Friday, January 29, 2010

Coming solution to leadership development challenges

Leadership development, at first blush, seems like a no-brainer, mom-and-apple-pie concept. Sure, we need leaders. Wouldn't it be great if accountability for self and effectiveness with others were more widespread assets? So let's go do it!

But wait! (Sound of screeching brakes.) It's not that simple.
  • People who need most to pull themselves up by their bootstraps don't have the resources to do so. Where does a person who is socially and/or economically disadvantaged obtain the opportunity to develop themselves? Localized nonprofit organizations with waxing and waning grant and contribution resources have been serving some of the need, but they are often operating in specialized silos. In many communities they don't know about one another or they don't have anyone bringing them together to create a complete process. Their clients have to wade through piecemeal - if they have the internal persistence and/or supportive external relationships that help them do so.

  • Companies treat people development activities as expendable or at minimum postponable. And the front-line folks who actually have customer contact are the least likely to be the beneficiaries of development efforts. Executive conferences stay in the budget when the going gets tough but leadership training gets cut. Such prioritization reinforces a leadership caste system where those who already have get more while those who don't continue to wait in line.

  • Individuals have waited for somebody else to help them develop instead of taking matters into their own hands. Leadership has been a growing area of study in colleges, and many companies have opened their eyes and provided resources to employees. But it's been difficult to stick one toe in the water and experiment for people who are not employed by an enlightened company or whose self-image doesn't include an image of themselves as students. Taking a college course is financially prohibitive for many.

So what are all of these populations of would-be leaders to do?

Enter Leaders Cafe Foundation, coming soon in the UK, the US, and around the world.

In its final stages of preparation, Leaders Cafe Foundation is based on the premise that more people can have access to leadership development, without a sponsoring company needed (although LCF is open to corporate subscribers) and without the necessity for huge expense on the part of the participants.

Once a person becomes an LCF member they can have access to webinars on a diverse number of leadership topics, that they can consume whenever they want and at whatever pace they want. Ultimately LCF envisions that it will have cafes open, sites where individuals can access a bank of computers (accompanied, of course, by coffee and/or a snack,) a facility which enables even folks without home computing capability to participate in leadership development.

Webinar content development is well under way by educators, coaches, executives and the like around the world so that subscribers will be able to select from a diverse portfolio of leadership topics.

This looks like a fascinating means by which to help people find the bootstraps they need when they are ready to improve themselves. We'll keep you posted.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Your overriding goal is your context

Last night during the State of the Union Address, President Obama told Congress,
"But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win."

Obama's assertion is that for many in Congress, their career security and scoring political points have been the overriding goal, preventing them from making progress in accomplishing the will of the people.

This "it's about me" or "it's about my in-group" attitude isn't confined to the halls of Washington. Self-interest colors decisions and progress and creates politics in businesses and organizations everywhere.

So what's your primary goal? Is it about you, or is it about them? Is it about your career or is it about the customers you serve?

Think carefully, because your real goal will manifest itself in your actions and will determine the true value of your accomplishment.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to avoid throwing spaghetti at the wall

"Is it done yet?" "Just a moment, I'll check." So the cook scoops a piece of spaghetti out of the pot of boiling water and tosses it at the wall. It's soft enough that the strand clings to the vertical surface. "Yep, it's ready." The spaghetti is drained, sauced, and everybody eats.

In the hands of an inexperienced or impatient cook a number of strands are wasted, thrown at the wall before they're done, and they fall to the floor. Although in the world of sales the phrase "Don't throw spaghetti at the wall" is often heard, how does one avoid the time-wasting and ego-bruising experience of doing it? And remember, there is pressure to get results - now. Is it a necessary part of the process just to go out, talk to a lot of people and see what sticks?
  • Build a relationship before you do anything else. You are the first thing the prospective customer has to buy before they're going to be willing to consider your product. If your product is intangible they can't look at it and feel it before they buy - they have to be confident in your ability to deliver before they'll consider your product. Even if your product can be held and examined, you are a critical part of the customer's experience, so you need to manage that.
  • Talk to the person who controls the wallet. If you aren't confident in this, read yesterday's post. You can consume a lot of unproductive time cultivating a person who can't write the check, and who has no influence over whether the real decision maker will buy.
  • Answer frequently asked questions early in the process to prevent objections later. Since you and your company are going to be the first questions in your prospect's mind, take the question out of their mind by putting the information on the table.
  • Find out what they want before you present. When you present your product or service without discovering the prospect's wants and needs first, you're throwing spaghetti at the wall. You would never just buy a pair of shoes for yourself without having some basic information - size, style, situation for which they are appropriate, height of heel, color, etc. Even with a purchase as simple and inexpensive as soap, people have preferences that you need to find out if you want to be sure that your product is a good match for them.
  • Address budget criteria or concerns head-on. Talking price too early means that you're presenting before you've discovered wants and needs. But you probably have multiple sizes of product and/or scopes of service. When you find out early whether there's a budget and/or what their limits of investment are you'll be less likely to make a mismatch when you present. That enables you to present later without holding your breath (to see whether it sticks) and saves both you and the prospect time and stress.
  • Remember to match the benefits of your product with the needs they expressed. Don't make the assumption that your prospect will connect the dots on their own. And don't go on and on about features that aren't important to them. Features are irrelevant if they don't provide a benefit that the prospect wants.
  • Give them the opportunity to ask questions, and if they don't, prompt them along the way. This isn't arm-wrestling, this is an attempt on your part to help a prospective customer have his or her needs met. If by chance you've missed a need earlier in the process, or if the prospect needs more detailed information to make a decision you want to answer the question or resolve the issue as early as possible.
  • Ask for the business. You're not in the proposal writing business or the product demonstration business - you are connecting your product or service with people who need and want it in order to achieve their goals. Ask the questions that enable you to know what the next steps are before you leave the prospect's office.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Talking to the real decision maker

Originally uploaded by body language cards

One of the biggest time-wasters for salespersons who are out in the field actively making contacts is to invest too much time talking to someone who won't be making the buying decision. Getting to the right person can be a challenge for several reasons:

  1. With widely varying company structures it's not always clear what job title would describe the person making the decision.
  2. The salesperson might know an insider in the company and attempt to leverage the relationship to gain entry. When this happens the salesperson carries the contact's political capital (or ballast) with him or her. This means that the salesperson's inside contact can clear a path for a new client relationship or block it by virtue of their negative perception inside the company. In other cases the contact's lack of authority simply means that while they won't hurt the salesperson's chances, they won't really have the juice to help, and the salesperson will have invested time and energy without a real shot at a sale.
  3. The salesperson's self-image sometimes creates hesitancy to reach out to a top-level executive - they are concerned about rejection and feeling "qualified" to be there.

As the salesperson plans his or her contacts to achieve the highest ratio of sales to meetings, it's important to be aware that there are several categories of decision makers:

  • The information gatherer - This person is referred to as Seymour in Selling to Vito: The Very Important Top Officer by Anthony Parinello. Seymour is the filter, the gatekeeper. He can't say yes, but his job is to say no or to gather enough information that a) he can cover himself when passing you along and/or b) you will get frustrated enough to go away and save him the trouble. When you hear "I'd like to see more _________," you're dealing with Seymour and not the decision maker.
  • The decision influencer - The influencer is often behind the scenes and might not meet with you. But they will be consulted by the decision maker, either because they will be the one(s) to use your product or service or because they hold the company wallet. In closely held companies this might even be someone who's not formally in the company structure - a spouse, for instance. Buying from you might mean no vacation, no new car or no fur coat for them this year, so they're a stakeholder.
  • The egalitarian - This individual might be the top officer in the company, but uses a decision making style that formally includes the decision influencers in the process. The most extreme egalitarian won't make the call himself or herself, but rather will take a vote or poll the group to determine whether it's a buy or no-buy situation. For the egalitarian, the relationship among the decision team is at least as important as the result of the decision. So the salesperson might have a half-dozen individuals to win over if they want to make the sale.
  • The pragmatist - The pragmatist is willing and able to be the sole decision maker, and they are going to be evaluating in hard terms whether the purchase can be considered an investment rather than an expense. He or she is going to want to know specific outcomes of using the product or service and is going to want to link the outcomes to dollars or other readily measured and valued factors.
  • The visionary - The visionary has a goal, and their key concern is whether this product or service is going to get them closer to the goal. The goal might not be fully tangible, or the visionary might not yet know what form it will ultimately take. But they have a distinct direction, and they are open to opportunities that will take them in that positive direction. They might be looking for alignment more than on an exact ROI calculation as they determine whether or not they are going to buy.

If you're the salesperson, even if you're only selling an idea internally in your company, it's crucial to understand the person or persons with whom you're dealing, and to adapt your process to fit them. Otherwise, you're likely to find yourself feeling very busy, but not achieving the results you want and need.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Thoughts from a Vikings fan

Originally uploaded by nflravens

First of all - no, this photo isn't me, although the expression on the fan's face is similar to the one I had on mine last evening when Minnesota apparently decided that they didn't really want to go to the Super Bowl this year. Overly harsh of me? Perhaps. But last night's performance led me to think about why we get beat in sports, in business, or in other life arenas.

  1. The other team has better skills. If you don't have the blocking, the tackling, the passing and the running you won't win. Period.
  2. The other team has better talent. One person can't win on his or her own - it takes outstanding players in each position to make a dominant whole.
  3. The other team has better strategy. A really good play fools the other team into thinking you're going one way when you're going another. The best play leaves them standing there slackjawed while you run in unopposed for the score.
  4. One team thrives in the current playing conditions. Some teams thrive when the turf is muddy or the wind is bitter cold. Others are well acclimated to heat that could melt cleats if it were given half a chance. The advantage goes to the team that's prepared for the prevailing climate - weather, economic or otherwise.
  5. The winning team has mental toughness. They don't lose composure or cave in when the score is not looking good and the clock is growing short. Instead, they tighten their concentration, summon their skills and focus on the immediate task at hand. They don't relax when the score is spread wide in their favor, either. They stay alert and bring all of their game to the field.
  6. The winning team sees themselves winning. This is a corollary to #5 above. People behave in a manner consistent with their self-image. Losing teams tend not to go all-out, or they psyche themselves out when facing a tough opponent. Their behavior follows their thoughts, revealing itself in "stupid" mistakes and self-defeating actions.
  7. The losing team has some weak links, and they rely on them too heavily. This morning I wouldn't want to be the player who fumbled his team into a loss last night when a really big payday (not to mention international recognition) was at stake.
  8. Outside parties are making calls that work against you. Sometimes the person that is supposed to be ensuring a fair game isn't looking when a foul occurs. Or an illegitimate score is counted. Those are the breaks of the game.

Whether we win or lose, this is only one game in a season. Failure is not permanent unless we decide not to try again. But better to evaluate these factors, make the necessary improvements and increase our odds of winning on another day.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Creating opportunity for communication

Adapted from an archived post from the Peak Performance: From the Coach's Desk archives:

Remember back in your teen days when you’d go to the mall or the local pool, or even to the school dance and parade with your friends past attractive members of the opposite sex? Even though the prospect might have made you blush your goal was to create the opportunity for that special person to “catch” you and talk to you. Or perhaps you were bold enough to stand right beside the object of your attention, hoping your close proximity would start a conversation even though you were “intently” staring off in another direction.

My two dog and my cat know about proximity and communication. They lay on the floor right in the high traffic “trip you and break your leg” zone so I’ll be compelled to reach down and pet them as I go past them. And of course my six-year-old will still jump right onto my lap and physically turn my face if she needs to get my attention, even though I tell her she's getting too big to do so.

If you want departments talking more with one another, consider whether there’s something in the physical layout of your space that is currently creating a barrier to them having routine contact with one another. Functional silos are often demonstrated in physical departmental enclaves in an office. Right now if you’re in marketing and you want to talk to someone in accounting face to face you might have to navigate a warren of hallways and pass through multiple doors to do so.

If you’re wondering whether this really matters in the era of email and phone conferencing think about how much information you get from the nonverbal communication someone sends in your direction. Albert Mehrabian, one of the biggest names in communication theory, says that a full 55% of the message comes from body language. Yes, you can hear a smile over the phone, but you might not be able to hear someone doing that little circle with their finger at the side of their head that says they think you’re nuts. There’s really no equivalent substitute for being face to face.

Some companies are intentionally creating collaborative spaces when they design their facilities. Walls of individual work spaces have translucent or even transparent sections, and some have port holes. People among whom communication is being encouraged are located more in a bullpen sort of setting where they have the opportunity to stop by and say “oh, by the way…” to a colleague. Office chairs are designed to be wheeled into common spaces for meetings on the fly. In this more interactive physical setting communication happens on a nice-to-know, not only a need-to-know, basis.

These ideas don’t only apply to the workplace. Think about how much of the time your family is home together in the same room. Are they watching TV or playing games in their own little spaces or are they really sharing time together? Simply having to negotiate with your family about what TV show to watch together can create and/or reinforce lines of communication. You won’t know what’s going on with your teenagers if they’re constantly sequestered in their bedrooms. And it’s hard to have a quality relationship with your spouse if you operate like the proverbial ships that pass in the night.

How can you place yourself physically in the place of opportunity for communication, and how can you provide that same opportunity for others? Think about how proximity (or the lack thereof) is affecting your quality of life and/or work.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is Jack a dull boy?

From my LinkedIn Leaders and Thinkers Group discussion friend, Norman Patnode:

"Wow, all this talk about life's work... does anyone just want to go play?"

Now that you mention it, Norman, absolutely! The "Virtual Cafe - What's not happening at Starbucks" discussion has now passed 700 comments, the second longest LinkedIn discussion in which I've ever been involved. We've developed into a gaggle of familiars, knowing that one or two of us (and you know who you are) can be counted upon for detours into sheer silliness, while another few will be able to pull something profound out of what we all thought was obvious and simple.

We were on the topic of life's work - do you know what yours is, are you actively engaging in it (or in finding it,) etc. I wondered out loud ( in writing) what percentage of people really have a clear sense of their life's work when out popped Norman. "Who cares? Only 10% truth is needed for a good story."

There you have it, Norman. We are playing. This is what we're doing to get away from work for a while. The verbal back and forth, the dance between commentary and acknowledgement, between serious discussion and equally intentional distraction. Taking a thread of an idea and exploding it into a 20-post romp. Blowing up a balloon of intellectual discovery and then popping it with a groaner of a joke.

Just for today I won't judge whether social networking is good or evil, a useful connection tool or a harmful detour from what we're really supposed to be getting done. (Although I suspect that it's a little of both.) But just like a nice hot cup of tea in the morning or those black eye venti mistos that some people need to get going, the stop into the virtual cafe has become a regular part of my day. Now that's my idea of a good time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Headed for Sharkteeth Island?

Where are you getting your direction? Do you have a treasure map that you're following? Are you in heretofore uncharted waters? We could talk about this from a variety of perspectives. For today, let's talk about what's guiding your actions today, right now.

Habit - It's estimated that almost 90% of an individual's daily behavior is based upon conditioning. That means for the vast majority of the day you're operating on autopilot. That could be good news if you've got habits that have been intentionally cultivated because they help you achieve the results you want. That could be bad news if you don't like your current results, because habit change requires a plan, sustained attention and some support systems - especially for longstanding ones that aren't helping you.

Another person - In most company structures it's incumbent upon you to follow the person who's "above" you on the org chart. The question becomes how far you'll follow. If you have chosen your leader wisely you'll have a great role model after which to pattern your behavior. If you haven't chosen wisely (or haven't chosen,) you may come face to face with a decision not to follow. Even in the best scenario you and that other person won't always agree. You'll need to know just how far you're going to go to support your own information and/or your own point of view. And you'll want to consider the potential fallout associated with your choice to make your own way or push your own point.

Precedent - This relates to habit, in that it is repetition of what was done before, although it might not be done on a daily basis. The specifics of the precedents may change, but it's the orientation toward repeating prior approaches that is the habit. When you follow precedent you might not have to fight so hard to gain support - somebody else fought that battle before you. But if you're following the already-established path you're not ensured a successful outcome if some of the conditions are different from the way they were the last time. If you're always operating according to already-proven methods you might be reducing your risk, but you might also be limiting your results. And you won't be stretching your own creative energies.

Plan - I suppose any road will do, like the Cheshire Cat said, if you don't know where you're going. When you don't have a goal in mind it's easy to be distracted by the immediate, the proximate. If you're on a voyage and you don't have a plan, you can't be assured that you're going to have enough food and water, or enough crew to get you there. If you, however, have your chart laid out and you're using your navigation tools you won't be as vulnerable to waning resources or the lack of wind to fill your sails.

Today isn't irrelevant. How you invest or squander your time today matters. It's all of the todays that add up to your ultimate result, after all. I'm not telling you something that you don't already know - it's doing it that counts.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Self-image and the fun house mirror

One of the key attractions at the oceanside boardwalk or the midway at the county fair used to be the fun house mirrors. An ordinary person could walk up to the mirror and see themselves reflected with an uncharacteristically wide middle, short or stretched legs, or a giraffe neck. The mirrors were always good for a laugh, and for some "blackmail" photos that could be shown to future girlfriends and boyfriends by prankster siblings.

Entertaining, yes. But only because we controlled the speed at which we saw ourselves in the distortion. We could linger if we liked the effect, or we could scoot past the ones that showed us in an unflattering light. No big deal, because we knew what to expect from watching the people in front of us and we knew going in that it was temporary.

Sometimes, though our self-image is just as distorted. We look in the bathroom mirror and see something different from the image the outside world sees. The old gender-based joke shows a man sucking in his paunch and envisioning his 18-year-old football player self and the woman stands beside him, scowling at the perceived elephantine size of her butt. It's internal, but the distortion in the mirror is no less real in the eye of the subject.

Here's the rub: we act in accordance with the view we see, not the actual view, but our own fun house version of it. If we see ourselves as fat, we think "What's the use - I'm fat already" and chow down on the very things that create the condition we hate. If we see ourselves as stupid we tend to avoid chances to learn - why bother? So we set up a cycle where our behavior helps us reinforce the fun house perception of ourselves.

Sometimes it helps to do a diagnostic, or seek a third-party perspective to get feedback on whether the image we see is accurate. But we can impact ourselves in a positive way by the same method that we sabotage ourselves. We build our own fun house mirror - one that always shows us having a good hair day, looking hale and hearty, and of course attractive as heck.

We build our good fun house mirror by using positive self-talk, and by setting and achieving realistic and tangible short term goals. We prove that the new, more flattering image is real when we set ourselves up for wins, however small. Before long, we can see ourselves straight on, without any funny mirrors, and smile.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In search of tangible results

We had a great time at the book signing at Border's for Changing Results by Changing Behavior. Thanks to all of you who came out to chat and to get your personalized copy.

The pull of tangible results can be pretty compelling. Part of the motivation behind writing the book was (and is daily in this blog) to help leaders have another source of ideas and sound process. Another part of the motivation, I must admit, was (and is) the potential to have a tangible outcome from my work. Invest time and see a physical manifestation of the time invested.

I know that I'm not even close to being alone in this. Conversation after conversation with coaching clients has proven to me that sometimes a freshly mowed lawn or clean kitchen feels better than does a half-hour of thinking and planning. You can see that you've made progress by the stripes in the grass - you can smell that you've accomplished something because your house smells like lemons, or like antibacterial cleaner. (I'm convinced, by the way, that one of the obstacles preventing green cleaning solutions like baking soda and vinegar from taking hold is that chemicals smell like we've grown to expect clean to smell!)

How can you make your results more tangible? You don't need to distract yourself from your desk work by building a table or knitting a sweater just to feel like you've accomplished something. If you want to know how you're doing, measure what you're doing. Move a piece of paper, or plunk a marble into a jar for every to-do list item you've checked off the list. Create a tick sheet to document the number of appointments you've set, or how many attempts you've made to contact someone.

Sometimes our aspirations are intangible, like being a good parent or an effective leader. You can make these goals more tangible by determining the behaviors that add up to the characteristic, then measuring the behaviors. If you think being a good parent means you read to your child for 20 minutes every day, mark your calendar every time you do it, or make a list of the books or chapters you complete each day.

With some people the permanence of the result is important. Cleaning and mowing, while temporarily satisfying, will need to be redone in hours or days. Imagine, on the other hand, the satisfaction associated with creating a piece of artwork that is still being viewed by people 100 or even 1000 years later! Of course you'd not know that when you create it, and you wouldn't personally be there to see all of the visitors or hear their comments.

Tangible results may even be able to bring passive revenue your way. But I've found that this, believe it or not, isn't the primary motivator. It's to be able to feel, to see, to hold something and say "I did this." And the achievement is undeniable.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Partisanship, evidence and negotiation

During the past months of debate on health care reform in the House of Representatives, Senate, and the American public, interested parties on all sides of the discussion have presented evidence that supports their position. Their evidence, however, seems to fail to convince those who hold opposing views. This phenomenon isn't unique to the health care negotiations - it happens daily in households, workplaces, governments and playgrounds. Why?

Geoffrey L Cohen of Stanford University has published some research on the topic. What Cohen has found is that individuals who hold partisan views on a topic sort incoming evidence according to their pre-existing biases. In other words, they filter in evidence that supports their views and filter out evidence that refutes them.

This doesn't mean that negotiations are doomed to being stuck. Cohen has found that self-affirmation techniques serve as bias reducers for the participants. Interestingly, when people identified themselves as holding certain values not directly related to the negotiation and standing up for them they became more, not less, receptive to evidence.

The idea behind the self-affirmation is that when people have a more positive view of themselves, their values, and their ability to stand up for them, it takes the pressure off of the immediate negotiation. They don't need this specific situation to prove to themselves that they stand up for what they believe is right.

You might assume that people who view themselves as rational or cooperative would help negotiations proceed more smoothly. But Cohen and his colleagues found that the converse was true - they were more likely to use the "rational" self-description as a justification for refuting evidence. Those pegging themselves as cooperative actually behaved less cooperatively.

If you'd like more depth on the topic there's an interesting article by Jennifer Gerarda Brown of Quinnipiac University at this site.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Natural laws that Isaac Newton didn't discover

Isaac Newton
Originally uploaded by ly_tieulong39

Sir Isaac Newton, considered one of the most influential scientists of all time, developed the theory of gravitation, invented the first reflecting telescope and shared credit for the development of differential and integral calculus. He studied natural laws, but he didn't talk about people.

While there are cultural differences among people, there are some "natural laws" that govern them. Technology may change, buzzwords may change, but there are some human factors that stay consistent just like gravity:

  1. If you want to lead others, you have to lead yourself effectively first. Followers are earned.
  2. Your relationship with another person is like a rubber band - it bounces back for a while after being stretched, but if you stretch it too far too often it will begin to take a different shape. It won't hold as tightly, and it might even break.
  3. People find it easier to relate to someone who is something like them, with whom they have something in common.
  4. A real relationship requires regular interaction, and a good relationship requires mutual trust and respect.
  5. People who want to extend themselves further than people who have to.
  6. People think their own ideas are the best ideas.
  7. When they have to undergo a change, people go through a process of resistance before they integrate it. If they are firmly invested in their current ways the resistance is stronger and takes longer to overcome.
  8. People seek to reciprocate. When given to they tend to give back.
  9. In building new relationships people appreciate not having to make the first move.

You can continue to look for magic bullets or something new in how to relate to people, but the best benefit is in actually doing the things you already know about how to get along and get results. Your most productive move is to identify the places where you're working against natural human laws and stop trying to fight gravity. Gravity generally wins.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Ups and Downs of the Remote Worker

A Day in the Life
Originally uploaded by radioflyer007

It can be a pretty appealing idea to work from home, especially while one is navigating heavy traffic on a long commute or contemplating the drive to work during a winter storm. There's something cozy about the idea of making a 6-foot commute in slippers and robe, still bleary-eyed, to hook up the coffee IV and check emails.

When telecommuting started, one of the concerns on the part of employers was whether or not the remote worker was really putting in a full day. Enough time has passed, though, and enough accountabilty systems and new communication methods developed, that many employers have accepted - even embraced - the idea. They have been able to keep talented workers on board by allowing them to work from home, and they have been able to grow their workforce numbers without investing huge dollars in bricks and mortar to accommodate them.

Enough remote workers have garnered enough experience by now, though, that they have concerns of their own. Sure, it can be great to work at home, but there are pitfalls as well.

  • If you're remote and a significant percentage of the company's employees are together at another location it's easy to feel out of the loop. Someone isn't going to call you up or tweet you every time a joke passes through the office. And sometimes it seems that even the major pieces of news don't reach you on a timely basis - out of sight, out of mind.
  • When you have to rely on some of the corporate office resources for the completion of your work it can appear that your assignments get lower priority than those of the onsite colleagues that are close enough to give the support staff the hairy eyeball in person.
  • Production resources like high-volume copiers aren't right onsite. Although you can work on your phone, laptop or home computer, you still have to run into the office or down to Kinko's to complete some of your tasks. If you were in the home office you'd just walk down the hall.
  • Your employer's perception that you have more distractions and interruptions isn't completely off-base. Yes, your dog barks when the mailman comes - usually right in the middle of a business phone call. And when the kids are off school they are vying for your attention unless you have a well-orchestrated plan.
  • Social connections can be the glue that keep the team working well together. When you work at home you have to plan to connect with your colleagues, because you can't make meaningful eye contact across the cubicle wall or snag someone on your way out to lunch. If you're an extrovert it can be energy sapping to be by yourself all day.
  • Your work is always there calling your name. You have to choose to close the desk, close the door, or engage in some ritual to make sure you keep some sort of balance.

When both the employer and employee plan around the potential pitfalls of working remotely, it can be a great, productive arrangement.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What you're really saying when you communicate

Dr. Deborah Tannen, noted social linguist and author of multiple books on communication, talks about meta messages - the message behind the message. For instance, a husband says, "My coffee is cold, " and his wife responds, "You always expect me to wait on you!" Although the man makes a factual observation, the wife in this example hears a message behind his comment. Her response is directed (and inspired by) the meta message.

We don't know whether the husband intended that meta message to be received. It might have been transmitted in his tone or body language. It might have been inferred by his wife because of prior transactions between the two or because of her attitudes about spousal roles and boundaries. But no matter how it got there, that meta message is (and will continue to be) a player in the communication, and in the relationship implications it creates.

The same thing happens in the workplace. When you communicate, with whom you communicate, about what topics, in what direction communication flows - they all convey messages beyond the messages to your boss, your peers and your support staff.

A number of years ago the National Labor Relations Board did a study of the primary motivators for employees. Supervisors had been under the impression that money drove performance. Wrong. Pay ranked #7, while "feeling in on things" was #2, just behind "full appreciation for work done."

So the top two employee motivators are based in communication. Choosing to talk to other people tells them (the meta message is):
  • You notice them and they are important.
  • They are part of the team.

Choosing to listen to other people tells them (the meta message is):

  • You notice them and they are important.
  • You think they have something worthwhile to say.

I'm simplifying here - there may be many different meta messages that others draw from your communication. There are even meta messages behind your methods.

  • Email may signify that the message is urgent, or it may convey that you don't want to have to face the other person.
  • Written communication may convey that it's a one-way deal. You don't need (or want) their input.
  • If you're meeting in private the content of the communication must be important.
  • If you're meeting in public the content might not be important, or it's an attempt to keep you from making a scene upon hearing bad news.

Communication's purpose is to change another person's behavior. It's other purpose, its meta purpose, is to build and maintain relationships. And it's the relationships, after all, that contribute to motivation and the resulting performance that comes from it. Although communication is considered to be a "soft skill," its impact is not so squishy.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Planning Considerations for Closely Held Companies

Dueling Dragons
Originally uploaded by oybay ©

Closely held (privately owned) firms have some special characteristics:

  • the owner/founder is often actively involved,
  • the key leaders usually have personal relationships outside of work (sometimes familial ones), and
  • the company is often viewed with the level of emotion usually reserved for family and close friends.

These dynamics create some complexity for the strategic planning process:

  • If there are differences of opinion it can get emotional pretty quickly, threatening teamwork at best and at worst threatening the long-term viability of the business.
  • The outside relationships can color the at-work decisions (and vice-versa). This can be particularly dicey when spouses, parent and children, or siblings are key stakeholders in the business.
  • Strategic planning decisions will revolve partly around the business and partly around the partners' goals for themselves. This means that there are really two plans being developed - the company plan and the owners' plan.

If your business is closely held and you want to develop a sound strategic (2-4 year timeframe) plan, here are some recommendations to help the process create unity and positive momentum:

  1. Use an outside facilitator to keep the group on track and to make sure all participants provide input to the plan. There's no sense in creating a plan if a disgruntled participant refuses to implement it.
  2. Agree to the desired outputs for the plan before you start. Typically a plan will include the development of a vision statement, an external look, an internal look, a mission statement, critical goal categories, and then SMART business goals for the next 12-18 months. Your terminology may vary, or your planning window might be different, but you should specify the deliverables before you start.
  3. Agree to a planning timeframe, and don't rush yourself. I can't tell you how many times I've heard statements like, "Our company's future is at stake - can we finish in a half day?" You can take as short or long a timeframe as you wish; however, too little time will risk that you will complete your plan with too little information or bulldoze over dissenting opinions. Too much lag time (or too little structure) will delay the impact of your plan.
  4. Look at the long view before you create the short-term goals. If you don't look at your long-term vision you and your staff could become very busy taking actions that aren't moving in the desired direction. Your longer term view (vision) should become the context for your shorter-term goals (mission and business goals.) Your business plan or budget only deals with the next one year, and usually does so by planning based upon last year's results. That's the equivalent of driving while looking in the rear-view mirror.
  5. Determine which is more important - the fate of the company or the lifestyle plans of the key stakeholders. If you expect the business to be a going concern beyond the current leadership, start with the company plan. The potential pull-back or turnover of key stakeholders then becomes part of the internal look. If the biggest planning decision is going to be whether or not the business itself should continue given the owners' impending retirement or changing interests, call it up front and start with that decision before devoting tons of time and energy to the development of a strategy for the business.
  6. Consult experts if you see the potential for retirement or sale during the planning period. You want to know the nitty-gritty about valuation, estate planning, tax planning, etc. in order to determine the steps and/or timeframe for your personal plan. If you are leaning in the direction of seeking a buyer, you're really going to need a strategic plan in place to help prospective buyers feel comfortable with the soundness of your company. So you need not delay your plan while you hammer out the details.
  7. Incorporate "bench development" into your plan. If you want the company to continue after you're off playing golf or fishing you need to start now to identify future leaders to learn to run it while you transition out. Even if you plan to be there until you're carried out on a stretcher, you owe it to the company (its customers and employees) to develop the backup leadership it needs to continue without floundering in case of emergency (or while you're taking a real vacation.)
  8. Use a "Parking Lot" to capture extraneous issues. They are important to the person bringing them up, so you'll demonstrate that you want to hear their issue - but at the same time it won't take you on a rabbit trail that distracts from the planning process at hand.
  9. Keep your larger priorities in mind. If you push to win points in a planning duel, you might lose an equal or greater number of points in the interpersonal relationship with that spouse, child, parent or friend who is also highly invested (money or emotions) in the business. This is not to say you shouldn't go after whatever it is that you want. It's HOW you do it that counts.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Economic trends and your sales results

Jolie Avenue - EKYAP
Originally uploaded by EK YAP

Are your sales still flagging? If not, is it because you have changed your product mix, or added new delivery channels? We will only be able to see in retrospect just how much purchasers' attitudes about spending money have changed as a result of the big 2008-2009 economic bust, and how permanent the changes are, but here are some trends to consider:

  • According to eBay, mobile sales tripled during the 2009 holiday season over the prior year, with almost 6 million people carrying eBay apps on their phones. They contributed approximately 750,000 unique visits to eBay every day. E-tailers in general posted 4 percent growth in 2009 over the prior year.
  • The BuildIntel Blog says that consumers are looking for classic building features right now - things like exterior entries to their basements, wood ceilings and ceiling beams, and the modern version of shingle siding. While retro always has had a place, perhaps part of the appeal, especially with the older crowd, is the desire to return to simpler times?
  • The Calorie Control Council says that "recessionistas" and calorie counters lead their 2010 trends. Calorie counters are looking for "functional foods" that offer extra features, seeking to balance good nutrition and reasonable prices. Coupon clipping will continue to be in vogue, and low-calorie foods and beverages will continue to be king. Last, more people will choose to save the investment in gym memberships and work out at home.
  • Green is still a major player, with consumers seeking to increase energy efficiency, use recycled or repurposed materials, and minimize waste.
  • Healthcare IT news talks about change in the sites for the delivery of healthcare services, outside traditional hospitals and doctors' offices. More people will access worksite and retail sites, and many will use IT-enabled delivery such as email, telehealth, and remote patient monitoring.
  • Electronic reading devices like the Kindle are taking high-volume book buyers out of bookstores and onto the Internet for downloads. Kindle sales are now 35% of book sales when a Kindle version is available.

New or expanded opportunity may await you in new products or delivery methods. Take advantage of this time of great flux and catch the wave.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A matter of priorities

changed priorities
Originally uploaded by hockadilly

Which is more important to you - a good appetizer or a good dessert? It's a no-brainer for me - dessert wins any day of the week. So regardless of how tempting the appetizer menu is (unless I'm substituting one for an entree) I choose to bypass it so as not to ruin my appetite for dessert. I know what my priorities are and I choose accordingly. Simple, right?

But what about those choices between the things that seem to be unchoosable? How does a husband, for example, given an awful medical choice between saving his wife and saving his near-term unborn child, make that choice?

  • The role of assumptions - The man above may assume that if he saves his wife they may be able to conceive another child; she, on the other hand, is irreplaceable to him. So he chooses her. Or he may assume that it's not a foregone conclusion that only one can be saved. Or the man may assume that the medical folks know better than he, so he tells them to save the person who has the better odds of survival in hopes that he won't lose both of them.
  • The role of context - The man may not have the financial resources to fund the care that both (or the one in worse shape) may need, so he may make his decision on that basis. Or he and his wife might be in the middle of some marital strife, so to let her go would mean he would live with what looks like it might be a permanent sense of guilt (or relief.)
  • The role of values - If the man believes that his most important mission in life is to pass on his family name and his family property, he may choose the child. If he believes that to do anything less than to take heroic medical measures constitutes murder, he may refuse to choose.
  • The role of time or timing - In the above situation the man may not have the time to stand back and think through all of the ramifications of his choice. Something must be done right now (even without complete information,) so he acts.

It's relatively easy to play Monday morning quarterback and look at a choice and make a judgment (if you would choose differently) that the person's priorities are messed up. But unless you know the assumptions, the context, the values and the timing behind the decision, you can't make a valid judgment.

And in the case of values - this particular situation is extremely personal, and his values are his alone to weigh. Unless you are also a stakeholder with the same vested interest in the outcome, it's simply not your call.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sparks of Creativity

Sparks of Creativity
Originally uploaded by katyekat30

Do you enjoy stretching your creative muscles? Or is the thought of having to be creative one that instills dread? Where do you find your best ideas?

  • Over the holidays we had the opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I'm not a visual artist, but enjoy art museums. I like to try to determine what the artist was trying to communicate, and sometimes (despite my limited knowledge of art production methods) try to figure out what process(es) the artist used to produce the work.
  • Creativity isn't limited to art. Sometimes it's a matter of finding a new or unusual solution to an old problem. Recent and current economic conditions have led to innovation that probably wouldn't have come about without resource limitations. Repurposing rather than disposing isn't only a green thing to do - it's a creative outlet. Instead of buying some things (usually homogenized and run-of the mill,) people are making them. They are creating one-of-a kind items that serve functions but that also provide opportunities for problem solving, thought and expression during the process of production.
  • A blank sheet of paper is the sign of creative opportunity for some - others of us need to see a bit of an outline upon which to build. Applied creativity is creativity nonethless.

Creative thinking is a mental muscle that responds to being exercised regularly. Not every work is museum material, yet it builds pathways that create the opening for something that might be. So what's stopping you from stretching beyond yesterday's boundaries? Stick your toe in the water. Try something off-the-wall today to solve a problem. Experiment. Your sparks of creativity just might light a fire that takes hold and keeps your mental engines cooking.