Monday, January 31, 2011

Preparing for the hand-off

Relay Pass
Originally uploaded by

Danielle Hummel
So you know that you should be delegating more than you do, but you don't feel quite comfortable or confident that equally good results will be achieved by somebody else.  If you have selected your staff partly on their ability to grow, you can develop them into a place where you can go on vacation without calling in every five minutes to see how things are going.  Indeed, the better your development and delegation methods, the more quickly you could be promoted (or be golfing!), because you'll have a successor ready to go!

Here are some strategies to make the hand-off easier for everyone involved, and to ensure a good outcome:
  • Share your criteria for decision making.  This might be expressed on a company values document, or you might want to get specific about how you personally go about doing it.  This is best done in one-on-ones with the individuals you are thinking about deputizing.  You will want to talk about this on multiple occasions, drawing in current situational examples to reinforce your criteria.  Remember, common sense isn't one single set of criteria - you need to define what common sense is in your environment.
  • Provide the opportunity for victories along the way.  You can give that person or persons the opportunity to show what they can do through small independent assignments, which will help both you and them feel more confident in their abilities.  Do post-mortems on these assignments with the other party so you can reinforce what went right and thereby increase the likelihood of seeing that right behavior again.
  • Create a goal plan or project plan.  The first time you do so should be together with them, so you can interact about the implications of the project, the obstacles, solutions, action steps, timeframes and involved parties.  Establish check-in times as part of the early plans - and the first few projects should have more frequent check-ins than subsequent ones.  Once the individual has demonstrated that they know how to think it through, lay it out, and implement - have them do the plan on their own and then review it with you before implementing.  Gradually you will be able to pull back and give the assignment with full latitude, because they will know how to do it and they will already have proven to you that they can do it.
  • Set clearly identifiable boundaries.  You need to determine - and communicate - whether you want them to bake "something," or whether you want them to bake "miniature corn muffins that contain fresh blueberries - from scratch".  If you want to indicate a budget, or who else on the staff may or may not be pulled in to help, say so at the outset.  Otherwise you are setting the person up for failure.
  • Follow through on your check-ins.  You don't want to wait until the whole shebang is due and then find out that it won't be coming, or it won't be in the form that you need it to be.  Be accessible, and hold them accountable for timeline benchmarks so both of you have the opportunity to problem-solve if necessary with adequate time to do so.
  • Create your own future.  Sometimes you are holding on to a task not because they are not ready, but because you like this type of work for yourself, or because you don't know what else you would be doing instead.  We see this all of the time in family-owned businesses, where the older generation just can't fathom not being in the thick of it on a daily basis.  Founders sometimes have so much emotional energy invested in the business that it's hard to separate, even when they know that it's time to start that process.
Remember, the business is not just you - it is an entity in and of itself.  If you truly want to leave a legacy, you do so by developing the people who can carry your company and its outstanding results long into the future.  And the time to start that process, if you haven't already done so, is now.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Awakening the sleeping buying motive

Salespersons and business owners with sales roles spend a lot of time perfecting their pitches.  They construct and reconstruct, edit, consult the thesaurus, all in search of the perfect set of words that will cause a prospect to leap from their desk chair and exclaim, "I have to have this right now and I don't care how much it costs!"

I'll bet just reading those words sent you into fantasyland if you're in sales.  But you are getting way ahead of yourself.  Yes, you need to describe in general terms what you do and how you do it in order for people to be open to talk in more depth with you.  But a buy decision requires the identification of a need or a want first.  The choice to work with you is the second part of the process.

Let's put you in the role of the potential buyer for a moment.:

 I'm sure you are walking around all day long with problems, challenges, opportunities and situations rolling around in your head.  Many of them will continue to roll around in there, because you haven't decided yet that you want to do something about them.  They are in latent form.  Many of them aren't all that important to you right now, and some of them are only in your subconscious - they haven't raised themselves to the level that you notice them.

A latent need (sleeping buying motive) becomes active (you want to do something about it) when you identify rewards associated with it that are big enough to get you off your duff and do something about it.  Or perhaps it won't be rewards, but rather the avoidance of negative consequences that will wake you from your slumber.  Your motivation to buy increases with the value of every pebble of reward and consequence that you add to the scale.

Now salesperson - if you realize that most needs are latent, what do you have to do?  Those prospects out there don't even have you on the radar screen because their need is not in active mode yet.  If you drop into their office, say enthusiastically, "I've got product A here in my bag.  Want some?"  they aren't going to make the connection, even if product A is fabulous and your pitch is flawless. 

Your job is to sit down with them and help them discover what their needs are, to facilitate their thought process about the potential rewards (and the consequences if they don't act) so that they can move on to their next choice - about whether you are the one to solve the problem or fulfill the need. 

The needs-based, customer-focused sales process is about asking, not about telling.  If you have ten different prospective customers in front of you, the conversations and buying motives might be completely different from one another - even if you only sell one product to fulfill customer needs.  It is the "why" that awakens the bear.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The project tug of war

Tug of War Boys Team_4_BW
Originally uploaded by TimMunsey

The management of workflow sounds like it should be simple and straightforward.  You make the assignments, people carry out the assignments, and presto!  You achieve outstanding results.  But it's not that simple.  Here is one big obstacle that tends to turn workflow management into a tug of war - or into a game of hot potato!

Unclear, undefined or shifting ownership of the project and its output because of your unwillingness to let go.

The delegation-resistant expert
When I'm the expert I've typically gotten my expertise through education, training, experience and personal talent and/or interest.  I like to feel competent, and that attracts me to tasks that are comfortable, ones that can demonstrate to me and to others the extent of my capabilities.  Here is a representation of some of the inner monologue:

"I know that I should delegate to you, that there are other tasks with which I have been entrusted, and if I stay on this one I won't have time to do them.  But I like to do this kind of work, and since I am ultimately responsible for it I get to choose who on my team will do it.  Besides, I am awesome at doing this work.  I'm not sure you will do as good a job as I would do.  What will the customer think if I give them a substandard account relationship manager?  I can't risk it.  Besides, I like to do this kind of work.  I'll do the other things later." 

And of course, by the time my fun work is done there is not enough time to complete the other things - even if they are far more important than the tasks I was supposed to delegate!

The Vulture
I might give you a project as a test, or because my boss told you that I have to delegate more.  But almost as soon as I hand it over I start to worry about whether you are up to the job.  So I check on you constantly.  This job is my responsibility, so I feed you ideas and I stop by to see how you are doing about every fifteen minutes.  I correct your mistakes, and geez, you are making a lot of them.  Yes, of course I trust you, but I'm responsible for the output, so I can't leave anything to chance.  At least I am delegating...sort of.

The big take-back
Yes, I know that I told you that you were going to handle that project.  But I'll talk to the customer first to make sure we have the specifications agreed upon.  They know me already.  What?  You need what additional information?  Why?  That's not the way that I would do it.  Well, you know what - don't worry about it.  Since I already started it I'll just finish it.  I'll bring you in on the next project - I promise.  (And of course the next project and the next after that run in the same way.)

When you are responsible for the results of a service line, a profit center, a department, etc. you need to be constantly checking in with yourself and asking yourself "What's the highest leverage activity I could be engaging in right now?"  If you keep everything, do everything yourself, you are costing the company money.  First, your hourly rate is higher than the other people who could potentially handle this work.  Second, if you are underutilizing available capacity (those other people on the payroll) you are wasting salary and benefit dollars.

Being the senior person means you get to be the chief discomfort officer - you are the one who models the stretch of personal development.  You have the opportunity and the responsibility to do what the company needs most - to obtain the maximum possible return on the investment in the business.  The short-term comfort and expediency of doing it yourself (for the delegation-averse) is no substitute for the long-term benefit of building the human capacity outside your office door.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

SOTU - the new way to watch

Hubby and I watched the President's State of the Union Speech last night, as we always do, with all the accessories - cocktails and popcorn.  But last night was different - we watched in a new way. 

Jim sat at the computer watching the broadcast in enhanced format, where the feed of Obama speaking was accompanied by pictures and graphs illustrating the points he was covering.  From time to time he exclaimed for me to come over and check out the graph on, for instance, jobs in the U.S.  But Jim wasn't only watching and exclaiming; he was also on Facebook spreading the SOTU link so his Facebook friends could also choose to see the enhanced version of the speech.

I was in my customary spot on the couch under a comfy down throw watching the speech on TV, but with my Blackberry on my lap.  I toggled between Facebook messages from political simpaticos and my Twitter feed, where Keith Olbermann and a high school friend provided minute-by-minute commentary on the speech as it happened.  (How many media can a person use to discuss someone's suspect suntan and predisposition toward emotional eye leakage??)

I learned a few things from this experience:
  • The visual aids really help the message come across with clarity, at least for me.  The President is known for his skills in oratory, but the extras were helpful.  This information transfers into my own opportunities to speak - use effective visuals to get the message across.
  • It's hard to maintain full focus on the speech while Tweeting and reading Tweets.  (I'm remembering this for ammo when my daughter tries to text at the dinner table!)  It's easy for the sidebar to pre-empt the main message.
  • My HootSuite is so effective at spreading my messages over a variety of social media that I'm sure there are some comments I Tweeted during the speech that will irritate some of my friends and colleagues when they appear today on LinkedIn.  Lesson #358:  Only Tweet what you're willing to have EVERYBODY read.
One additional learning separate from the multimedia experience was the impact of proximity on behavior.  It was quite interesting that the Congress was better behaved and the event much more orderly when they were seated in a bipartisan fashion.  Note to self:  When working with groups, split up the cliques and give the otherwise daily combatants opportunities to be side by side with one another.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Safety and the internal customer

Corporate focus on customer loyalty sometimes has an unfortunate byproduct - lack of attention to the employees who create the loyalty.  Long hours, heavy travel and grueling workloads become part of the culture of "leaping tall buildings in a single bound" on behalf of the people who buy our stuff.  When it goes so far as to compromise the health and safety of internal customers, it is a business strategy with a short lifespan, or at the very least one that will be likely to yield unintended consequences.

When safety arises as a business management topic it opens the conversation to the usual production concerns about cutting tools, air quality, bone breaks, cuts, electrocutions, needle sticks - and the list could go on and on.  But safety also encompasses things like
  • How fast employees drive on their way to appointments.  
  • How many hours you allow someone to work before you send them home for rest.
  • Whether you maintain a work climate where employees of varying genders, races and ethnicities, religions and sexual preferences can do their jobs without fear.
  • The manner in which you handle attendance on foul weather days.
  • Your absentee policy and health care coverage.
Safety and security are level one needs - fundamental to survival.  I used to say that these were no longer motivators for the majority of American workers, because they are already being fulfilled.  But current economic pressures are creating situations where employers are having to make tough choices to cut costs and maximize the output from reduced workforces.  Given the layoffs and pay cuts, and business failures that are all around, employees don't feel safe and they don't feel secure.  You might think that the feeling of insecurity would be motivating.  Sometimes it is, but in other cases it is a distraction that interferes with productivity.  And it can be so compelling as to cause your best employees to jump ship in order to take what appears to be a better and more secure situation.

Cash is cash, and economic reality means that we may never go back to the day of fat budgets and laissez-faire management methods.  Employees may need to do more and not expect big pay increases.  This post is here as a reminder, though, that some decisions that have economics as their primary rationale have potentially far-reaching negative implications for the people who produce the profit.  They (your staff) are the proverbial geese laying the golden eggs for you and your business.  Kill the goose and - well, you know what happens then.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Are you ready to do it the Disney way?

Here is a truly happy camper.  And she is only one of millions and millions of people who have been able to get that expression on their faces at a Disney resort.  How do they do it?

You might have read about this topic somewhere else, because Disney trains other companies to do the same thing that they do, but the information is so crucial to your success that it bears repeating.  Remember the idea that knowing and doing are two different things? 

First, Disney knows what its business is - "We create happiness."  Not a bad pursuit if you ask me.  Do you know what your business is?  Do you sell residential real estate, or do you help people experience The American Dream?  Do you manufacture cosmetics or do you sell hope?  (I'm not kidding here - Charles Revson of Revlon said this.)  The focus of the business is the benefit - the ultimate emotional outcome for your customers - of the work you do for them.

Second, Disney keeps just a few principles in mind to guide operational priorities and employee behavior.  The three keys to quality as they define it are:
  1. Courtesy
  2. Efficiency
  3. Show
What are your guiding principles?  And if you have them already established, are you going all out with them?

Two experiences from our recent Disney trip come to mind as it relates to these principles.  First, our arrival day was my husband's birthday.  We entered the park, and as he went through the turnstile a Disney staffer said, "Happy Birthday!"  Jim did a double-take - how did the staffer know it was his birthday?  We heard another employee along Main Street call out, "Happy Birthday!" the next day.  It occurred to us that a lot of people visit the park to celebrate their birthdays and so the birthday wish might have been a strategically incorporated element in the daily dialogue.  It doesn't change the fact that my husband smiled and felt recognized, even though he realized that it might be a regular part of the show.

Another part of the experience that we found particularly noticeable was the end-of-day ritual.  Instead of hiding out and closing up shop as the hordes departed after the nightly IllumiNation at Epcot, cast members donned Mickey hands and stood along the path, waving and calling "Goodbye!"  They made eye contact with departing customers - they talked directly to them and observably strove to catch customers' eyes.  It was funny how the simple device of that little padded glove (and one Buzz Lightyear glove that I saw) made each cast member Mickey's official emissary.

Beyond those two things the details of the show were everywhere - Mickey ears, Minnie ears, Mickey ears on wizard hats, Minnie ears with princess veils, caps, headbands, pocketbooks and beach towels - all with the branding in place.  The ubiquitous ears appeared on the bedspreads and even in subtle graphic form on the bathroom wallpaper!  Beyond the physical details, the staff called my girls "princess."  That was somewhat laughable, because both of them are quite sporty and strong-willed - not exactly the princess type.  But they responded (especially the younger one) with a grin when addressed in that way.

I could go on and on about the things that I noticed that demonstrated the Disney organization's follow-through on their quality principles.  Better for you to go and see for yourself.  Better yet, consider how the ideas might apply to your company and find a greater level of thoroughness and consistency in the implementation of them.

To some degree, it's a matter of determining the level at which you want to perform.  Do you want to be in a job?  Or do you want to be a worldwide phenomenon, perceived like Disney is - as a required rite of passage that a parent provides to his or her children?  Just how good do you want to be?

Friday, January 21, 2011

When people act like goats

We had the opportunity to visit Animal Kingdom in Florida recently as part of a Disney pilgrimage with family.  My younger daughter loves critters of all shapes and sizes - especially the disgusting ones - so we set off to the petting zoo so she could have some quality hands-on time with them.

As soon as we arrived, she burst through the gate, grabbed a brush from the basket and went about grooming every animal that would stand still long enough.  That task kept her busy for a while.  But it wasn't long before we noticed the "resting" sheep and goats in the enclosure next door.  There was a lttle bridge on which the goats could walk, and they were doing so, clopping back and forth.  Until...
One goat decided that he wanted to get through to the other side, and another goat, walking in the opposite direction, determined that he wanted to get through to the other side as well.  There might have been enough room for both goats to go where they pleased, but instead they took the situation as their cue to lock horns.

There they stood, heads butted together, neither of them making any progress.  Well, maybe they alternated pushing ahead one step or two before being pushed back.  It appeared that the bridge-crossing venture was completely forgotten as each of the two of them focused on making sure that the other goat wasn't able to force his way past.  The goal became the background only, now eclipsed in importance by shows of dominance.  The goats looked downright silly.

Apparently the bridge crossing wasn't all that important to the goats.  But although I won't tell you names and places, I have seen this time and time again in the human realms.  In meetings, in communities and in families the interaction becomes more about the symbolic, about the relative status of the players, and less about the actual topic at hand.  I'm sure you have had the opportunity to observe what appears to be ritual fight-picking, where the argument is about nothing but the argument itself.  Somebody needs to score points, and if the prime situation doesn't appear on its own they create it.

There are times, though, when the outcome is important - and despite that, the butting of heads, locking of horns, and shows of dominance block a critical result from being achieved.  Part of the role of the team leader is to help the team members to stay focused on the desired outcome.  When you are the leader, it helps when you repeat the goal, the charge of the group, at the beginning of meetings.  Use data and facilitation tools to do the talking during the analysis of problems to minimize the need for ego, posturing, and dueling opinions.

Are you the one acting like a goat?  Do you feel the need to put somebody in his or her place, or to show the group just how smart you are?  If you even have an inkling that you might be doing this, ask yourself why, then ask yourself "What's important?"  My bet is that when you remind yourself what's important you will be able to refocus yourself on the purpose behind the interaction, on the desired result.  Yes, there are people who will get your goat.  But you can choose not to engage, regardless of what they are doing.  It is always a choice to butt heads - or not.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

You are your own window dressing

Uniform- Side
Originally uploaded by ~jkluska~
How do you feel when you put on that uniform, or your favorite business suit?  Do you feel smart, powerful, in charge?  What difference does it make when you're all casualed-out in sweats or pjs?  Ready to hunker down in front of the tube or to curl up with a book?  Today I'm spinning the adage, "You can't tell a book by its cover."  It's about choosing the cover. 

Of course you can't know everything there is to know about a person by looking at their clothing, but you can see the transformation that clothing makes in them.  I have seen kids change behavior for the better when they are all duded up for picture day at school, or for the Christmas Eve church service.  I have observed the straightened posture and confident presentation that appears when a person feels good about the way they look.  A person dons a uniform (literal or figurative) and he or she puts on the corresponding game face - happy, stern, helpful, tough, uptight or relaxed.

This is about grooming - self-care - and it's also about appropriateness and respect.  When you are well-groomed you demonstrate that you care about yourself, and about the people with whom you are going to come in contact.  When you make sure that you are spit-and-polished you show that you care about the details and that you are in control of them.  When you look good you look successful and trustworthy.

You know the routine - shower, shave, style hair, perhaps a little makeup (for the women out there - sorry guys, for you that gets an "eeww" vote from me,) and well-fitting, clean and pressed clothing.  Here's the rub - there are times when your regime might become so much a habit that you aren't really seeing yourself in the mirror.  You might be wearing your customary navy sportcoat and khakis without noticing that they are getting tight or frayed, or that your tie has a stain on it.  (I'm not even going to mention the post-lunch spinach fragment on the teeth!)  This doesn't serve you well in previewing your outstanding capabilities.

In the clothing, hairstyle and accessories departments you might choose to conform with the standard attire for your peer group, or you might choose to make a statement by creating your own.  In banking for instance, conservatism in dress is intended to preview conservatism with your hard-earned resources, and is an appearance to be cultivated.  Customers expect to have their funds handled by people who are trustworthy and risk-averse.  You might be a wild thing on the weekend, but at work it's a suit and tie, or a dress and simple jewelry when you work in a bank.

If you choose to conform with the expected attire for the group - and this means the group to which you want to belong, even if you're not there yet - you are showing that you fit in, that you have the right to be there. If you want to be promoted, dress now for the job you want then.  Sharp clothing is no replacement for knowledge, or skill, or people skills, but it can create a setting for you in which you are more likely to attract positive attention.  People are more readily able to picture you in a role when you look like you belong there.

There are times when it is not necessarily to your advantage to blend in.  If you work in a creative industry like advertising or entertainment the standards won't be so clearly defined as they might be in financial services.  If you want to stand out you might be able to do something that expresses your uniqueness and creativity, like wear blue streaks in your hair or an armload of tattoos, without attracting negative attention. 

This works best if you work in a place geared toward trends, or toward the youth market.  But even outside those industries unique branding through window dressing can work to your advantage.  I can still recall, even though it has been fifteen years or more, an attorney in my town who was known for his perpetual hat-wearing.  He was the only one to do so, and the hat became his brand, his trademark.  He was immediately recognizable, even from great distance, when he walked down the street.

Whether people should judge books by their covers or not, they do.  You are speaking volumes before you say a word.  Check the mirror today before you venture out for the day.  Make sure you are being intentional and smart about the information you are sharing about yourself through your appearance.  It is worth the extra minute or two - for your own confidence, and for the impression you are making the people with whom you have contact.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Going broke by saving money and other irrational behavior

Shop Till You Drop
Originally uploaded by The urban snapper
Author's note: The context for irrational behavior right now is the horrific shooting incident in Arizona last week. In my estimation that was the action of a mentally ill individual and is not to be confused with the daily misunderstandings and conflicts that arise when average individuals don't understand one another. This post is about those daily or weekly incidents. I won't attempt to comprehend the other.

"I just had to buy this - it was priced at 70% off the regular price!" she crowed victoriously as she burst through the door, shopping bag carried like a trophy above her head. "If you keep "saving" money like that you'll put us in the poorhouse!" her frustrated spouse retorted.

Interactions on this and similar subjects take place every day in multitudes of locations, business and otherwise. Your behavior feels completely logical to you but looks entirely irrational to me, and vice versa. So we argue, or we say nothing and instead stew and make a mental note of this little transgression for a reappearance in a future disagreement. Needless to say, this is not a productive scenario, no matter whether it occurs at home or at work.

Here's the problem with irrational behavior: irrationality is a judgment that a person makes based upon his or her own experiences and value system. It is not an absolute. It may make no sense to you that a person would blow their financial reserves on a vacation when they just lost their job, but they might see it as a last hurrah before they go on the search for a new one, or they are taking the trip to salve their sorely wounded ego. They might have already made a substantial deposit that they would lose if they were to cancel.  You might not understand why your teenager insists in catching the school bus wearing only a hoodie to protect himself or herself from the 20-degree (F) temperatures - but your teen has reasons that make complete sense to them.

There are, of course, behaviors that are so widely disparaged that a large group of people would regard them in a similar way. They would consider them to be irrational, thoughtless, stupid, shortsighted, etc. The judgment of irrationality is partly a cultural phenomeonon - it is the result of shared norms that this person or this group of people have flouted. But that does not change the fact that judgment is in the eye of the judge(s). Pardon me for saying so, but just because you think it doesn't make it true or factually accurate.

The point in thinking about the irrationality of behavior is that rule number one of effective behavior says we are all charged FIRST with seeking to understand. (Just ask Stephen Covey if you don't believe me.) Calling behavior irrational (or smart or well-advised for that matter) is jumping to a conclusion. You need to know more about the thought process behind the behavior. You might be able to see the logic when you see the thought process. And even then, it may be important to consider whether you are in any position of authority or responsibility to judge that person no matter what your opinion about their behavior might be.

So what if she puts blue streaks in her hair or dresses too hot for her age? Who cares if the seventy-something gentleman blows his kids' inheritance on the sports car of his teenaged dreams? If you are directly impacted, and negatively so, by their behavior you may have something to say about it. But maybe not. Every person has to have space in which to live and be himself or herself. You would want the same opportunity to be stupid if whatever lame-brained scheme you cooked up made you happy. ("Lucy, you've got some 'splaining to do!")

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Are interruptions getting you down?

Interruptions are among the top five reasons why coaching clients and team session participants tell me that they get frustrated at work.  They are working along, minding their own business when the phone rings, somebody peeks around the office door, or some other such incident happens that creates a stop in their work flow.

Of course there are several approaches toward handling interruptions, one of the extremes being to say something like, "Get out of here - and stay out!" and slam and lock the door behind the person to prevent any more interlopers from darkening your doorway.  On the other end of the spectrum is the leader who responds, "Come on in, sit down and we'll talk about it."  As they say on Spongebob Squarepants in that Jacques Cousteau-like dialect, "Sree houers latehr..." the leader's own agenda and their productivity has been completely torpedoed.

If interruptions are a big factor in your productivity (or the lack thereof,) here are some thoughts to consider:
  • How crucial is your personal productivity relative to the overall results for which you are accountable?  Is the bigger proportion of your responsibility to handle problems for your staff?  If so, perhaps these aren't really interruptions - rather they are the substance of your job.
  • Have you done anything for interruption prevention?  Solid orientation and training, clear expectations, and regular one-on-one meeting schedules help your staff operate more independently of you.  Of course, that's assuming that you want them to work independently and not to rely overmuch on you.
  • Are there people for whom you are more interruptable?  Why is that the case?  Is it because they have higher status?  Are they newer and less experienced?  Do you like them better?  Interruptability is one way in which some managers inadvertently show favoritism toward certain employees - at least that's how it reads to the other employees who don't have the same access.
  • Are you under the impression that you have to be accessible or inaccessible all of the time?  Most leaders, even those not designated as player-coaches, have some personal productivity for which they are responsible.  If interruptions are getting you down or putting you behind the eight ball, set aside some do-not-disturb time.  Close your door and park your phone.  If you have the luxury to do so, work at home for the morning to catch up.  On the other hand, if nobody ever has access to you, relationships will suffer and the problem will only escalate in the form of delays, inaccuracies, and unproductivity.
You might not realize it, but your attitude toward the interruption is speaking loud and clear to the person who is doing the interrupting.  You might be frowning, sighing, glancing at the clock - or you might be smiling and waving them into the room.  There are three things to remember:
  1. Know what you need to accomplish, including your role in helping "the interruptors" be successful in their work.  Then allocate your time accordingly.
  2. Speak and behave congruently.  You won't successfully hide your frustration if frustration is what you are feeling.  Eventually your attempt at deception, even if well-intended, will exact its price in the form of headache, stomach acid, or a sudden fit of temper when the last straw has been added to your load. 
  3. Establish interruption management strategies.  Figure out just how much is enough, communicate about it with those with whom you interact regularly, and follow through.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The view from the crow's nest

Crows Nest
Originally uploaded by colmdc
What do you see from way up there?  From the crow's nest, high above the ship, you have the best view of the horizon of anyone on board.  Of course that's the whole purpose of your elevated physical position - to have the best view of what's coming - or what you are approaching.

Do you have the same acuity of perspective when you look down from up there?  Can you really see what your crew members are doing on deck, or do you only see the generalities?  Can you tell whether their hands are full, or whether they are tired?  Can you see that they are bickering, or is it only noticable when knives are drawn and a fight breaks out?

I would bet that you can't see the people on board the ship as well as you need to when you're sitting in the crow's nest.  To really know what's going on you need to climb down from your perch and walk around among them.  Once you are on the deck you can observe the problems that they are having, and you can see how well they are working together - or not.  You can even tell whether they are following your orders or planning a mutiny!  But you can only do it when you are out among your crew members.

If this is the first time that you have climbed down in a while, work might stop while they pause to try to assess what you are doing.  If they don't know you very well they might hide evidence of their difficulties from you, concerned that you might find them incapable and inadequate.

If you have a history of leaving your perch only when you see something wrong the crew might scatter.  Nobody wants to deal with the wrath of the commander, and just as you can see them from up there, they have plenty of time to see you coming and to take evasive action.

Don't get me wrong - you can't spend all of the voyage on deck with the crew.  You lose your effectiveness in setting the ship's course if you never survey the horizon from the crow's nest.  You have to leave the deck sometimes if you don't want to place your crew at risk from unanticipated storm or enemy attack.  Your view from the top of the ship is crucial to its safe voyage, so you can't get yourself tangled up in the ropes of the day to day. 

Yes, you need strong muscles to climb up and down from there.  You might feel a bit stiff and sore from the exertion the first few times - you might even get sucker punched by an upset crew member when you hit the deck, and that's no fun.  But the process of intentionally seeking both perspectives on a regular basis will help your muscles become strong and stay strong.  And you will become the kind of commander whose ship and crew can become the stuff of legend.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cow Paths and Process Improvement

Cow Path
Originally uploaded by xcoroxyx
When I was in college the campus was undergoing a number of large building projects to accommodate a rapidly growing student population.  This was great in that the facilities were fresh, new, up to date with technology, etc.  But it was also difficult to navigate the campus in some spots because the construction crew didn't immediately install sidewalks.  They seeded the commons areas in between the new buildings, and before the grass was fully grown in, muddy trails were established - "Keep off the grass" signs or not.

I found out later that this somewhat messy method was intentional - facilities folks realized a long time ago that students would walk the paths that they wanted to walk, regardless of where the sidewalks were constructed.  So the new way to handle the situation (and save construction costs) was to wait for the "cow paths" to reveal themselves by student traffic - and then pave them.

On campus there also were some stately mature ginkgo trees - but unfortunately whoever selected them didn't realize that female ginkgo trees produce lovely little fruit that, when squashed by car tires or careless footsteps, gave off an odor not unlike the smell of stale vomit.  This was especially noxious in September and October, when the still-hot days would amplify their aromatic impact.  So on the way to class freshman learned very early on to give the ginkgo trees wide berth - they would circle way around, completely out of their way, to avoid the smashed yuckberries.

Remember that I said earlier that the sidewalks were built based upon student traffic patterns?  What if the ginkgo trees were planted in the newly constructed area instead of the older part of the campus, where the sidewalks were laid a half-century earlier?  The college would have had yards and yards (maybe miles) of inefficient, nonfunctioning sidewalks for ten months of the year simply because the students were avoiding the ginkgo trees for the other two fruit-bearing months.

This is what also happens when work processes are created.  Unique circumstances cause a worker to take the long way around, or to insert an extra step, and then before you know it the cow paths are institutionalized in your work processes. 

You probably have already heard the story about the mother teaching her daughter how to prepare the Easter ham - the mother instructs her daughter to "slice the ends off of the ham, place it in the pan and bake the ham at 350 degrees for 2 hours."  When the daughter asks why she should first slice the ends off of the ham, the mother says, "I'm not sure, but that's how your grandmother always did it.  I do it the same way."  When the daughter is not satisfied with that answer, the mother calls the grandmother to find out why she always sliced the ends off of the ham before baking it.  The grandmother said, "I did it that way because my pan wasn't big enough!"  (Ba dum dum!)

In your company you might already be looking at production processes regularly and analyzing your opportunities to reduce costs and increase your speed while reducing waste and defects.  Are you also looking at your business processes like billing, collections, materials ordering - even sales?  My bet is that there are cow paths all over those processes, methods that someone passed along to the next person during on-the-job training.  Nobody knows why they do it that way any more, it's just that it has always been done that way.  It is likely that somebody is doing the equivalent of slicing the ends off of the ham.

Efficient, effective processes create customer loyalty and profitability.  Bad processes beat good people every time, eroding morale and in some cases even creating turnover.  That costs money, too.  You do the math.  You'll want to get the cow paths outta there.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Are you the missing link in the chain?

close up chains
Originally uploaded by kintzlejordan
Food for thought on a Monday morning - who do you know that could use a bit of assistance?  Perhaps they need some expertise, or a contact with someone who has resources they need.

Now think about who you might know that can benefit that situation.  Do you have a friend, a client, a business contact?  If so, you might be the missing link in the chain.  You may be able to be of huge benefit simply by serving the role of connector, of matchmaker, between parties.

You are probably underestimating the potential transformative power in your existing relationships.  When you help the right people connect you are creating a triple win - the receiver benefits, the giver has the opportunity to create their own new relationship, and you increase your sphere of influence in the community by knowing who's who and helping others.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Is your report card wrong?

Report Card, Summer 1904
Originally uploaded by Carosaurus
Images of the day of the report card's arrival are engraved in much of our culture - the kid erasing the bad grades and replacing them with good ones before he gets home, the scholarly kid who earns an ice cream cone because of her straight A marks.  Household peace or war could be started based upon the scores on the card - days or weeks without television, loss of a cell phone, and various consequences could be invoked if the school performance was not up to snuff.

Parents get fired up about report cards because they are concerned about their child's future.  Are the grades indicators that they will be economically successful as adults?  Do they reveal a shortage of discipline or character?  And will they be able to get into a high-quality college based upon their transcripts?

What if the report card were not accurate?  Much of the way in which parents manage their school-aged children depends upon receiving feedback on their school performance.  What if the grades were arbitrary, or based upon only one test, or completely up to the subjective discretion of the teacher?

This is the view of performance reviews in many companies - that they are not accurate.  In fact, some quality theorists (Deming, for instance) argue that performance reviews can't really be made because nobody but the worker himself or herself can really know the quality of the job performance. 

If you are doing them, they are supposed to fulfill some purposes:
  • Provide performance feedback so employees can get better at their jobs
  • Serve as the foundation for merit-based salary increases
  • Document the reasons why an employee should be terminated, to protect the company against future litigation for unfair termination or the cost of unjustified unemployment claims.
The most prevalent problem I've seen with performance reviews is when they don't tell the truth.  Performance is not evaluated in an overly critical way - actually, the opposite is often true.  The manager doesn't want to mess up a working relationship or a pay raise and so they whitewash the ratings they give.  Then when the small problems they didn't address evolve into larger ones that might justify termination the manager has no documentation of prior issues.  The nonperforming employee lingers in the company, extending the period of poor results.

It helps to come back to the intention behind doing the performance review.  Ultimately its purpose is to provide feedback with the goal of outstanding results for the company, contributed by each employee.  It works best when it is a tool that helps you, the manager, develop each employee into their best self.  It is not only their responsibility, but one that is shared by you.  Your job is:
  • To define your expectations in a comprehensible manner
  • To train the person to do the job
  • To provide adequate resources for them to do the job
  • To give feedback on job performance so that expectations are met and job requirements fulfilled
  • To create a working climate that is motivating and stimulating, one that elicits peak performance because employees want to do well for you and the company
Top performance is a responsibility shared between you and the employee.  When you don't tell the truth - with compassion - in performance feedback sessions and on performance review documentation, you aren't helping anyone.  The result of your failure to communicate is that performance doesn't improve and you start to feel increasingly frustrated until you are to the point that you're ready to lower the boom and terminate them.   Replacing staff costs money, and they might have been salvageable.   Now who's earned the bad grade?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What is your number one thing?

number one
Originally uploaded by Right Moon
If you are like most people, your to-do list stretches far longer than the hours you have to complete it.  In addition, there is no finish line - you clear out one item and another fills in the empty space.  It can feel overwhelming when there are 15 urgent things for you to do.  How do you decide what to do first?

Janice found it helpful to focus on "the number one thing."  Her number one was defined (by her) as the item that would give her the most leverage or forward progress.  Even in times when she had a dozen or more things to accomplish, she could tackle her list by asking herself the question, "What is the most important thing for me to invest my energy on?"  She would allow herself to choose only one, because she could do only one thing at a time.  (Actually, regardless of what you believe, you can only do one thing at a time as well.  You might think that you are multi-tasking, but actually you are toggling back and forth among two or more things.)

So how do you determine what should be number one on your list?  Your criteria have to be your own, unless it's a workplace situation, in which case your boss may want to weigh in on the prioritization.  Priority on the "to do" list could be assigned based upon
  • What brings in cash in the near term?
  • What will prevent a cash drain?
  • What will strengthen a key customer relationship?
  • What will prevent a crisis?
  • What can I do to lay the groundwork for future success?
  • What can I do right now to chip away at a longstanding problem?
  • What activity brings me closest to my purpose?
Some of the things on your list are pulling at you, but they are not really important.  Put those aside for the important things.  Sure, you want to be responsive to other people, but ultimately you are accountable for your own results.  You might have to say no to something to make room for your number one thing.

If you have been dancing around your number one thing, you need to ask yourself why.  Do you feel confident in your ability to accomplish it?  Are there resources that you need in order to complete the task but that you do not have right now?  Is it a big job, or one that makes you feel a bit nervous?  Is it a must-do that will have big consequences if you do not accomplish it within a given timeframe?

My husband and I joke around about his now-deceased parents' habit of saving the big agenda item for last in the conversation.  They would talk about the weather, about their neighbors, about something they saw on the news last night - and then bam!  "Oh, did I tell you that I have been having chest pains for the last week?"  Huh?  Of course by the time they would bring up the main subject we would have run out of time to talk, but now we would be conflicted.  We would be worried about them, but impatient at the same time because we had to be at an appointment in fifteen minutes.  Why didn't they tell us the important things first?

If it's your number one thing, get on it.  If you try to clear everything else out first to make space for it, your only irretrievable resource - time - might be so gone that the number one thing gets short shrift.  If it's number one, make it number one.  If it is important enough its achievement will overshadow numbers 4,5 and 6.  In fact, they might even go away if you do number 1 first.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

There is no such thing as a black swan!?

Black Swan
Originally uploaded by jorellh

I've been reading a fascinating book titled The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  The author introduces the subject in this way:

"Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence.  The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies.  It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge.  One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans.  All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird."
Taleb's point is that extreme events have huge roles in life.  The book is not as concerned about the possibility of the exception, (the Black Swan) as it is about the role of the exceptional event.  Black Swans are things that are unexpected, but they can also be the highly expected things that for some reason do not happen.  Black Swans are things like:
  • The 9/11 attacks - they were a Black Swan for us, but they were not such for the terrorists.
  • The untimely death of a close relative.
  • The unplanned meeting of your future mate.
  • The invention of the microwave.
Taleb says that Black Swan logic "makes what you don't know far more relevant than what you do know."  What you know can be inconsequential - the surprise and the disruption come from the things that you don't know, that you don't anticipate.  If you protect against threats a-z, what's to say that the Black Swan won't be a 1,2 or 3?  You might never have considered that a number might be a threat, and therein lies the impact.

Prevention (in the case of a negative Black Swan like 9/11) probably won't drive your name into the history books. If you succed in preventing a negative occurence the absence of the negative event will make you un-newsworthy. Ironic, isn't it? The crisis handlers get far more attention and acclaim than do the crisis averters.

On the positive, beneficial side of the Black Swan,
"almost no discovery, no technologies of note, came from design and planning - they were just Black Swans.  The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves."
Taleb goes on to say that the strategy is to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.  The reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky thanks to aggressive trial and error.

It may seem counter-intuitive not to want to know too much about a given topic.  But Taleb says that when we learn we tend to deepen our grasp of what we already know - the Black Swans, the big changes, are coming from some other direction.  By definition they are surprises with big impacts.  So it follows that if you are investing time in thinking, more is gained by taking time to think about what you might not yet know.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Are you a farmer or a hunter?

Originally uploaded by hohumhobo
In the world of sales, one of the most important distinctions to draw when you are leading a sales staff is that between the farmer and the hunter.  It is so key to the productivity of your staff that I'd say if you aren't structuring your organization around the two sales types you are shooting yourself in the foot (sorry, that hunting pun slipped right out before I realized it!)

The farmer likes to cultivate existing relationships.  He or she is willing to take the time to stay in touch, to make gestures of appreciation, and to be responsive, at the beck and call of the customer.  It is relatively easy for the farmer to put the customer first in priority - before his or her own personal revenue, and sometimes even in front of the company's profitability.  It's how the farmer is built.

Farmers tend to be patient, and they attend to the details that need to be handled in order to have every project go in a consistently correct way.  They follow up, they proofread, they remember customers' birthdays.

The Big Game Bow Hunter
Big Game Bow Hunter
originally uploaded by

Hunters, on the other hand, despise the details.  They want to be out in the jungle, tracking prospects and bringing them in.  A hunter's office is usually his or her car rather than a space in a building, and hunters only tend to touch base when they have to.  The rest of the time they want to be going from appointment to appointment, out claiming their territory.

There is a higher sense of urgency in a hunter than there is in a farmer.  They are likely to be highly motivated by financial rewards.  The hunter wants to do whatever is necessary to bring a customer on board with their first purchase, then the hunter is moving on to the pursuit of his or her next quarry.  The details are not important to the hunter, so someone inside the company is usually chasing the hunter down later to find out information that is critical to meet the customer's needs, yet missing from the pile of paperwork that he or she dropped on the desk on the way back out of the office.

It's important to recognize natural hunter and farmer behaviors on your sales staff because you will help them improve their results for you when you ask them to do what they already do well.  A number of sales firms have found it helpful to put a hunter together with a farmer as a sales team - the hunter to haul the big fish onto the boat, and the farmer to handle the ongoing care and feeding once the relationship is established.

Of course the company's reward structure has to be aligned with its sales concept.  A hunter is likely to value the initiation of the relationship more highly, and the farmer is interested in repeat sales and relationship expansion.  Both are critical to the company's longterm success, so both roles need to be rewarded as such.

If you are frustrated with the performance of some of your sales staff, consider this hunter/farmer model.  In times of heavy competition or financial stress the hunters become more important to you, to build the customer base.  You might have more farmers on your hands, legacies from times when customers bought more per year from you and you were succeeding despite the fact that there weren't many new relationships being brought on board.  In addition, in some industries there is a large initial purchase, and then the follow-on business is residual, smaller in dollar value.  In these industries you can't live indefinitely on residuals, although auto dealerships, for example, have worked very hard to make service (their residual sales) a big proportion of their revenue and a hedge against soft sales cycles.

You might need more hustle on your sales team, and if that's the case you need to hire or grow hunters.  But if you want to keep the business that they bring in, it's the farmer that will do the job.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What is in store for you this year?

At The Prom
Originally uploaded by Irishphotographer
What is in store for you in this new year?  Do you have plans, or are you waiting for something to reveal itself?

A friend told me once, "If you want to make God laugh, plan your life."  Hmm.  I suppose with the events of the past couple of years I should take that friend at her word.  Stuff does happen - events that are out of my control and yours have potentially derailing impact that reaches all of us, despite the best laid plans. 

But that's out there.  The uncontrollable is a waste of your energy.  As for the rest of it, a whole lot of things are within your influence if you choose to go there.  You can make a real difference in outcomes, in your own life and and in the lives of people around you, when you start from intention and follow through with action.

So - what is going to be different from last year for you, and from the year before that?  What do you need to do differently, and what is worth starting today, right now?  I can't tell you what it is.  You probably know what it is already.  Chances are that it is a matter of peeking your head out over top of the rut you have yourself in, and stepping out onto new turf.  Or a matter of simply jumping off of the diving board.  You have stared at the water long enough - now you have to jump if you want to get wet.

Is it a little bit scary?  Heck, yes.  It might be a lot scary.  But doing something - taking action - is far less scary than waiting for that thing - whatever it is - to ring the doorbell.  And if you are a person of faith, you also know that while you can pray for mountains to move, it also helps to bring a shovel and to be willing to dig to make it so.