds yourself and take key customers to lunch.
  • Find out where your ideal customers hang out and be there to become known. This might sound like a blazing statement of the obvious to businesses who expend big budgets on infinitely sliced media buys, but this applies to the one-person shop as well. If your buyers are CEOs go where the CEOs go - business associations, boards of charitable organizations - you get the idea.
  • Make sure your people and processes support the wants and needs of your ideal customer base (see the second bullet.) If your ideal customers are refined, sophisticated folks you're going to want your staff to look a certain way and communicate in a certain way in order to relate well to them. By the same token, if you're competing on the basis of low price and are looking for bargain hunters you do yourself an injustice to go all hoity-toity in your merchandising.

Choose to do business with customers where you stand a good shot at satisfying customer needs. And focus on building your business around that ideal customer profile. You might even have to reshuffle your product offerings or fire some unprofitable customers to make room for the ones you want. But the resulting increase in effectiveness and efficiency will make it a more satisfying relationship for both of you.

Friday, August 22, 2008

8 steps for developing your staff's potential

Hiring an employee and expecting them to automatically catch on and grow in their job is like throwing a seed on top of the dirt. Certain types of seeds will germinate on their own in that condition, but most need to be placed at a certain depth, given water and perhaps some fertilizer, and exposed to the sunlight before they'll take root. Here are steps you can take to create a growing environment that will unleash your staff's potential:

  1. Make a good match between employee and role. Start by making sure the role you're hiring for is well-defined - otherwise you won't know whether you're making a good match or not. If a match is not obvious by looking at the candidate's resume or by their interview, or even if you want to hedge your bets, you can do diagnostics to determine their behavioral style, their motivators, how they think, etc. before you make the decision to hire them.
  2. Help them have early success by orienting them well. Orientation includes the guts of their job responsibilities, but also things like company policies, culture (the unwritten expectations,) and where they fit into the larger picture. Simply sitting with another person and watching them work won't do it - that's a mind-numbing experience. The methodology of "watch one, do one with assistance, and do one independently" tends to work better.
  3. Identify their strengths and start your development process there. People are naturally attracted to the things for which they have natural talent. It might sound obvious, but most of us notice our shortcomings first. Is it really important that they be good at everything, or is it more important that they be outstanding in one or two things?
  4. Incorporate balance into your development. We most often think about technical skills as being in the forefront here, but as they rise through the ranks interpersonal skills become more and more the requirement for effectiveness. Just like you can't assume that they know how to use your phone system, you can't assume that they automatically have the skills and knowledge they need to be effective with people.
  5. Establish goals and/or benchmarks. People work more effectively when they have something on which to focus, to concentrate their energy and action. Goals will also give you more of a yardstick on which to base your evaluation of their performance, way more fair than evaluating them only based upon what you physically observed them doing last week.
  6. Incorporate their input into the development process. If you have an employee who is determined to become a sales manager they'll jump on any opportunity you provide for them to gain the knowledge and/or experience they'll need to be the best qualified candidate for the next opening. In order to have their input you'll need to be intentional about making time for career path discussions on a regular basis.
  7. Provide regular feedback on their job performance. If there is a way to provide quantitative data without your interpretation, you're at an advantage. Tracking can tell them in black and white whether they are doing the activities that are needed for success. Give them more frequent feedback early on - as they get to know their role they'll be more able to evaluate their own performance. In addition, hold regular one-on-ones with each of your direct reports so you (or they) don't store up concerns until a particular situation has built up negative energy.
  8. Place your focus on what you'd like them to do. It's generally easier to identify what not to do, but if you stop there you're gambling that next time they'll guess the right answer. Discuss what behavior you want to decrease or eliminate, then discuss what you'd like to see instead so they'll have an alternative readily at hand.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

When they've got one foot out the door

The Way Out
Originally uploaded by MichaelDausch

When looking at investing in developing staff, employers face a dilemma with employees who haven't been performing up to par - do they risk wasting money providing training (the hr money pit,) or instead risk losing a salvageable employee? Whether you categorize these employees as one foot out the door, fence sitting, or whatever, there are approaches that will either help you improve performance or at the very least terminate an employee with a clear conscience.

  • Be sure you've communicated to the employee exactly what your expectations are. I can't tell you how many times senior leaders have told me that they're ready to fire someone, yet when I ask about their most recent performance review I'll hear that the same boss rated this employee as a satisfactory performer. They avoided the small course corrections for the sake of peace and now are faced with the task of helping the ship pull a 180.
  • Link your expectations to something measurable. Just what is a "bad attitude," anyway? If you want to see a smiling face in the morning, say so. If you want prompt arrival or a certain number of widgets produced per hour or per shift, set criteria and have a measurement tool that lets everyone know, without subjectivity, whether they're meeting the standards or not. The more critical the standards are, the more often you should report them so employees get feedback that helps them make the small course corrections before a performance problem is identified and escalates to "one foot out the door" status.
  • Provide training that shows them the correct path. I know you
  • r budgets are stretched, especially right now. It's hard to lose productivity for the time you need to invest in training. But it's truly a "pay me now or pay me later" proposition. Think of it as preventive medicine for your company's health. Much better to get a shot, even if it's a bit painful, than it is to contract tetanus or hepatitis.
  • Don't tolerate substandard performance. Your staff is looking to your behavior to determine what's allowable. If you're "settling" you're fueling your own problem, and if you're inconsistent, hammering the people who are easier to hammer and letting others slide, you'll lose credibility faster than you can say Jack Robinson.
  • Use a documented performance improvement plan. One error does not typically rate a performance improvement plan. This is for the person who is regularly not meeting the standards of performance, but for whom you want to provide an opportunity to get better. Document in writing what the behavioral goals are, then establish as part of the plan a regular progress check-in meeting.
  • Hire slowly, fire quickly. It's tempting to jump at a candidate because you feel the pressure to fill an open slot. Take your time, despite that pressure, because otherwise you could be doing the equivalent of spending $500 on a pair of shoes that gives you blisters for the next 6 months. On the other end of things, if you've trained them, provided accurate feedback, provided formalized improvement opportunities, and they're still not cutting it, let them go. It's kinder for them to get happily engaged in a career elsewhere than it is to keep them on feeling inadequate in their role with your company and achieving less than the results you need.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Are there too many cooks in your leadership?

Too Many Cooks
Originally uploaded by spinadelic

The trend in corporate culture is to use greater collaboration and teamwork, to take advantage of the entire company IQ and not just the brainpower of a few people. But when leadership roles are undefined and the decision making process is too amorphous, you'll have the equivalent of too many cooks in the kitchen. Your broth will be unpalatable.

Notice in the picture above that not all of the cooks are actively involved in the process. Just like in leadership teams I've seen some of them have their hands behind their backs, or around someone else's back (a corporate controversy for another post.) Guaranteed that when these observers taste the dish and find it unpleasing they'll have a lot to say about what the hands-on cooks did wrong. How demotivating it must feel to be an observer in the kitchen! You've been invited in, and then asked to stand back and watch the real chef do the job.

Disengagement of the observers and the resulting lack of buy-in to the outcome is only one of the potential issues in what I'll call for the moment pseudo-collaboration. The other big challenge is defining who has the bell around his/her neck for the result - a successful dish. Is it the person nearest to the stove? The person with the biggest hat? Is it the person who wrote the recipe in the first place?

Time and time again I've seen collaboration used as an abdication of leadership responsibility. You just can't go down the line and let each person throw his or her favorite spice into a stew unless you don't care what it tastes like in the end. Ultimately someone has to be the head chef, the one who takes responsibility for the taste and appearance of the dish.

So where's innovation in all of this? Perhaps the head chef distributes the basic recipe and challenges the individuals on the team to tweak the recipe to make a unique and tasty variation. Or perhaps he gives some criteria - a list of ingredients or a specific category (soup, dessert, etc.) that he wants them to go crazy on and invent something new. Ultimately, though, one person takes the responsibility to choose which new dish will appear on the menu.

I don't know that there's a magic number for effective leadership collaboration. I do know, however, that there's no substitute for ultimate accountability.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Simplify, simplify

simplify red
Originally uploaded by celisa

Now that we're getting back into "the more serious time of year," with school resuming, vacations over, next year's budgeting on the docket, we're getting ready to heave the overloaded backpacks of responsibility on our shoulders. Why assume we have to be doing it this year in the same cumbersome way we did it last year and the year before? How about unloading some of that excess life poundage by simplifying things?

We could choose to simplify

  • Our schedules
  • Our closets
  • Our wardrobe choices
  • Our language
  • Our house environment
  • Our personal regime
  • Who knows what else?

A while back I was watching the Today Show while getting ready for work and Matt Lauer talked about how every time he buys an article of clothing one article has to go. There's no accumulation of stuff in his closet because he's only replacing, not adding. Wow. What if I didn't add a weekly or monthly activity to my calendar without removing another one at the same time?

Editing can be one of the toughest things to do - mostly because of the emotional attachments we have to some of the things in our lives. Perhaps we still love the dress we bought (or the jacket we earned) for that special occasion umpteen years ago, haven't worn it in ages, yet can't let it go? What makes us think that we'll forget the garment and the occasion/achievement if it's not hanging in our closet?

Here's another piece of this - your over-complexity isn't just yours. It has an impact on people around you. I might execute a project at work with my own little twists and enhancements because it's part of my own personal branding. But if someone else has to use my work plan they'll have to be completely inside my head to understand what I'm trying to accomplish. In addition, if I've got something convoluted and one change has to be made, I'm going to invest way too much time re-engineering the thing.

I'd be curious to hear where you see the biggest need for simplification in your life. Is it your calendar, your household, your method for approaching projects? Send a comment and we can take this discussion to a more specific application.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Are you drinking your own Kool-Aid?

More Kool-Aid
Originally uploaded by t-dot-s-dot

Two of the biggest challenges of leadership are

  • to do the things you know are right to do, and
  • to demonstrate by your own actions those things that you tell others they should do.

I'll tell you, I'm suspicious of a car salesman who drives a different brand than that which he sells. I'm leery of a coach who says having a coach is important but who doesn't use a coach for his or her own ongoing development. And in my eyes a significantly overweight athletic trainer has a credibility issue. I don't care what flavor of Kool-Aid you're promoting (as long as it's legal and ethical) - if you want my full attention what I want to see is that you're drinking it too.

Of course this isn't easy. Nobody is perfect, and if we let imperfection stop us nobody would be doing anything out of concern about looking inconsistent. We have successes and failures, and more goals than we can realistically work on at any one time, so their relative priority for us determines what's going to the top of our action pile. The things that I'm choosing to do every day are the things that are genuinely important to me. I'm the most consistent in following through on what I really want, not what I think I should want or should be doing.

If you're not drinking your own Kool-Aid, as I see it you have two main choices:

  • If it's such a big deal get off your duff and do it, starting today.
  • Acknowledge that it's nice but not necessary and release yourself and others from expectations and judgments associated with it.

People are observing what you do as well as what you say. And if you're inconsistent they'll believe your actions rather than your words. What do you want them to see in you?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sorting for success

The Winning Move
Originally uploaded by Stefan Elf

Rarely is an activity or event or workday an unmitigated success or a complete failure - it's a blend of high points and low points. We're conditioned to see the problems and the warts - we learned this before we even started kindergarten, but that process is a discussion for another day. Today's point is - looking at the mixed bag and sorting events with a focus on what went right in order to replicate success.

Let's start by choosing a particular activity, perhaps yesterday at work. Ask yourself, "What went right? What victories (large or small) did I have?" Write them down on a piece of paper, because seeing them in a list will give them greater impact than the transient process of thinking about them. If you can't see a blasted thing that wasn't disaster yesterday ask someone else who was there with you. Sometimes it's easier for a third party to acknowledge success or achievement, especially if you're noticing mostly what's still missing or not right.

Next question is, "What contributed to that success?" What did you do to help things unfold well? In this part of the thought process there will be factors over which you had complete control, some over which you had some influence, and some things that were lucky breaks. The more intentional actions you can identify, the more likely you will be to be able to replicate your performance. This is where you fine tune your approach for the greatest odds of future success.

So why not make a list of what you want to fix? That's probably an easier process because you notice them more readily. The issue is that when you tell yourself, "Don't do THAT again!" you're not telling yourself what you should do instead. You've effectively turned the television off entirely rather than changing the channel to a better show.

If you must notice errors, quickly move on in your thinking to "How will I handle it next time?" Your brain will expand the things upon which you focus your attention, so keep your attention on what you want, rather than on what you don't want or on what you currently lack.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Managing the voices in your head - a success story

Originally uploaded by 45street

Face it - everybody's got voices in their heads. And, to paraphrase Ben Zander, "If you're thinking, 'What voice is he talking about?" that's the voice I mean." There's a constant conversation going on in there, every day, all day. If you're an Eckhard Tolle fan, it's the voice of the ego talking to your real self. Or it might be the voice of your mother, father, kindergarten teacher - someone influential to you who told you a long time ago what they thought you were or were not capable of doing or being.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who has managed to make a satisfying life for himself despite years of memories of his mother telling him things like, "I hate you." Yes, that's what his mother said. To this day this person struggles against the recall of his mother's voice, even though he knows the insults were not and are not true. His brain didn't edit them or judge them when they went in - his brain just stored them and now retrieves them unbidden, or when cued by a current stress-producing event.

Although he doesn't know why he was able to overcome the damage done, he is very clear on how he did it.

  • He had and still has a strong support system outside his nuclear family,
  • He set goals for himself,
  • He is actively engaged in spiritual practice,
  • And he regularly reads self-help books to help him gain insight and stay focused on nourishing thoughts.

He went to see a counselor for one session just to ask whether he was crazy and the counselor told him that his awareness of the situation was the sign that, indeed, he was quite sane and on his way toward conquering his emotional baggage. He is choosing every day to counteract the old voices by putting in new ones, voices that will help him take his life in the direction he wants it to go.

It's easy to look at someone in a superficial way and make judgments about who they are or why they are the way they are. When I hear a story like this one, however, it reminds me that we rarely do more than scratch the surface with the people who surround us. If we took time more often to learn how they got to be where they are today we'd have tremendous respect for their individual journeys.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Deferred gratification and the marshmallow test

Originally uploaded by k.o.m.e.

Deferred (or delayed) gratification has been held up as an indicator of emotional intelligence - the ability to put one's own interests aside for now for the sake of something else greater in the future. I know of very few business owners who have lasted for a long time who haven't mastered this. Sometimes their own car is aging, sometimes they aren't going on big vacations because they are investing profits back into the business. And sometimes they endure stretches of reduced personal income because they are confident that the future will bring greater rewards if they stick it out.

If you want to investigate deferred gratification, here's an experiment to do with your children: A famous test at Stanford University working with 4-year-old children offered a marshmallow, then a promise of a second one to each child if he or she was able to wait 20 minutes before eating the first one.

Some children were able to resist the first marshmallow for the requisite 20 minutes and were then rewarded with a second - others couldn't hold out. When researchers followed the children into adolescence they found that the children able to defer gratification were described as better adjusted and reliable. In addition, they scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs (Scholastic Achievement Tests.) (Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978–986.)

Of course eventually the question becomes "How long am I willing to wait for the results I want?" I'm not suggesting that it's a sign of maturity to sit back and watch for something to happen. The idea is that I may have to do and do and do, and perhaps do some more before my reward will come. My willingness to engage in success behaviors without seeing immediate success is directly related to my likelihood of eventual success. A farmer doesn't plant corn today and expect to harvest it tomorrow. (He doesn't eat the seed before he has a chance to plant it, either.) He waters and fertilizes and weeds for weeks before he sees evidence of his hard work. And still he waters and fertilizes some more until the ears are ripe and the corn is ready for picking.

Are you deferring some of your gratification and building greater rewards for the future? Wow - that opens several cans of worms, from investment in production capacity in your business to your own savings for retirement. Something to ponder.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The pros and cons of magical thinking

Yes, I did it again. I came up with a big project idea that was much bigger in reality than it seemed at first blush. As usual, my dear husband gritted his teeth and dug in, knowing all along that it was going to involve more work than my sales job indicated.

If you're thinking, "So what? What does this have to do with leading my business?" the answer is this - we did it. Despite my magical thinking about how fast we could complete it, we finished the whole thing before the end of the weekend. Granted, it took ALL of the weekend instead of just the one day I had pictured, but if we had focused on the size of the project instead of the outcome we wanted our kindergartener wouldn't have the beautiful new paint job in her room.

The cons of magical thinking

  • Sometimes you get into something so big that it's really not feasible. You can avoid this somewhat by doing your research and creating a plan. The bigger or riskier it is, the more detailed the plan has to be.

  • If you need co-conspirators to get it done and you do this a lot they might groan and roll their eyes whenever you say, "I've got an idea..." (Not that this has ever happened to me!)

  • You'd better have some extra resources on hand for the details that were invisible when you made the decision to move ahead. They'll pop up even without you saying, "Abracadabra!"

The pros of magical thinking

  • There's a reason why it's magic - the end picture is so compelling that it attracts commitment, even when you're not sure that it's realistic.

  • Who knows what's realistic until you take action? History is chock full of stories about underdogs who defied long odds to succeed in battle, in science, in business, etc.

If you ask someone to come along with you on a venture like the one we took this weekend, be sure to thank them and/or reward them for joining you in the effort. Asking someone to come along with you on one of these magical projects can be like making a withdrawal from your emotional bank account with them, so you want to be sure to make a deposit back into it when you're through. (Boy, I hope my husband isn't reading this!)

Friday, August 8, 2008

Let your vision be your umbrella

under umbrellas
Originally uploaded by 57mondays

When you feel a sense of urgency to make something new and different happen it can be tempting to jump right in and do something. But whoa Nellie! You might be rushing to judgment, and the action you're considering taking might not be in alignment with where you're going in the bigger picture.

Yes, goals are good (and our older daughter used to respond reflexively, "MMM boy!" when we said that!) but they're not as good as goals in context are. Instant goals are often not as good as are goals set after alternatives are examined and eliminated.

When you allow yourself to linger in your vision you accomplish several things:

  • You gain greater clarity in exactly how you'd like the future to be. That will help you attract it.
  • You access the passion that will motivate (or remotivate) you to undertake the sometimes mundane tasks needed to make the vision come to life.
  • When you communicate your vision to others you can enroll them in joining you. Or you can gain their input so the vision is a truly shared one. They need a reason for their everyday activities, too. It doesn't serve your company's purpose (nor theirs either for the most part) if all they've got is a J.O.B. Bo-ring!
  • You allow for the variables that might come into play and alter goals that are set. It's been said "If you want to make God laugh, plan your life." Of course you can't control what's going to happen. But if you have a destination clear in your mind you can stay open to alternate routes if adaptation becomes necessary or desirable later.

One of the sources of creative tension is the pull between what you think is realistically possible and the audacious bigger thing that you'd like to see happen. Let yourself live in the space that doesn't necessarily have every answer already. Challenge yourself to stretch and to make your vision just a little bit bigger. Consider what it will look like, sound like, feel like when you're there. And why not? Who says you can't? And even if somebody does doubt you, think just how motivating it will be to say, "Watch me!"

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Are you collaborating - or meddling?

One of the challenges associated with teamwork and the desire for shared accountability is that at some point one individual is going to have to make a decision on something. And you and your organization are going to have to decide to what extent outside input is welcome, and to what extent you need to butt out and let the natural consequences of that decision follow.

Even though the ideas of turfishness and meddling disguised as collaboration are corporate issues they smack of a more personal relationship - that between parent and child. Early on, when the child can seriously injure himself or herself just by being curious the parent jumps in and prevents the injury from happening. They know, for example, that it's not a good idea to dance at the top of a steep flight of stairs. The fall can be big and the consequences dire, so they pull the child back from her risky perch before anything can happen.

When the child becomes older, though, the parent lets go of the pre-emptive rescue, or at least non-helicopter parents do. They understand that true learning comes from one's own experience. It's like a science experiment. Newton already proved the effect of gravity, but boarders, climbers, divers and cyclists mess around every day with gravity's power, stretching the limits of safety. They still feel the need to prove what is possible for themselves.

So here's the organizational rub - what is the best course of action when you see someone ready to make what you know (or think) is a bad decision? It depends on several factors:

  • Does that person report to you?
  • How big are the risks associated with a bad decision here?
  • Do you have data that they don't have, or do you simply have an opinion?
  • What is more important - this decision or your relationship with this person?
  • If you don't think they have their act together, is your act in better shape?

Each individual in your company is an adult. They have the opportunity (and the responsibility, frankly) to represent themselves. When you interfere with that ability you're putting on your parent uniform and you're meddling in your company's ability to hold people accountable for performance.

This might sound like I'm advocating giving people enough rope to hang themselves. I'm not in favor of throwing people to the wolves - I believe that you need to give them enough development in the skills and knowledge they need so that they can become truly independent operators with a strong likelihood of success. Otherwise, why should there be anybody other than you? Or, if you're over-advising your peers on issues that are really none of your beeswax, what differentiates you from a nosy neighbor? Not much, I think.

If you're creating a collaborative setting it helps to:

  • Set ground rules for decision making. Perhaps there's an assigned range of autonomy, or an agreement to seek input in certain situations. Then stick to it.
  • Be sure you're providing enough skills and knowledge training that people are truly equipped to take effective action.
  • Check your own attitude about your role in this. Are you consultant to the world, or are you a peer member of a team where everyone has a valid contribution to make?
  • Make sure the team is operating around a set of goals. Otherwise they won't have a context within which to make decisions or to gauge their effectiveness afterward. To use a Covey term, begin with the end in mind.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

You're a superstar, but...

Did you ever receive a compliment that sounded a little off? Perhaps there was a not-so-complimentary piece thrown in there with it? Take this one for example - "You're a great public speaker, but you'd be even better if you used more gestures." What do you say in response - "Uh, thanks?" Compliment effectively diluted, and received as such.

We have such a great ability to see multiple dimensions. Things aren't just black or white - they are shades of gray for most of us with good and bad parts coexisting. And when we see more than one dimension we often feel compelled to communicate the more than one. Problem is that sometimes we don't recognize the power that the words "but" or "however" have in creating a priority between the two parts of the sentence.

If I tell you "you're a superstar but you're hard to work with," what's the predominant message I'm sending you? Not that you're a superstar, even though that's high praise. The part that you're going to notice comes right after the "but." You're hard to work with. If, on the other hand, I said to you, "You're hard to work with but you're a superstar" your ears linger on that superstar at the end. You walk away feeling pretty good.

"I love you but you drive me crazy" means you're a crazy-making pain in the you-know-what. "You drive me crazy but I love you," on the other hand, means that you're adored. Whatever comes after the "but" cancels out the message that came before it.

If you want someone to hear both parts of your message loud and clear, don't use "but" or "however" in the middle. Divide the two messages into two sentences. That way they can stand on their own merits as independent thoughts. You won't inadvertently dilute a well-intended compliment, nor water down a necessary critque.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Everyone needs a target

Originally uploaded by culture_wise

What are you focusing on right now? Well, it's probably the words on this screen of you're reading this post. Beyond that, what are you focusing on? Is it the intended target of your attention, or is it a default position that you've somehow assumed?

Oftentimes a senior leader will talk to me about the quality (or lack thereof) of the relationships among staff. When things aren't going right they'll describe turfishness, bickering, etc. The focus of the group has turned inward. What those groups often need is an external goal or target to which to shift their attention. A team isn't a team unless its members have a goal in common. So if you're thinking that teamwork is missing, take a look at whether there's a shared goal or plan.

Do you remember how you interacted with your neighbors and colleagues right after 9/11? I observed people talking who never talked before. Neighbors who were only sporadically in touch were sitting in one another's kitchens on that fateful day watching CNN and commisserating about the insanity going on in the world. On that day the terrorists were our target, our focus, and we put less important concerns aside to devote our entire attention to the preservation of our families and our way of life. I guess you could call it united against a common foe, but sometimes we are kinder to one another when there's a villain afoot.

If you draw a goal in a compelling way you'll strengthen people's focus on it. Talk about it repeatedly, in concrete terms, and describe the impact the achievement of the goal will have on the group. The rewards, and the rewards of the rewards, the consequences, and the consequences of the consequences create the motivation to keep your eye on the target and take action to hit it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Are you maintaining a contradiction?

Ceci n'est pas une carote.
Originally uploaded by pinguerin

Whoa! What's wrong with this picture? We've got snow peas in a bag marked "baby carrots!" So which are you supposed to believe, the label or your view of the contents? If you're like me, you feel a moment of incredulity, then you buy it based upon what you can verify - the contents you can see.

Many of us are living with this inner contradiction. We say one thing, yet do another. In some instances it's because we've had a certain set of information that has led us to behave in a certain way, and now some new piece of information is challenging our long-held assumptions. For example, this year our real beliefs about gender, race, and age are being challenged as we determine which of our old views of what makes a person presidential we are going to throw out the window. Sure, we can talk a good game, but when the rubber meets the road, which will be our actual criteria?

This maintaining of contradiction is called cognitive dissonance. It creates internal stress when you, for example, know you need to be avoiding sweets but you find yourself piling a giant slice of cake onto a plate. (Well, celebrating a birthday properly IS more important than your waistline.) You know you're living in cognitive dissonance land when you feel guilty later. Your gut is telling you that what you did isn't in alignment with your own standards.

What are the contradictions that you're maintaining right now? Are you a person who sees himself as fit, but who never exercises? Are you a self-described patient parent who just finished wailing on one of your kids?

How would you feel if you could remove the contradictions and bring your behavior into consistent alignment with your beliefs? The first step is to notice the dissonance you're feeling. And if you're having a hard time seeing past your self-imposed labels, ask someone you trust to help you see what contents the package of your behavior is showing.