Monday, February 28, 2011

Keeping the "family" in a family business - Brown's Orchards

Think for a moment about the iconic roadside fruit stand.  You're driving along a country biway on a weekend afternoon, thrilling the kids with the missing-stomach feeling that comes from a fast climb over a hill - when you come upon an awning-draped shed stacked high with bushels of apples - green, red, yellow and combinations on broad bleachers.  You see more produce on tabletops -  peaches, plums, corn - and you HAVE to pull over.

Once you clamber out of the car you're greeted by the smiling face of the proprietor, who offers the kids a sample of a home-baked sugar cake, or a taste of a whoopie pie.  You leave with arms loaded with treats, some healthy and some a bit sinful, and continue on your way.

Now imagine that little roadside farm stand growing, and growing, and growing.  The smiling staff is still there, and the selection of treats expanded to include pies, specialty cakes, coffee and a deli, and even some gift items.  You grab some lunch and park yourself to eat in the greenhouse, among the growing plants.  It's dino day today, and your 7-year-old has a fresh dinosaur painting on her cheek and a dino balloon animal (complete with vicious magic-marker dinosaur teeth) perched on the edge of the table.

Brown's Orchards and Farm Markets started out as that roadside stand, and today it is a two-location destination for people who love fresh produce and baked goods, plants and gifts.  It's also a spot where suburbanites and city folk can recapture a bit of the homespun feeling of life in the country.  If you're lucky you can shake the hand of Stan Brown - patriarch, farmer and businessperson - or Dave Brown, the next generation of leadership, who is helping to integrate new-era technology and business practices to take the company to its next level of achievement. 

Even though Brown's has grown substantially over the years, you can still feel the heart, the country community, the family vibe in the staff there.  It doesn't happen by accident.  At a recent employee appreciation dinner one of the staffers was crowned "Queen Bee" for her smiling face and her willingness to engage in such customer-pleasing activities as wearing a costume or a silly hat.  At the same dinner, employees and their families were shown a video and slide presentation featuring them - mugging, smiling, even play napping - all in good humor and affection for the extra touches they bring to work every day.

When you're with the Browns you never get the sense that this is a management technique, strategically employed to keep employee turnover low and productivity high.  This is the real deal.  When employees were recognized at the dinner for longevity in employment, the longest tenure celebrated was fifty years.  Fifty.  Five-zero.  You don't keep staff engaged that long unless the caring is genuine and the environment nourishing.

I suppose that a farm market is intended to be a happy place, a family place.  If that's the case, then Brown's should be the picture on the poster.  If you're anywhere in York County and can get to Loganville on the Susquehanna Trail, or to Emigsville on North George Street, you probably already know about Brown's.  You and your parents, and perhaps even their parents go there.  But if you haven't been there yet, or you are in need of a dose of that hometown family feeling, get yourself to Brown's.  And tell Stan and Dave we said hello.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Strategy and the sales funnel

Originally uploaded by Tartan Neil
If you have a sales role and you're ready to admit that you have been underperforming and living addicted to "hopeium," a solution may be at hand.  Warning:  this is simple, but it might be hard.  It is not a substitute for taking action; rather it is a way in which to take action.  Let's start by taking a look at some sales facts:
  1. Not everybody you talk to is going to buy from you, no matter how good a salesperson you are.  If they don't need or want it, if they can't afford it, or if they can't make a decision to part with money for it, they are a suspect, not a prospect.  Next!
  2. There is a profile of an individual who is more likely to buy from you.  Look at your current customer base and assess what the common threads might be.  Are they in certain job roles, or in companies of a certain size?  Are they a particular age, education level or gender?  Do they have similar wants or needs?  If so, do more prospecting with people who fit that profile.  And if you don't know, start building your base of information so you can get smarter and more strategic with your activity.
  3. Know your numbers, and set your goals around the nearest incremental result.  For example, if you know that you have to talk to 3 people on the phone to get an appointment, set your goal around appointments rather than on the number of times you dial.  (Also take into account that you might not talk to the person you need to contact on every attempt.)
  4. Start from your monthly sales goal and work backwards.  Let's say that you have to produce $10,000 in gross revenue every month and you get a $2,000 (avg.) yes every 5 appointments:
  • You estimate that you will need 5 times 5 appointments, or 25 total appointments this month, to hit your revenue number.
  • Based upon your appointment hit rate, you will have to talk to 75 suspects on the phone to acquire the number of appointments that will support your desired result.
  • Plan your phone call time (and the numbers on your call list) to account for the "no contacts" that will inevitably happen.  It might take you 3 or more tries to talk to one of the 75 suspects that will schedule one of your 25 appointments.
  • If you followed this thread of logic and worked backwards, you would see that you need a call list of at least 225 names to have enough appointments to fill your funnel.
You can be busy all day long, but if you are not analyzing your pipeline numbers and becoming more and more strategic about the activity you are doing, it's quite possible and maybe even likely that you will start to feel like a hamster on a wheel.  This post doesn't even touch on the skill development that could make your ratios better, and your numbers easier to achieve.  But regardless of your current skill level, your commitment to manage the activity in your funnel using real data will make it more likely that you will hit your monthly goal more consistently.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

coin toss
Originally uploaded by steve bernhardt
Yes, I suppose you could have called me gullible, or maybe a bit slow on the uptake.  It took a while for me to figure out that when the playground trickster engaged me in a game called, "Heads I win, tails you lose," there was no way for me to win.   He had stacked the ground rules such that no matter how the coin fell, he would walk away with a victory.

That kid took advantage of my younger age and my straightforward nature.  I had a huge amount of respect for authority, whether it was in the form of my parents, teachers, or other people that I saw as older and wiser than me.  And the older, wiser people had never treated me poorly.  There seemed to be a direct relationship between my "good" behavior and their good graces.  Heck, most of them were even kind and understanding when I messed up.

One of the lessons I learned from that playground trick was to listen carefully when the sharing of the ground rules was a bit too quick.  I figured out that the speed of the conversation meant that I wasn't supposed to think too hard before agreeing to the other party's proposition.  It was usually not in my favor to quickly go along.

One of the other lessons I learned from "Heads I win, tails you lose," was that I could play the trick on my younger brothers and win every time.  They, like me, weren't used to being taken advantage of, so they had to lose the game several times before they figured out just how I had stacked the deck, er, coins, against them.  I'm not particularly proud of that fact, but perhaps it was a good lesson for them, like me, to learn.  The game itself wasn't a big deal, but it was symbolic.

In the political world right now it seems as though the playground bullies are at it again, taking what they can when they think nobody is looking closely enough to catch them at the zero-sum game.  It seems that certain parties are not negotiating in good faith, but rather are resorting to tactics better left on the playground.  The bad news for the playground bullies is that two can play that game.  You can only win the "Heads I win, tails you lose" game when the other kid is unaware of your deceptive nature.  And now the other kid knows what you are up to.  He can create a trick of his own.

I can't say that I think that the playground is better for it, but that's the way the kickball bounces.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Here's to the small business owner

In the midst of tax cuts, budget debates and labor protest, I'd like to take a moment in tribute to the small business owner.  How small is small?  You decide, although in my mind these are the folks who eat sleep and breathe their businesses.  They are often the proverbial chief cooks and bottle washers.  Their companies are like their children - their most prized posessions.
  • Here's to the person who dreams about an idea, and then who takes the steps to make it real.  He (or she) is not content to gaze out the window and fantasize; rather, he researches, tests, tinkers, until the idea is ready to go.  Then he hangs out the shingle and hits the pavement to find customers.
  • Here's to the person who drives an old car because right now the company needs the capital more.
  • Here's to the business owner who learns about computers and software, and about insurance and retirement planning.  She doesn't learn these things because they are her interest - she learns these things because no company, no boss, nobody else is taking care of her. 
  • Here's to the owner who knows all of the key data of the business in his head - revenues, profits, top ten customers, best selling products.  Sure the data is in the computer, but he is so close to the daily success of the company that he can't live without knowing it off the top of his head.
  • Here's to the business owner whose employees are like family.  This owner makes decisions with each employee's best interests in mind. If necessary, this owner delays or even forgoes pay for herself to make sure that her employees and their families have income stability.
No, small business owners aren't saints by definition.  But they are courageous - they do their thing without benefit of lobbyists, negotiators, paid vacations and health insurance, and without a set, reliable weekly paycheck.  Small business owners have the worst deal going, but they are willing to trade it for the opportunity for autonomy and creativity.  They are rewarded by their results, whether good or bad.  They are the poster children for personal responsibility.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Comfort in Being the Big Fish in a Small Pond

Big Fish in a Small Pond
Originally uploaded by sportyjac22
Which would you rather be - a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? 

This is a more significant question than you might think.  It impacts decisions such as the place in which you choose to live, where you choose to go to college, with whom you choose to associate, even where you choose to shop and do business.

The Big Fish
A big fish wants to be recognized and respected.  People know the big fish's name and many people recognize him (or her) on sight.  The big fish can be generous in a kingly sort of way because he knows his place is on the throne - and the other fishes' place is in the court.  It isn't all glory, though.  There can be a strong feeling of responsibility that comes with being the big fish.  If he is not to accomplish it, donate to it, create it - then who will?

It can be frustrating being the big fish.  Hangers on try to find out the secret of the king fish's success, and wannabes and copycats abound.  (I suppose that sounds like they might be frightening - cats chasing a fish.  Never mind.) Whatever you call them, they are usually diluted versions of the fish because they won't ever learn the complete secret formula that would enable them to become one.

One potential downfall to the big fish, however, is that eventually some small fish will grow.  The former fingerlings might become even bigger than the old fish - the throne is not completely secure.  Occasionally the big fish that wants to stay king of the pond might resort to nefarious tactics to maintain his status.  Or at some point he might decide that it's a relief to turn the pond over to somebody else, because becoming and staying the big fish can be a lot of work.

The Big Pond
A fish can be intimidated by the big pond.  Even if the fish is fairly big and a fast swimmer, the big pond contains a lot of other fish that are big and fast too.  The other fish might be traveling in schools that are hard to penetrate, and some of the big-pond fish might be pretty as well as big and fast.  The new fish is not guaranteed a satisfactory place in the ecosystem.  And the big pond has room for bigger threats - the shadows can contain holes, hooks and sharks that weren't an issue when the fish was in the puddle.

It takes confidence and resilience to be willing to be relatively small in a world of stiffer competition.  But some fish need the test of the big pond to get their enthusiasm pumping.  They thrive on the competition, and they would rather learn and find themselves lacking than to sit in one place.  The big-pond fish need to keep swimming in order to feel truly alive.

Big fish, small fish - there is not one that is a "better" fish to be - the key is to know what kind of pond you want to swim in.  You might only be able to find out by making a decision that you later realize wasn't right for you.  So what?  If you were wrong before, now you make another decision to become more in alignment with the fish you are, and the fish you want to become.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The ugly eight poor listening habits

You probably haven't noticed poor listening habits when you have been the listener - that is unless you have suddenly realized at some point that your mind has been somewhere between the asteroid belt and Mars for the past few minutes.  Most likely you have discovered them when you have been on the other end of the transaction.  You tried to get your message across and for some reason the other person wasn't getting it, or they misinterpreted what you were trying to say.

Chances are that you aren't without some flaw here, either.  So I've rounded up eight of the biggest and most frequent poor listening habits in an attempt to help you generate empathy for the other person out of a sense of shared culpability:
  1. Not listening - Put down the smartphone, the ipad, the newspaper and pay attention.  You can't effectively do two things at once.
  2. Pseudolistening - This is when you are working toward an Oscar nomination for the category of "Best imitation of real listening."  When you are pseudolistening you nod your head, perhaps you mumble "Mm-hmm" or some other response.  You don't really want the content, but you want the other person to do their monologue anyway.  (Psst - they can usually tell when you're doing this, and it will tick them off.)
  3. Listening but not hearing - Sometimes you're sorting, listening for a specific piece of content.  Perhaps your teen is talking and you  are looking for clues that they have been breaking rules or you're trying to do some other detective work.  The whole of the message gets lost while you focus your energies on that one particular thing.
  4. Rehearsing - You know you want to sound intelligent, or you want to win the argument, so you prepare yourself by rehearsing what you're going to say.  One big problem with this method is that you miss the immediate content that you can rebut or enhance.  Instead of sounding smart, you chime in 5 minutes after the fact with a comment that is now completely out of context and outside the current thread of conversation.
  5. Interrupting - There are two types of interruption.  One piles onto the current topic and the other changes the topic altogether.  Cultural, gender, and situational differences can vary the impact of interruption.  It might not be incredibly offensive at the time.  But understand that whenever you interrupt you're telling the other person that what you have to say is more important than whatever they are blathering on about.
  6. Hearing what is expected - This is related to "listening but not hearing."  Your attitudes about this person, this topic, etc., cause you to play out what you think is the most likely scenario.  If you don't think you're going to get the raise that you're requesting you might not hear the "yes."  If you are in sales this can work to your advantage - if you have a hard time hearing the word "no" you might be able to close more deals.  Or you might get punched in the nose.
  7. Feeling defensive - As the listener, you interpret the message that's coming to you.  If you have negative or fearful feelings about the other person, or about their motives, you might instantly apply the most negative interpretation to their message and then jump in to protect yourself.  If you block their message or try to overwhelm the other person with your own point of view in response, you might be missing some very valuable information.  There might be only a molehill of a situation now that, if you get defensive, will grow into a bigger issue.
  8. Listening for a point of disagreement - Sometimes there's no pastime more rewarding than a good argument.  The adrenaline flows and you feel alive when you are actively engaged in verbal jousting.  You might even think that disagreeing or criticizing makes you look smart.  But it only makes you look disagreeable and critical.  This is not to say that you should never disagree - only that it doesn't help your case to go looking for a fight.
These eight points are habits, and that means that you can choose to change them.  Any person can become a better communicator.  Why shouldn't you be that person?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Water Cooler Time-Waster, or Crucial Capacity-Builder?

A study at the University of Illinois reveals that minor workday distractions like checking personal email or shooting the bull with colleagues are not detrimental to productivity.  Alejandro Lleras, writer of the study, says the brief diversions might actually help people concentrate.  The water-cooler chats might be helping them to improve their performance.

This information corroborates some of my favorite other resources:
  • In The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz talk about the 90-minute window of productivity.  They say that you cannot maintain concentration on a task for longer than 1-1/2 hours, and that you enter a stage of diminishing returns.  You will achieve more in less total worktime if you take breaks, and they recommend breaks that incorporate physical exercise.  Imagine what a difference it would make to take a walk around the building with your work buds instead of standing by the coffee pot!
  • Stephen Covey, effectiveness guru, said in his original book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that relationship building is a quadrant two activity.  Quadrant Two means that it is important, but it is not urgent - it is not pulling at you.  You have to choose to take the time to build relationships.  If you work in a team, or even if you have to interact with people in other departments, other companies, etc. to get your projects done, the work goes faster and more smoothly when you have a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with them.  Relationships don't develop instantly, so the coffee pot, the water cooler, the cafeteria, or other central location is your ally in helping relationships happen. 
The brief conversations about nothing, or about common-denominator topics like kids sports and the trials of sitting outside in 25-degree weather for soccer practice are the social glue that help teams work.  Even a stop-in on Facebook can provide the online equivalent.

As recently as yesterday, an online friend of mine, Rand MacIvor, (see, I practice what I preach) was talking about how he learned how to do animated gifs from some friends on Twitter.  He applied the new information to his blog, creating a visual concept that he wouldn't have been able to execute without his online "distraction."

Eventually you have to get back to work - that's a given.  But if you are one of the dedicated workers who sits on your keister all day long with your nose to the grindstone, proud of your lack of lunch break or coffee trip - think again.  The socialites gabbing in the hallway are very likely getting more work done than you are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

If u cn rd ths hidn msg, u mt b a hllva ldr

Originally uploaded by poorusher
Whether at work or at home, any leader worth his or her salt recognizes that in any single interaction - even in every single phrase - many messages are being sent simultaneously.  When two people communicate you might notice three distinct (and perhaps conflicting) pieces of information - the obvious surface message, the message behind the message,  and the unintended message - and that's just for starters.

How you say it is incredibly important, yet oftentimes in situations where time pressure, mixed feelings, or high intensity affect your communication process it's easy to forget that unintentional messaging can easily become communication gone sour.  Let's talk about a few of the common pitfalls:

I'll admit to being a bit of a spelling geek, but poor spelling can communicate lack of education or lack of intelligence.  I'm not trying to be insulting here.  Some people care about spelling and some people don't, but if you don't spell well and you have to write for someone who considers accuracy in spelling to be a key quality indicator, you are in deep doo-doo.  Use your spell check every time, and then check your checked spelling.  (In banking I used to have to use the words "note" and "rate" quite often.  Depending upon my particular typo, spell check would change my mistake into a recognizable word - just not the correct one.)

Use some.  Shorter sentences and relatively short paragraphs will help the message get through faster, and to a wider range of reading levels.  Understand though, that short sentences can also sound like commands.  That doesn't always serve your purpose (remember the message behind the message?).  On the other hand, if you go on and on and never break a thought for a pause and you keep the same sentence going and you connect all of the parts with the word "and" your unintended message will be that you are unable to sort the information in your head well enough to chunk it into comprehensible pieces and that will drive people to think you might be either seven years old or a little bit nuts.  One more thing - if you frequently use exclamation points or multiple question marks at the end of sentences people will know that you used to be a cheerleader, and that you have never gotten over it.

The order in which you choose to organize your words has a HUGE impact on the message perceived.  I'm a Pennsyvania Dutch girl - if you're Pennsylvania German as well I'm sure you know what I mean when I say "Please throw down the steps a pair of socks!"   If you're not, well, I've just revealed to you that I'm Pennsylvania German, and that my local lingo has just overwhelmed sixteen years of schooling.  Colloquial (informal) syntax often isn't welcome in business communication.  In a global economy it can be greatly to your advantage to sound homogenized enough that you could be from New York, or from California, or from Wichita, or from "France."  (Goofy Coneheads reference for you old folks out there...)

Word Choice
It comes down to this:  you can use big words, small words, foreign words, or swear words.  Any word choice you make reveals whether you think the communication is about the receiver of the message or about you.  Match the word choice to the audience.  If you don't do so, you'll risk coming across as a vulgar pseudointellectual with egomaniacal tendencies, a narcissist, a braggart, a ....  Enough said on this point.

Ambiguous Combinations
This communication method is sometimes unintentional, but often is strategically employed when you have been asked to say something and you want plausible deniability later.  I have a favorite book on this, titled Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations, or L.I.A.R., by Robert Thorton.   This concept is best demonstrated with examples:
  • "I would place this student in a class by himself."  Really?  Why does he have to be alone?
  • "She works effortlessly."  Is it easy for her, or does she apply no effort to her work?
  • "You will never catch him asleep on the job."  Is it that he never sleeps on the job, or that you'll never catch him?
  • "Whenever he asked for a raise, we generally let him have it."  With a sledgehammer?
  • "There is nothing you can teach a woman like her."  She's not too bright.
In Summary
Tread carefully in your communication today.  Bee aware tht peepul are waching 2 sea weather you know what u r doing, and yur speech and riting reveal more than u realize.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Social media's impact on the speed of change

peaceful revolution in Egypt 2
Originally uploaded by ifotog,

Queen of Manhattan Street Photography
I have been watching and reading, fascinated by the tide of change that has come to Egypt.  First Tunisia, then Egypt, Albania, Yemen, Iran - revolution has come to the Middle East.  And what is remarkable to me is the peaceful manner in which such quick, yet historic, movement in the political structure in Egypt in particular has occurred.

I was reading a Fast Company article titled "Exactly What Role Did Social Media Play In The Egyptian Revolution by Simon Mainwaring, which outlined some ideas that are fascinating as they relate to Egypt, but also applicable to other changes (albeit not quite so huge) in which you might choose to be an influence.

Brian Solis, author and expert in the new media, says, "If unity is the effect, density is the cause."  The density of connection among social media participants allows thoughts, ideals, "cognitive dissonance" to spread quickly.  I'm sure you have observed how viral something as mundane as a silly or sweet video can go when you expose your online friends to it.  Imagine how fast and how broadly the information would move if the message would directly impact the quality, even the safety of your everyday existence!

The article quotes Stowe Boyd, self-described "social philosopher and webthropologist," who says,
"Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread. […] And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others' perceptions about events, or 'social contextualization') leads to an increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it."
The phenomenon of social media was a key contributor to the unseating of Egyptian President Mubarak.  Even though, according to Mainwaring's article, there are only "21 million Facebook users in the Arab world," a Facebook page in honor of the murdered Khaled Said served as the rallying point for 470,000 fans, while a YouTube video about his brutal beating and killing by police was viewed by 500,000 people.

As you look at news coverage of Egypt and other current sites of revolution in the Middle East, are you still convinced that Facebook and YouTube are only insipid time-wasters that carry blatant self-promotion and dissolve the brains of those who imbibe them?  Or has it become more apparent to you as it has to me that they and other social media have incredible potential to accomplish sea change when the public becomes engaged?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions...
Originally uploaded by p.folk { off }
You have been sitting on a choice for a while, but haven't been able to bring yourself to resolve the issue and make the choice.  What is stopping you from making that decision?
  • Do you not have enough information to be certain it's the best decision?
  • Is there an aspect of the decision that isn't completely positive for all involved - will there be some fallout?
  • Do you have to trade something else to make this choice?  Is that something valuable to you?
  • Are you concerned that somebody else, somebody whose opinion is important to you, is going to criticize you for it?
  • Are you worried that you might find out later that you were wrong?
An objection to making a decision is when you need more information. "Does it come in blue?" or "Can I pay for this over time?"  are examples of objections.  The answers to your questions will help to determine whether or not this option is one you want to take.  Eventually you will have enough information to discern the degree of fit between your problem and this solution.

If you find yourself asking question after question and never seeming to get to the point of comfort with the decision, you might be stalling.  A stall is when the concern isn't about the item itself, but rather about fears, concerns, etc. around making the decision.  An objection is about the product or service, even about the credibility of the salesperson.  A stall is all about you.

Making no decision is a decision in itself - the decision to do nothing.  If you want to resolve the issue, but you realize that it's the decision itself that's bothering you, evaluate the benefits of doing it and the consequences if you don't.  The combined value of the rewards and consequences should outweigh the investment.

Not all of the rewards and consequences associated with this decision may be tangible or measurable.  Not every decision comes down to dollars and cents.  But the degree to which you can ascertain tangible benefit is the degree to which you will more easily overcome your reservations about taking the step and making the commitment.

You might never have perfect information.  The time for the decision might be now, despite the fact that you can't possibly know enough.  You can do your best to project worst-case and best-case scenarios, but ultimately it comes down to choosing and then observing the result.  You won't be able to argue for or against the case in theory alone - at least you'll have no way to do it accurately.  The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Whether your decision is right or wrong, you are creating when you make one.  You are taking action to resolve the issues of your day, to meet the challenges head-on, and that's empowering.  Even if this decision doesn't achieve the exact results that you want, you can make another decision when you find that out.  So get off of your hands and decide.  Your results won't change until you do.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Schooling for innovation

Originally uploaded by okadajiro
A predominant theme in President Obama's recent speeches on how to fuel economic vitality in the United States is innovation.  In the 1960's the U.S. answered President Kennedy's call to land a man on the moon - and entire industries grew to support the goal.  Now President Obama sees green innovation as the emerging scientific arena.

Where are the innovators going to come from?  Some are already out in the workplace, although in some industries the seeds for new technologies have been placed in cold storage for the sake of frugality in uncertain financial times.  But many of the innovators of tomorrow are still in the public school systems.  And many of them have been acculturated to the definitive "right and wrong" mentality of the No Child Left Behind testing.  Right now many of our schools are weeding out the sprouts of innovation we need for the future.

Here's an example of this from my personal experience:  when my older daughter was in elementary school, there was schoolwide preparation for PSSA testing.  For several weeks prior to the test, nightly worksheets were sent home for the kids to complete.  One night the worksheet contained a grid of three squares by four squares, and the instructions were to determine how many squares were in the grid. 

My husband and I work with this every day, helping people to see possibilities beyond the obvious, so we helped her count the squares.  With an open mind, not only were there the 12 squares, but there were several additional ones formed by 2 x 2 and 3 x 3 blocks.  We came to 20 as the answer.  The next day the corrected worksheet came home with my daughter's answer marked incorrect.  There were supposedly only 12 squares.  It was an exercise in simple math, not a test of creativity and openmindedeness.  It eliminated the possibilities for the sake of the obvious answer.

I am certain that there are countless examples of openmindedness and creativity being drummed out of our schoolchildren, but there are also some movements afoot to instill the mindset that fuels innovation.  In The Huffington Post, John M. Eger talks about art and arts integration as a means to foster creativity, the fuel for innovation.  In California, CoTA has been formed, a collaboration of teachers and artists.
"Art infusion is really about an interdisciplinary education using the tools of the arts. As a unique consortium of arts organizations expressed it in a report called "Authentic Connections" such interdisciplinary work in the arts enabled students to "identify and apply authentic connections, promote learning by providing students with opportunities between disciplines and/or to understand, solve problems and make meaningful connections within the arts across disciplines on essential concepts that transcend individual disciplines.""

Fascinating.  I'm certain that arts integration would make school a lot more fun for more kids, too, and would engage even those children who are not as easy to reach through more traditional teaching methods. 

Innovation can only happen in an environment where there is more than one right answer, and where divergent thinking is encouraged and fostered rather than suppressed and squashed.  We will make it so much easier to be innovative as a culture if we intentionally keep some of the kid in our kids.  Then we won't have to try to help them find their creativity again after we have corrected it out of them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The woman executive's life

Jones New York Skirt Suit
Originally uploaded by mskathryn
Executive women often have more than one full-time job:  they work their 10-12 hours per day, and then they go home to their other full-time job with their family.  The first mass generation of women executives had to deal with the realities of a male-dominated workplace, where major decisions were made on the golf course, or even via casual conversation in the men's room during meeting breaks.  Many of these women had to bootstrap their way into the executive suite, bringing their technical expertise and tough-mindedness to bear to overcome the status quo and be seen and promoted.

That first mass wave of executive women had something to prove.  They were hyper-competent because that's what it took to get there.  Some of them were single-minded, making pacts with themselves to forego some of the more traditional joys like motherhood in order to focus on excelling at work.  Sometimes they were isolated because there wasn't anyone like them in the senior ranks.

Maureen Reagan said, "I will feel equality has arrived when we can elect to office women who are as incompetent as some of the men who are already there."  Perhaps Maureen Reagan was right about the incompetence, but have women really arrived?

During a discussion in a coffee shop the other day, a woman executive told me, "I don't think women help one another enough.  The ones who have struggled to get where they are sometimes sit back and say, 'I did it myself, and so you should do it yourself too.'"  This woman executive thinks that there are times when a young woman's career could leap forward if only a seasoned woman would sieze the opening to say, for instance, "She is qualified for that opportunity," when a new project or position is being developed.

Some of the women-to-women synapses for communication and giving a hand up - the girls' network as it were - are not yet fully developed.  Processes and social structures need to be created and reinforced so that young women can benefit from the gains already made by women in mid-career. 

Stay tuned for some developments in helping mid-career executive women develop tomorrow's women leaders.  We've got something cooking...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's only an inconvenience

"An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered."  - GK Chesterton

I've known two people who, in the past month, have battled life-threatening illness and won.  In both cases, the illness came on suddenly - they had no time to prepare themselves for what was ahead for them.  Their bodies acted up, and before they knew it they were in hospital beds, under the surgeon's knife, and then attached to tubes, wires and sensors and attended upon by competent practitioners in practical clothing.

One of them is farther along on the path to full recovery than is the other.  She told me that already the memories of the less-fun parts of being very ill have begun to fade.  She doesn't really remember a lot of what happened to her in the hospital.  What she does remember is how she was treated by her caregivers, and the people who provided moral support for her during that time.

Illness isn't permanent.  Neither is poverty, neither is youth, doggone it.  Nothing is permanent - it changes over time.  Depending upon your perspective toward the event, impermanence might seem like a good thing - thank heaven that's over - or a bad thing - why can't we stay at the beach house forever?!  You want to hang on to the things you love, the things that nourish you.  And as for the tests, the trials, the bad things - well, they can't be over fast enough.

Would it help you to get through the trials to remember that "It's only an inconvenience?"  Would you be able to detach to that extent?  As a kid, I remember this bedtime assurance, "It will all be better by the time you get married."  The childhood trials were better by then - usually by the next morning everything looked different, brighter.

Let's be real, though.  Some things don't resolve in a way that seems "better."  Sometimes the outcome doesn't fall in your favor.  But even those things, like disappointment, hurt, even grief - are not permanent.  Even at their worst they fade from wrenching pain to shadow with the help of time and distance.

Do you perceive the idea of impermanence as frightening?  Are you holding on to things, to situations, to people, to habits, to feelings?  What are you assuming that would cause you to grasp them so tightly?  Are you convinced that they will never come back again, or that nothing could possibly come into your life that would be better?   Or is it simply that they are comfortable - you know them, and so you try to hang on even if they are causing you pain? 

Worry about losing and stress about acquiring can anaesthetize you to such a degree that you don't fully experience the things that are here right now.  Is a life well-lived one without bumps?  Or does the best scenery only reveal itself when there are hills and valleys, where an incline obscures the view until you crest the hill and - aahhh! - the panorama appears in front of you?

Give me the hills and valleys any day.  Sure, the view from the top of the hill looking out is more fun, but if I can't have the vista without the dip and the climb, then here I am, ready to see it all.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Top Ten Reasons to Get Up Early

Ice Skating to Holysloot Anno 2009
Originally uploaded by B℮n
OK, so I'm an unrepentant lark - I wake up early whether I want to or not.  It does have its advantages, though, so I thought I'd share them with you, especially since I'm out of throttling range:
  1. You can beat the newspaper to your doorstep.  
  2. You can make 32 Facebook and LinkedIn posts before anyone else opens their eyes.
  3. You can finish your blog post while your coffee brews.
  4. Nobody cares that your hair looks like it's been combed with an egg beater.
  5. You can be totally on top of your schedule for the day.
  6. You will be fully caffeinated and therefore able to win verbal arm-wrestling matches before your opponent is fully awake.
  7. You can exercise with no witnesses to the puffing, panting and tripping over yourself.
  8. You can claim that you have exercised already and nobody is a witness to claim that you're a liar.
  9. The best selection of bagels, donuts, and other breakfast treats is yours for the taking.
  10. You can project an air of moral superiority for your incredible self-discipline - and nobody is awake enough to slap you for it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Whichever way the wind blows

Windy Willows
Originally uploaded by Izzi
During the Super Bowl last night I was entertained by the fickleness of my daughter's team allegiance.  She was yelling "Go Steelers!" and wearing a Steelers team jersey.  She wanted to put a sign on the front of our house to show that we were rooting for the home town team.  She was serious in her fan-hood.  Until Green Bay scored twice and Pittsburgh still had nothing on the scoreboard.  She turned to the rest of us, and with her best faker-face smirk in place informed us, "I'm cheering for the Packers now."

Needless to say, we busted her chops about switching loyalties just because her team wasn't ahead on the scoreboard.  We did know that, although she is a raucous cheerer, she was new to Steeler fan-dom.  She wasn't heavily invested, and that made it easier for her to trade horses when the going was tough.  She picked Pittsburgh because everybody else on our street was hanging the Terrible Towel out of their front window.

I think there are some transferable lessons here:
  • If you're the team and you want real commitment, you have to get them early, and then you have to continue to give them reasons to cheer for you.  This goes for customer loyalty, and it applies to employee loyalty also.  Even though it doesn't seem fair that their loyalty should rest on "What have you done for me lately?" or "How will it look if I'm backing a loser?" - that's the way it goes.
  • How lightly do you pick your team, and how easily do you abandon them?  I had a colleague back in the day who was famous for his willow tree routine - he would glance around meeting rooms to see what the most powerful people were supporting, then he would jump on board with them as quickly and visibly as possible.  He'd do a commitment one-eighty faster than a bowl of Doritos disappears during a Super Bowl party.  He'd brazenly contradict himself within moments.  Whichever way the prevailing wind was blowing - there he was.  (I could go on and on about this one, but I'll restrain myself.)
  • The need to conform is a compelling need.  It's not comfortable to be the odd person out.  Even during the football game, when I chose to root for the Packers because they needed somebody to cheer for them here in Steeler-ville, I felt like everybody was pointing at me and laughing when Green Bay made a mistake.  I was REALLY hoping that I wouldn't lose face in a Big-Ben drubbing of The Pack.  (And I don't even really watch pro football until the playoffs.  Imagine the impact if my every Sunday were devoted to the Packers and my friends were rabid Steeler fans!) 
  • The validity of changing horses turns on the motivation to do so.  Is the decision based upon data, or upon a need to be on the "popular bus"?  Have they (or you) had a genuine change of thinking due to new information?  One person's consistency and loyalty is another person's stubbornness and stupidity. 
I read a while back that in business you can't win by doing what everybody else does.  I've also experienced that sometimes it's crucial to persist during the time lag between the actions you take and the results they produce.  Good things often take time to develop, and you'll mess them up if you allow yourself to be blown in another direction too easily.  To quote my buddy David Herdlinger, "What are you going to do - dig up the roots to see whether the plant is growing??"

One last thought - a weeping willow is highly flexible, but it's also a very dirty tree.  When the wind blows it around, the tree loses leaves and twigs.  It doesn't break easily, but pieces drop off of it on a regular basis.  There's a lot of cleaning up to do when you have one growing in your yard.  Hmmm.....

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year - The Year of the Metal Rabbit

Year of the Metal Rabbit
Originally uploaded by OnTask
In case you needed another reason to get up and get moving toward your goals, today is the beginning of the year of the Metal Rabbit, according to the Chinese horoscope.  Each year is governed by one of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and the rabbit is known for grace, diplomacy, and its reserved nature.  The element of metal serves to strengthen the rabbit.  Strength, stability and self-reliance are hallmarks of the metal element.

Economic reports from Kiplinger and Goldman Sachs have forecast strong economic growth for 2011.  But ultimately, you create your own economy.  The transactions you initiate, choices that you make about your money that either increase or decrease your financial stability, partnerships or personal development opportunities that you pursue - they all are contributors to your individual economic picture.

Business isn't the only area in which you can create expansion.  Your personal life and relationships can benefit from the rabbit's kindness and the metal's transformative powers.  Whether you follow horoscopes or not - the way in which you initiate action and respond to opportunities will help you make the most of the fresh new year. 

If you made resolutions or set goals on January first - and haven't followed through on them yet - consider this to be your official permission to take a Mulligan and start again.  It doesn't matter how many times you start - it matters that you finish.  If it takes a rabbit in a steel breastplate to help you do it, then so be it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Newsbearer - or drama queen?

drama queen
Originally uploaded by

Elysia in Wonderland
There are two components to manage in your performance:  yourself and your actual performance, and the outside perceptions of you and your performance.  As we have written in this blog before, intention and impact are often two very different animals.  So today we come to the subject of how you share news about yourself, about others, and about what's going on in the world.

Case #1 - Dirk of the Dark Cloud
If it is awful and it can happen, it has happened to Dirk.  Not only that - Dirk has gotten the worst version of it with the most complicating factors of any person on the planet.  It seems as though Dirk has something going afoul on a weekly basis.  You know this because Dirk shares with the entire group in vivid detail.  You and your friends (or colleagues) are beginning to wonder whether he actually attracts misfortune because he almost seems to revel in it.  Or perhaps he creates it because his regular life is so boring and the ugly stuff makes it more interesting.

Case #2 - Polly Perfection
Polly has been there and done that - twice.  She likes to regale you with all of her recent achievements. Even if Polly makes a comment that might sound modest or self-deprecating at first, a closer examination will reveal that "Someone keyed my car!"  really was intended to communicate that "Someone keyed my brand new powder blue Jaguar convertible!"  Sorry, Polly - it's hard to feel sympathy when you are just so perfect, so privileged. 

Case #3 - Theodore Thirdperson
"Theodore doesn't date ugly women," said Theodore.  "Let me show you the Theodore method," Theodore offers helpfully.  Apparently old Teddy-boy is already a legend in his own mind, because he's telling the stories as though he's not actually there, but rather reading them in a book.  Elementary school language arts classes should have straightened out Theodore Thirdperson's understanding of how he should talk about himself.

Case #4 - Olivia the Overstater
If it's a rain shower, Olivia calls it a torrent.  If she scratches her arm on her rose bush, the woman says she got a huge gash that almost required stitches.  Almost everything that Olivia says should be divided by 5, and only then ingested if you want to consume only the reality of it.  Olivia is the sister of Polly Perfection, and you'll be able to notice the resemblance when she tells you about the mountainous mole on her cheekbone that appears to be an 1/8th inch flaw on an otherwise porcelain complexion.

Hey, we all have our communication habits.  I love figures of speech and metaphors so much that sometimes I get carried away by them.  I'm a firm believer that sometimes a bit of well-placed embellishment can turn an ordinary story into something amusing, shocking, irritating, or derive some other emotional reaction.  But I know that this is a "choose your places" method, because embellishment doesn't work when you are reporting the news, or when you are providing performance feedback.

The point is this - the manner in which you speak tells as much as the content of your speech.  People around you build habits of thought about you based upon how you talk and what you choose to talk about.  Right now as you're reading this you might be perceived in a similar light to that boy who cried wolf - or people might be waiting with baited breath for your next insight.

In general, understatement has more credibility than overstatement.  The purpose of overstatement is usually to arounse an emotional reaction.  Drama, when sprinkled too liberally, is a manipulative tool.  And it doesn't take people too long to figure it out and defend against it.