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How to Save Your Sanity When Overworked and Overwhelmed

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 08:00

If you’re feeling overworked, you’re not alone. A survey this year finds that more than half of U.S. workers feel overworked or overwhelmed at least some of the time. Perhaps it’s time to give mindfulness a try. The ancient art is growing more popular as a way to deal with daily anxieties – and to become a better performer on the job.

One of the solutions being touted more and more as a solution to the emotional and physical overload many of us experience is mindfulness. But is mindfulness the answer? Or is it just the latest fad that you don’t have the time or inclination to try?

Scott Eblin, an executive coach and speaker, says he understands the skepticism many feel when they’re told they will be happier and less stressed if they’re more “mindful” in their lives. But as someone who has practiced mindfulness for 20 years and credits it with saving his life after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Eblin believes that mindfulness can help anyone improve their quality of life.

“Most people are very happy to learn that mindfulness is not nearly as complicated as they thought. You don’t have to meditate all day or do yoga every day,” he says.

Eblin says the need for mindfulness is greater than ever, as the declining economy several years ago put more pressure on workers to take on more work – and do it with less resources.

“We still seem to be in that crisis mode, even though things have improved,” Eblin says. “And whatever boundaries we’ve had have been erased by the smartphone.”

Enough, already

Let’s say your day started with your daughter forgetting her science project for school, forcing you to turn around and go get it. This caused you to be late to work and an important meeting, ticking off the boss. By 10 a.m. you had 200 emails in your inbox and three more meetings to attend.

If such a scenario sounds familiar, Eblin says the first thing you need to do is breathe.

In his book, “Overworked and Overwhelmed,” Eblin points out that there is scientific evidence that breathing deep from your belly can alleviate your stress and help you become more focused. That’s why he calls breathing “the killer app of mental routines.”

Focusing on your breathing, Eblin explains, is the simplest form of mindfulness. If a thought crosses your mind while focusing on your breathing (“I have to answer 200 emails!”) just acknowledge that thought and let it go while you again refocus on your breathing, he explains.

“Think of it like doing reps at a gym,” he explains. “Within reason, the more you do, the stronger you get. Mindful breathing is like a workout for your brain.”

In the book, Eblin offers several ways that you can use mental routines to overcome various sources of stress and become more productive with your thinking. He suggests you:

  • Focus on learning. Don’t let your thought processes get caught up in remorse or regret for mistakes you’ve made, or things you could have done differently. No one is perfect, and you will make mistakes and have regrets. Instead, ask yourself questions about what was supposed to happen, what actually happened and what would you do differently next time. “What are one or two things, if any, that you want to do in the near future to mitigate what went wrong or to set things up for better outcomes in the future?” Eblin suggests.
  • Don’t let your mind wander. You may be washing dishes or brushing your teeth, but you’re probably thinking of many different things while doing it. But try being fully present while washing that dish – think about the temperature of the water, the quality of the soap bubbles or the spots you missed on that last pan. “If you find your mind wandering off to that meeting you had today or the presentation you’re doing tomorrow, no big deal,” Eblin says. “Just notice it, and then come back to the pots and pans.” Staying in the present in little ways can “help you be more present when it matters most,” he explains.
  • Let go of “what ifs.” When you’re feeling overworked and overwhelmed, your mind can slip into constant worry. “What if I’m not ready for that meeting?” “What if I don’t get this done on time?” Recognize that you’re worrying about the future, which never accomplishes anything. Instead, ask yourself if everything you’ve got going on is really necessary. Do you have to dial into that conference call? Do you really have to make homemade cookies for your daughter’s class party? If you find things are really necessary, then what’s the most important thing you need to get done that day? What could be postponed? Another tactic is visualization, when you breathe deeply and then ask yourself: “What am I trying to do?” and “How do I need to show up to do that?” which can help you identify specific tips you can take to create successful outcomes.

Finally, Eblin suggests that even the busiest people can carve out five minutes a day to do regular meditative breathing. “It’s not that big a deal to do but can pay huge dividends in terms of reducing your mental clutter and increasing your focus,” he says.

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Nilofer Merchant – How the Air Sandwich Can Kill Your Business

Fri, 01/09/2015 - 08:00

Nilofer Merchant has launched more than 100 products that netted $18 billion. In her 25 year career, she has gone from being an administrative assistant, to division leader, to CEO of Rubicon, to board member of a NASDAQ-traded company – gathering monikers such as the “Jane Bond of Innovation” along the way for her ability to guide organizations through seemingly impossible odds.

I interviewed Nilofer about her recent book, The New How: Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy and her concept of the “Air Sandwich.” Here are some of the highlights of our discussion.

Can you briefly tell us about the Air Sandwich? Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Chances are, you’re already familiar with the concept of the Air Sandwich, if not the term itself. An Air Sandwich is what happens when a leader in an organization issues orders from 80,000 feet and lobs them to the folks at 20,000 feet, creating a large, empty void. That gap between the top and the bottom is an Air Sandwich, and just like two pieces of bread without the meat or fixings, this sandwich is missing all the stuff that matters: namely, feedback, debates, trade-off discussions. As long as we’re eating Air Sandwiches in our organizations, we lack the shared understanding necessary to achieve the kind of results our organizations need.

If a leader is accustomed to formulating strategy solo, or with the help of a few higher-ups, how can s/he get employees at all levels involved?

The fastest way to get all levels to play is to invite them. As in, send an email to as broad of a group as possible and say “we’re working on X, anyone interested in working on X is invited.” And then let them work together to figure out the problem that needs to be solved, and the options for solving it. It’s not a group hug scenario (not every vote is equal), but it is an opportunity to come to a shared understanding.

How can leaders make the leap from a great idea to a great strategy?

The best strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave, or make decisions, it will fail. Conversely, a robust team that believes in an idea fully can turn a so-so strategy into a marketplace winner. The HOW matters in how we get performance, and that’s why it’s necessary to invite people from all levels to take a seat at the table.

What is the most effectively strategic company you’ve worked with and why?

My first job in technology was at Apple, and what I’ve seen them do in the mobile space is nothing short of revolutionary. They’ve figured out how to tap into the power of many people’s ideas – what I call onlyness – and have a large group of individuals creating something more robust than what Apple could do by itself. It’s a sign of how the social era works – when you can join together with others in shared purpose, you can create more rich and viable ways to grow.

Why do you think the future of work will involve so much emphasis on co-creation?

The social era is so markedly different than the industrial era. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people and ideas. It’s allowing talent of all kinds to count. It’s allowing people to get things done without having to belong to and work up the ranks of organizational structures. It’s giving power more widely to anyone, quite possibly everyone.

Thanks, Nilofer! For more about Nilofer’s work on co-creation, visit her blog, Yes & Know.

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4 New Year’s Resolutions for a Stronger Team

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 08:00

We’re a week into 2015. How about forgetting that resolution to work out every day and instead look at resolutions to help you build a stronger, more effective team?

These four resolutions can be the equivalent of hitting the gym for your team.

1. Give more feedback. If you’re like most managers, you don’t give nearly enough feedback to your staff members. Or you give plenty of positive feedback but don’t speak up quickly or clearly enough when you’d like people to do something differently (or just better). Or you might be the opposite of that, if you’re a manager who’s comfortable giving critical feedback but doesn’t give much praise for work well done.

But feedback is one of the most powerful tools managers have for getting results from their teams. In fact, just articulating the areas in which you’d like to see an employee improve or develop can go a surprisingly long way toward making that change happen. And of course, employees who don’t get alerted quickly when there are problems with their performance don’t get the opportunity to develop professionally – and bad habits are more likely to become ingrained. Or, when it’s positive feedback that’s lacking, people will often become demoralized and feel unappreciated, and that can show up in lower productivity and lower retention rates.

Resolve to make 2015 the year that you get serious about upping the feedback you give – on individual projects as well as overall. Make sure each staff member hears it when they’ve done well and knows when you wish they’d do something differently.

2. As a team, get ruthless about figuring out how you could perform better. In resolution #1, we covered you giving people more feedback to help them do better. This resolution is a different side of that; it’s about brainstorming as a group to figure that out at a team level.

As a manager, you probably have plenty of ideas about how your team can be doing better. But your roadmap will be far stronger if it contains input from everyone on your staff. So spend a few hours with your staff reflecting on what you want to achieve this year, what you might do differently to hit your goals out of the park, and what might get in the way of success. Give people the freedom to put everything on the table – are there strategies that aren’t working, policies or processes that are getting in the way of results, or whole new avenues you should be looking at?

People may have ideas or perspectives that never occurred to you – and plus, doing this will make staff members feel more invested in your team because they’ll feel that their input is meaningful and their voices have been heard.

3. Measure your own performance by your lowest performer. As a manager, you might be tempted to judge yourself by what your top performers achieve. But the real measure of a manager is how you handle your lowest performers. After all, they’re the ones who show what you’re willing to accept on her team, and whether you’re willing to take on problems head-on and hold people accountable, even when it means difficult conversations.

Make 2015 the year you get serious about tackling any performance challenges on your staff.

4. Get really serious about hiring well. The biggest thing you can do to influence what kind of work your team produces is to hire the right people in the first place. But if you’re like most managers, you’ve probably been guilty of rushing to fill a position so you don’t have a vacancy – and so you can stop spending time on hiring and get back to your real work. Of course, any time savings from that approach gets canceled out if you make the wrong hire … and even if the person you hire is okay, there’s a big opportunity cost attached to “okay” versus “extraordinary.”

In 2015, resolve to put a ton of energy into recruiting and screening candidates – especially including finding effective ways to test candidates’ skills and see them in action before making any hiring decision.


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Write Your 2015 Year-end Review Today

Wed, 01/07/2015 - 08:00

Your end-of-the-year review is here, and you’ve just spent long, hard hours listing your accomplishments and researching proof of their value–all to justify your salary and the resources you need for the coming year. But you can bypass that painful process next year by using these steps to write your ideal annual review ahead of time.

In this way, your future review becomes your current quarterly and monthly goals. How’s that for efficient?

1. List your objectives for this year.

If you don’t know what you and your team will be doing, start talking. Speak with your best customers, some favorite prospects, your team stars, your own executives, and your competition–whoever will give you inspiration and an out-of-the-box perspective.

When your brain is sufficiently overloaded with plans, make a list of the twenty-five goals you’d like to achieve this year.  After careful study, highlight the five most important goals of 2015. (Note that some ideas on your list may group into larger goals.) Write the achievable quarterly objectives that get you to your year-end success story.

Because we’re still in planning mode, now is the time to role-play your activity. (Trust us, it works.) Imagine the end of first quarter, telling your boss, sponsor, or recruiter what you’ve accomplished and then pitching for more resources, responsibility, or visibility–whatever boosts you towards your next bigger success. Write a draft email, listing what you accomplished. Do this for each quarter of 2015. This will help you prepare for the actual emails you’ll be sending quarterly.

2. Be realistic about your plan.

The hard part is not mapping out what you WANT to achieve quarter by quarter, but making it happen, with all the surprises and gotchas that crop up every day. And although your goals seem like a great idea on paper, make sure you don’t over-commit. Leave room for unexpected crises and opportunities.

Consider the unique vagaries of your firm’s business cycles: Is there a mid-year consolidation of resources from completed or cancelled projects? If so—and this may seem counterintuitive—make sure you front-load smaller projects at the start of the year. This way, you can put the bulk of your resources toward your larger projects when deadlines loom. Another reason to start small? By the middle of the year, less-critical projects can be cut. But by keeping your major projects on track, you’ll be able to take the finished project’s resources for your group.

Stay on track with a watchlist of your quarterly objectives, including difficulties you foresee that you’ll prevent or overcome. Your ability to navigate these minefields and deliver success is what truly makes you valuable. Recognizing potential problems now enables you to prepare and train your team to react with expertise instead of alarm when issues do arise.

And don’t forget to keep your stakeholders in the loop by sharing your plans. Are they with you? Do you need any course corrections? When they’re on board with what you’re planning to achieve, they’ll recognize and support your progress as it happens.

3. Take action.

List the next six months on a flipchart page or whiteboard on your wall. Write keywords next to each month, representing your objectives and watchlists. You can work on multiple objectives simultaneously, but listing them month by month provides a clean visual prioritization to help you focus and progress.

Take that first quarter draft email and turn it into a mini review of your objectives, issues managed, and accomplishments for the quarter. Save it and refer to it every morning when you check your email. As the months go by, update that draft to reflect what you did, and adjust your remaining plans as needed.

If you do this diligently, week by week, you will find yourself focusing on what’s important now, preparing for what’s coming next, and keeping detailed records of what you’ve accomplished and how you did it.

Make sure you write in a big celebration for year-end…because you will have a lot to celebrate.


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4 Productivity Tips That Can Backfire On You

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 08:00

If you’re looking for ways to better manage your time and be more productive, you won’t find any shortage of productivity advice out there. But not all advice is created equal. Here are four popular productivity tips that can backfire on you.

1. Delete any email that isn’t high priority. Read nearly any advice on managing your in-box and you’ll probably see some version of this advice. The idea is that if you’re someone who never gets around to reading and processing all your email anyway, you might as well just delete it as soon as it arrives and stop it from cluttering up your in-box. But getting trigger-happy with your delete key can backfire on you, if you end up missing an important email from a colleague, or not having any record of the decision on the Jones account when you need to consult on it in a few weeks.

By all means, archive emails that you don’t need to act on – so that they’re still there if you end up needing them later – but don’t delete them.

2. Set up an auto-responder telling people you only reply to email during certain days or hours. The idea here is that in order to keep email from being a constant distraction, you’ll let people know that you only respond to emails between 4:00 and 6:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays (or whatever schedule you choose) so they know not to expect a response before then. The problem? It might work if you’re an entrepreneur who controls your own time, but most workers need to be responsive to other people, especially the boss. That doesn’t mean that you can’t set aside blocks of time to process your email and try to ignore it the rest of the time – you absolutely can – but announcing that plan in an auto-responder is a good way to annoy people like your boss’s boss when they email you about something time-sensitive.

3. Give into your desire to procrastinate. Tempted to procrastinate? Go ahead, say some experts. Give yourself a break, and then when you’re ready to return to the task you were putting off, you’ll have renewed energy and focus. And sometimes this works. But other times, you come back to it with the exact same desire to procrastinate and much less time to get the work done.

4. Schedule every minute of your work day. Creating a basic schedule is smart, because it allows you to see how much time you have and what you can fit in where – and it can help you realize, for instance, that you won’t have time to work on Important Project X next week so you’d better make serious progress on it this week. It can also keep you focused on the most important tasks at hand and prevent you from getting sidetracked on things that don’t matter as much. But if you schedule every minute of your day, you won’t have room for the many last-minute things that will pop up during the day. So it’s important to build in buffer zones too, even if it’s just an hour every day for fielding the unexpected.


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A Look at Some of 2014′s Best Advice for Doing Your Job Better

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 08:00

As you scrambled to finish your work in 2014, you may not have given much thought to all the lessons you learned this past year and how they could benefit your career. But never fear! The elves at The Fast Track have been busy putting together a last minute gift for you.

So, here it is. A tidy package of some of the best strategies, advice and insights that will ensure your 2015 sees you striding forward in your career.

If you’re in a leadership position, consider these insights:

  • Before a meeting, use your empathy skills to get in the right frame of mind. What is that person thinking, feeling, and dealing with this week—personally or professionally? Put away email, project plans, and notebooks and really listen and relate for the first couple of minutes.
  • Employees shouldn’t have to wonder how they’re doing or wait until a formal performance assessment to find out; they should be receiving steady, regular feedback throughout the year.
  • Leaders should get out of their comfort zone and relentlessly look at themselves with a critical point of view. Some say they should fire themselves on Friday night and try to get re-hired on Monday morning.

Looking to move up in your career, become more productive or make better decisions? Then you need to pay attention to this advice:

  • You must set goals that are realistic and attainable but also goals that cause you to stretch. There should be a short-term, medium-range, and long-term aspect to your goals. You’ve got to know where you want to be in a decade, where you’re going to be in a year, as well as what you’re going to do today.
  • Don’t make excuses for the people who continually dump their problems on you. While we can all provide a sympathetic ear now and again, that doesn’t mean others should take advantage of you and expect you to drop everything to listen to them and even solve their problems. That’s a form of manipulation that does them – and you – no good.
  • People seem to have this all or nothing mindset about getting their ideas adopted. I won several times in the past and have taught many more company superheroes to win by showing them how a good pilot with desired results well documented and displayed wins many arguments.

If you’re a sales managers, consider:

  • Over-servicing is not as much of a problem in B2B as it can be in B2C, but you do have to worry about meeting sky high expectations. If you return a client email at 11 p.m. on a Saturday, it’s impressive initially but then becomes the expectation. And when you drop the ball, you’re in trouble.
  • The biggest mistake is not asking the customer for feedback. You have to engage with them while they are using your product or service and find out what they’re thinking. Another mistake is a failure to up level products and services. In order to generate repeat business, the next offer or product needs to be in place.
  • The sales manager should be more concerned about whether or not the strategies the team members are using are solid enough to succeed, not in demanding they do it the same way the manager did it when they were in sales. Their job now is not to sell, but to coach, identify gaps and help develop their team.

Advice that can benefit project managers includes:

  • My approach to managing a project is to delegate as much as possible so that I can empower, grow and encourage others to take on more responsibility. There is nothing worse than working for a project manager who doesn’t trust their team to make decisions and run with the detail.
  • Metrics are highly sought after in the first few months of a program, but then people tend to get metric-itis. But the one time you don’t check the metrics, something important will pop up that you’ll miss. One helpful tool is a web-based dashboard report that provides a consistent look at your metrics and gets stakeholders into the habit of doing regular quick checks.
  • Don’t assume that work is progressing as you’d planned simply because you’ve given assignments to others. Instead, make a point of engaging regularly, so that you’ll know if the work is moving forward on schedule or whether course corrections are needed.

If you fill the operations manager role, then insights to help you include:

  • I am not a big fan of people giving Powerpoint presentations to show progress, I like to see data extracted from systems.
  • There are a lot of smart people in a lot of industries. It’s time companies brought in those who are able to think digitally and put some of these things in place. Let IT be part of the conversation, because it will cost you more if you work around them. You need a tight link with IT.

No matter what challenges you will face in 2015, rest assured that The Fast Track team will be here to offer more great advice and insight from top experts and leaders in their fields. Happy holidays!





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5 Ways to Increase Your Team’s Well Being in the New Year

Fri, 01/02/2015 - 08:00

In 2015, go where no manager has gone before.

It’s the beginning of a new year, and you want your team members to be as happy and productive as possible. A little while ago, we talked about some easy wellness ideas you can implement. Here are other novel ways you might switch things up for the better.

Nix Email After 11PM

People who work all day generally need to sleep at night. If you want healthy and happy employees, don’t encourage them to be online at all hours. Tell your team, flat out, that they can do what they want with their own time but their manager and colleagues don’t want to hear from them after “curfew.” And whatever you do, don’t send email yourself after 11PM. This behavior is likely what started your team on it in the first place. Young employees in particular are vulnerable to pressure to work all the time and be available whenever their bosses are, and often try to one-up one another in this respect.

Rotate Seating

As I said last year, open offices need to go away. But that aside, you might also get rid of permanent seating arrangements. In the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig interviewed Christian Catalini, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who studies workplace efficiency. Christian recently examined the impact of proximity at an academic campus in Paris. When scientists were shuffled around to different buildings because of an asbestos problem, the result was more experimentation and more breakthrough ideas. Changing up seating also prompted workers to meet, collaborate with, and form friendships with a greater variety of people. It keeps things interesting without sacrificing too much privacy.

Purchase FitBits

Devices like the FitBit, which track actions like steps walked and time slept, are surprisingly effective in nudging people toward new and better habits. Purchase FitBits for your whole team (they’re not that expensive) and launch a contest to track who walks the most steps in a week. The competition aspect will spur your employees to get out of their chairs more. Note: there are apps that track steps too, but because many women don’t carry their smartphones on their persons, the FitBit bracelet is more effective.

Take a Field Trip

Three types of offsite adventures can be beneficial to your team. There’s the obvious and frequently employed team retreat, which allows your group to step out of its comfort zone and explore issues in a fresh environment. But a trip to a related facility (for instance, one of your company’s factories, or a customer, partner, or competitor site) can also be eye-opening and useful for learning about the big picture. You might also consider a volunteer day. Taking your team to serve a soup kitchen or build a playground will not only provide an opportunity to give back, but it will also offer an important perspective on how fortunate your employees are to have (relatively) stable, well-paying, professional jobs.

Institute Commute-Free Fridays

Commuting shaves years off people’s lives, especially if one has to drive. Even if you don’t have the power or desire to permit your team to work remotely most or all of the time, you can probably manage one day a week. If Friday doesn’t work, pick another day on which your team can meet virtually and fulfill their responsibilities without the strain of the crowded train or the gridlocked car. This step toward greater flexibility will boost employee motivation and, without commuting time and the distractions of the in-office environment, will likely improve their productivity as well.


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12 Seth Godin Gems from 2014

Wed, 12/31/2014 - 07:30

Seth Godin is one of the greatest business minds living today. I don’t believe that’s an exaggeration. I read his blog and here, summarized some of his best advice from the last year.

The thing about a clean sheet of paper

…is that it still has edges. It’s tempting to believe that creativity comes from starting fresh. But even when we start fresh, we approach projects and problems with self-created boundaries. You can’t do real work without edges, without something to leverage, but those edges don’t have to be the same edges as everyone else uses. Creative people often excel because they change the shape of the clean sheet.

You’re right, we were wrong

This is the most difficult sentence for companies that stumble in doing effective customer service. By effective, Seth means customer service that pays for itself, that is a rational expense on the way to building a loyal brand following and generating positive word of mouth.

When someone in your organization says, “You’re right, we were wrong,” they’re not saying that you’re always wrong, or that you were completely wrong, or even that, in a court of law with a sympathetic jury, you would lose. No, all you’re saying is that you made a promise or set an expectation and then failed to live up to it. Owning that and saying it out loud does two things: it respects the customer and it allows you to make more promises in the future.

Sign your work

We expect authors, painters and singers to identify themselves, to sign the work they do. What about managers, committee members, engineers and everyone else who makes something? Who made this policy? Who designed this menu? Who approved this project? If you’re not proud of it, don’t ship it. If you are, sign your work and own the results.

Crowding the pan

One thing you’ll discover when you start pan roasting brussel sprouts is that more is not always better. Sure you have three uncooked sprouts left, and it would be a shame to not serve them, but if you add those three to the pan with the others, the entire batch will suffer. Adding one more is just fine, until adding one more ruins everything. Greed costs.

Taking the plunge

Perhaps it’s better to commit to wading instead. Not the giant, life-changing, risk-it-all-venture, but the small. When you do a small thing, when you finish it, polish it, put it into the world, you’ve made something. You’ve committed and you’ve finished. And then you can do it again, but louder. And larger.

“Google it!”

The job is no longer to recite facts, to read the bio out loud, to explain something better found or watched online. No, the job is to personally and passionately make us care enough to look up the facts for ourselves. When you introduce a concept, or a speaker, or an opportunity, skip the reading of facts. Instead, make a passionate pitch that drives inquiry.

Put a frame around it

What’s worth more, the frame or the poster? It turns out that a well-framed graphic is often transformed, at least in the eyes of the person engaging with it. It might be the very same beautiful object that was thumbtacked to the wall, but it sure feels different. And an unwrapped piece of jewelry is worth far less without the blue box, isn’t it? The wrapper isn’t everything, it might not even be the point. But it matters.

Analytics without action

Don’t measure anything unless the data helps you make a better decision or change your actions. If you’re not prepared to change your diet or your workouts, don’t get on the scale.

Trading favors

Those people who owe you because you mowed their lawn, drove carpool, promoted their site, gave them advice, listened to you in the middle of the night – they will probably let you down. Favors aren’t for trading, they wear out, they fade away, they are valued differently by the giver and the receiver. No, the best favors are worth doing for the doing, not because we’ll ever get paid back appropriately.

The proven way to add value

Do extremely difficult work. That seems obvious, right? If you do something that’s valued but scarce because it’s difficult, you’re more likely to be in demand and to be compensated fairly for what you do. The implication is stunning, though: when designing a project or developing a skill, seek out the most difficult parts to master and contribute. If it’s easy, it’s not for you.

No is essential

If you believe that you must keep your promises, over-deliver and treat every commitment as though it’s an opportunity for a transformation, the only way you can do this is to turn down most opportunities. No I can’t meet with you, no I can’t sell it to you at this price, no I can’t do this job justice, no I can’t come to your party, no I can’t help you. Not if I want to do the very things that people value my work for. No is the foundation that we can build our yes on.

Confidence is a choice, not a symptom

The batter has already hit two home runs. When he gets up to bat for the third time, his confidence is running high. It’s easy to feel confident when we’re on a roll, when the cards are going our way, or we’re closing sales right and left. This symptomatic confidence, one built on a recent series of successes, isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish or useful. Effective confidence comes from within, it’s not the result of external events. You succeed because you’ve chosen to be confident.

What is the best advice Seth Godin has given you?


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How to Get What You Need from Remote Coworkers without Aggravation

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 08:00

If you’re like a growing number of workers, you might have one or more coworkers who telecommute. It’s a great benefit for them, but sometimes it can make life harder for people back in the office – if they’re less accessible, or have important information tied up on their local hard drives, or are simply harder to get things from than your coworker right down the hall.

Here are four ways to work more effectively with remote colleagues – and get what you need from them without aggravation.

1. Ask them about their schedule and communication preferences. Does your remote colleague work the same hours as your office does, or do they have non-traditional hours? Are they easiest to get ahold of by email, or should you call if something is time-sensitive? Maybe they make frequent use of instant-message technology and don’t mind if you reach out that way. Knowing this type of information will set you up to reach the person when you need them. (And yes, ideally remote colleagues would give you this information proactively, but not everyone thinks to, so it’s okay to go ahead and ask.)

2. Suggest using technology to make virtual collaboration easier. If you’re working on projects together or might at some point need access to data that only your colleague has, suggest using simple online document sharing tools like Dropbox, or flexible collaboration tools like Intuit QuickBase that can match your exact business needs, or even your corporate intranet (depending on its features) to share access to documents and ensure you’re never caught without the latest version of your colleague’s materials.

3. Put some effort into the relationship. When coworkers are in the same location as you, you’ll usually get to know them on a personal level simply by sharing space with them and having natural opportunities for social interaction. This often benefits your work relationships, because when people know and like each other, they tend to be more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt, kick ideas around together, and go out of their way to help each other. It can be harder to build the same relationship with remote coworkers, since those same opportunities for casual, friendly interaction don’t come up as much. That means that you’ll need to put special effort into building that type of rapport with long-distance colleagues.

4. Avoid “out of sight, out of mind.” It can be harder for remote colleagues to know what’s going on in the office; they’re not there for impromptu hallway updates and they don’t have the benefit of water cooler chit-chat. Make a special point of ensuring that they know about significant developments on work that involves them. If something’s mentioned in a meeting that you know will impact their work, mention it to them (or when appropriate, speak up in the moment to note that Jane will want to weigh in on the topic). Or, if you’re grabbing a few coworkers to brainstorm solutions to a problem, don’t overlook your colleague just because she’s not physically present – make a point of finding ways to loop remote workers into these impromptu discussions, even if’s slightly less convenient.

Being diligent about this will pay off not only in strengthening your team’s work, but it will also build the relationship itself (see #3 again).


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Shift Your Mentoring Into Reverse for Greater Benefits

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 08:00

Mentoring is often seen as a way for a young employee to gain knowledge from an older worker, but more companies find that setting up reverse mentoring programs can provide payoffs for every employee, no matter their age or rank. The key is making sure the program is structured so that the parameters and expectations are clear for everyone.

When older workers witness young employees making workplace gaffes like referring to the CEO as “dude,” they may shake their heads and sigh, knowing that the young employees have a lot to learn.

But when young employees watch older workers struggling to understand new technology or Twitter, well, dude, they may shake their heads and think the same thing.

That’s why more employers are starting to explore reverse mentoring. At MasterCard, for example,  Chief Human Resource Officer Ron Garrow admits that while he’s not a technophobe, “I recognized that I had a lot to learn about operating in this new world.”

So Garrow, 51, began participating in the employer’s reciprocal mentoring program. He was partnered with 24-year-old Rebecca Kaufman who taught him how to use Twitter and get more out of professional networking sites. He says that Kaufman not only taught him how to better navigate online connections, but also gave him greater insight into younger consumers and how they are changing the industry.

Lois J. Zachary, director of the Center for Mentoring Excellence, says reverse mentoring allows a young person to gain exposure to a senior-level person, “and the senior-level person gets to learn something” from the young employee.

“Senior people benefit from learning what younger people are thinking about. This can help, for example, if they’re developing a new product. A senior-level person needs that input,” she says.

The young employee benefits from the “face time” with a senior employee, also allowing them to learn something such as better communication or organizational skills, she says.

Research shows that employees often learn more from one another than they do from formal training, but even reverse mentoring programs should be structured and overseen by a human resources department,  says Zachary. author of “Starting Strong.”

She also encourages such programs to set expectations so everyone involved knows what will happen, in addition to HR providing a reminder that everyone should “be real.”

“Sometimes young employees will start doing a lot of posturing in these situations, starting to say what they believe senior people want to hear,” she says. “Older employees need to encourage them to be genuine.”

She adds that these groups may be brought together only for a specific purpose – such as evaluating a new product – but should not be looked upon as another focus group. “This is really more about give and get,” she says. “The purpose of it is learning for both parties.”

Reverse mentoring became popular decades ago when Jack Welch, former General Electric chairman, ordered 500 top-level executives to connect with those below them to learn how to use the Internet. Even Welch was partnered with an employee in her 20s.

If you’re considering a reverse mentoring program, here are some things to consider:

  • Acknowledge there will be bumps. If you decide to match Millennials with baby boomers, for example, there may be some preconceived notions. Baby boomers may believe that young workers are an “entitled generation” who aren’t willing to work hard and constantly want to be given a trophy. On the other hand, Millennials may believe that baby boomers are technologically inept and stuck in their old-fashioned ways. You’re going to need to address these issues and get all those involved to enter the arrangement with an open mind.
  • Be sure to stress the positives. One way to get participants to be more open to the idea is by outlining the benefits they will receive in their careers.  All workers, no matter their age, want to feel valued. By improving their skills in various areas, this can assure them they will be even more valued by what they’ll bring to the table.
  • Choose participants carefully. It makes no sense to pair up people who are inflexible and aren’t open to learning something new, no matter their age. You want employees who have demonstrated a desire to learn, want to help their team and are interested in career development. At the same time, try to pair up those who have something to really offer the other person. If a senior person already seems to have mastered social media, for example, then maybe it’s best to pair him or her with a younger employee who can pass on more specific technology knowledge.
  • Provide training.  To ensure an open and honest relationship, provide some training about how participants can best communicate their ideas or thoughts to their partner. Knowing what to expect will help alleviate any doubts or anxieties the participants may privately harbor.
  • Measure it. For a reverse mentoring program to thrive, it should be documented so that the benefits are clear, and any adjustments are based on data. It’s also important to set parameters such as how often – and where – partners will meet, and the desired outcomes.

What tips do you have for reverse mentoring?

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Harness Employees Strengths through Reverse Mentoring


Help! I’ve Just Been Lapped!

Fri, 12/26/2014 - 08:00

If you say this hasn’t happened to you, or that it happened to you but you didn’t care, you’re lying.

It’s a universal experience. You and a same-aged colleague with a similar background and education start out at identical places in your careers. It’s probably on the bottom rung. You know the same people, do the same things. And then one day, that colleague has something fantastic happen, like a major promotion or a high-profile mentorship. Maybe he plays his cards right, maybe it’s just a lucky break. But either way, his career is suddenly skyrocketing while yours is…not.

You’ve been lapped.

Colleague: 1. You: 0

It’s tough to know how to feel when this happens. One the one hand, you are happy for your colleague, who may even be your friend. But human nature being what it is, you’re also pissed off, resentful, and insecure because you’re evidently a no-talent loser while your colleague has turned your mutual experiences into gold.

It would be easy to stop trying, to accept that once you’ve been lapped once, it’s bound to happen again and again as your colleague gains momentum. It would be easy to sink into a depression because no matter what you do, your career will never sparkle and amaze in quite the same way.

That time when you dusted the people who once lapped you

Well, I’m here to tell you why being lapped isn’t the worst thing in the world. Let’s start with high school. Remember the people who lapped you then? They were the pretty jocks and cheerleaders, the kids for whom being a teenager was graceful and effortless. I’m sure you’ve heard the notion that in all likelihood, these sort of kids peak in high school and that it’s all downhill after graduation. They will never again be as successful in the game of life. While the nerds get rich with their tech start-up and winning stocks, the cool kids are working dead-end jobs and frequenting the same sports bars they hung out 20 years ago.

Similarly, the fact that someone has lapped you in your career now doesn’t mean that person is guaranteed to be ahead forever. Careers are a journey. This year could be your colleague’s high point, while next year might be yours.

So try to stop thinking of the situation as all or nothing (i.e. now that she got that promotion I’ll never catch up) and realize that this could be a golden opportunity to challenge yourself and find a way to be on top. There’s nothing that fuels motivation more than a little competition, and your colleague’s sprint ahead could in fact be just the incentive you need. It may just give you the courage, for instance, to ask your boss what you need to do to perform at a higher level.

Other people’s shoes may look fancier, but they hurt

It’s also worth mentioning that a fortuitous career occurrence does not mean your colleague’s existence is all wine and roses. You never know what’s going on in other areas of that person’s life, so you should never wish, in a fit of jealousy, that you could switch places. Remember that in every clichéd movie ever made with this scenario, the body switcher happily goes back to her old life.

Getting lapped is not easy, and if it doesn’t bring out the best in you, that’s okay. Give yourself permission to sulk and curse the universe for a few days. What’s important, though, is that you get back up, send your colleague sincere congratulations, and go about your business. Your time is coming.

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Kate Leggett from Forrester on Managing Customer Service

Wed, 12/24/2014 - 07:30

I spoke to Kate Leggett, who serves as the VP Principal Analyst Serving Application Development and Delivery Professionals at Forrester Research.  She is a leading expert on customer relationship management (CRM) and customer service strategies, maturity, benchmarking, governance, and ROI. She is an accomplished public speaker and frequently presents at industry events such as CRM Evolution. She has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, and industry publications such as CRM Magazine, KM World, and Destination CRM.  In the following brief interview, Leggett talks about how customer service issues are handled at the companies that she focuses on, how they track customer complaints and handles larger scale customer issues, and more.

Dan Schawbel: Based on all the companies that you work with, including your own, how are customer service issues handled from start to finish?

Kate Leggett: An inquiry comes in, it gets routed to an agent dependent on that agent’s skillset, workload and channel type (email, chat, voice etc), and gets worked on. If the agent is not able to resolve the issue, the agent will escalate the issue to a more skilled agent – a higher tier of agent – for resolution. The agent taps into back end systems, customer databases, knowledge bases to get an answer to the question. The agent communicates the answer to the question to the customer.

Schawbel: How do you track customer complaints to resolution?

Leggett: Every service request has an audit trail – when the issue was first received by the call center, how long it took to route to the right agent, to connect to an agent, and then to resolve. This entire time can be captured and reported on. There are reporting packages and analytics that track time to resolution for complaints for all communication channels used.

Schawbel: Do you have certain ways of handling larger scale customer issues compared to smaller ones?

Leggett: I am an analyst covering the customer service space. We do not handle large or small scale customer issues. However, most companies have a tiered support model, based on level of support purchased, severity and priority of issue submitted.

Schawbel: Can you explain the tiered customer service model that companies are using and what the benefits are?

Leggett: A tiered model allows customer service reps to deeply focus on a part of their business. Tier 1 agents are generalists, but don’t go deep into troubleshooting. Tier 2,3 agents have deeper product, industry expertise and can troubleshoot issues faster, with a higher rate of resolution. Tier 4 agents are highly specialized agents with deep technical chops. Not all industries have the need for Tier 4 agents.

Schawbel: What are some customer service innovations that you see in the near future? Why do you think they will be important for businesses to remain competitive?

Leggett: Here is my report for my vision of the future of customer service. Innovations are centered around (1) making interactions more frictionless (or pain-free) to help improve customer satisfaction and loyalty (2) making engagements more proactive, and even pre-emptive; (3) making engagements personalized and contextualized to their situation. My report summarizes the top technology trends to be able to do this.

Schawbel: What typical customer service mistakes do companies make and why do they continue to make them?

Leggett: The main mistake that companies make is treating the contact center solely as a cost center. Companies, instead need to look at offering differentiated engagement in a way that entices customer satisfaction and loyalty, which ultimately leads to increased revenue.

Read Kate’s blog on Forrester’s Top Trends for Customer Service in 2015.


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Workplace Success – What You Need to Know This Week

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 08:00

Here are three stories people are talking about this week.

1. Most people don’t want to be managers

In news that should surprise no one who’s ever managed other people, most American workers aren’t interested in becoming managers, according to a new CareerBuilder survey. Only one-third of workers aspire to management roles, with the majority of the rest saying that they’re satisfied in their current roles (52%), don’t want to sacrifice work-life balance (34%), or don’t feel they have the necessary qualifications (21%).

Harvard Business Review notes that the results “don’t necessarily reflect a lack of ambition. Today’s workers don’t have to be a manager to be successful – they don’t even need to take up a traditional ‘career.’ Which is a good thing, since for many people the corporate ladder doesn’t even exist anymore, as organizations have become flatter and options for moving up more limited.”

2. Why aren’t more companies embracing telecommuting?

Companies that are still avoiding telecommuting need to reconsider their stance, argues FlexJobs founder and CEO Sara Sutton Fell in Entrepreneur. Noting that only 10% of professionals work from home regularly, she asks why companies still see teamwork and collaboration as in-person activities, and argues that today’s technology and the tangible benefits of teleworking should have companies switching their practices more quickly.

Moreover, she says, Yahoo!’s and Best Buy’s well-publicized moves away from telecommuting in the last few years don’t prove it doesn’t work: “They only prove that telecommuting with little oversight and evaluation doesn’t work as a management system by itself. What employers miss is that proactive communication, performance evaluation, management training and employee accountability make the foundation for successful telecommuting, just as they should for in-office work. Without those components, productivity and effectiveness suffer just like they would in a traditional office environment.”

3. How being a jerk can hurt you at work

New research says that being a jerk at work might help get your ideas taken seriously in some contexts, but it will hinder you in organizations that value creativity. In a study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, two professors set out to test whether being a jerk helps people get their ideas accepted and used in a work setting. Their results? Being a jerk can help in pushing through an idea when you’re already working in a somewhat hostile environment, but it will hinder you in healthier (and one might argue, more optimal) settings: The more open-minded and creative-thinking a group was, the less likely they were to take the ideas of a “jerk” seriously.


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How Really Successful People Handle Failure

Mon, 12/22/2014 - 08:00

It’s easy to overlook the many failures that successful people have experienced. Without failure, they say, they wouldn’t have achieved their dreams. A look at what you can learn from people like Maya Angelou and Babe Ruth when it comes to setbacks.

There are several things in your career that are fairly well guaranteed:  At some point you will work  for an idiot; you will be convinced human resources is populated by Death Eaters; and you will experience failure.

While an idiot boss and the followers of Lord Voldemort can be worrisome, it will be failure that will truly test your path toward greatness.

That’s why it can be helpful to look at how the truly successful view their failures and overcame them:

  • Learn from criticism. Best-selling author John Grisham had “The Firm” rejected by 28 publishers before being accepted by unknown publisher Wynwood Press, which printed 5,000 copies in 1989. The book later sat on top of the New York Times’ bestseller list for 47 weeks and was the bestselling novel of 1991. But to this day Grisham will often throw away many efforts when penning another book. “When my wife or my agent mark my stuff up, I want to punch them in the nose. But the problem is, usually they’re right,” Grisham said.
  • Keep hope alive. Musician Jewel lived in her car and went hungry while traveling around the country doing small gigs. “It was really hard for me to ever think that I was special when I was homeless,” she said. “But people helped me. They didn’t know me. They didn’t owe me anything. They would just give me food. They’d give me $5 for food. That not only helped feed me but it gave me hope.” Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the retail chain, was told by his dry-goods store manager that “he didn’t have enough common sense to serve customers.” Noted Woolworth: “Dreams never hurt anybody if he keeps working right behind the dream to make as much of it come real as he can.”
  • Never stop growing. Soichoro Honda was rejected as an engineer for Toyota Motor Corp. Without work, he started making scooters in his own home. Encouraged by his neighbors, he finally started his own business, which is now the billion-dollar company known as Honda. “Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure,” Honda said.
  • Take your best swing.  You may be tempted to give only a half-hearted effort if you continually fall short of your goal, believing that success just isn’t in the cards for you. But baseball great Babe Ruth not only had 714 home runs during his career, but 1,330 strikeouts. “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run,” he said.
  • Be ready to dig deep. Maya Angelou, author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was mute for nearly five years after a childhood trauma. She later found her voice, and had several jobs including fry cook, and a nightclub dancer and performer. “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated,” she said. “In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

When struggling with failures, it’s also helpful to know that research from the University of Kent  finds that “positive reframing” can make a difference. Simply by trying to see things in a more positive light or looking for something good in a setback can help you  feel more satisfied by the end of the day.

The study also found that other successful strategies that helped people feel better about failure included acceptance and humor. What didn’t work? Getting support from others socially, using denial, venting or self-blame, researchers said.

Dr. Joachim Stoeber, one of the researchers and an expert on motivation and performance, advises that anyone who experiences what they believe to be a failure would be best served by focusing on what they achieved, rather than what they didn’t achieve.

“’It’s no use ruminating about small failures and setbacks and drag yourself further down,” he said. “Instead it is more helpful to try to accept what happened, look for positive aspects and — if it is a small thing — have a laugh about it.”

What successful people have inspired you to keep working despite failure?

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How to Do Online Marketing on a Shoestring

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 08:00

It may not be rocket science, but it does take employee and leadership buy-in to start an effective grassroots online marketing program.

Jason Seiden is a hustler. You know, the good kind. The kind that can make things happen through sheer will, gumption, and thoughtful innovation. Jason, an online marketing expert, is making waves these days with the launch of BrandAmper – a SaaS application that improves the quantity, quality, and consistency of employee brand advocacy.

I sat down to get Jason’s ideas about how regular folks like you and me, who don’t count marketing as a primary responsibility and have minimal financial and time resources, can start an effective grassroots online marketing program.

Alex: So Jason, I’m not a big brand with deep pockets. It this even possible?

Jason: Possible?! Who started the rumor that online marketing requires a major marketing budget? The reason online marketing looks expensive is because the media tends to feature tools built to accommodate massively scaled consumer marketing programs with the goal of turning complete strangers into fans.

But if you start with loyal employees – people who already chose to work for you – your probability of success skyrockets. The data on starting with employees is compelling: employees are almost 6X more trusted than company spokespeople  and when you activate employees as ambassadors, you get immediate feedback about what’s working and what’s not.

Alex: But how do you win over employees so they want to be spokespeople?

Jason: First, make sure leadership is on board. They may be gray-haired digital immigrants, but they still set the tone, and it’s important that they lead by example. Second, make sure your employees have guidelines to follow. Has marketing ever created conversational treatments of your brand? Can an employee explain the company’s vision to a friend without sounding like a robot? Finally, activate your employees by running an internal communications campaign that gives them a reason to care, and then inviting them to sessions that show them how to convert their interest into action.

Alex: You’ve seen lots of big brands spend a fortune on marketing. What are the most important lessons we can take away without having to make the same mistakes?

Jason: One lesson we see over and over is that reach is nothing without resonance. All those retweets that no one cares about? Spam. All those likes you bought with the promise of a free iPad? Useless. When companies start with online marketing, they almost always chase that shiny viral object. They buy all these tools and content management platforms and measuring dashboards, and all anyone is measuring is how little people are engaging.

So if you’re just starting, skip that shiny object step. Start with your strategy, figure out what matters to you, put blinders on to everything else, and then blog and tweet and post and engage about that one thing until your fingers bleed.

Alex: What do you think scares people most about online marketing, and how do we get over that fear?

Jason: One-hundred percent of our clients have involved legal too early in the process to be healthy. Also: 100 percent of our clients have a manager who has expressed to us the fear that putting employees on social media will open them up to getting recruited by competitors. So based on our experiences, I’d say that the #1 organizational fear is the rogue tweet, and the #1 personal fear is losing one’s team.

To get over either fear, people need to get on the darn platforms. Seriously, rogue tweets are better managed by your presence than anything else, because as a leader, you set the tone for acceptable behavior. And as far as your employees go, who do you think is going to respond worse to your putting the kabosh on social media? It won’t be the complainers. They’ll complain but won’t do anything, because they never do anything. Your go getters are the ones who will take action. Specifically, they’ll show you why you’re out of touch, and then when you don’t join the 21st century, they’ll leave you with a bunch of complainer employees.

Alex: If you were starting an online marketing program from scratch, what are the first few things you would go out and do tomorrow?

Jason: Get leadership on board. But don’t start with a 50 person pilot. True story: Chipotle struggled when it was a part of McDonald’s because no matter how much it grew, its numbers amounted to a rounding error when compared to McDonald’s core business. When you start with a pilot in order to win over your executives, you’re creating a Chipotle/McDonald’s scenario because your tiny numbers don’t mean anything to the people you’re talking to. Find your executive sponsor first, then define success, then work with employees to define the program, and THEN run the pilot. If you want the shortest path to success, that means getting leadership’s attention before anything else.

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Ignite Change: How to Obtain Cooperation to Accelerate Action

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 08:00

If you want to be a change agent and pave a path in a new direction, you must come to understand the mindset of your leaders, colleagues, cross-functional partners, and surrounding teams.

Cooperation is a requirement for creating and sustaining change. You need to build a coalition because it takes more than one fired-up individual to effectively create and sustain change. Whether you have support or opposition depends on the beliefs, the motivation, and the habitual behaviors of those around you.

To determine the best way to obtain cooperation, first assess the level of agreement:

  • Agreement on END STATE. Is there a shared vision? Do people generally agree on what they want? What results do you seek, what values are supported, what is the biggest priority, and are we all willing to support the same tradeoff to make it happen? Sometimes the theme of the company culture, the mission, or the vision of the organization creates a strong pull.
  • Agreement on PROCESS. Does everyone have the same mental model? Is there a shared understanding that if we do X, then Y will occur? Is there agreement on which actions will lead to the desired outcome?

Agreement on End State, Agreement on Process

Interestingly when there is full agreement—both on end state and process—change is most difficult. It is by definition a status quo environment. When all individuals are in agreement on the process to execute the vision, they carry it out day after day. You have full cooperation… as long as you are going in the same direction. Though it may be tempting to not rock the boat, change in this case comes in incremental process improvement, storytelling to demonstrate a unique perspective, and hard numbers to convince people to change their viewpoint.

Agreement on End State, Disagreement on Process

Perhaps the most common scenario that creates a roadblock to change is when all stakeholders want the same thing, but they disagree on how it will be achieved. This is where classic, charismatic leadership works well. Articulating a clear vision of the future keeps people’s focus at the high-level and inspires them to just get started. It creates trust and comfort in risk-taking, often leading to persistent problem-solving, and resulting in unexpected innovation.

Disagreement on End State, Agreement on Process

In some cases, employees or teams have differing motives, in which case a unifying vision is either unrealistic or unproductive. Each is motivated by something unique so they have differing—and at times—competing, agendas. In this case, it is better to take the focus off of the end state and put it on the process. Many times you will find that a common process will take each party 80% of the way there to their respective destination. Gain momentum and keep it going by staying at the task-level; document standard operating procedures, provide training, set up short-range metrics, and focus on coordination of effort.

Disagreement on End State, Disagreement on Process

As a last resort, when there is little agreement on the destination or course of action, positional power or formal authority may be needed to spur action. When disparate groups cannot agree on what they want or who should do what, a leader with appropriate authority must take decisive action.

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How to Stay Productive During the Holidays

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 08:00

With so many distractions during the holiday season – from holiday parties to gift shopping to travel – how do you stay productive and focused when you’re at work? If you’re not deliberate about staying on track, it’s all too easy to find yourself dividing your attention between winter sales and eggnog, and coming back in January to unfinished work that you’d intended to complete.

But it’s not impossible to stay focused during the holidays. Here are five tips that will help.

1. Be deliberate about creating a work zone. Carve out space at work that’s free from holiday activities – so that when you’re at work, you’re resolved not to spend that time shopping for gifts, making lists for your family holiday dinner, sending e-cards, or otherwise dealing with the holiday pressures of your personal life. As tempting as it can be to just do a quick bit of online gift shopping between work calls, you can spend hours down the rabbit hole of bargain shopping for the perfect sweater before you realize how much time has gone by.

2. Schedule enough time for personal commitments. Most people’s personal to-do lists go way up at this time of year. Be realistic about how much you’ll need to get everything done outside of work, and schedule specific blocks of time for it. You might even take a personal day or two just to get your holiday shopping, cleaning, and cooking done. There’s nothing wrong with that – time off is there to be used, there’s usually less impact in using it at this time of year, and it will help you remain focused on work the rest of the time.

3. Be thoughtful about what has to get done this month and what can be put aside. It’s pretty common to get less accomplished this month than in other months (offices are quieter, people you may need items from might be away or similarly distracted, and things generally slow down). So be honest with yourself about what absolutely must get done this month, and then be intentional about prioritizing those must-dos and making sure that they get done.

4. Don’t feel obligated to say yes to everything. This is the season of social invitations, and if you feel yourself getting stretched thin, don’t be afraid to set some limits. It’s okay to down invitations if you can’t comfortably fit more commitments in, or you can set limits on how much you can participate (such as by dropping by an event for an hour and then leaving rather than staying all night).

5. If things are slow at your office, take advantage of that by giving yourself a break. Most people are more productive when their brain has a chance to rest and recharge. If your work and your office allow it, take advantage of the lull at this time of year to slow down yourself – whether that means taking more time off or just putting less pressure on yourself to produce at your normal rate. You’ll be more likely to come back refreshed and productive in January.


Best Practices in Effectively Juggling Multiple Projects

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 08:00

Managing multiple projects effectively and efficiently comes down to finding the right balance between being organized and prioritizing. Being organized is a must because attention to details is necessary, and the details can get lost very quickly when pace picks up and when projects drag on over months or years.

But being organized and detail-oriented is not enough and it can even become a detriment to success. You must also be able to ruthlessly prioritize, and focus your attention on only the parts and pieces that require resources the most. Here are several tools that can assist:

One-page summary: For each project, create a one-page executive summary that contains key talking points. This is your marketing document, and the basis for all your presentations. It is likely you will need to sell or explain the key aspects to many people over an indeterminate time period (and they may need to present on your behalf). This document helps you tell a fresh, consistent story every time and avoid re-work while doing so.

One-page project plans: A quick overview of what needs to be done, categorized either by category or timeline (or both!). This pulls you out of the weeds when needed, demonstrates the amount of work that has gone in to a specific project, and creates a template for similar endeavors.

Resource allocation: Track and outline, however roughly, the number of hours spent on each category of task, or per block of time. If you are (or potentially could be) managing a team, also capture the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to execute the work. This helps you obtain more resources when needed; and when resources are most needed, you will not have capacity to come back and create these records. As a bonus, when projects turn into process, this creates your “before” metrics for validating process improvement.

Documentation: Catalog any resources that will help you or someone else create or recreate what you did. Syntax glossary, definitions, screenshots, FAQs, archive of letters, communications, step-by-step job aids or walkthroughs, abandoned drafts, problems solved/troubleshooting instructions, etc. When complete, draw a high-level account of your documentation collection.

Some of these may work for you, while some may not. The theme is to create your own standard process for how you organize and manage projects—one that works for you. Memory is faulty and you need your brain to solve the difficult problems. Don’t waste your cerebral resources on locating the correct version of a document or reverse engineering that report you created.


The Biggest Mistakes Made in Hiring Sales People

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 08:00

Companies typically spend more hiring their sales forces than any other function in an organization, yet sales managers often aren’t adept at assessing the right skills to make good hires. It’s time to turn that around in order to drive better bottom-line results.

If you want people in the field to understand your strategic initiatives and demonstrate behaviors that will drive profitable growth, then there must be a clear roadmap to drive that alignment, says Frank Cespedes, author of “Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors That Drive Effective Selling.” He discusses the issue with Anita Bruzzese in the second part of this interview that looks at hiring and how sales will be affected by an improving economy.

AB: When it comes to hiring the kind of sales people that will help organizations to better align strategy and sales, what should hiring managers look for?

FC: That’s a great question. Everybody talks about talent management, and I’ve yet to meet the executive who is “against” talent!  But far fewer confront a basic fact: companies typically spend much more money and hire many more people, annually, in their sales function than they do anywhere else in the firm. Most people are surprised to know that even at online companies like Facebook, Google and Groupon, a much higher percentage of employees work in sales than in engineering or data mining.

To improve that hiring and the alignment of sales and strategy, the foundation is this:

  1. Understand the sales tasks that have high strategic impact. Some activities exhibit high performance variability but have little strategic impact. Think about PowerPoint presentations: some people are much better than others in doing this, but how much impact do the slides have versus other sales tasks? Other activities may be strategically important but have relatively little performance variability – because the tasks are standard, because technology has reduced variability, or because the business model limits the range of performance variance. Think about the difference between sales personnel at Nordstrom, where personalized service and advice are key to strategy execution, and Costco, where low price and product availability make selling activities less complex and variable. You want your stars in those areas that exhibit both high impact and high variability.
  2. Focus on how the salesperson makes a difference. Continually ask, “Where are we spending too much—and too little – time, money, and talent across our sales tasks?” Those tasks will change as the market changes. In subscription-based businesses like software and many consumer web services, key tasks early on are about customer acquisition. But as the market matures, key tasks tend to shift toward account management, reducing churn and up-selling or cross-selling additional services. Hiring and allocation of sales talent should change.
  3. Focus on behaviors in selection. Managers are excessively confident about their ability to evaluate candidates via one or two interviews. Studies across job categories indicate only about a 14% correlation between interview predictions and job success. This is especially true in sales.

Many sales managers hire in their own image because how each manager sold is what got him or her promoted and in a position to hire. But the best results occur when you observe the relevant job behaviors. Technology is making this more possible and affordable via game-like simulations, virtual video environments and online media.

The real constraint in many firms, however, is the lack of assessment skills by sales managers. This makes links between sales and HR important. Sales managers know (or should know) the key sales tasks. But HR managers typically know more about the tools, techniques, and options for assessing behaviors relevant to those tasks.

AB: The economy is beginning to grow stronger. How does that add to the challenge of implementing the changes you call for?

FC: Well, let’s hope the economy is growing stronger. It’s been a shaky, stutter-step recovery for years. A stronger economy is good news for society, but it does add to the challenge of aligning strategy and sales.

For one thing, it puts more pressure on hiring. Across industries, average annual turnover in sales organizations is about 25%, and higher when times are good and there are more job opportunities. This means that the equivalent of the entire sales force must be replaced at many firms every four years or so. That time frame shrinks if companies increase their revenue targets in a recovering economy.

Also, the prolonged recession had an impact on firms. During the past decade, the average S&P-500 company, of necessity, reduced its cost-of-goods-sold by about 250 basis points. That’s significant. But SG&A (selling, general, and administrative costs) as a percentage of revenue has not declined. Business success is about relative competitive advantage. The focus of productivity improvement is moving, quickly, from operations and back-office activities to customer-acquisition activities.

Finally, even a growing economy can take any company just so far. It’s tough to do good things in business without a strategy, and it’s even tougher to achieve growth goals without a sales force aligned with that strategy. Too many companies either ignore this truth or fail to deal actionably with what’s required to make it happen.

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Don’t Start a Change Management Process Before Asking This

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 08:00

Your business or department is growing, and your old processes are outdated and ready for an upgrade. To minimize loss in talent, experience, and productivity, don’t start at Step One. Start at Step Zero.

Here are three great questions to ask your team before you begin the change management process.

The change from old to new is famously loaded with anxiety for stakeholders, even a change that’s long overdue. A combination of lack of details and negative precedent from previous changes can fatigue those stakeholders. At best, this will give them impression that this is a shifting of resources; at worst, they could perceive it as a threat. But as a leader, you have a chance to allay any deep concerns the stakeholders may have.

These are a few questions that will, at least initially, help motivate and engage the team members who are most directly affected by whatever new changes are being developed:

How do you feel about the current process?

You should have already done your homework on whatever system or process is being changed: when and why it was adopted; how long it’s been a part of the infrastructure of your organization; and how it interacts with other departments. Now you are asking this question of the people using it every day.

This will give your stakeholders the opportunity to tell you in their own words what, if any, changes need to be made.  Pay close attention: You can learn the depth of knowledge they do or do not have, as well as what problems they have had in the past. This will be useful information later when pitching improvements in detail and getting buy-in. It can tell you a lot about the department you’re working with too, plus it will give you tools that will be useful through the change. The ability to explain and address the stakeholders concerns directly though the course of the change will be invaluable.

What do you expect the benefits and challenges to be? 

This should help get the level of the room, and by that I mean determine who is immediately on board and who’s going to drag the process down. There are no wrong answers on the part of the associates, only chances to enlighten and inform. Change is rarely sudden, and you might have a groundswell of concern bordering on fear if rumors have already been circulated.

The people to look closely for are the early adopters and the skeptics, and you should address both extremes with caution: They can each contribute and hinder momentum in their own way.

The enthusiasm generated by the early adopters can be contagious. However, you do not want the early adopters to have any greater affect than the associates who are showing a lot of reluctance, because you don’t want to single anyone out for reward or penalty this early in the process.

More importantly, if you are too eager to see early progress and paying too much attention the overly enthusiastic, it could give the impression you aren’t listening to everyone. That you are favoring the select few who took an instant shine to the new ideas. Still, don’t be afraid to capitalize on positive emotion. Just be careful. You might even be able to rely on the early adopters to help find the silver lining when the unexpected occurs.

The skeptics may have practical experience with previous changes or improvements that will be very useful. Winning them over is a challenge worth taking, since they’re probably more experienced than much of the rest of the staff. Of course, the majority will be hovering somewhere between unwillingness and skepticism. They’re likely waiting to see how change is affecting them and taking their own ownership of the change. They’ll be swayed toward skepticism or enthusiasm but will at all times be looking for leadership.

Keep in mind that regardless of whether they’re moving to one extreme or hovering around the middle you’ll want your entire team to be comfortable with giving good feedback to avoid what might be, to everyone else, a bad course of action.

What haven’t I asked?

The virtue in this question is its simplicity. Where the first two questions gathered information, the last is a statement of inexperience to the stakeholders. By telling them, “I clearly don’t know everything,” you’re giving them the opportunity to take on some leadership, to educate and own the change process. This is empowering.

If asked with honesty and confidence, you open the door to input that could mean the life or death of your project. This will also give you a very good chance to start working on moving the hesitant toward a more eager acceptance of the new system.

There are many variations to these questions, of course. But my experiences have only reinforced the idea that stakeholder engagement is critical to success. The most effective change involves listening to and dealing with the anxiety. Remember, the associate who has the smallest voice individually frequently makes the greatest contribution to effective change at the ground level.

When change is managed well, it can streamline your processes and invigorate the people doing the work. These three questions will give you the opportunity to perform both fulfilling tasks at once.


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