Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nurturing volunteers

Does your organization rely on volunteers to get its work done? How are you doing in recruiting and retaining them? Here are some ideas on how to attract - and retain - volunteer workers:

  • Identify clearly what you need a volunteer to do. Outline a task - better yet, make a list of possibilities and provide the opportunity for the prospective volunteer to choose the role that attracts them.
  • Ask them. Your potential volunteers might not step forward on their own, either because they don't know what needs to be done or because they don't feel at home enough to step out without help.
  • Be encouraging. If you are part of the existing infrastructure of the organization you might have done these tasks yourself a million times. You might have what you perceive a higher level of competence in doing them. But if you really want to have more hands and feet available, rather than oversteer or criticize, notice the positive aspects of the new volunteer's contribution. Oh, and praise doesn't go out of style once the volunteer has clocked some time. Even seasoned volunteers like to hear attaboys now and then.
  • Let them stick their toe in the water. Some of your volunteers would like to try a little bit before they commit to the whole shebang. You don't want to burn them out so that you have to start from scratch finding new ones. If the job is too big, split it up.
  • Unleash their ideas. Your new volunteers might have new approaches to old tasks. Don't trip yourself up with a "Not Invented Here" mentality and shut them down just because you didn't already think of it. If you truly want more people to share "ownership" of your organization's work you need to give them a piece of the creative action.
  • Partner up. There are many jobs that are not fun to do solo, but that are energizing and rewarding when you do them with a buddy. If you can recruit volunteers in twos or threes you can help them to overcome shyness and to create relationship glue that keeps them coming back. And if there are ways to make it fun, by all means do so.
  • Check in with them. Running a volunteer organization is a massive delegation operation. Just as you would do at work, create target dates and milestones to keep everyone moving in sync. In addition, the initial assignment might not exactly click for someone, or they might realize once in that they don't have the tools to do it. Get feedback from them, answer their questions, and if need be plug them in somewhere else that's a better fit for them.
  • Recognize their efforts and continue to tie back to the organization's purpose. Look for opportunities to celebrate achievements. Your volunteers aren't tied to you by a paycheck - their pay is the psychic reward that comes from personal achievement, or from advancing a cause that is important to them. Help them to remember the bigger reasons why they chose to volunteer - and help them feel motivated to continue.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Learning to be Olympian

I was reading a copy of a newsletter published by The American Club Swimming Association the other day, and saw a thought provoking article based upon the concepts of Raner Martens, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, who founded the American Coaching Effectiveness Program, and who is one of the leading authorities on children in sports. (click the link above to see the full content.)

The article talked about parents who don't make sure their kids go to swim practice, because "They'll never be an Olympic swimmer." Martens said that the Olympics are great, but they aren't the point. Practicing your sport, in this case swimming, is important because "young people need to learn to dedicate themselves to something that is difficult, something that requires perseverance, guts and the daily determination to get your butt out of bed and go out and push your body till it can't go anymore."

The writer says that our kids' lives are too easy, and that they are too soft because we cater to them too much. We don't allow them to be "heroic," to conquer something they have never done before, or to get through an event or achieve a time or a distance they never thought was possible. It's about learning by succeeding - or by failing - and if you fail, to persevere until you figure out how to succeed.

"It's not about being an Olympian. It's about being Olympian. Learning to be a hero. And what it takes to learn that."


Friday, June 26, 2009

Is health coverage the new set of golden handcuffs?

Golden (Rolex) handcuffs.
Originally uploaded by monstro

Yesterday's post about health care reform got an interesting response from Don:

"If people do not feel forced to take employment in order to get health insurance, but rather are covered "no matter what", they'll be free to pursue their passions. Think about that. Think what it means to our society as a whole. Think what it means at a low level of energy, where we are all connected."

There are two points in Don's comment that catch my eye.

First, what would it mean not to feel like you have to take a job just to have a reasonable level (or any) health coverage? If you weren't handcuffed to your employer because of your health coverage, what would you choose to do? Would you still be there, or would you be dusting off a secret project and getting to work on it? How many drones are out there hating what they are doing instead of producing what they love, just so they can afford to go see the doctor if they need to?

This blog often talks about the fact that we always have choices, but with the current state of health care costs, the choice to be self-employed has a price attached to it that some people cannot or will not pay. What inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs are locked down unnecessarily into health-care related servitude, and what is the cost to the richness of our culture as a result?

Don's second point about the place where we are all connected - at that low level of energy - makes me wonder whether everyone genuinely recognizes the connection and feels the energy. It's easy to become insular and to think it's OK as long as it doesn't have any impact on me. (Just as a side note, I was appalled watching TV the other night when people being interviewed in Iran were able to name our US president, major cities, universities, while Americans weren't even able to name one major city in their country. Talk about insular!)

Remember the phrase, "There but for the grace of God go I?" If you want to get really metaphysical about it, how much of what you have has truly been earned by you, vs. given to you? Is financial well-being a virtue and financial struggle a vice? I think a lot of us would be surprised by who those "other" uncovered people are. These days they aren't somewhere else and they aren't otherwise poor - they are our next door neighbors, sometimes even our colleagues who don't work as many hours as we do and therefore don't qualify to have health coverage. Don't qualify to have health coverage? Does that mean they don't deserve it?

I think the other golden handcuffs situation we've got on our hands is the financial impact and influence of the health insurance industry. Beyond the slams we've heard about the level of campaign contributions from the industry to members of the legislature, there is employment data that scares some people away from the idea of change. According to the US Department of Labor and Industry, "The insurance industry had about 2.3 million wage and salary jobs in 2006. Insurance carriers accounted for 62 percent of jobs, while insurance agencies, brokerages, and providers of other insurance-related services accounted for 38 percent of jobs."

You might think, "We can't just put 2.3 million people out of work!" But think about this - the Department of Labor and Industry cites that "About 44 percent of insurance workers are in office and administrative support jobs such as those found in every industry." They are not so specialized that they would be difficult to place.

To me the even more compelling statistic is the almost-40 percent of jobs that are involved in selling. All of this cost just for the sake of competing for customers. How can this not be an egregious waste of our business's and our citizens' money? And why handcuff 306.7 million people to the jobs of 2.3 million?

Just so you know, I wrote to my Congressional Representative and the two Senators from Pennsylvania yesterday. If you really care about this topic and want to make sure it doesn't get back-burnered due to partisan bickering, contact your legislators and tell them what's on your mind. They've got a great health care plan because of their elected positions, so they probably don't know the issues first-hand as well as you do.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Can't sit on sidelines on health care reform

Warning: rant alert:

I was listening to President Obama answer questions on health care reform last night, and was looking at photos from a May 30 Health Care rally in Seattle, when I realized that this is not one of those times to sit on the sidelines and wait to see what happens. We have got to say something to our representatives to get things moving on overhauling our health care system in the US. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • When my husband worked in the insurance industry he received commissions for placing health plans with employers. He was the tail end of a number of layers of incentives for producers - agents, managers, brokers, etc. All of these payments remove dollars from the actual amount of premium that we pay that goes toward actually covering our health care needs under the current system. Translation - higher costs of health care simply to grease the payment system.
  • A participant in one of my development groups has a father that worked briefly as medical director for a major health insurance company. He received incentives for denying coverage - and he quit because he believed that his employer expected him to violate the Hippocratic Oath he took when he became a physician in order to make more money for the company.
  • A middle-class family without health insurance that I know was forced to allow their 50-ish wife/mother to die prematurely of breast cancer because they couldn't afford to pay for her treatment.
  • In working with small business owners, one of the largest ethical dilemmas they talk about is whether or not to pay for health insurance for various groups of their employees. In a number of cases the owners express that, although they don't like it, they feel that costs of insurance are so prohibitive that they have to choose to maintain the company's financial health over the health of their employees.
  • It sounds contradictory to hear insurance companies espouse the free market system for health care, then to hear the same ones complain that they won't be able to compete against a government health care program modeled after Medicare. Isn't that the whole idea? In a free market, if you can't compete, somebody takes your customers. If you take issue with this perspective, review the first couple of points above.
  • A government health coverage plan is not socialized medicine. In socialized medicine hospitals are operated by the government, and physicians work for the government. The single payor plans have nothing to do with folding the entire health care industry under the government. Instead, they are about providing access to health care for every citizen as a right, not as a privilege.
  • Failure to receive preventive care and early treatment means higher costs later. Lack of health care coverage leads to lack of preventive care and early treatment.
  • Poor health leads to poor performance in school, absenteeism from work, etc. It's a chain reaction that interferes with our productivity as a nation, not to mention its impact on quality of life.
  • I understand that many people are concerned about government getting its tentacles into their business and personal lives. They want to keep the money that they work hard to earn, and they want to enjoy the benefits of their labors. Yet tax money helps to fund, for instance, the physical infrastructure, the roads and bridges that move our citizens and fuel our businesses. Why should it not also help to fund the infrastructure that gives every citizen the opportunity to live a healthy life? This is an issue of values.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Home office reality check

The home office has been romanticized almost as much as motherhood over the past few years. We read about and see photos of the cozy yet tidy surroundings, the autonomy that comes from being in your own space. And there are real advantages to doing your primary work out of your home:

  • Massive time and stress savings over commuting
  • Flexibility of hours
  • Quiet compared to an office setting
  • The opportunity to work in your pajamas
  • The opportunity to be near your children
  • ....and the list goes on

But let's take the rosy lenses off for a second and have a reality check. This topic is top of mind for me right now, because I have created a 30-ft. commute for myself. Eight years ago my desk was strategically positioned in my house so I could have a good view of my relatively quiet, well-behaved kindergartener while working at my computer. I'm not in the same room with her, but I'm within sightline and earshot, directly beside the room in which most family activities take place.

Fast forward to this summer. The quiet, well-behaved kindergartener is now thirteen, and she has a younger sister who just finished kindergarten. Trust me, the younger one is not quiet, nor is she well-behaved (overstated for drama purposes, but not by much.) I am trying to finish a high-concentration, high-intensity project while my daughter creates a wolf den on the floor under my feet, "feeding" her puppies by lining her stuffed animals up along her stomach and making happy-dog whining noises.

Meanwhile, for the twentieth time this morning a neighbor has the audacity to walk past our house with their dog, setting my two pups (great office companions that they are) into paroxyms of barking. Of course my business phone rings just as this is going on. I'm feeling VERRRY professional right now.

Would I trade my home office for life in a cubicle? Heavens no. I wouldn't want to miss seeing things like the wolf-mommy for the sake of interacting only with adults all day. But I have made some adaptations:

  • I have a "cone of silence" spot in the house that I can hide in, I mean retreat to, when I have a coaching call.
  • I start my day at O-dark-hundred in order to have some accomplishments under my belt before the natives awake.
  • I close my desk when my workday is done. Otherwise the idea of having a home office morphs into living my whole life without leaving work.
  • Because my teenager can babysit my younger daughter I can use Panera Bread or Starbucks as an alternative office away from home if I need to get away from the cacophony of kids in summer.
  • I cut back my hours in summer a bit so I can get them to the pool, to swim practice, etc.

I'm counting on the fact that my girls are noticing the advantages - and doing their own reality checks - about what it means to be self-employed and working from home. It's a great way to live if you're prepared to go with the flow.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You achieved your goal - what's next?

goal accomplished
Originally uploaded by redfriday

You focused your energy, you sacrificed in other areas of your life so you could achieve your goal. After time (and perhaps some struggle) you have made it and you have celebrated your success. Now what?

After the victory dance is over after a big goal is achieved it's not uncommon to feel like something's missing. It's not that the goal had no meaning - it was a huge deal that you went for it and accomplished it - your issue is that the purpose the goal gave you is gone.

Some people drift for a while after they have accomplished something big that they set out to do. It might partly be because they have expended energy and need to refuel. But there's another factor as well. Once you have fulfilled a need it no longer motivates. If you set out to have $100,000 in the bank, once it's there its power to move you is gone.

Purpose is what keeps people going. Imagine achieving your life goals by age 35 and realizing that you have 50 or more years to go. The striving is what gives your life its excitement, its meaning. This doesn't mean that you have to resign yourself to being a stress monkey forever - it means that you need something to look forward to.

If you are drifting after accomplishing a goal, examine the things that you put aside for the goal's sake while you were working on it. Perhaps you now have an opportunity to add some balance to your life - the life cycle version of balance rather than the daily or weekly version. Perhaps you've got a secret project that has received no attention that can now receive some of your energy. If nothing in particular is pulling you, perhaps it's because you have kept these other dreams and aspirations on the back burner for so long that they need a little nudging to step forward.

We are faced with many times of transition in our lives - some of which we choose and some that are imposed upon us by the order of things. The time immediately following the achievement of big goals is one of those transition times. If you're concerned about getting stuck in that drifting mode, this is one of the times where a coach can be helpful to you. They can provide tools to help you discover the next mountain you want to climb.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Your fork in the road

Fork InThe Road
Originally uploaded by brad.james_art

Are you faced with a choice, or perhaps multiple choices? Are you stuck - feeling like whatever you choose will change your life forever - and so for now you've chosen not to choose? This is not the only fork in the road that you'll be coming across, so regardless of the way in which you've handled choices in the past, you can become more effective by learning to consciously choose your way of choosing.

  • How critical is this choice really? Do life and death hang from it, or will you have the opportunity to make another choice later if you don't like the outcome of this one?
  • Who is impacted, directly or indirectly, by your choice? Are you the only one who will bear the fallout from it, or will it create ripples far beyond you?
  • Is timing a factor in the choice? Do you have to take action by a certain date in order to have your choice work?
  • Do you have enough information about the options to evaluate which would be the best direction for you to take? You don't have to go into every choice blind - sometimes it's possible to have a pretty good idea of the ramifications of one or more of the options.
  • Is your biggest motivation a matter of thinking about the benefits and consequences if you DO? Or are you more concerned about the pros and cons of what happens if you DON'T?
  • Is there one choice that is more in alignment with your vision and your values?
  • Are you thinking long term or short term when you consider the options and their respective implications?

Perhaps there is something in your life right now that you think is inevitable or unchangeable. I would encourage you to look again - my bet is that there are indeed choices that you could make, but that you ruled them out or looked past them without thinking. Even if you choose to continue on your current path after you stop and think, you will feel less trapped if you acknowledge that the path is, indeed, a choice that you have made and are continuing to make.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Six reasons why people buy from you

Breakfast purchase
Originally uploaded by [pelican]

One of the first steps toward increasing your revenues and prevailing over your competition is to understand why your customers buy from you. Once you know what their drivers are you develop methods to become more of that. Let's look at some examples:

  1. Convenient - There are some products and services that need to be directly in the prospective customers' path, like gasoline, banks, grocery stores. During my years in the banking biz when we looked at possible sites for new branch offices we'd prioritize the sites that were on the right side of the road on the way home from work.
  2. Fast - Sometimes speed makes the difference between choosing and not choosing a provider, whether it's emergency room services, food, or manufacturing parts delivery. Fast is not the same as prompt - there are some situations where too early is just as undesirable as too late, so you need to know whether speed or timing is the key criterion.
  3. High quality - The challenge here is that quality is in the eye of the buyer, not the producer. The traditional expectation was that quality and price were related to one another, but nowadays buyers expect quality without necessarily expecting to pay a premium price to it.
  4. Good value - This may or may not be a low price. Value is determined by the buyer's perception that they are obtaining a positive return on their investment, whatever it is. When their expectations are met and exceeded, they perceive value. Value, like quality, is in the eye of the beholder. More is not necessarily better.
  5. Popularity - Certain buyers enjoy the opportunity to "get on the band wagon," and they want to do what other people are doing.
  6. Exclusivity - Some buyers want to separate themselves from the masses by having or doing something that few other people can have or do. This motivator might relate to luxury products, or it might also relate to high-tech products for the early adopters.

The question that goes begging here is, "How do you find out why people buy from you?" If you haven't asked customers lately you're risking your brand, because, as stated above, a number of these buying criteria are in the eye of the beholder. If you want to know the real deal:

  • Do a survey
  • Call your customers on the phone and ask them
  • Make visits with your sales staff

Nothing happens until somebody buys something. Strategize blindly at your own risk.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Been dreaming lately?

"I Have A Dream..."
Originally uploaded by gatorgalpics

The important goals we accomplish - the ones we attach our hearts to - start with a dream, an idea, a longing. Have you been dreaming lately? Or have you been afraid to put the request out there, convinced that whatever you want won't happen? Take off the filters, the limitations, the reasons why you can't have, or do, or become. Grab a sheet of paper and start writing your dream list. It's blue sky time.

In case you are so tied to the ground that you haven't allowed yourself to dream for a while, here are some thought starters for you:

  • Where would you like to go?
  • Who would you like to meet?
  • What would you like to own?
  • What hobbies would you like to pursue?
  • What books would you like to read?
  • What would you do for family, friends, your church, your community?
  • What would you do to become more valuable to yourself?

Go for as many dreams as you can. You won't necessarily be able to stretch to your fullest right out of the gate, so give yourself some uninterrupted time and let your mind wander. Be sure to put a date on the items on your list, keep the list and review it from time to time so you can see how your priorities change - or not. See how many of them you can turn into reality once you articulate them and put your brain (and the universe) into motion. You might decide to commit to some of them, convert them to specific goals and start to take action. Or, once you have your antennae tuned, you might simply keep your eyes open for opportunities that align with them.

Just yesterday I had the chance to sing with a professional jazz combo - an item that's been on my dream list since 1990. What a thrill it was! It reinforced to me just how important dreaming can be.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Choosing your gurus

"A self-taught man usually has a poor teacher and a worse student." - Henny Youngman

How do you go about improving yourself, either professionally or personally? Do you read? Listen? Take classes? Dive in and experience? Do you follow some gurus - specialists in the areas you want to learn?

I've listened to numerous jazz musicians this week talk about the players who have influenced their style, provided some licks for improvisation, or whose professional or life journey taught important lessons. They study the masters that they admire the most and then sometimes even pay homage to them by incorporating a bit of their technique or style into their own playing.

One could debate over whether creativity is diluted when one is influenced overmuch by someone else's work. Yet we are all a product of influences, and conditioned beyond our ability to perceive routinely. Why not choose the influences that you want to put into your brain?

Your guru might be someone you know, where you can establish a formalized mentoring relationship, but proximity is not necessary for their knowledge to be beneficial to you. Read their writing, or someone else's writing about them, watch them on TV, listen to them, go and see their work if possible.

It's said that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Are you ready to stretch to the next level? If you are, then look around you, in the office, on the news, in the library. Your guru is waiting.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The art and science of improvisation

Combos de l'Aula de Jazz
Originally uploaded by barbollaire

If you've been following lately you know that my daughter and I are at jazz camp this week. Yesterday's faculty jam session inspired me to talk about improvisation, one of the key skills of real jazz players, and a technique that has applications from cooking to manufacturing to the MacGuyver-esque escapes we used to see on TV.

Dictionary.com defines "improvise" in this way:

  1. to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation; extemporize: to improvise an acceptance speech.
  2. to compose, play, recite, or sing (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment.
  3. to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available: We improvised a dinner from yesterday's leftovers.

To the untrained ear an improvised solo can sound like the player is just going off on his or her own tangent, playing whatever they want. But that’s not really the case. Improvisation that sounds good requires knowledge of chord structure, so you know the notes that are going to sound right with the rest of the band. It stems from an understanding of the genre and mood of the song and using a rhythm and style of playing that’s compatible with the whole. And when you listen closely to an improvised solo you’ll start to notice patterns and “licks” that are characteristic of the player, and/or tributes to other outstanding players. It’s art with a strong foundation in science.

When playing in a group, improvisation has etiquette. Players take turns with the tune, following the overall structure to do their individual interpretations and then handing it off to the next musician. Dave Gibble, director at Palm Beach County Jazz Camp, says, "It's like a conversation. In any conversation you take turns - nobody likes it when one person talks too much." And when one player takes his turn, he often will echo something from the prior solo, acknowledging the prior player's contribution, and then add his own interpretation to it. He's not just been sitting there awaiting his turn to extemporize - he's been listening to what's come before so he can create continuity - music - in interaction with the other players.

In business and in life effective improvisation can provide a competitive advantage. The ability to think on one’s feet is a gift, delivering the opportunity to be perceived as smart. It can shorten the time between situation and response, sometimes preventing a bad situation from getting out of hand. The ability to improvise can save cost when you can substitute one ingredient or one material for another.

But just as in jazz, to be truly effective improvisation has to be based on some foundation. It’s not doing the first thing that comes into your head without any base of knowledge. Children improvise, but even at their level some science serves as the foundation for their creativity. They don’t, for example, use Scotch tape to make the roof on their tent in the dining room. They don’t try to use an old blanket to try to stick pieces of a project together.

I believe that creativity in work creates the joy in work, not to mention that innovation (an improvisation that's developed into a new standard) can jettison a company into the forefront of an industry. If you want to be more creative and improvise more effectively more often, master the fundamentals of your craft. Once you know the rules and principles you’ll have a zone in which to stretch your creative muscles, knowing you’ll have a predictably good outcome. If you choose to bend the rules or challenge the standing principles you’ll do so with intent. And you'll be more likely to hit a note that's sweet.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Out of the office - but the tweet goes on

Good morning from West Palm Beach, Florida! (I just had to gloat there for a minute...) Although I'm out and about this week the blogging will go on...and there's a new development. A little elf back at the office has made it possible for you to follow my new book, Changing Results by Changing Behavior, on Twitter. Just click this link and then click the Follow button.

You can also follow me on Twitter for all of the Julie Poland stuff by clicking here.

Have a great day! It's off to Palm Beach County Jazz Camp with my 13-year-old sax/clarinet player!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Taking care of your online image

Making silly faces
Originally uploaded by Chilibuddy

If you spend a lot of time on the Internet, and especially if you participate rather than simply lurk or research - especially if you are on blog sites or social networking groups - you need to think about the image of you that's on the web.

Have you done a Google search lately to see where you appear on the web, and what people are saying about you? If you'd like to set up a regular notice of where your name appears, click this link to get it going. If you have a name that is common, or one that sounds like a country like mine does, you'll receive some alerts that don't belong to you. But you will be able to start to see the breadth of your online presence.

If you subscribe to alerts you can also see what issues you need to address - there are multitudes of product complaint sites out there where detractors ventilate about what your customers hate about your products. Of course no company is mistake-free, but you can make positive ground by being good at addressing and recovering from customer complaints - if you know what they are.

As for your personal reputation - be intentional about your contributions on social networking sites. Think before you type. If you try to sell in situations where it's supposed to be about fun interaction you'll gain the rep of being a huckster. If you talk too much about the extent of your last alcohol consumption you'll create an archive of information about you the partier - not the greatest record for a prospective employer to see. And if you pontificate about your hallowed knowledge on everything from small engine repair to metaphysics, eyes and ears will tire of you pretty quickly such that the good stuff you have to contribute to the conversation won't poke through the noise.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Opportunity - or distraction?

Crow at Grand Canyon
Originally uploaded by silvae

A businessperson in my area said to me one day, "I'm just like a crow - I'm always attracted to the next shiny thing." His concern was that he found himself whipsawing from one business tactic to another, never quite completing one thing before the next caught his eye. He recognized that the flitting was harming his results.

In contrast to this guy, several companies for whom I've facilitated planning were concerned that they had previously been too locked in and static, and that they were missing openings in the market that could have been quite profitable. As a result they included goal categories like "Be open to opportunities for new product development, for acquisition, etc." in their strategies. Where's the line between being opportunistic and being distractable?

The line starts with the vision you have for yourself and your company, and the big initiatives you already have included in the mission portion of your plan. If a new potential product or initiative comes along that's in alignment with your vision - that's real opportunity. If it's not in alignment with where you've said you're going, beware - it could be only a shiny distraction, one that could dilute your allocation of resources toward the things you've already defined as goals.

In order to start doing something new you're generally going to have to make room by stopping doing something you're already doing. What are you going to give up to pursue this new direction?

Sometimes companies (and individuals) are susceptible to the shiny new things because the existing strategies haven't produced the results they want yet. This might mean that the old strategies weren't the best - or instead it might mean that not enough time has passed for them to bear fruit. Few initiatives produce instant results. It takes patience to see a plan through.

Another factor that ups the distractability quotient is seeing somebody else being successful using new or different techniques. The temptation to copy them and dash in the same direction can sometimes be strong, especially if that someone else is viewed in high regard. Even proven success on someone else's part might not create adequate justification to abandon your strategy and follow if it's not consistent with the picture you have created for yourself.

If you don't have a vision or a plan yet, it's high time that you put one together, and then test the new opportunities against it. Otherwise the shiny new things might trip you.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Take a mental coffee break - right now

You've been so intense lately that it's time for a mental coffee break. Perhaps the workload is crazy, or your colleagues seem like they might be. Perhaps the economic pressures of too little cash and too many bills are getting you down. Or maybe you just don't feel good. Whatever your issue du jour, let's take a pause.

Assume a comfortable position and just look at the picture for a moment. The air is warm and still, and the water is completely without movement. The sun is shining, but you're sitting in a comfortable, shady place with a beautiful vista in front of you.
Notice the reflection of the fair weather clouds on the water, and of the trees on the other shore. Other than the enthusiastic chirping of the birds and the sound of your own breathing, everything is quiet.
Notice your breathing, and feel it deepen as you relax. Notice the weight of your hands and your feet as they rest there, motionless. Relax the muscles on your face and let yourself sink into the chair. Now stay there for a count of thirty.
Doesn't that feel better?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Creative applications - a musical tractor

Some people are best at creativity that stems from what appears to be thin air. They like to start from scratch and make their creation their own from the very beginning. Others are incredibly effective at applied creativity - seeing something unique in an object or situation that might otherwise blend into the woodwork.

Check out this video - a musical tractor? It's not only a pleasant diversion for a music geek like me - it's a reminder to keep eyes and ears open for the resources that are right under our noses - or parked right inside our barns...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Do you wear gray starched pajamas?

Retro Fox™ PJ's
Originally uploaded by ronnyg

Thanks to Nik Nikkel for this post idea...

I've been involved in a LinkedIn discussion group with folks who consider themselves to be Leaders and Thinkers. We were in the middle of a big back-and forth with answers to a question, when Nik wrote, "I am just flat delighted to see some silliness emerging here. So much of the commentary in these discussions, including my own, sounds like we are sitting around in starched grey pajamas."

Hmmm. Starched gray pajamas. Not just boring gray pajamas, but starched too! Do we get so caught up in our own view of ourselves as intellectually gifted that we start waxing on, sounding stuffy and pompous? Or, as a friend of mine says it, "Are we believing our own press releases?" Perhaps we're taking ourselves too seriously.

If we're attempting to be persuasive, the blatant mental gymnastics and occasional stances of intellectual superiority might not be the most effective methods - perhaps we should be engaging our funny bone more often. Kurt Mortenson, a leading authority on persuasion, motivation and influence, said, "Many people take for granted the powerful persuading influence of humor. Humor is often tossed off as sheer entertainment or mere speech filler. The truth is, when you engage an audience with humor, you are accomplishing much more than just getting a laugh out of them. Humor disarms an audience, making them more likely to open up to you. Once your prospects feel comfortable with you, they will be more in tune to your message and more likely to remain attentive."

If you believe what Mortenson says, effective persuasion is about relationship - about getting people to open up to you so they can hear your message. Perhaps this is not best accomplished by dazzling them with your insight. Perhaps instead it's about giving them a belly laugh. If this is the case, at the very least our workdays could be a lot more enjoyable...

Friday, June 5, 2009

Are you unconsciously incompetent?

What a thing to say to someone first thing in the morning! If you are unconsciously incompetent you don't know what you don't know. You might think you know everything - but you don't.

Gordon's Ladder of Learning and John Maxwell's Law of Process says that we go through a predictable set of stages as we learn to be effective - it's impossible for us to become good leaders in a day. And Bruce Tuckman has said that we go through predictable emotional states as change happens. Here's a mash-up of their ideas as I've seen them exhibited in groups and individuals:

  • Stage One - unconscious incompetence - We don't know what we don't know. This could be blissful ignorance, where we're happily skipping along our way. Perhaps our company leadership has just announced a change, but we're excited about the prospects, for a variety of reasons. Then all of a sudden we cross the Bridge of Discovery, and...wham! We're now in

  • Stage Two - conscious incompetence - We now know what we don't know. And for many of us the feelings associated with stage two are not comfortable. In groups this stage is often characterized by storming - where participants can be likely to resist, to look for external targets for blame, engage in self-justifying behavior, etc. If, however, despite our feelings of resistance we respond to our new awareness by choosing to learn what we need to know we can cross the Bridge of Training and move into

  • Stage Three - conscious competence - We can be effective if we're staying in the moment and intentionally applying what we've learned. Conscious competence is the stage in which groups are norming - individuals have determined that they need to change, so they are integrating new skills into their daily behavior. Once we have successfully integrated the new information, we cross the Bridge of Development into

  • Stage Four - unconscious competence - This is the stage within which we are behaving effectively at such a conditioned level that we don't even notice our competence. This is similar to when I used to ask my grandmother how she made such good pie crust, and she would say "Add water until it feels right." What constitutes "right"? She knew, but had a hard time explaining it to others because the details were so ingrained that she wasn't aware of them. In a group setting this can be called performing - the habitual application of acquired skills and knowledge.

This process doesn't have a prescribed time frame attached to it. Individuals and groups can be fast or slow at moving through the stages, and the intensity of their emotional states at each stage can be widely variable. But they will go through them. So if you're a leader making changes you need to anticipate each stage, and consider providing a structured development process to help your staff through the stages and come out successfully on the other side.

The challenge in being unconsciously competent is in the word unconsciously. Whenever we're unconscious, operating from conditioning and habit, we're at risk of crossing the Bridge of Complacency back into unconscious incompetence. These stages are cyclical, and we can go through them over and over during our lifetime. Methods change, situational applications change - and if we don't stay aware of the impact of our behavior on results we run the risk of finding ourselves back where we started.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Do questions already have answers?

Originally uploaded by Oberazzi

When someone asks you a question, do you automatically respond with an answer? Is this a signal that you're an obedient sort who doesn't stop and consider whether the question (or the person) should be answered? Or could it be that you operate under the assumption that when someone asks a question they don't have an answer of their own?

I know husbands who are eternally frustrated with wives who ask, "Does this outfit look OK on me?" The husband loyally replies, "You look great!" and their wife responds by changing her clothes. The husband stands there, puzzled and perhaps even irritatated, at the disconnect between her question, his answer, and her resulting action.

It's a valuable discipline to stop assuming that the questioner doesn't already know. They're often trying to test what they know against somebody else's opinion. And in many cases, no opinion is "right" - it's simply opinion based upon every person's fundamental habits of thought and their perceptions of this particular situation.

That's why the woman changed her clothes. She tested her own view against that of her husband, decided that it was lower risk to follow her own instincts than it would be to keep on something that would have the "What Not To Wear" folks jumping out from behind a pillar at her.

We ultimately like our own ideas best - big surprise! What is sometimes a surprise, amazingly, is that other people like their own ideas best, too. They determine what the right action is for them. So those of us in practice as coaches work very hard to help clients discover their own right answers, their ideas rather than impose our own - even if we're highly experienced in the area in question.

When we assume that we know the correct answers and the other person doesn't we are operating from parent ego state. Ego states are generally complimentary and transactional, so our parent ego state likely hooks the child ego state in the other person. That often creates resistance to our answer in them - even if they asked the question in the first place.

One parting shot on this topic - have you considered the idea that when you answer questions and give advice you're taking some responsibility for the outcome if the person follows it?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Losing your marbles? Measuring activity

You know the adage about there being three kinds of people - ones who make things happen, ones who watch things happen, and ones who wonder what happened? Current market conditions say that it's more important than ever to do what you can to help make things happen. Positive results aren't going to fall into your lap just because you have a pulse, or just because you have a shingle hanging outside your business's front door. You need to be proactive and go get them.

If you have a track record, take a look at your numbers to find out what types and what level of activity led to a satisfactory level of results. Use these higher-leverage activity numbers to create a daily or weekly activity target. Notice that we're starting with your prior proven results to determine appropriate activity - this isn't an exercise in busywork - not just any activity will do. We're working on being intentional about engaging in the kind of activity that drives positive outcomes.

By the way, if you're not tracking your activity you're probably not getting the results you want. Having numbers is the first step toward being able to manage performance. They help you measure success in the interim before the ultimate results come in. And the numbers create a form of neutral feedback that doesn't change with your emotional state. Either you did or you didn't - yes or no, black or white.

Now that you have your activity target, let's think about another concept - the cumulative impact of reaching (or not reaching) short-term activity targets. In my work with salespersons who want to increase results - and of course commissions - a lot of the discussion is about activity levels. No matter whether you bat .750, if you rarely get to the plate your results likely will be wanting.

To illustrate the point, take a bag of marbles and two containers. Let's say that your target is to have 8 face-to-face appointments per week. This week you don't feel quite up to snuff so you only do 4 appointments. (Put 8 marbles - your target amount - in one container and 4 - your actual - in the other.) Next week you have a busy meeting schedule, but you manage to visit 7 prospects. (8 marbles in the target container and 7 in the actual.) Six more weeks go by during which you hold 8, 5, 7, 8, 6 and 7 appointments. (continue your marble allocation deal as above.)

At first blush things don't look too bad - you made your activity goal twice and came close twice. But let's take a look at the cumulative effects of your activity by counting the marbles in each container - had you done 8 weeks of 8 appointments you would have had 64 "at bats," 64 opportunities to get a yes from a prospect. Instead you only had 52 opportunities - you sacrificed 20% of your chance for success.

Now let's project this to a year, using the same numbers. By the end of the year doing your targeted activity level you would have accumulated 384 opportunities. At this projected actual you only would have 312 shots. In effect you will have sacrificed more than two months of activity by just missing your targeted numbers on a week to week basis!

This illustration doesn't only apply to salespersons; it works in the same way when you consider how many calories you consumed or burned today, and the same way when you think about how much money your saving or spending. So think carefully before you say "It's OK, I almost made my numbers." Today's actions or the lack thereof have long-ranging implications for your success.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The value of a good orientation

Orientation 2005
Originally uploaded by EAWB

Our girls are on a newly formed swim team, and our first meet is Saturday. This will be our third team, and one thing in particular has been noticeably different this time - and noticeably better - than our other experiences. The coaches of this team have done an awesome job of orientation, for the swimmers and for the parents. It reminds me how important a good orientation is to get things off on the right foot, whether in this kind of activity or at work.

I'll follow this sports example for the sake of simplicity, but see how the concepts apply to you:

  • Tell people what your operating philosophy and your goals are up front to prevent problems and misunderstandings later. If your goal is to teach proper form and give every player a chance to participate, say so up front. Let the competitive parents know that their future pro sports star won't necessarily be center stage all the time. And let the parents of the not-so-skilled kids know that their children will have an opportunity (and training) to get better. If somebody isn't in alignment with your goals they can find another team that's a better fit for them.
  • Get to know your audience - by name. They will be far more responsive to you if you show that you care enough about them to invest the time in knowing them. You can also build allies and champions among your customers, and find out what's going on in the grapevine when you invest in relationship building. You might have two or more levels of customers to know - the players and their parents, for instance.
  • Don't assume a certain level of knowledge. In a new group people are likely to be reluctant to reveal their ignorance. Review the basics so everyone is starting on the same baseline of information. The example of this at our pre-meet orientation last night was explaining legal and illegal strokes and turns to the parents. No official or coach relishes the idea of an upset parent jumping up and down because their child's race time was disqualified. Information helps understanding, which helps to create appropriate behavior.
  • Do a dry run for training, finetuning and to get the jitters out. New swimmers are understandably nervous about their first meet, and so are the volunteers who might never have operated a stopwatch or backup timer before. Nerves might even prevent a new volunteer from stepping forward, and so the whole team benefits by taking the time to develop a large cadre of competent, confident timers, officials, etc.
  • Provide opportunities for the team to jell. Social time together helps the work time go more smoothly, so incorporate "meet and greet" occasions or activities especially designed to build the informal network.
  • Let them show you what they can do. When the group is new you as a leader have a lot to learn about how to plug the players in to their and the team's best benefit. Rather than make assumptions about them based upon their resume, reputation, or connections - give them a chance to demonstrate their capabilities. Yesterday's top dog might be tomorrow's supporting player, and vice versa. This is not their orientation, but yours.

We'll see how the season goes, and I'm sure that everything won't be perfectly smooth, but these folks certainly have created a sound foundation. And as I'm sure that it's evident, at least one parent fan.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Leadership and scalability

Scalability: How well a solution to some problem will work when the size of the problem increases. - Dictionary.com

My friend and colleague Chip asked me to be a bit more concrete about what effective leaders do, especially leaders in large organizations with multiple sites. This is an elephant question (meaning huge in scope,) but I'll take one bite today and see whether the elephant becomes easier to digest as we go.

The individual who took today's photo (Kevin Yezbick) asked a question about how to organize a music collection for scalability, and his situation might provide some insight to the leadership issue. When your collection consists of only a handful of items, you go looking for something in the stack of CDs and it's relatively easy to find. Same goes for leadership in a smaller company. You as the leader personally know the players, the products, the production processes and the customers. Your employees know you, too, so they understand your priorities, your likes and dislikes on a daily basis. They watch your habits to determine your values, etc. Your relationship with them is direct and first-hand.

As Kevin's music collection grows he has to start to categorize. He has to develop a process to make it easier to find a particular CD quickly and easily. So he starts to organize the CDs by genre, then alphabetically by artist. As your company grows, or if you want to set your company up to grow, you need to create processes that help your key functions get accomplished, even when you're not onsite to do them. You also will need people to whom you can entrust these functions.

The moment your role changes from player-coach to coach, your leadership role changes. You are responsible for:

  • Defining the results you want - The people who work for you won't be able to read your mind, and the less daily proximity you have to the work being done the more intentional you'll need to be about communicating this message. You can do this in conversations, and more formally in presentations, in newsletters, or on signage around the facilities. Goal-focused leadership helps keep all of the canoes paddling in the same direction.
  • Laying out the "rules for the road" on how to get there (core values) - There are certain behaviors that are desirable and others that are off-limits, and you take an unnecessary risk if you leave these undefined. Once they are communicated to employees you need to give them teeth by rewarding behavior that's aligned with them and providing consequences when behavior violates them.
  • Selecting and developing the next layer of leaders - This might not mean that your organization gets deeper and deeper in vertical layers of management. You might grow by way of multiple small sites, keeping your organizational structure fairly flat. But it's on you to determine who will best represent your interests, then to equip them with the skills to meet the needs of the organization. It's only when they are well prepared that you will feel comfortable enough to truly delegate to them.
  • Continuing to refine your processes - At some point our friend Kevin the music collector might have to go beyond genre and alpha to keep a handle on his CD collection. The same goes for the growing company. You might get to the point that you'll need processes to make sure you're updating your processes. How often do you review your practices and identify targets for improvement? Annually? Quarterly?
  • Keeping yourself visible in the organization - No matter how effective your senior leaders are, if you're the top guy or gal your employees want to know you, what's on your mind and what you expect from them. They want to know what's coming in the business- good or bad - and they want to hear it directly from you. By virtue of your physical distance alone you won't know what's going on in your company unless you invest some time there. And uninformed you won't be able to make the best decisions.
  • Know your numbers - Data becomes more and more important the bigger you grow, because you won't be able to personally observe all of the results. Data helps to build ownership and accountability in the people who are helping you reach your results, because it helps them (and you) to identify trends and opportunities for improvement. Rather then bury yourself and them in data, select those measurements that are key predictors of future results and focus on those.
  • Manage the climate - This isn't a job you can do alone - the other leaders in your company have to be on board with you. The work you do in developing them, in improving processes, in defining desired results will be the work that helps to establish and reinforce the working environment for your employees.

Gosh, this list could go on and on, but this is a bit on leadership and scalability to start your week. Chip - whadda ya think?