Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Choosing the top of your "To Do" list

Are you waiting to go home from work until you finish your
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list of things To Do?  If you are like most people, your to-do list stretches far longer than the hours you have to complete it.  In addition, there is no finish line - you clear out one item and another fills in the empty space. At the rate that it grows, that list combined with that philosophy could prevent you from ever going home!   It can feel overwhelming when there are 15 urgent things for you to do.  How do you decide what to do first?


Instead of concerning yourself with the whole list, it might help you to focus on "the number one thing."  Some people would define Number One as the item that would give you the most leverage or forward progress.  Even in times when you have a dozen or more things to accomplish,you can tackle your list by asking yourself the question, "What is the most important thing for me to invest my energy on?"  Allow yourself to choose only one, because you can only do one thing at a time.  (Trust us on this - you can only do one thing at a time.  You might think that you are multi-tasking, but actually you are toggling back and forth among two or more things.)

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

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

One Summit business coach jokes around about his now-deceased parents' habit of saving the big agenda item for last in the conversation.  Coach J's elderly mom and dad would talk about the weather, about their neighbors, about something they saw on the news last night - and then bam! -the real top of their list:  "Oh, did I tell you that I have been having chest pains for the past week?"  Huh?  Of course by the time they would bring up the main subject they would have run out of time to talk, but now Coach J would feel frustrated.  He would feel worried about them, but impatient at the same time because when they called he was scheduled to be at an appointment in fifteen minutes.  Why didn't they tell him the important things first?

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Do you have a career or a J.O.B.?

At dinner the former colleague said, "I just fell into it, but
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I have the best job in the whole world!  I have a company car, I get to travel regularly, it pays well and I only have to see my boss about once per month!"

Nice work if you can get it, eh?  Well maybe or maybe not.

The good news in the woman's story is not the job itself, but how she feels about the job.  She is at a point in her life where autonomy, travel and the opportunity for new experiences are exactly what she would order if she could place one for her ideal gig.  The company is pretty flat in structure, and it's family owned, so there aren't a lot of opportunities for progression.  She doesn't care - truly she doesn't.  In the workplace she's already been there, done that, before she got here.

The difference between a career and a J.O.B. is in the amount of non-paid reward you find in it.  You do the J.O.B. only because it keeps the lights on and pays for gas and groceries.   If you weren't being paid (or not paid enough that it felt like a fair exchange) you'd part with your J.O.B. faster than you could say Jack Robinson. In your J.O.B. you're not particularly concerned with the big picture, or the long term success of the company except as it relates to the continuity of your paycheck.

People love careers.  A career need not mean that you are continually climbing the organizational ladder, with progressive increases in the size of your budget and the scope of your authority. When you see your work as a career you find elements of the work that are satisfying, and you care about the results of your efforts.  You typically plan to keep doing what you're doing, even when the going isn't completely smooth, because the work itself is important to you.  You're less likely to call in sick, and you are productive when you're there.

What do you look for in your work?

  • Flexibility?
  • Predictability?
  • The ability to learn new things?
  • A social outlet?
  • Huge financial reward?
  • The potential to make a difference in your community, or in society at large?
  • The opportunity to stretch your technical skills?
  • Challenge?
  • Variety?
  • Security?
  • Autonomy?
  • Collaboration?
How aligned is your current work with the elements that are important to you?  Can you add some of them to the work that you're already doing and transform that J.O.B. into a career, something that you could like or even love?  You're the one responsible for fulfilling your potential.  It might be that you can bloom where you are planted right now.  Or it might be that you would find greater purpose and greater performance where there are conditions and content that better suit you.

You spend a significant portion of your life at work.  Who wants to settle for a J.O.B. when it could be much more than that?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Expectations, interpretation and the big letdown

What's up with this?  Prognostications of shin-deep snow
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resulted in only a toe-deep accumulation.  Rather than a whole day off school the kids only have a 2-hour delay.  Perhaps that's better than nothing, but perhaps that's enough to create disruption.

This is but one example of how a neutral event passes through your mental filter and takes on meaning.  Two inches of snow is two inches, but it can mean that:

  • Your commute will be slow and potentially hazardous (well, it will if you live in an area where the infrequency of the event means that the resources and manpower to handle it just aren't in place.)
  • You won't have to break your back shoveling.
  • Activities and events won't come to a complete standstill - and this could be either the good news or the bad news for you.
  • The kids might not have to make up a snow day, messing up Easter vacation or the post-semester beach trip schedule.
Obviously you're not in the position to influence how much snow is going to fall.  Not even Al Roker can be 100% correct.  But weather folks, businesses and even parents create expectations that are met - or not.  It's not about the 2 inches, but about whether you were preparing for a foot - or nothing -  instead.  
  • If you tell your boss that the report will be ready by 10:00 Tuesday, even if it's not due until noon the boss will expect it at 10:00 as you promised.  You set the expectation.
  • When you tell the kids that the next time you discover them playing on their tablets under the covers after 9:00 at night you'll confiscate the tablet, you had better follow through if you don't want to risk losing credibility with them.
  • If you advertise a product on special in your store and you run out of product at that price you need a backup plan like a rain check so you don't upset your customers.
As for the mental filter, you are going to do what you do and the folks who observe your behavior will interpret it.  They will run it past their values and beliefs and compare it to their prior experiences.  This is why there is often a difference between intention and impact.  
  • You don't invite they guy from the other department to the meeting, thinking that you're saving him time.  He interprets the exclusion as a personal slight or as an indication of how important you think he is to the company.
  • You stand behind an employee, looking over their shoulder at their computer.  You think you are participating in their work, but they interpret your behavior as hovering,auditing and controlling.
So what can you do about all of this potential for preventable negative emotional reaction?
  1. Be conservative when you are setting expectations.  When you set the bar for your own performance you had better make sure to soar over it.  (The other person might already have their own ingrained expectations, and you can't control those)
  2. Take note of verbal and nonverbal feedback you receive from other people.  This is how you will find out about how they are interpreting your words and/or actions.  The communication process is not complete until the information goes both ways and the recipient of the message understands the message that the sender intended.
  3. Be willing to adapt your behavior based upon knowledge you have about other individuals' expectations, values, etc. if you want to connect effectively with them.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Power to Choose Your Customers

You might not be thinking about your business in this
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way, but you already are exercising some choice about the companies and/or individuals with whom you do business.  You do so by defining what market segments you are going to target (and what needs you will fulfill for them), and then you structure the business to line up with that target market.

You might start the process with some knowledge of the type of business you like to do or are especially skilled at doing, and then you look for the market segments that want what you have.  Or if you're starting out, you might have a desire to work with a specific group of people or companies, you ask them what needs they have that are not well met right now, and you plan your company from the outset with those needs in mind.

If your focus has been on your products and services rather than on the needs of target markets and customers, you're probably
  • Not attracting as many of them as you want
  • Not attracting the kinds of clients you would choose to have
  • Wasting marketing energy and dollars
If you were to make a conscious decision about the clients on which you would choose to invest your energy, what would be your ideal?  Keep in mind that when you create a profile of your ideal customer you're not limiting yourself from working with other people or businesses - you're simply focusing on what you want.  Beyond that you can choose how far outside the ideal profile you want to go.  Here are some ways to identify your chosen market(s):
  • Their demographic characteristics (size, location, job title)
  • Psychographic characteristics (mindset, preferences, etc.)
  • Specific customer needs that line up with your company (or your individual ) strengths
  • Types of clients that are profitable (based upon knowledge of your current client base)
  • Characteristics of clients that have stayed with your company and referred other business to you
  • Customers that are efficient to deliver to (may be location driven or other)
  • Clients that find value in work that you enjoy doing
  • Potential customers who can afford to purchase your products and/or services
Choosing customers upon which to focus is crucial to your planning for your business.  Your ideal customer profile will influence
  • What marketing methods you use
  • The locations in which you market
  • Your sales process
  • Your pricing
  • Product packaging
  • Even how you dress and the appearance of your facility
Even if you're feeling such a huge sense of revenue urgency that you want to grab hold of any business that glances in your direction, think about this example - you can't be successful trying to be Saks AND Walmart at the same time.  Ultimately you'll have to choose a predominant market positioning.  This doesn't mean that customers outside your ideal profile won't come to you or that you can't choose to take their business.  Of course not.  But making conscious choices about your ideal customer should enable you to do a larger proportion of your business with the people with whom the business relationship is mutually rewarding.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Your employee "racehorses" in the improving economy

Getting employees focused on the vision, fired up about the
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possibilities and the company teams firing on all cylinders - that's the path of a successful business leader.  Employee engagement is the interim goal toward the ultimate outcomes of productivity, profitability and growth.  But the mindset and processes of employee engagement connect to higher stakes when the economy begins to improve.

Think about your top performers, the ones you rely upon the most heavily in your day-to-day operations.  Now think about who among your employees is in the best position to be lured away from your company by an industry competitor or another company who competes with yours only for talent.  It's the same group of racehorses, isn't it?

In managing individual performance, there are two factors involved: effectiveness and commitment.  In your business there are continuums that include these folks:

  1. High in effectiveness, high in commitment - Thank heaven for these, because they are helping your business reach its potential.  Include them, continue to develop them, recognize their contributions.  Invest your energy on these folks rather than on the others if you are short on time.  Let them feel the love and they will return your investment tenfold (at least).
  2. Low in effectiveness, high in commitment - These workers might have readily resolved training issues.  Develop these people, and make sure you have them allocated to roles where they can best use their natural talents.  They want to do their best for you.  So help them acquire the skills to do so.
  3. Low in effectiveness, low in commitment - Why are these employees still hanging around the company?  Is the effectiveness issue resolvable through training?  Do they care enough to make the most of your investment in training if you were to decide to do so?  Why is their commitment low?  Is it that your job was their last resort when they needed one, or is there  something in the work climate that creates fear, suspicion and detachment?  This performance problem might be about them, but it might be about you and your leadership behaviors.
  4. High in effectiveness, low in commitment - Why is this person not on your team?  Part of engaging high performers is sharing the vision with them and enlisting them in a sense of purpose, showing them an internal career path and progression.  If you don't take the steps to engage them, the highly effective folks have a lot of choices and they are likely to keep their opportunities for a bigger paycheck as their top priority.  Until and unless these individuals can attach to a company vision or an individual leader they feel compelled to follow they are likely to continue to hop to the better deal. 
Continuous talent management and invigorating work climate - these are your two key ingredients to keep your top performers on board in the current economy.  Competition for their talents is going to become more intense.

Sure, employee engagement might sound like something that's nice to do.  But right now it's strategically important to your business's future as well.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Improvement team or gripe session?

Your company might have bought into the employee
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engagement principle of team-based decision making.  You might even have teams assigned to make improvements.  But some of you out there have management teams who haven't jumped into the whole "let's form a team!" methodology because they have had experiences with meetings that devolved into demoralizing, pointless complaint sessions.

Don't get us wrong here.  We don't think it's a good thing to expect every employee to don their company underwear and only mouth the company line.  It's a sign of a healthy culture when a company encourages employees to keep the bad news coming.  How else is the company to know what needs to be done?  The key is in what you do with it once you've got the info.


  1. The team needs to have a goal, a charter, that defines the scope of what they are supposed to do.  
  2. The team needs a chairperson and a facilitator.  The chairperson is responsible for the result and the facilitator is responsible for the process.  Although some companies try to take a shortcut here and double up with one person holding both of these two roles, it's a mistake.  The chairperson is placed in a conflict of interest if he or she, for instance, needs a team output by Friday AND is simultaneously charged with making sure all team members have had adequate input into the situation.  Even more common is when the chairperson uses his or her bully pulpit to over-influence the team.  That dilutes the purpose for having the team in the first place.
  3. The team needs time and space to meet.  If you have no white board, no space with a door and no ground rules to prevent continual distractions you will be compromising the effectiveness of the team, and likely extending the amount of time needed to get anything meaningful done.
  4. The team works best with a code of conduct. This defines the behavior that is in bounds and out of bounds and keeps the group working smoothly together.
  5. Provide the team with analysis and decision making tools.  If you have data, the team needs it, both to define the scope of the problem and to determine the degree of improvement achieved.  Your team members might need training in using production or financial reports.
  6. Provide the team with adequate authority and/or a process to take action.  Gripe sessions result when teams are left with no ability to make things better.  They become passive and begin to expect management to take care of every need. It has a negative impact on the climate, and increases management's workload unnecessarily.
Know when you are forming teams whether their charter is to identify problems or solve them.  They may need some sort of prioritizing method  to determine which items to tackle first, second, and so forth. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Emails grabbing you by the throat?

One person clicks "send" on an email without
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thinking it through first. OK, it's not only one person that does this.  It's a lot of people, and one of them might be you.  As a result, i
n dozens of offices and homes in your local community and across the country, people are seething.  Their blood pressure has spiked, and they have headed to the medicine cabinet for some antacids.  Some relationships are damaged, perhaps severely enough to be permanently destroyed.  
Do you think this is being melodramatic, overstating the situation?  "Email is convenient because it saves me hours from playing phone tag," you may be thinking.  And texting is so immediate that the other party can be reached in literally the next second after you convey your thought.
When you send written forms of communication you are de facto creating several conditions. Here's why email and texting as primary communication modes can grab you (and others) by the throat:  
  • You are creating a permanent record - whether you think that it's temporary or you've deleted it or not. 
  • You are communicating in a one-way mode that makes it difficult for the other person to answer questions or clarify assertions you made.
  • You are demonstrating your writing skill (or the lack thereof), and you are creating the opportunity for some people to interpret your intelligence, education and credibility level from that.
  • You are releasing your control over the ultimate destination of your message.  Your email might be forwarded hither and yon - and if you have said something controversial or upsetting to someone, the likelihood of that happening increases.
  • You have no timely indication of the manner in which your message is being received.  Your message could be creating a flurry (a fury??) of follow-up emails among other parties of which you are completely unaware.
Email and text are convenient.  They are efficient - perhaps so much so that the time you save is well invested in reviewing your work and its potential interpretation and fallout before you click the "Send" icon. Here are some things you should check:
  1. Check your intention.  What are you trying to accomplish?  Are you trying to share information?  Complete a task?  Build relationships?  Vent some negative emotions?  Reprimand someone?  Some of these goals can be effectively achieved via email, and some cannot - at least not without some collateral damage.
  2. Check your spelling.  This should be a no-brainer, but in the haste to send a message spell check is often skipped (or the auto-correct creates properly spelled words, only the wrong word choices). Inaccurate spelling doesn't matter to some people, but for the ones to whom it does matter your credibility automatically slips by a notch or two when words are misspelled.
  3. Check your vocabulary.  You want to make sure that your audience understands you, so steer clear of acronyms and internal jargon.  Save your SCRABBLE 50-point words for playing the game.  Beware of words that might be inflammatory.  If your intention is to inflame, perhaps you would be well-advised to click "Delete" instead of "Send".  Do it right now, before somebody gets hurt.
  4. Check your facts.  If your information is inaccurate or incomplete you could, at minimum, hurt your credibility.  You could also misrepresent a situation in a way that creates completely preventable conflict.  You could even create bad data upon which someone else is making decisions that have very tangible negative ramifications.
  5. Check your tone.  Even if your spelling, vocabulary, and facts are in line, a judgmental, accusing, or parental tone will build walls, not bridges.  Take out the should-oriented words unless you want to represent yourself in a position of authority over the recipients.  And if you are not in a formal position of authority over the recipients, when you choose to take this tone you will run the risk of losing some, if not all, of your informal influence over them.  Short statements make you sound more commanding than do longer sentences that elaborate.  And remember to use please and thank you.
  6. Check the temperature of the message.  If the information in your email has you emotionally upset, or you anticipate that it might have a similar effect on the recipients, seriously consider a face-to-face or even telephone mode instead of email for your message.  The higher the temperature, the worse email is for sending it.  Text mode is even worse - just ask the people who received break up messages over their phones.  When you use written communication to avoid conflict you're taking the coward's way out.  You aren't really avoiding it - you're fanning the flames instead.
  7. Check your timing.  Think about your recipients and not only yourself here.  It might be efficient to crank this out right now while you have a spare moment, but there are other factors involved.  Will this message catch its recipients too late for them to respond?  Will your incendiary email catch someone right before they have an important task to perform?  Will it create a destructive distraction?    If so, why send it now?
  8. Check your distribution list.  The importance of items 1-7 above increase with every additional name you add to your distribution list.  If you want to keep people informed, the "nice to know" distribution can be your friend.  Strategic use of the cc can build accountability. If you have content in your email that could be perceived negatively, the broad distribution list can magnify the destruction it causes.
With power comes responsibility.  Email and its cousin the text message are powerful tools for productivity, information, and relationship-building.  If you choose to use them as bully pulpits you can literally destroy your career.  IN ALL CAPS.