Thursday, May 31, 2012

Business ownership myths debunked

Carver Yacht by Lisa G. Lilla - Photography
Carver Yacht, a photo by Lisa G. Lilla - Photography on Flickr. 
Thinking about leaving the corporate world behind and doing your own thing?  Fantasizing about yourself as the founder of tomorrow's iconic Facebook or Apple or Google?  Seeing yourself tooling about on the yacht that your profits bought for you (and helped you write off on your taxes)?

Business ownership is romanticized almost as much as parenthood is.  When they are not in the throes of it, parents wax on about the joys of watching baby Bethany learn to walk, and about the pride associated with being there when Junior walks across the stage to receive his diploma.  They show you photos of the happy times.

Parents forget (or perhaps work not to remember) about colic, endless runs to the closest public rest rooms, years of poor sleep and mountains of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese.  They shudder at memories of reacting badly to teenaged sass, and they don't want to talk about it.  They brush recollections about destruction of property and scrapes with the law into the backs of their minds.  Yes, business ownership is like that.  Your clue to the big reality check is when you ask a business owner how it's going and they say "I'm having fun."  No, they are not.  Not making any money, so how is that fun?

Myth #1 - You'll make your own hours.
It's easiest to do this when you have no customers and no employees, because other than rearranging the pencils on your desk you'll have nothing to do.  Once you have customers, though, you'll need to be there when they want you to be there.  You might even have to hang around with nothing to do for a while until customers know that you're there when they are ready for you.  And once you have customers, the non-customer-facing tasks might just have to be done outside peak selling hours.

Myth #2 - You'll make a lot of money.
You might pull down a tidy sum from your business venture.  But as grampa used to say, it's not how much you earn, it's how much you keep.  You'll have a facility to pay for and employee salaries to support.  If you have a long-term vision for your business you'll be reinvesting some of your profit in it, in the form of marketing, staff development, and research and development.  You'll be purchasing materials if you're producing product, and you won't get your cash back until your product sells.  Some of your employees will likely earn more working for you than you do as the owner of the company.  Because cash is so essential to the health of your business, you may choose to leave money in the company rather than take it out for your personal use.

Myth #3 - You'll do what you like to do.
If you are focused on applying your skills and knowledge in your new business it's possible that you're buying a job rather than starting a self-sustaining business.  If that's what you want - a job that you control - OK.  But you won't ONLY be doing what you like to do.  Until the company is big enough and profitable enough to hire people to do the finance, the sales, the hiring - guess who's doing it?  You.  Moreover, if you like to engineer but hate sales, how are you going to acquire the opportunities to do your engineering work?

Myth #4 - If you build it, they will come.
People will buy from you if they know about you and trust you enough to give you a shot at selling them services.  They will buy if they see a good potential for a positive return on their investment.  But how will they know that they need you?  Are you selling something as essential as toilet paper?  Are you a necessity, a luxury, or somewhere in between?  How narrow or broad is your potential market.  You have to build it right, then do a good job of getting the word out and bringing them in.  And then you have to deliver to meet or exceed their expectations.  You have to get the ball rolling to initiate the selling/buying process, and then manage the whole sales-service cycle in a manner that brings customers back for more.

Have we scared you off of this business ownership idea yet?  These are only four of the myths.  There are more.  This isn't the easiest job in the world - not by a stretch.  But for those who are willing to stare busy days and uncertainty in the face in order to create autonomy and/or a real legacy for themselves, their families and their communities?  For those people business ownership is the only gig in town.                                        

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Your mental assistant in goal achievement

Naturally Selective Perception -saturated by Josh-Mann
Naturally Selective Perception -saturated, a photo by Josh-Mann on Flickr.
What do you see in this image?  Do you see a mass of colors?  Do you count four white lilies?  Can you spot a purple iris?

You might not have seen these shapes until I posed the questions, and if that's the case you have just experienced an example of selective perception.  Each of the items was already in the picture, yet they were part of a mass of color - until you were looking for them.  Once the idea was placed in your head you were able to identify them as they popped out of the background to say hello.

So where does selective perception fit into your day?  Let's ask this question:  What are you REALLY thinking about yourself and your future? Are you feeling bullish on today, ready to get out there and conquer? Or are you seeing yourself in a holding pattern, perhaps even feeling the beginning of a downward spiral? When opportunity comes knocking, are you in the state of mind that you'll notice it?

You are engaged in selective perception every day, meaning you're not taking in every bit of stimulus that's coming your way. You are sorting, mostly subconsciously, for the information that's relevant to you for the purposes you have at hand. Now think about this for a second - how do you determine what's relevant? If your perception of stimulus is subconscious that mean's it's habitual. You'll notice the environmental elements that reinforce existing beliefs and existing patterns. Is your current selection  helping you to produce the results you want?

If you want to notice more opportunity, if you want to affect your perceptions in a positive way, you need to create a framework for relevance. This is accomplished by establishing a general intention, or by planning a more specific goal. Here's a simple example - you are considering buying a car. You've got a specific brand, model, and perhaps even color in mind. Suddenly everywhere you go you see THAT car - driving beside you, parked in parking lots, etc.  You've set up your selective perception to be stimulated by the sight of that car.

Part of the reason that it's stress-inducing not to have a direction is that although you're receiving stimuli from an overwhelming number of sources, you're not able to perceive them. There are limitless opportunities, but without the sorting for relevance it feels like there are none.

You might not feel ready to set a specific goal yet, for any number of reasons. But if you want to kick up your selective perception, at least establish a general positive intention. If you are looking to expand your income, release yourself from the need to know HOW you're going to do it right now. Just keep that intention front and center and your brain will sort all of the incoming stimuli to help you notice the ones that are relevant to your intention.

Of course noticing opportunity is only the first step.  Acting on it is the next.  If you see a brass ring hanging out there you have to reach for it if you want it.  But that's a topic for another day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This focus is just right

Focus by Craig Jewell Photography
Focus, a photo by Craig Jewell Photography on Flickr.
Remember Goldilocks and how she was scoping out the household possessions of the three bears?  There were three conditions that she discovered over and over:

  1. Papa Bear's things were too hot and too big
  2. Mama Bear's things were too cold and too soft
  3. But Baby Bear's things were just right
Let's look at focus - Goldilocks style:

Too Broad
When everything is top priority, nothing is top priority.  When you are noticing everything you are noticing nothing.  Nothing bubbles to the top of the To Do list and your surroundings become a cacophony of competing sights and noises.  If you are trying to be all things to all people - if you are a pleaser - you are in the world of Too Broad.  Ultimately certain of the half-dozen or dozen items you're trying to accomplish are not only going to compete with certain other of your items for your time, energy and resources.  They are also likely to conflict with, even contradict, one another.  When you please Aunt Sally you upset Uncle Ned, and vice versa.

Too Narrow
You have seen pictures of horses wearing blinders.  The purpose is to help them maintain focus on the road ahead, to remain undistracted and undisturbed by the bustle at the side of the path.  Unfortunately, though, the horse can't see obstacles or threats coming from any direction other than straight on.  Likewise, the hunter viewing a rabbit through his scope might totally miss the bigger opportunity - the 12-point buck - that is just off to his left.  Had the hunter broadened his focus for a moment he would have found better quarry.

Just Right
You need a context, a filter, for the opportunities and stimuli that surround you if you want to be sure that you're accomplishing the right things, and the best things first.  It's a matter of alignment to be in Just Right focus, and to align yourself you start with a vision, a purpose, a strategy, and ultimately an intention or goal.  The goal or intention works like a highlighter on the people and opportunities around you. When you know where you're headed you will notice the resources in your environment that will help you to get there.

The quickest way to find out what Just Right is for you at this moment, ask yourself, "What's important?"  Your answer to the simple question will start you in creating the focus you need to achieve the results you want.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What you don't know about HR could cost you big

Kellie Shumaker
This is day two with Kellie Shumaker of Alternative HR.  Yesterday's post covered the risks associated with I-9 form (immigration) compliance.

In many small businesses with low employee counts, the office manager serves as the de facto head of human resources.  He or she is responsible for processing payroll and sometimes is the point person for incoming employment applications.  Even small companies, though, can be at risk - to the tune of hefty fines or lawsuits - when they don't know what they don't know regarding compliance in HR matters.

Here are some frequently asked questions - and their answers - that could save you headaches and dollars:

Does our current hiring practice follow the criminal history guidance issued by the EEOC?

Enforcement guidance issued in May of 2012 focused on the use of criminal history information with respect to “disparate impact” claims. Based on conviction rates across the nation, the EEOC presumes that any employer’s use of criminal history information during the application process disproportionately excludes racial minority applicants.  The EEOC is requiring that employers prove business necessity of their screening procedures by validating, through statistics, the link between the disqualifying criminal conduct and subsequent work performance.  According to data from Jury Verdict Research, smaller organizations face average costs over $100,000 for a single employment practice lawsuit. Our suggestion… have an audit conducted to ensure all of your hiring practices are compliant.

Where and for how long do we keep employee related documents?
Just a few examples…an I-9 must be kept for a minimum of three years plus one year after termination, in a separate, locked location than the personnel file. Since the new GINA regulations came out earlier this year, most employers must keep performance evaluations and any other document that substantiates an employer’s decision regarding wages for a minimum of two years after termination. Payroll records, including time cards, should be kept for a minimum of 7 years. Our suggestion… put a personnel file and purge policy in place.

Speaking of documents, we heard that fines for incomplete or incorrect data on an I-9 document range from $100-to $1000 per question. Is this true?
Yes, that’s right! One incomplete or missing I-9 form could cost your organization thousands of dollars. Just one missing question on each form, considering all of the forms you have for a minimum of three years, could also cost you thousands of dollars. Our suggestion… have a full I-9 audit & training conducted…it will cost you much less than the fines.

We know that OSHA requires mandatory training for essentially every business on Blood borne Pathogens, HAZCOM, MSDS, and Emergency Response. We are also expected to post our OSHA log from February 1st to April 30th each year. Neither of these have been done consistently.  What will OSHA do if they discover we haven't been compliant with these requirements?
You can expect fines, and fines for OSHA violations vary based on how the agency defines your violation. They include…
Willful-Requires intentional disregard for the act or plain indifference to employee safety. Penalty ranges from $5000- $70,000. If an act results in death, fines run from $250-$750k, plus six months in jail.
Serious- This violation requires "substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a condition which exists, or from one or more practices or processes which have been in use..." OSHA may propose a penalty of up to $7,000 for each violation.
Other-Than-Serious- Requires direct and immediate relationship to the safety and health of employees. OSHA may impose a penalty of up to $7,000 for each violation.

We were told posting and issuing the PA Right to Know Worker’s Compensation information and our Panel Provider list to all employees upon hiring was mandatory… why must we do this?
Organizations in PA must hang their Panel Provider List & Worker’s Compensation Carrier information next to the other mandatory federal and state posters. In addition, insurance carriers insist employers issue it to every employee and ensure they sign off acknowledging receipt of the law in order to manage claims more effectively and to keep insurance claims and the organization’s insurance premiums lower. The average WC claim in PA as of 2010 was $7,000.  Our suggestion… comply and manage those claims.

Why do we need a Company Handbook?
PA business owners are paying roughly $432 per employee in unemployment taxes (as of 2010) to a bankrupt and worsening state unemployment system. Absenteeism costs business owners approximately $700 per employee annually (depending on average wage, cost is roughly 35% of payroll costs.) Between the two expenses, business owners are spending over $1000 per employee in costs they could be controlling by setting expectations in a handbook. You also want a handbook which articulates you are an Equal Opportunity Employer who complies with all federal, state and local employment laws, to minimize your risk if you should find yourself involved in a lawsuit.  You can minimize these all of these risks by creating a Company Handbook and consistently applying the policies included in it.

These questions are really just the tip of the iceberg. We have not even touched upon legal and effective recruiting & hiring practices, FLSA/ pay policies, attendance issues, turnover costs, termination guidelines and many other compliance related matters.  If you are not confident that you have your HR bases covered, Alternative HR can do an audit for you to help identify the places where you might have legal and/or regulatory exposure in your current practices.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A cautionary tale: company loses workforce through I-9 problems

Kellie Shumaker

This post is courtesy of Kellie Shumaker, principal of Alternative HR in York, PA

In the last few years, the United States government has significantly increased the number of auditors it employs to ensure organizations are hiring legally documented individuals. The work-site audits examine the I-9 employment-eligibility forms that an employer has on file. The I-9 forms must be completed by every U.S. employee.

As of November of 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had conducted 2,496 audits for I-9 compliance for the year, a dramatic increase from 2008, when only 503 audits were completed. With increases like this, every employer needs to ensure they are

  • completing the I-9 forms correctly, 
  • getting regular I-9 audits and 
  • hiring legally documented workers. 

Only fulfilling one of these steps can cost companies tremendously. Here's one memorable example:  Late in 2011, one third of the employees at Kreider Farms (a Lancaster County, PA egg and dairy business) were determined by an ICE audit to be illegally working in the U.S., some for many years. A Human Resource Representative from the organization said that Kreider Farms was not facing any fines or charges, despite the large number of workers found to have invalid documents. She stated she takes care to follow “the letter of the law” with employee documentation, and she said the audit found her records were very complete — the problem was with the documents she’d been given.

Employers are not expected to be experts on government documents, so Kreider Farms was not at fault. That being said, the company is still paying the price. How can a company successfully go on doing business with only 2/3 of their workforce?

During a recent audit of Abercrombie & Fitch, there wasn’t a single unauthorized worker found. However, ICE fined the employer $1 million for what essentially were paperwork I-9 violations. Even employers who are hiring legally documented workers can pay the price for simple paperwork mistakes or lack of training to complete the I-9 form properly.

In addition to the number of ICE Enforcement Auditors and audits, another change in government oversight has been the increased cooperation among ICE and other government enforcement agencies. ICE recently established a joint agency task force to gather information from multiple government sources and to target joint enforcement efforts.

"Fusion centers have been established to facilitate cooperation among government agencies," commented Mary Pivec, an attorney with Keller and Heckman in Washington, D.C. Wage and hour investigators, ICE auditors and tax auditors all are in one place to share resources, leverage information and pursue top-to-bottom audits. An employer not following one guideline tends to have violations that crisscross the workforce enforcement realm, so the government thinks it makes good sense to maximize resources and have agents from different departments investigate together. "What starts out as a wage and hour audit may become an ICE audit, as investigators have been cross-trained to recognize what might be violations of laws other than the ones they enforce," Pivec stated.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Impact as a tool for change

Impact visqueux by fredlab
Impact visqueux, a photo by fredlab on Flickr.
There was an article in the local newspaper this morning about a real estate agent who was kidnapped at knife point and robbed after showing a home to a prospective buyer.  The realtor managed to escape without injury and perpetrator was apprehended by the police shortly after the incident.

 The company for which she works has policies to help prevent this sort of thing from happening, and she had taken some security measures prior to the appointment - she requested that the property owner be present during the showing of the real estate.  But this incident happened after she and the "client" left the house - he climbed into the back seat of her car and threatened her with his knife.

How will this incident change the agent's future behavior, and her attitudes about her safety in the company of strangers?  Will this moment of impact have a lasting effect on her?

It's hard to say.  She might become much more conservative with her practices about meeting potential clients.  From now on she might only be willing to show properties to people who have first visited her in the office, and who have also been pre-qualified to purchase the properties she is showing them.  Or she might brush this off as an aberration and go on her way, practicing as before.

Impact events like this one are unreliable in their influence over future behavior.  Whether the situation is horrifying or inspiring, impact is like pouring water over a person.  The extent to which the incident creates ever-broadening ripples for them is partly determined whether the person is a sponge or a stone at the moment of impact.  For some, the water will run right off and their surface will dry, and they will be the person they always were.  For the sponges, the water will seep in and collect, filling the person with the impactful event, its implications, fears and motivations.

To some extent the intensity of the impact event will influence the degree to which the person will sustain an emotional connection to it - and therefore be influenced to behave in a certain way for a long time after the event.  Certain impacts like the falling of the World Trade Center on 9/11 or the "I Have A Dream" speech by Martin Luther King have wide-ranging influence long after they happen.  But you can be certain that people who live and work in lower Manhattan and people who were at the Lincoln Memorial on those two fateful days will experience the impact in a more intense and lasting way than will others more removed from the direct experience of the incidents.

So let's assume that as a leader you're trying to make a positive impact.  Let's say for a moment that you want to be so inspiring that people will be forever changed.  Good luck.  Spaced repetition has a far better track record for changing behavior.  Why?  Because spaced repetition doesn't require that the messenger and the message to be fantastically effective, and it doesn't need to fall on sponges (or be strong enough to crack stones) for the message to get through, to be remembered, and to change behavior.

Let's hope that the chill-inducing impact of this realtor's experience this week will be one that she can set aside.  Let's hope that she can get on with her work and not let this one (self-admitted) drug-addled creep change her into somebody she doesn't want to be.  Let's hope that she will not let this situation define her - except in her coolheadedness in going straight to the police, thereby helping them catch this guy right away. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The value of the ordinary - from one of our heroes

Sarah Kovacs and friends
Sarah Kovacs is one of our heroes.  A member of our church - First Church of the Brethren in York, PA - she finished college in 2011 and answered an inner call to teach for a year in Ghana.  She overcame obstacles of funding, finding classroom supplies, and even a bout with typhoid.

Sarah's time in Ghana is almost complete, and her letters to her friends and family here have been a treasure.  You will want to read every word of this and take her insights to heart...

“Heroes didn’t leap tall buildings or stop bullets with an
outstretched hand; they didn’t wear boots and capes. They bled, and
they bruised, and their superpowers were as simple as listening, or
loving. Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own
lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s. And
maybe that one act could lead someone to rescue you right back.” –Jodi

I came across these few lines in a book that I read last month and couldn’t help but jot them down. I agree wholeheartedly with not just
spotlighting the rare and magnificent, but also giving the plain, old, and ordinary some credit, as well. So many people act in the simplest of ways without being recognized, yet have such great impact even with these small, discreet gestures (and if I was asked to name all of the beautiful people in my own life who have helped me through these simple acts of love it would take a long, long, long time). Pay attention to the ordinary, I have learned, and you just may realize
how many frequent, quiet blessings there are that you may have otherwise overlooked.

Nothing big or monumental has happened recently in my life in terms of seeing new sights or accomplishing new feats that no one has ever
accomplished before. I am so thankful for this, though, because it has given me a chance to slow down, breathe, and take the time to study and reflect upon all of the beautiful jewels of moments that surround me each and every “ordinary” day.

Like how rewarding it is to take an hour or more to cook a meal from scratch over an open fire together with lovely friends, sharing stories, laughter, and food alike.

Like how it feels when little Evelyn, whose only English for months was the phrase “I’m fine,” runs up to you and exclaims, “Good morning, Miss Sarah!” with the biggest smile on her face.

Like how walking through the village takes such a long time not because it’s big but because everyone you meet greets you and wants to chat, leaving you with a feeling of being cared for and a deeper connectedness with the larger community.

Andy’s laugh. Little Nora’s songs in broken English. The bright red flowers on the trees and the quirky advice that my fellow teachers give me at lunchtime. Strangers who pay for my taxi fare when I’m not
looking, even though I probably have much more money than they do.

It’s these little things that pop up every day and could very easily pass by unappreciated that help me to realize what a blessing life is, even when “nothing exciting” is happening.

My departure is not far off, a fact which I am well aware of (thanks to the constant, slightly melancholy reminders from my kiddos, fellow teachers, and friends). I am certainly determined, though, to enjoy
these last bittersweet days as fully as I can and appreciate all of the simple, marvelous joys that they bring.

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
~Psalm 27:13

Don’t forget to stop and take note of
all of the blessings that your
“ordinary” days bring, too! :-)


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Considerations for planning in professional services

The intention behind developing a long term (strategic) plan is to help you as a senior leader to allocate resources in alignment with the company's really big goal - its vision of what it wants to become and the markets it serves. The vision is the starting point, the context, for everything else that follows.

After a look at the external opportunities and threats and internal strengths and limitations, an operational mission is the next major output from the plan.  The operational mission defines the major achievements or milestones that the company wants to reach within the next 24-36 months.

Next are the Critical Goal Categories - the factors that are individually NECESSARY and together SUFFICIENT to achieve the mission.  The individual CGCs might be owned collectively by the senior leadership of the company, or they might have specific owners.

Operational SMART goals are the outgrowth of the CGCs, and are the tangible steps taken to fulfill them.  For example, if a Critical Goal Category is defined as "Generation of pull-through work," an operational SMART goal might be "Meet with each client in my book of business 1x per quarter."  The quarterly meetings are the tangible steps that create opportunities to identify and close repeat business.  And the operational SMART goals create the structure for communication and accountability among the senior leadership team.

a photo by thekellyscope on
Service Lines and Functional Silos
In some companies, service lines are autonomous and/or diverse enough that the more detailed portions of the planning process, specifically the operational SMART goals (the business plan) are developed within the service lines.  This can work when there is not sharing of resources with other service lines.  But even if a business unit is operating fairly autonomously its goals should be shared with other service lines to make sure that opportunities for strategic resource sharing, marketing, or other initiatives are being leveraged.

In addition, there may be instances where a service line inadvertently plans at cross-purposes with another profit center in the same company.  The process of communicating goals among cross-functional peers - with all goals focused on the same overall company vision and mission - prevents resource waste and interdepartmental conflict.

If customer relationships are managed across functional lines, the goals are are collaboratively written among the relevant functions, and a primary accountability needs to be established.

Planning for Professional Services
Sometimes the planning process is somewhat driven by the skills and goals of individuals who are both senior leaders AND providing services directly to clients.  In these cases one individual's contribution to the revenue stream can become a critical planning topic, even up to the industries or geography served by the company as identified in its vision statement.  Issues like intended retirement age, relocation, family considerations, etc. can become some of the variables that are going to impact the company's plan.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Wanted - better communication

Communication | ArtPrize 2010 by Fellowship of the Rich
Communication | ArtPrize 2010,
a photo by 
Fellowship of the Rich on Flickr. 
"We have communication problems."  That statement is one of the top five, maybe even the top three, reasons why companies have engaged Summit coaches to work with their teams.  

The communication issue can be a bit slippery, because saying "We want to improve communication" is a bit like saying "I need to get into shape," because both the current state and the desired state need more specific and behavioral definition.  For instance:

Current State

  • Too many memos with too little compliance with the policies they are outlining.
  • Too many meetings with no tangible outcome.
  • Huddles of complaining employees, where the conversation screeches to a halt at the approach of a manager or team leader.
  • Asynchronous production because the communication link between sales and production is faulty, where goods being produced are placed into inventory (increasing holding costs and eating cash flow) while incoming orders are placed into rush status (increasing overtime costs) .
  • Team members describing "being treated like mushrooms" and only told info on a need to know basis.
Future State (what you would like to see)
  • Multiple methods for communicating changes in policy, process, etc. - meetings in addition to memos, and demonstrations, practice or training to help people learn how to do what you want them to do.
  • Action items and accountabilities outlined, communicated and documented at the end of each  meeting.
  • Involve employees in more problem solving and decision making about issues that affect them, thus reducing their resistance to implementing changes and improvements.
  • Team leaders who regularly circulate among employees, catch them doing something right, and verbally recognize their performance.
  • Inclusion of more team members in formalized communication process so they feel in on things (motivational improvement) and can intentionally contribute to the achievement of the company's goals.
If you sense that communication is an issue in your company or your department, identify the behavioral symptoms that indicate that there is a problem, then envision the improved version.  Implement interventions to bridge the gap - of course if the gap is large enough that there is a positive return on investment (ROI) to be achieved as a result.

Although improving communication can be a complicated and multi-dimensional process, it all gets down to answering a few simple questions:
  1. What do you communicate about?  
  2. With whom?
  3. Why?
  4. What outcome do you want from the communication?
  5. What benefits will that bring to the company or the department?
  6. What will happen if nothing changes?
This can be an incremental process.  Identify the point and process where the biggest and most costly issues are, work to improve it, then move on to the next.  A communication overhaul is not likely to happen in a few weeks, or even a few months - it can take a couple of years for the accumulated benefits of improved communication processes to reveal themselves fully.  But you can set specific and more short-term improvement goals and have victories to celebrate in the meantime.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The best name for your customers

Happy Customers by storeturkey
Happy Customers, a photo by storeturkey on Flickr.
When you talk about your customers, what name do you give them? Do you call them clients?  Do you refer to them by name?  Are they people to you, people who have goals and needs and wants - or do you see them solely as walking wallets?  Do you call them something different (and perhaps not very flattering) when they aren't in the room with you?

The people who buy goods and/or services from you are looking for more than only the products and services you sell.  They are looking for respect, they are looking for understanding.  They are looking for a buying experience that will save their time and help them use their money wisely.  They want to feel smart for choosing to do business with you.

Sometimes your customers are in search of a sense of belonging.  Think about some of the iconic brands of our time - and of course one of the first that comes to mind is Apple.  When you own an i-anything, you become part of a club of devotees.  It's partly about the product, and it's partly about the cachet associated with owning one.  If you would have an opportunity to create and deliver product and service that elicited such an emotional connection you could call your customers ambassadors.  Ken Blanchard calls them Raving Fans.

Imagine how people in your company would behave differently if the intention were to create ambassadors, disciples, and raving fans among customers.  Would your employees do more, or would they move more quickly?  Would they advocate on behalf of your clients to improve the product and service that your company delivers?

What if you wanted to be able to call your customers friends?  What effect would that have on how you serve them and on your pricing methodology?  Would you see what you could get away with, or would you be thinking more about what they want and need?  If you wanted to call a customer your friend, what would you do without any concern about payback - and do it just because it is the right thing to do?

Intention drives behavior, and behavior drives results.  Relationship and emotional engagement contribute to customer loyalty.  If you keep a sound intention toward your customers in the foreground in your mind you just might be able to call your customers your friends some day.  And better yet, they might call you that name too.  And if you commit to creating the foundation for that level of authentic connection, everybody wins.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Discovering a door

Blue door under Widdop rocks by felixspencer2
Blue door under Widdop rocks,
a photo by 
felixspencer2 on Flickr. 
There you are in the middle of nowhere, in a rocky wilderness, when you notice a door.  What will you do?  Will you hurry past, thinking that no self-respecting door belongs in this place?  Will you stand and stare at it, and perhaps take a picture?  Or will you place your hand on the knob and attempt to open it?

You don't know what's on the other side of the door.  It could be something frightening, or it could be a hidden treasure, waiting for you to discover it.  Your assumptions and attitudes will probably whisper to you about the probable contents that are hidden there.  So what will you do?

Your decision might be influenced by the conditions right now where you're standing.  On a beautiful day you might not choose to investigate a place that your fears tell you might be dark and full of cobwebs.  But in a hailstorm or tornado you wouldn't hesitate to seek protection anywhere you can find it, even behind that door.

This is why sometimes people realize afterward that the hailstorm in their life was a gift.  The inclement weather inspired, even forced, them to open a door that they would not otherwise have touched, perhaps not even noticed.  But once they went through the door their world changed for the better.

Are you walking past doors?  Do you see them as risks, or as possibilities?  Perhaps the time has come to approach the door, place your hand on the knob and turn...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How career management is like investing money

Diversification - Investing by 401K
Diversification - Investing,
a photo by 
401K on Flickr. 
There has been a lot of posting here about the power of focus.  When you know what your target, your goal, or your vision is, you notice opportunities that align with your intentions.  Through goals you also have criteria with which you can sort misaligned opportunities out of consideration, helping you conserve your  resources in the direction of greatest potential.

You might have one overall intention; however, it might be important or even critical to have more than route to get there.
In the world of investment, too much focus in one type of instrument is not necessarily a good thing.  And the same may go with the careers in your household.  If all of the proverbial eggs are in one basket and the basket tips over, the whole household can be in deep financial doo-doo.  When two partners work in the same troubled industry or in the same company, it's possible that both incomes could be at risk at the same time.

Are you diversified?  In your investing, have you arranged things so that some of your investments increase in value when others decline, just by virtue of the way in which the market works?  Or have you at least established a portion of your portfolio that is low risk or even insured to retain its value, even if other instruments in your portfolio are selected to capitalize on rapid growth (when things are growing)?

Now let's touch back on your income sources.  How much of your income relies upon you getting up in the morning and going out to do your job?  What if you became ill or unable to get up and go out? Is there another wage-earner in the house?  Are there other things that you could do if you were unable to meet your financial goals doing your current line of work?  Are you willing to have a second job or consider a change if it means that you can more readily achieve your goals?

The challenge in doing more than one job or running more than one business at a time can be the potential for diluted energy or loss of focus on the factors that make either (or both) of your ventures work properly.  If you are considering this route, however, think about the non-earning activities you're involved in that are consuming time and energy and not helping you meet your goals.  Perhaps the focus that they are pulling right now could be shifted toward activities that could be in better alignment with your desired results.

The criteria for the best decision on focus versus diversification come from your goal of highest priority.  Is it more important to you right now to have more time to spend with the kids or more income to fund family vacations and activities?  It's said that too much work can make Jack a dull guy to hang out with.  Perhaps that's true.  But if Jack has a goal to buy a vacation home or pay off his college debt, diversifying and thereby increasing and/or securing his income stream might be exactly what would help Jack fulfill his most important intention.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Avoiding the post-goal-achievement letdown

Photo by Lauren Poland

Well, here you are with another stretch of road in front of you.  You focused your energy, you sacrificed in other areas of your life so you could achieve that goal you have been chasing. After time (and perhaps some struggle) you have made it and you have celebrated your success. Now what?

After the victory dance is over after a big goal is achieved it's not uncommon to feel like something's missing. It's not that the goal didn't bring the rewards that you hoped for and even expected - you're still happy that you accomplished it.  Your issue is that the purpose, the focus that the goal gave you is gone.  The space in your calendar that your goal-directed activities filled is now empty.  There's a bit of an echo in the room.

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

Purpose is what keeps people going. Imagine achieving your life goals by age 35 and realizing that you probably have 50 or more years to live. What would you do with all of that time?  The striving is what gives your life its excitement, its meaning. This doesn't mean that you have to climb one monstrous cliff after another and resign yourself to being a stress monkey forever.  But to make your life count - in your own eyes - you need something to look forward to. You need to see a distant view that you want to bring closer.

Where should you look for your renewed sense of purpose?  If you are drifting after accomplishing a goal, examine the things that you put aside for the goal's sake while you were working on it. Perhaps you now have an opportunity to add some balance to your life.  You can shift gears and engage in the life-cycle version of balance rather than the daily or weekly version. Perhaps you've got a secret project that has received no attention recently, but that can now receive some of your energy. If nothing in particular is pulling you, perhaps it's because you have kept these other dreams and aspirations in the background for so long that they need a little nudging to step forward out of the shadows and into view.

You are faced with many times of transition in your life - some of which you choose and some that are imposed upon you by the order of things. There is an ebb and flow to intense activity and energy consumption.  The time immediately following the achievement of big goals is one of those transition times. If you're concerned about getting stuck in that drifting mode, a coach may be helpful to you.  Your coach can provide tools to help you identify the next mountain you want to climb.

The Summit coaches help high-performing individuals to stay engaged, and to create a lifetime of professional and personal success.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Especially for today - A Leader's Prayer

Thursday, May 3, 2012 is the National Day of Prayer...

photo by Jay Gibble

Let me stand
Supported firmly by the foundation of my values
And in the greater purpose that calls me forth
Let me stand for the uncompromising truth
That compels me to stretch beyond
My prior expectations for myself and my contribution

Let me see
The distant hills that are my destination, our destination
The lessons of the tall old pines that grow fruitful even after fire
Let me see the effect of the river that, over time,
Can cut and mold a landscape
Even while flowing softly and serenely through a verdant valley.

Let me speak
In words that cascade like diamonds
Onto someone's shoulders, enriching them
Let me speak in tones that wrap
Like fur, warming and soothing
On skin that has been scarred and roughened by conflict.

Let me serve
With head bowed in humility
Because I know my gifts are truly not my own
Let me serve especially in times
When I am not yet ready
And in places that call for skills I have yet to discover.

Let me shake hands
With brothers and sisters everywhere
Knowing that we share our humanity if not our opinions
Let me shake hands
And look the other directly in the eye
And see the dignity and the noble intent within them.

Let me celebrate
The abundance that is already before me
That I did not create, but that has been given to me
Let me celebrate
The glimmers that light the next steps on the path
And show me that the impossible just might not be so.

Let me step out, step up
And shake the clots of mud off of my shoes
To respond to the call of the world
Let me step out, step up
And in my own way, by whatever means I can
To make a mark, a signpost for the ones who come after me.

                                                -----------------poem by Julie Poland

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When consensus might not be the right method

NOVA barcelona consensus_20110501_[inauguracion]_XaviFont_03 by Imagen en Acción
NOVA barcelona consensus_20110501_[inauguracion]_XaviFont_03,
a photo by 
Imagen en Acción on Flickr. 
Consensus is often the decision making tool of choice when undertaking projects like strategic planning with a group. Yet consensus can be an obstacle to real team unity. Let's take a quick look at it.

First, an operational definition: Consensus is the common sense of most after the consultation of all. This means that consensus is not necessarily unanimity of thought. In Summit's client groups, participants are given the responsibility to verbally jump up and down if they strongly disagree with the direction in which the decision is headed. They assume responsibility for slowing the process down for a fuller discussion.  And sometimes they are able to give the issue enough air time and discovery space that opinions are changed.

Advantages of consensus as a tool
  • Probably the biggest advantage to consensus is that you leave the meeting room with the whole group's commitment to the outcome. If, instead of seeking consensus, you take a vote - someone will leave the meeting with the potential for a "win" if the initiative or decision fails. They will also be identified by other group members as opposing whatever measure was passed, creating the potential for in-groups and out-groups.  In-groups and out-groups are destructive to teamwork and employee engagement.
  • The process of achieving consensus consults all participants but does not require unanimity, so consensus can keep things moving forward. You don't have to prolong the discussion to fully convince hold-outs as long as the group as a whole is together and the unenthusiastic parties have agreed to get on board despite their reservations.
Drawbacks of consensus as a tool
  • You have probably been in work settings where you could see the decision locomotive speeding down the track. In some of those cases a particularly influential individual (strong personality regardless of rank), or a group member with greater authority, presented an idea.  Heads started to nod assent so quickly that you could practically feel a breeze. Whether fear, flattery or self-service is the reason, the yes-people let bad ideas make it through the gauntlet without fully testing their merits, under the guise of consensus.
  • A setting of trust and openness is needed for consensus to work properly, and that's not always in evidence. Participants need to leave egos, titles and surnames at the door and have enough confidence in the safety of speaking plainly that they candidly share whatever reservations or concerns they have. If you don't have the prerequisite climate you have to establish behavioral ground rules in order for consensus to be real.
  • It takes time for a group to fully process important decisions to the point where consensus is possible.  If you are consulting all, that means even the quieter folks in the group, the less experienced, the less popular - because you are examining the issue from a variety of perspectives on the way to achieving buy-in on a direction.  When you rush the process you might see some head nods that don't represent real commitment.  And if you are leading the group you might be well advised to throw in some questions specifically intended to uncover objections that did not immediately surface.
Alternatives to consensus
  • Multi-voting - Items are listed on a board and each participant has, for example, 5 vote stickers to "spend" however they choose by affixing them beside the best of the various alternatives. This can allow the group to prioritize their favorite options without doing a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" vote on one of them. Potential limitation:  This method will still allow participants to see momentum toward one or more choices, so they may choose to get on board with one that they see is popular.
  • Nominal Group Technique - A slip of paper is distributed to each participant, where they write their preferred choice from a selection of options generated by the group. The papers are collected and counted, with the biggest vote-getter being the selection by the group. Because this is a voting method, individuals will still know whether they were opposed to a particular choice. But it does prevent individuals from feeling pressured into agreement - their vote is confidential. And it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for others in the group to hassle them later for their expressed points of view.
  • Assign the Final Decision - Provide group input but delegate the final decision to an individual, typically the one responsible for implementing the decision. If this is the ground rule you are going to use, however, make sure it's clear to the group before you generate input. Otherwise, the participants might feel set up or resentful if their suggestions are not implemented.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The lure of the shiny things

Buried treasure. by cmstark
Buried treasure.,
a photo by 
cmstark on Flickr. 

What are the shiny things that catch your eye?  Is their sparkle sufficient to draw you away from what you're doing, regardless of how important or planned your thing is?

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

In contrast to this guy, other company leaders in the same local market expressed their concerns that they had allowed their businesses to become too locked in and static.  The ramifications were that they were missing openings in the market that could have been quite profitable had they jumped in earlier. As a result, they updated their strategic plans, and included critical goal categories like "Be open to opportunities for new product development, for acquisition, etc."  They didn't want to miss any more windows.

Opportunistic vs. Distractable
Where's the line between being opportunistic and being too easily distractable? The line starts with the vision you have for yourself and your company, and the big initiatives you already have included in the mission portion of your plan. If a new potential product or initiative comes along that's in alignment with your vision - that's real opportunity. If the shiny thing is an innovation that aligns with your company's core business and its key competencies - that may also be real opportunity.  If it's not in alignment with where you've said you're going or with what you're already tooled up to do, beware - it might be only a shiny distraction, one that could dilute your allocation of resources toward the things you've already defined as goals.

Shift Gears or Stay the Course
In order to start doing something new you're generally going to have to make room for it by stopping doing something you're already doing. What are you going to give up to pursue this new direction?
Sometimes companies (and individuals) are susceptible to the shiny new things because the existing strategies have not yet produced the results they want. This might mean that the old strategies weren't the best - or instead it might mean that not enough time or repetition has passed for them to bear fruit. Few initiatives produce instant results. It takes patience to see a plan through.

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

This discussion assumes that you have a plan in place, experience says that many of you don't have a plan laid out.  You're looking at your business more casually or organically.  These unwritten methods place you in reactive mode rather than proactive.  It's difficult to make effective decisions about how to invest your time, money, and people resources when you're reacting.  If you don't have a vision or a plan yet, it's high time that you put one together, and then test the new opportunities against it. Otherwise the shiny new things might trip you.

Summit helps businesses and their owners to develop and execute longer-term plans to help them define what their goals are, plan how to allocate their resources, and succeed in integrating their vision into their daily operations.