Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Helping an employee make a performance turnaround...

Turnaround... by ChernobylBob
Turnaround..., a photo by ChernobylBob on Flickr.
You can help an employee make a performance turnaround - if the situation warrants the energy on both of your parts to remedy the situation.  It is hard to contemplate that slot being open, but know going into it that providing the support for the employee's improvement will consume your time.  If you're not willing to invest in this employee, better to cut bait and search for a better fit with another candidate.

So you're not willing to give up on this person?  Then take these steps:
Plan for a performance improvement conversation: 
  • Identify in specific behavioral terms what the person has been doing (or not doing) that is creating the performance issue.
  • Define (again in specific behavioral terms) what you want the employee to be doing instead to bring his or her performance in better alignment with the job role and your expectations.
  • Cite example situations to support your assertions.
  • Determine the timeframe that you are willing to allow for the improvement process, and what your potential courses of action will be if the person does or does not improve.
  • Schedule a meeting time with the person when both of you will be able to be undistracted and uninterrupted.  Choose a location where you will have privacy.
During the performance improvement conversation:
  • Maintain adult ego state.  This means that you describe behaviors, situations, implications, etc., but do not lapse into judging words like "lazy," "incompetent," or other interpretations that will only serve to raise the emotional temperature of the conversation.
  • Follow the planned flow of the conversation.  Describe the unsatisfactory situation, the preferred behavior, and the timeframe in which the person must improve.  It is possible that the employee will respond defensively or try to distract you.  Even if there are other issues brought to light that need to be resolved, unless they are direct contributors to the situation they are for another day.  This conversation will not be effective if even the kitchen sink is thrown into it.
  • Share the improvement plan in writing if this is a repeat offense, or if it is severe enough that termination could be the result of a failure to improve.  Have the employee sign it so there is documentation that the conversation took place, the problem identified and the game plan communicated.  A 30-day or even as much as a 60-day timeframe may be agreed to, but specific day, month, and year should be included in the documentation.
  • Although the scope of this conversation is best if it has a narrow focus, remember to talk about the other things that the individual might be doing well.  If they didn't have some redeeming skills or qualities you wouldn't be taking the time to help them turn around, and placing this in perspective with their whole performance will help them to maintain motivation to improve.  If you paint the situation in strong "or else" terms, the employee may see it as hopeless, and therefore will not exert genuine effort to fix the performance.
  • Agree on a follow-up process.  Talk about how often you will check in with them, and how you will determine whether the performance has improved or not.
After the Performance Improvement Conversation
  • Catch the employee doing something right.  When you see glimmers of improvement, let the employee know that you saw it, and that the behavior is exactly what you're looking for from them.
  • Stick to your plan of regular check-ins.  This is your way to demonstrate authentic concern about helping the employee retain his or her job and achieve the results that you expect.
  • When the agreed-upon timeline is up, meet with the employee and discuss the improvement that you have seen.  If you have not seen adequate improvement, take the action that you laid out in the documentation shared during the performance improvement conversation.
Preventive Measures
The steps outlined above come into play when there are some fairly substantial gaps between your expectations and the employee's performance.  You may be able to prevent these situations from occurring if you:
  1. Take your time to select a candidate who truly fits the job role you have available.
  2. Be specific in laying out the position description and performance expectations up front, so the person knows what you want.
  3. Provide appropriate training to help the employee meet your expectations.
  4. Meet with the employee regularly.  It's much easier for both of you to make small and frequent course corrections than it is to do a turnaround.

Monday, January 30, 2012

What can go wrong with an ultimatum

Argument : Men Vs Women by Natesh Ramasamy
Argument : Men Vs Women,
a photo by Natesh Ramasamy on Flickr.
  • "Change your behavior or you're outta here!"
  • "Fix this problem now or I'm leaving you!"
Issuing an ultimatum means that you (or they) are done - there's no more messing around, there will be no more warnings after this one, etc.  The person who issues the ultimate threat is trying to send a loud and clear signal to the other person.  They are saying, "You had better change now because I'm telling you to do so!"  The ultimatum has some limitations, though, as a negotiating tool:
  1. Be sure that you are willing and able to follow through if the conditions you outlined are not met.  Otherwise you have lost credibility and will not win future negotiations with this person.
  2. The ultimatum only works when the other person has an interest in meeting your needs and wants.  If they don't care your threat will be empty sound and fury.  They will be quite OK if you (or they) go away.  (Remember that old insult - "Don't go away mad, just go away"?)
  3. The other person will only tolerate a very few (maybe only one) ultimatums from you before the drama quotient associated with dealing with you motivates them to leave the relationship, job, etc.
  4. If you are demanding a change in behavior, especially with the high stakes associated with an ultimatum, you had better be in a position to know whether the behavior standard is truly being met.  If you don't follow up on the required change, it's not a required change, and your future demands will become toothless.
The Chinese euphemism appropriate to empty ultimatums is "paper tiger."  The paper tiger looks fierce, but is harmless.  The irony in this is that sometimes people resort to ultimatums because they think the ultimatums make them look strong, but overusers look weak instead.  Not everything is at this level of importance.  Some problems are only inconvenience.  Some mistakes (probably most) are better addressed by training and encouragement than by threats of extreme measures.
Don't you use ultimatums from this day forward, or I won't let you read this blog any more!  (huh?)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Time to cross the street

sebastian showing the models how to step off the curb with pizazz....(matt never figured it out) by shullovox
sebastian showing the models how to step off the curb with pizazz....
(matt never figured it out), a photo by shullovox on Flickr.
You're leading a group, you're walking in unfamiliar territory, and you have come to a street.  Are you going to stand there, not sure whether you should proceed?  Are you going to retrace your steps, because you already know where that route leads?  Or is it time for you to step off the curb and cross the street?
One of the challenges in leading is knowing the difference between situations where your best bet is to stop and seek the input of your team, and and those when you just take the step forward.  When you are stepping out you might need to hold their hands, or connect your team members to one another, to help them manage their fears.  You will be the one to look both ways to keep them safe from oncoming traffic, and to time the step-off appropriately.
They might be pulling back on your arms, tired from the walk so far and wanting only to sit down to rest.  But you might have to urge them on.
If you know that your destination is warm and comfortable, and you know that it has food and drink, you might be less likely to slow your pace or even stop for a few moments to comfort the naysayers.  They will just have to see when they arrive at the destination, and it will be evident to them then that their concerns and resistance were overblown and unnecessary.  Once they arrive they will enjoy benefits that would not have been possible if you had not pulled them forward with you.
You might not, however, know what is ahead.  You might know only that the place you are leaving is not going to stay the welcoming and comfortable spot to which the group has been accustomed.  Change is brewing, and if you don't help them move they might not survive.  They might not see what you see, and they might not understand why you are continuing to pull them forward. 
Some of your group will focus on the trucks, busses, and cars whizzing by, and worry that you won't know how to help them cross the street safely.  It will help you (and them) if you have navigated busy streets before.  They will trust you more readily.
But ultimately it comes down to you.  Is the place that you're going - or the place that you're leaving - worth the potential conflict?  Are the implications and potential implications big enough that you need to go even though some of your group will be kicking and screaming?  If so, then go.  Step off the curb.  Look both ways, and choose your time, but take that step.  This stage of it is only temporary if you don't linger at the crossroads.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The unavoidable ingredient in sales

The small business owner was feeling frustrated:  "I just don't know how I'm going to fit one more networking meeting into my week!  And I'm not closing enough deals to justify spending the money on going."
This business owner bought the premise that today's business environment is social, built upon networking, referrals, and relationships - both online and in person.  What he didn't think about was that the events that were filling his week weren't sales - they were marketing.  No wonder that he didn't have as many clients as he wanted!
The unavoidable ingredient in sales is the face-to-face conversation with the prospective client, where you (and they) can discover their needs and wants, and then see whether your products and services are a good match to meet their requirements.  Without that interaction, you have the potential for a few unsatisfactory conditions:
  • They won't recognize the fact that their problem can be solved, because their daily focus is on handling it, not solving it.  They are busy operating.  So they won't even think of taking the initiative to contact you to buy whatever it is that you're selling, even if you can fix their problem.
  • You will be tempted to present solutions for which the need has not yet been established.  This creates a feeling of pressure in your prospect and increases their resistance to your recommendation, even if it is a valid one.  You have to earn the right to present solutions via building the relationship and asking questions.  To be blunt, presenting too early is a quick way to make it harder to obtain appointments and an equally quick way to create a bad reputation in your business community.
  • If you are networking all week long you will have made a lot of contacts and filled your calendar with a lot of happy talk, but not enough real sales "at bats" to generate revenue.  In the meantime, your fixed expenses continue to accrue, and the cash to pay them is going to have to come from somewhere.
Let's clarify the difference between marketing and sales, just to make sure we're all on the same page here:
  • Marketing:  "Prepares the soil" for sales efforts by establishing image and general awareness.  The idea is for the marketing to start to establish familiarity and a relationship before the sales interaction, to increase the likelihood that the prospect will be receptive.
  • Sales:  "Sows the seeds" for a customer relationship.  This is not necessarily a one meeting process.  Especially in business-to-business sales, there might be multiple decision points, several people involved in the process, budget and timing issues...all of which can affect the cycle time from "Hello, my name is" to "Sign here, please."
The marketing function supports sales, but it is not a substitute for the buying/selling conversation.  It might result in some customers coming to you without direct sales effort on your part, but who knows when that might be?  If you want to increase your sales, or speed up your cash flow, start setting those appointments - even if you have to skip a networking function to make time to do so. 
If you are worried about the potential for rejection, take heart.  It's going to happen, and most of the time it won't even be because of you.  Businesspersons out there are busy, they are on their own agendas, and some of them don't want to quit running long enough to learn an easier, quicker, better way to do their work. 
But your buyers are out there.  Stop keeping all of your good stuff to yourself.  Go talk to them, with an agenda right on the table "to see whether their needs are a good match for the products and services that you provide."  If you take time to make a friend first and ask questions about needs and wants second, you will have created a solid foundation upon which to present your solutions.
So what if they don't need or want what you are selling, or can't afford it, or the time isn't right?  If you have created the relationship foundation, they will come to you when they are ready, or they may choose to send a friend or colleague to you.  Stay in touch with them, send information to them that you think might be helpful to them. 
And time to time connect with them in another face to face.  That will help to keep you top of mind with them, and will help to ensure that you will stay tuned in to their changing business needs and wants.
 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sharing 101

Sharing 101 by Back in the Pack
Sharing 101, a photo by Back in the Pack on Flickr.
What are you willing to share, and what are you not?  Are you free with your opinions and equally free with your money?  Are you willing to share food but not your technical knowhow?  Are you keeping it all, or are you giving it all away?

Sharing 101 stems from a paradigm that says there is plenty for everyone.  Sharing stems from a perspective of abundance.  If you're not coming from that place, it's very possible to feel as though you'll come out on the short end of limited resources.  In this mindset you won't feel like you can "afford" to part with any of your whatever.

Beyond the scarcity mindset is another obstacle to Sharing 101 - that of the virtue of possession.  It's the assumption that you have what you have because of something outstanding that you did.  Perhaps you invested time and energy or dollars in it.  Perhaps you see it as the result of the education that you sought to obtain or the risk you were willing to assume in investing in a business venture.  You earned it, so doggone it, you're keeping it.

Do you really own it?  Are you the only person who contributed to the person you have become and the assets that you possess?  Is your success all the result of you, or were there other players who had a stake in the outcome?  Who helped you to get that education?  Who hired you for your first job?  Who taught you how to operate the equipment that enabled you to craft the beautiful dining table?  Who laid the groundwork for your research, or developed the prototype for the prior generation of your product?

Sharing 101 is interpersonal grace.  It is accepting that there is bounty in the world, and knowing that passing some of "your" bounty along will not harm you.  Sharing 101 means that you don't have sole ownership.

What are the thoughts and feelings that cause you to want to hold things and people and knowledge to yourself rather than share them?  What are the assumptions that are preventing you from sharing?  What if those assumptions are wrong?  How might your life - and your view of it - be transformed?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Handling the elephant in the room

Nobody wants to talk about the Big Elephant in the room!!! by Irwin-Scott
Nobody wants to talk about the Big Elephant in the room!!!,
a photo by Irwin-Scott on Flickr.
The eight-grade class members squirmed in their seats.  A few of the kids rolled their eyes as they furtively glanced at their neighbors.  One or two hid snickers behind their hands as they vainly attempted not to be affected by the sight in front of them.  And a couple of girls stared at the ceiling.  They couldn't look.

The math teacher's fly was down.  And until something was done about it, nobody was going to get anything accomplished.  That unfortunate wardrobe malfunction (or user error as the case may be) was the elephant in the room. 

Who among the kids would be able to be composed enough and subtle enough to let the teacher know so he could correct the situation?  In this instance, the teacher had few fans among the student body, so the class allowed him to go through the remainder of the class period oblivious to the fact that the students didn't hear a word that he said.  Even if their eyes were averted, their attention was completely focused on the open zipper situation.

In a work group setting, the elephant is often one or more objections in the minds of the participants.  An elephant would be an anticipatable or shared obstacle in attitude, mindset, perception of rightness or wrongness, etc.  One example that comes to mind is that of a consultant who had difficulty generating new business because his appearance was so youthful that he looked too young to be able to provide substantive information to his apparently much older clients.  That consultant might never hear about the age and inexperience obstacle, but it was there, nonetheless. He perceived it in the superficial answers he would get to questions he would ask the prospective customer, or in the explanations they would frame in almost embarrassingly basic terms. 

This man developed an elephant strategy.  His strategy was to bring out the "too young to know anything" elephant and make a joke at the beginning of the meeting about how he was far older than he looked, and he would follow that with a summary of his impeccable business credentials.  His prospects often smiled, or admitted that they were wondering about just that.  He disarmed the elephant, and then was able to proceed with his agenda for the meeting.


When the elephant (whatever it is for you) isn't addressed, it doesn't go away.    The elephant continues to consume space, and on occasion it smells up the room.  Whatever the elephant issue is might not be fun to talk about, but as long as it is present, the elephant will prevent forward progress.  Even if participants in a discussion appear to be nodding in agreement, it is likely that the forward movement is only a mirage.  It will stall on the follow-through, because the pesky elephant will be in the way.

Bring that elephant out there and introduce it.  Make a pre-emptive move by naming it.  Help the group determine how big the elephant is, and what should be done about it.  You bring the elephant down to a manageable size when you identify it, stand it in the middle of the room and address it.  Only then can you expect to be able to move on to the scheduled agenda items and take some action. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Of two minds

Mind Duality by h.koppdelaney
Mind Duality, a photo by h.koppdelaney on Flickr.
She uttered the dreaded words, "On the other hand..." and her husband groaned.  "I'm trying to be responsive to what you want," he complained, "but you keep changing your mind!  Help me out here!"
You hear it all of the time - political candidates are skewered in the press with accusations of "flip-flopping" on issues.  Then when they are elected, some of them are criticized for being immune to the influence of evidence that flies directly into the face of their firmly set convictions.  Is it better to be consistent, or to be able to see and even argue on behalf of multiple perspectives on an issue?
Consistency vs. Flexibility
If you want to lead effectively,  you attract followers and commitment when you are consistent. 

Spaced repetition increases the retention of your message, so consistency becomes important in helping people remember you and your priorities.
If you want to be consistent you have to have some overall fundamental principles upon which you base everything else.  Followers attach themselves to the ideals, the philosophies, that you put forth.  Then new information should be filtered through the principles to see how it aligns, and decisions made based upon the filtered data.
But what if the new information contradicts the old information?  Doesn't a well-educated person run the risk of contradicting himself or herself?  In a word - yes.  But that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Closed-mindedness and inflexibility in thinking can cause a leader to make 19th-century decisions in a 21st century world.  Sometimes new information has to influence priorities going forward.  And it becomes important for the leader to identify - and communicate - the new information that is transforming his or her thinking on a topic.
Obviously there are pieces of new strategically impactful information that would be dangerous to share far and wide, but the effective leader shares what he or she can, even with those individuals who are outside the group of "need to know" team members.  Only when team members outside the inner circle understand the leader's priorities more completely can they fully align their efforts with the leader's intended direction.  And the more quickly the direction is changing, the more important frequent communication becomes.
Two minds and decision making
Sometimes inside the leader's mind there's a tie between two priorities, and that leads to a delay in decision making or a waffling back and forth between different options.  Ultimately the leader has to have a method to break the tie - either an overriding principle, or a trusted person or team that helps to tip the scale in one direction or the other.
Decision criteria can help to process a choice.  Here's a simple example:  when determining what home improvement tasks are most important prior to placing a home on the market for sale, the criteria might include:
  • Safety
  • Curb appeal
  • Energy efficiency
  • Adaptability to a variety of buyers
The leader scores each project (1-10) against the identified criteria, and then whichever project achieves the highest score is done first.  When there are multiple people involved in the process the criteria screen can still be used - either a consensus score for each item is identified, or scores from all of the individuals are tallied to determine an aggregate for each of the criteria.

Ultimately nothing happens unless a decision is made, so the more protracted your process is, the longer it is going to take you to achieve the results you want. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Who do you serve?

Service Dog by pnutbuttagirl
Service Dog, a photo by pnutbuttagirl on Flickr
Who (or what) do you serve?  Do you serve customers, your company, your community, your family, your career, your God, or yourself?

What is the driving force behind the way in which you prioritize your day, or allocate your financial resources?  Who do you serve?

This is a way of framing your purpose, your reason for existence.  If you have never articulated what your purpose is, have never set it down on paper, look around at the people and/or entities that you serve to find clues.

Of course this begs the question of the difference between espoused purpose and purpose in use.  But getting close to your real motivators, your authentic purpose, will help you to summon the internal resources you need to make the most of opportunities and persist in times of turmoil and struggle.

For whom or for what do you do what you do every day?  If you cannot readily answer this question you are missing the key to contribution, connection, and satisfaction.  Your talents, your knowledge, and your goals are at best diluted, and at worst out of alignment without purpose as a context.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Are you listening - or not?

Listen to me... (2) by tanukifu
Listen to me... (2), a photo by tanukifu on Flickr.
Do you think it's preferable to be internally driven, or to be externally driven?  Your answer to the question may depend upon whether you're the goose that's swimming along minding your own business or the goose who has something important to say.
There's a spectrum here - there might be certain situations and topics in which you are open to the input of other people, and some in which you are less so.  But internal vs. external drive has multiple implications for you, in your work life and your personal life.
Looking to the outside
When you are externally driven you are influenced by your surroundings, and one of your motivators is the effect that your behavior has on other people.  If you go so far as to strive to please everyone else you're in a no-win situation, because the actions that will please one may upset another.  For instance, you know that your boss has expectations that you work long hours to conquer your workload, but when you stay late regularly and delay your family dinner your spouse becomes upset.  On the flip side of the work-life balance, when you leave early to make your child's baseball game your boss questions your commitment to your job.

To some extent, it's beneficial to your group, and to you as a member of the group, for you to be externally driven.  You act in their interests and are influenced by their opinions.  External drive can backfire on you though, especially in the workplace, when taken to the extreme.  You can find yourself going whichever way the wind is blowing or aligning with whomever honks the loudest, and that can harm your credibility.  You can appear weak or even dishonest when you don't stand up for anything.

If you have no internal driving forces to balance the external forces that are trying to influence you, you might find yourself feeling frustrated later when you realize that you have given up too much of yourself, or have negotiated poorly on your own behalf.  You have created your own victimhood, seeing yourself as someone who has been acted upon or taken advantage of.

The internal lighthouse
When your drive comes primarily from the inside you don't seek the input or approval from other people.  That can be helpful, even a critical component, in certain roles and situations where you have to act autonomously.  The internal drive might come from a firmly ingrained set of core values, or from habits of thought (attitudes) about the expectations for a particular role, or about how an unwillingness to yield demonstrates strength.

The internally driven person can be an effective leader, because they are less subject to the conflicting expectations of the various people in their lives.  They set their own path and follow it.  But taken too far, internal drive can mean that when it comes down to a win-lose situation they are going to make sure that it's not them that comes out on the short end of it.  It also means that people around this person can talk all they want, but they might as well save their breath.

One piece of this not to be ignored - the internally driven person doesn't have all of the information.  If he or she is not listening, some of the critical input that will make or break the next decision, or that will prevent a crisis from growing, won't be available, and the quality of the decision will be compromised.  Even a brainiac's IQ is no match for the collaborative input of multiple individuals.

Listening to yourself
Core values create the spine that supports your evaluating and decision making. You hold many of your values at a subconscious level, and they reveal themselves through warm (or uncomfortable) "gut" feelings about how you are to best handle a situation that presents itself.  You have also stored huge quantities of information obtained through your education and/or experiences, so much that you have forgotten that it's there until a circumstance calls it forward.  The retrieval of this memorized information is not always at a conscious level.  Some people call this somewhat mysterious internal soup of values, feelings and subconsciously stored information "listening to your heart."

But there's more to it than that.  In order to maintain that strong spine of internal direction you need to trust yourself to make the right call at the right time.  Gathering data may play a role in your process - it's not necessarily a matter of whether it only feels right.  But even data - neutral as it is until it's interpreted - may not tell the whole story.  It's a representation of what has been already and not necessarily a predictor of what is to come.

It would be impossible to say whether it's "better" to be externally or internally driven.  It's a spectrum, and isn't necessarily a choice of one over the other.  But it is a valuable frame of reference for observing and understanding other people's behavior and being more self-aware about your own.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Upsetting the Apple Cart - On Purpose

Upsetting the Apple Cart by jroadie1
Upsetting the Apple Cart,
a photo by jroadie1 on Flickr.
Whoaaaaa!  There they go!  The apples are dumped all over the road!  Now what are you going to do?
No sweat.  Those dumped apples are possibly one of the best things that could happen to you today, or this week, or this month.
  • Perhaps you can carry something else in the cart now that it's rid of the apples.
  • Maybe you can make the load a bit lighter and easier to navigate by carrying fewer apples at one time.
  • Maybe you have the opportunity to do something with the apples other than carry them around.  You could pile them up to make an apple fort, or collect a few, cut them up and bake an apple pie.
It's possible that your route with the apple cart is so ingrained that you hardly notice it any more.  You get up in the morning and go through the same sequence of tasks in the same way day after day without having to think about it.  What is going to interrupt your comfortable groove except for the upset of that cart full of apples?
When you can't go through your task on autopilot you have to engage your brain to figure it out.  And chances are that you have more information and more experience than you had when you created the task in the first place.  It's likely that you have new and better tools to use to help you get the job done.  And even if you simply want to reload the apples onto a cart, there may be a cart that's faster, lighter, with better capacity and easier on the environment.
You don't have to wait for someone to upset the cart for you - do it yourself, on purpose.  Take a different route, use a different sequence of steps, or change your lunch order.  You will increase your awareness when you're out of your routine.  It might not be as comfortable as your usual route, but the little edge that comes from mild discomfort engages your brain to do its thinking.
If you are very attached to your current cart of apples, don't drag it too far off the path to start with.  Change it up just a little bit and prove to yourself that the world won't come to an end if the routine is interrupted.  Then next time you can stretch a bit further, then further, until you build your mental elasticity.
And what about the apples that get left in the road?  Squeezed hard enough, they'll make good cider.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is it a match - or not?

One of these things is not like the others,
a photo by gafmaster.wordpress.com on google images
Are you trying too hard to make it work?  An ill-fitting shirt can be belted, pinned, left open as an overshirt to allow more belly room - but how far do you go before you decide that the shirt simply doesn't fit?

The question that follows closely behind this one is whether the problem is the shirt or you?  If something has to change to make it work better, what is the change that needs to be made?

In the 2009 movie "He's Just Not That Into You," several young women practically twist themselves into pretzels trying to lure the man they love (or think they love) into the sort of relationship that they want.  (see the trailer here) They try and try until their desperation becomes a head-shaking sort of comical for the audience. They watch as the protagonists kid themselves again and again that it's going to work if they only give the other person enough time, space, nurturing, etc.

On the flip side of this, you might be the person who is in the decision-making seat.  Is the potential payoff worth the compromises you'll have to make in order to make the job, the sale, the situation, the house, the relationship fit you?  Or is this not a match that should be made?  Will you be almost instantly dissatisfied, and will it whittle away at your commitment?  Will it eat away at your happiness?  Will it ultimately erode your opinion of yourself if you decide to settle for something less than what you really want?

For how long do you expect this match to last?  The timeframe for a marriage commitment (in theory) is measured in decades - it's a pretty big decision as a result.  A mismatch will have longlasting consequences.  On the other hand, the inadvertent choice of a clumsy dance partner only lasts until the song is over and you return them to their table.  A mismatch here is no big problem.

How big is the adaptation that has to be made?  There may be circumstances that warrant making a commitment to fairly substantial personal change:  wedding vows specify "till death us do part," and many people still take that vow seriously.  Business results that aren't up to snuff may require that you do things differently, even significantly so, if you want to keep the doors open.

When it gets down to it, though, you have to decide how far you want to go to make it work.  Every person has his or own boundaries, some casting a broader swath than others.  If you don't honor your internal boundaries you may be able to "make" the situation work on the outside but be eating yourself alive on the inside.  Ultimately it will erode your motivation and corrode the relationship.

Yes, people can become and change.  But if you are counting on that from yourself or others it's a risky proposition.  It assumes that there is a capacity for the desired behavior, and enough motivation to walk up a steep hill to learn it and sustain it.  It's a lot easier when the circumstances, personalities, etc. are in some alignment at the outset.  Looking for a better match going into the deal might save all of you heartache and frustration later.  And having the courage to walk away may be the best thing you can do for everyone involved.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Play your best game - and win

It's your big day.  You have a presentation, or an important meeting.  You need not be a football player in the midst of the championship season to think about playing your best game - and winning.
The "best game" here doesn't mean the flawless execution of football.  It means play the game, do the thing, that you were born to do.  If you were born to speak in public, speak in public.  If you have a talent for strategy, strategize.  If you crack people up when you tell jokes, do that (of course with good human relations in mind!)
If you attempt to play the game that your competition plays and its not your best game, you will likely be at a disadvantage.  You will be an imitation and they will be the original.  Some companies compete on the basis of product, some on the basis of marketing, some on the basis of price, and some on distribution.  Individuals compete based upon intellect, interpersonal skills, credentials, connections, creativity, etc.  Go with your strengths.
Do you know what your talents are?  Do you know which is the appropriate stadium for you, and the uniform that gets you the best results?  If you're not sure of the answers, think back on a time or situation in which you were at your best.  You got outstanding results.  What type of task were you doing?  What methods were you using to accomplish the result you got?  Were you working alone, or in alliance with someone?  Were you using technology?  Were you leading or following?  Were you talking, or were you listening?  Or both?  Were you collaborating?  Once you identify yourself at your best, do more of it.

Going with your strengths doesn't mean that you ignore the other person.  If you are involved in a transaction in which the two of you need to partner, you will often win by helping them win.  Make them look good and help them achieve their goals and you are likely to earn a score on the board.
It is not necessary for someone else to lose in order for you to win.  The optimal situation is one where everyone can have their needs met.  In the business world, however, there are times when only one person racks up the highest score and carries the trophy home. 
Playing your best game might be a bit scary.  If you give it your all and despite your best efforts it doesn't work out the way you want, it can hurt.  But always remember that you will play again on another day - fear is not a good reason for not doing whatever you can right now.    Review your fundamentals.  Perhaps develop a few tricky (but legal) moves that will set your competition back on their heels as you breeze by toward your score.  But play YOUR best game.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

When creativity trumps capital

"Cans Festival" "London Street Art"  Waterloo by londonstreetart2
"Cans Festival" "London Street Art" Waterloo,
a photo by londonstreetart2 on Flickr.
Do any of these cries sound familiar?  "We need more staff!"  "We need this technology!"  Are you feeling like someone is always trying to reach into your pocket?

The fact is that sometimes we do need these things - but often we don't.  Forgive this post, you economists out there who want to see all boats rising on the tide of increased spending by companies and consumers.  This is about looking out for the interests of numero uno - me.  Or you, since you're the one reading this.

Creativity often is tapped first when there isn't extra cash to throw around.  You learn to make do.  You learn to repurpose, to reuse resources, and to hang on to ideas or things that you might want or need on another day.  It's often harder to be creative when you DO have the resources to buy something, to hire somebody to do it for you.  You become tempted to follow the path of least resistance, which is to reach into your wallet, pay for the thing, and carry the bag home.

What would you have done with those resources if you hadn't spent them on that last sexy thingamajig?  Could you have strengthened your reserves and built your financial security by putting it away in a rainy day fund?  Could you have used your money better by allocating it to another purpose that didn't present the opportunity for creative options?  Might that hole-burning cash have gone to the development of a new service line or venture that could open a whole new revenue stream instead of piling on top of your prior dollars as you continue to mine your current one?

Ok, so perhaps you're not buying the fiscal responsibility argument for creativity over capital.  How about the argument for building meaning and satisfaction into daily work?  The brains you have on board are like other muscles - they like to stretch, and they get stronger with exercise.  If you want to build mental capacity you test your brain, give it problems to solve, give it constraints within which to work.  Then when the mind comes up with that wild-haired but effective solution - bingo!  Intrinsic reward.  And that rush of satisfaction generates more searching for more cool and cheap ways to solve current problems.

Prioritizing creativity over capital gives you a competitive edge.  First, you have financial leverage from having kept your costs down.  Second, your solutions may be like nobody else's anywhere.  Because of this second advantage you can differentiate yourself.  Let somebody benchmark off of you for a change instead of you stalking them for your next good idea.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why trophies matter

Trophies | Crystal by trophies
Trophies | Crystal,
a photo by trophies on Flickr.
The parents groaned just a little bit when they walked into the sports banquet and saw a table loaded with plastic gold-tone trophies.  They saw each one as another piece of clutter that would be left on the stairs to be tripped over or plopped on a dresser to gather dust.
What the parents forgot - until their beaming child marched to the front to be presented with his prize - was that it wasn't about the plastic trophies.  The banquet and the "gold" cups on pedestals were about recognition for a job well done.  The trophies were tangible evidence of appreciation and achievement that would be revisited over and over.  The sight of that trophy in each child's room would serve as a reminder that they can be successful.
In the workplace many compensation structures involve incentive pay.  The idea is that the financial reward coincides with the calibre of the performance.  Do good work and you receive a nice bonus.  But there are a few problems with incentive pay as a means of recognition:
  • It doesn't take long for the financial incentive to become part of the family budget.  It morphs into an expectation, and before long the bonus or commission only becomes noticeable in its absence.   When it shrinks or disappears, regardless of the sound business rationale behind the change, the employee is demotivated.
  • It is impersonal.  The bonus or commission arrives in a paycheck, and sometimes directly into a bank account without any fanfare.  No handshake, no "attaboy" accompanies it.
  • It isn't noticeable.  Nobody but the CFO knows how well you're doing - that is unless you use your gains to purchase a car, a big house, or some trophy of your own choosing.  Heaven forbid that you talk about it in your workplace - comparative compensation talk can result in disciplinary action in some companies.
Trophies aren't just objects - they are symbols.  The ceremony that accompanies the bestowing of awards is also important.  Public recognition is a huge motivator, so even when the award is plastic, or framed paper, or even an inflatable monkey, its recipient appreciates and remembers it.
There are prerequisites to trophy earning and trophy giving. 
  1. The leaders have to know in specific terms what performance they are looking for. 
  2. If they want team members to pursue excellence intentionally they need to communicate the desired performance standards.
  3. And the leader has to be noticing what's going on in performance.  There are measurements to be followed and/or score to be kept.  Without knowledge and data the leader can find himself or herself rewarding unfairly because he or she is using subjective rather than objective criteria. 
Trophies are bigger deals when they are more scarce - to a point.  They have to be issued frequently or predictably enough to be on team members' radar, but not so abundant that they cease to be differentiators.  A club team swimmer is thrilled with earning ribbons at the first few meets.  But quickly the four from this meet are added to the four from the last meet until over the season one child can accumulate two dozen printed pieces of fabric.  They start to be left scattered around the house until the dog picks one up and chews it to bits.  So the child starts to count only blue first place ribbons, or first and second place, or medals - and not to care so much about the ribbons that come in so much abundance.
This idea that scarcity equals value in rewards is part of the reason why you don't say "Thank you for coming to work!" in the morning or "I appreciate that you handed this in on time."  After a while the team member's internal voice is saying "yeah, yeah, yeah..."  It's also a performance expectation that the leader is making a big deal about.  When the leader makes a huge production out of thanking for the fulfillment of performance standards, the employee eventually starts to hear it as a vote of no confidence in their ability to deliver.  It's the performance equivalent of throwing a game of cards so your child's feelings won't be hurt.  You need to be able to take decent performance for granted - and the team members need to be able to know that your expectations of them are high.
Now back to the trophies to wrap this thing up.  What could you make a point of noticing and recognizing in some tangible way?  What behavior do you want to see more often on your team?  Perhaps a traveling trophy is the way to go.  Whatever you choose to do, remember that trophies do matter.  Even if they are made of plastic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

One man's optimism

Stanley W. Martin
Unless you lived in York County, Pennsylvania during the mid- to late 20th century you would not know the name of Stanley Martin.  If you lived in the Borough of West York, however,  you could not have missed him.  Stanley was a business owner, a worship leader of his church, a borough council member, and patriarch for a passel of children and grandchildren that continuously populated the West York Area School District for more than 60 years.  He died in 1998 at the age of 82.

Probably most characteristic of Stan (or Pepper, as his mushball buddies called him) was that he was an Optimist.  He was an active member of the service club Optimist International, that performs projects for the benefit of children in their communities.  The Optimist Creed was displayed for years on his dining room wall:

Promise Yourself ...
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

One of his most characteristic responses in good times or in bad was "Well, that's all right."  He had a very deep but softspoken voice, and he was usually tamping the custom blend tobacco in his everpresent pipe when he said those words.  He made it through a lot of troubles over the years, smiling and knowing that it was going to be all right.

The youngest of Stanley's grandkids and great-grandchildren probably don't remember him saying that.  But as the oldest of them, I do.  That picture of him standing in his kitchen with coffee brewing and the dozen Maple Donuts on the table is ingrained in my brain, as are those words.

Near the end of his life, I had the opportunity to speak at his Optimist Club.  As a token of appreciation they gave me my own Optimist Creed on a plaque.  It still hangs in my office, and it serves two purposes.  First, it is inspiring and comforting to read in the times when optimism is hard to achieve oneself, much less to pass on to others.  But second, and perhaps more importantly, every time I read it I think of him.  And I have to smile.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Off of the recliner and into action

Feeling lazy by beevek
Feeling lazy, a photo by beevek on Flickr.
The kids stood in line at the bus stop looking like zombies.  They stared into space, eyes glazed over - completely different from the usual scampering and throwing of the football while waiting for Mr. Marty to arrive.

What a convergence - the first day after New Year's day and a Monday.  A combination that virtually guarantees that everyone will have a case of the slows.

This will pass for the kids.  Once they are at school and the daily schedule commences they will be swept up into their routines.  They will pass out tonight closer to their usual bedtimes, and by tomorrow or the next day they will be back to normal.

You'll do the same with your workday - maybe.  But what if you are the one who has to impose the schedule?  What if you are the one who has to take the initiative to set the alarm a little bit earlier, or to get to your desk and return emails and calls?  Nobody else will be sweeping you along, and so it will be a matter of choice.  Choice is great, but it means that it's up to you if it's going to happen.

Inertia can be deadly to your business.  The sticky molasses (and yes, it's January in a cold state) that holds you in your current position will delay your positive results if you allow it to keep you under its control.  The longer you sit there the stickier it will get, and the harder it will be to extricate yourself from its grasp.  The hold will start to feel comfortable - until later when the comfort and easy feelings will be replaced with regret or even panic over lack of progress.

You might have to let your internal engines warm up a bit, but start something.  Take a step.  Perhaps you can start with an attractive activity, one that you enjoy doing, to get the juices flowing.  Then once your brain has fully geared up, look at your week and plan your activities.  

As you plan your week, consider the 2-3 key outcomes you want to accomplish, or steps toward that end, by the end of your workweek.  Allocate time for those activities in your calendar first, then move on to the others that aren't quite as high in priority or essential to your results and fill in.

Rest and recuperation provide critical fuel for performance.  It's important to spend some time in the recliner, or at the beach, or in the mountains, or hanging with friends and family.  If you master the art of getting back into the game quickly when the R & R is done, you will feel good about your accomplishment.  And that confidence will create an upward spiral of performance for you.