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When it Comes to Strategy, are You Sitting at the Kid’s Table?

Mon, 01/19/2015 - 09:00

Looking back on past holidays, you may remember what it felt like to be stuck at the kid’s table. But you’re a grown up now – so how come you’re still sitting at the kid’s table at work? 

Take a look at comments posted on workplace blogs or on social media sites, and it won’t be long before you find an employee complaining that they’re often left out of the loop regarding business decisions.

These employees complain that their boss doesn’t keep them informed of strategic business decisions, what’s in the pipeline for the next year or even how their work is part of the bigger picture. Senior leaders are even worse, they contend.

It’s a frustration Mike Figliuolo has heard before, and he has a simple response: “That’s crap.”

Figliuolo, managing director of thoughtLEADERSLLC, says that employees who complain that they don’t know what is going on within their company simply aren’t trying hard enough.

“If anything, it’s easier than ever,” he says. “Just look at your company’s organizational chart and find someone about two levels above you. Send that person an email and ask them to send you their department’s latest strategic plan.”

With that information, you’ll be able to see what’s going on and then be able to ask additional questions to determine how you or your department are affected by pending plans or possibly involved in a new initiative.

“It’s just pure laziness to sit back and say, ‘I’m not being included,’” he says. ““If you can’t take the initiative then sure, you’re going to sit at the kid’s table and eat chicken nuggets.”

An inclusive culture

Zappos is a company known for being transparent with workers. Employees not only receive detailed information about the company’s performance, but are encouraged to share information about the company. CEO Tony Hsieh often shares company news via Twitter and Facebook, even announcing the layoff of 124 workers in 2008 via Twitter.

Some employees may conclude that since they don’t work for a company like Zappos, they’re forever doomed to sit at the kid’s table because their company’s culture is different. But Figliuolo argues that many employees simply have never “reached out” to try and become better informed, and “they just expect management to spoon feed them.”

But if you’re an employee ready to become a strategic influence at your company, then Figliuolo suggests:

  • Stepping into someone else’s shoes. Instead of looking at an issue only from your perspective, try thinking of it from the position of someone in another department. For example, maybe you’re an expert on the minutia of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. But “that’s not going to get you invited to the table,” he says. The key is understanding how Sarbanes-Oxley is going to impact the CIO and plans for future development in that department. If you can explain that Sarbanes-Oxley is going to impede those plans, then you’re going to get attention because that person’s agenda is threatened, he explains. “You get invited to the adult’s table when you bring something from another perspective,” he says.
  • Doing your homework. Spend time talking to those in other departments to learn their top issues and concerns. Ask them to share their annual plans, which show priorities. This will help you refine how you can specifically add value when offering a new perspective or plan.
  • Never stop learning. Maybe your specialty is in sales, and you know nothing about IT. But there is a treasure trove of information online and through your company’s own website. The more you understand how your entire company functions, the challenges and industry trends, the better you can always be in position to offer insight or advice that can be seen as strategically important.

Management responsibility

Experts also advise that managers need to make it easier for employees to ask questions, and that the organization will benefit if they provide answers.

Paul Spiegelman, chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth, often writes on company culture, and says that managers and organizations can benefit by keeping workers more informed about the company’s success.

“You’ll earn the trust of your employees if you report on your company’s financial performance regularly throughout the year. Town hall meetings are an effective medium for communicating this information, so that staffers can ask questions. If the company is not performing as well as expected, own up to it, and let employees know how they can help impact the situation,” he says.

Harvey Deutschendorf, an emotional intelligence expert, says that if employees “are kept in the dark about what’s going on, they will make up their own version and it won’t be a positive one.”

That means if there is something negative going on, such as profits slipping and sales taking a hit from a new competitor, then employees need to be told, he contends. “Not disclosing will only breed mistrust, suspicions and fear,” he says.

In addition, it’s important that employees learn to understand through transparency that tough times don’t last, and there can be a brighter future, he says.

“Keeping employees constantly informed and involved in long-term thinking and planning for the future helps lift spirits and prevents knee-jerk decisions that could come back later to haunt you,” he says.

Keep your entire team in the know, join us January 21 for a special webinar presentation with project delivery and leadership expert, Gordon Tredgold, “Creating a “GPS” for Your Projects – from Project Request to Success.


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Work Needs You to Sleep Now (And Not When You’re Dead)

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 09:00

Skipping sleep to work doesn’t put you at an advantage.

Travis Bradberry is the co-author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence tests and training. About a month ago, Travis published an eye-opening article on sleep and work function for Forbes. He confirmed what I’ve believed all along, which is that sleep is really important for high performers. Here are some of the reasons.

Sleepy People Are Dumber

Travis shared some data from the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, which said that the short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood and ability to focus, problem-solve, and access higher-level brain functions. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep. Why is this? Travis cited a University of Rochester study, which found that when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons. When you don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, impairing your ability to think and potentially derailing your career.

Sleepy People Miss Work

Travis remarked that sleep deprivation is linked to a variety of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. When it is sleep-deprived, your body overproduces cortisol, which wreaks havoc on the immune system. This causes you to get sick more frequently, and stay sicker longer. You’ll also experience a variety of aches and pains that may be enough to send you to the doctor or contagious symptoms that will force you out of the office. Either way, when you’re thinking about how terribly you feel physically, you’re not concentrating about work.

Sleepy People Are Dangerous

As we’ve suggested, sleep deprivation decreases mental accuracy. But for those who work in any kind of job in which reaction time is a factor, it’s also bad news. We see news stories all the time about pilots, manufacturing employees, etc., who get into serious accidents because they aren’t getting enough sleep. And if you commute, sleep deprivation could be enough to kill you. Falling asleep at the wheel is a major cause of driving-related fatalities.

Sleepy People Are Bad Colleagues

Productivity and safety factors aside, being sleep-deprived will negatively impact your workplace relationships. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night in order to feel sufficiently rested, yet more than half of Americans get less than this. One of the most basic symptoms of long-term sleep deprivation is chronic stress and irritability. When you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to cope effectively with everyday interactions and stay cool under pressure goes way down, and your fuse blows much more quickly. A sleepy employee runs a much higher risk of being the colleague no one wants to work with.

What’s a Busy Person to Do?

Getting enough sleep is difficult, I agree. Even when I aim for eight hours, it feels like something always gets in the way – from a forgotten blog post to my three-year-old in my room at 5AM. But Travis had some good ideas that can help us do just a bit better.

First, stay away from sleeping pills. You may think you’re helping your body, but the effect is exactly the opposite. Sedatives interfere with the brain’s natural sleep process and greatly decrease the quality of your sleep.

Second, skip that cup of coffee after lunch. It takes a full 24 hours for caffeine to work its way out of your system, so much of the coffee you drink during the work day will keep you awake at bedtime.

Next, get rid of anything that emits a blue light (laptops, smartphones, etc.) in your bedroom. This kind of light halts production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and makes you feel more alert.

Finally, mind the basics. Try to keep your sleep schedule consistent – that is, go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day. Use your bedroom only for sleep – that means no working in bed! And to the extent you can control it (see the point about the three-year-old), avoid middle-of-the-night interruptions like an alarm that isn’t set properly.

Recognizing that sleep is critical, and not just a minor annoyance you give in to occasionally, is half the battle. While sleep will surely be plentiful when you’re dead, it will also improve the quality of the time you have here – especially when it comes to work.


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Will IT Project Managers Join the Great Enterprise PMO Shift?

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 08:30

Current PMOs must prepare to transition to an EPMO model.

Recent research on project management indicates that the field is about to enter the spotlight. Once an isolated function, project management is quickly being elevated in strategic importance. According to analyst firm Gartner, by 2017 senior executives in the largest organizations in America will rely on enterprise program management offices (EPMOs) to execute projects in alignment with overall business strategy.

The business case is there, of course. An article in CIO Magazine by Moira Alexander of Conture Business Advisors cites Project Management Institute research illustrating that EPMOs are capable of significant ROI. Specifically, they are estimated to improve confirmation of business priorities and project alignment with strategic objectives by 10 percent.

If you wish to keep pace with your market and competition, it’s wise to adopt the EPMO model sooner rather than later. Paraphrased here are some initial ideas Moira Alexander recommends in her article.

Company-Wide Visibility

The principal role of an EPMO is to ensure that all business units are engaging in initiatives that are in line with the company’s vision. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that PMOs gain a seat at every table in the organization. By being everywhere at all times and by leading company-wide planning sessions in which they are able to communicate the organization’s direction, traditionally siloed PMOs become EPMOs that deliver greater value to the business.

High-Level Communication

EPMOs work closely with senior management from the very beginning so that all projects throughout the organization tie directly to business goals. They are instrumental in helping executives determine what matters to the organization and establish key performance indicators so that these priorities are measured and monitored properly.

This means that the executive management team must view the EPMO as a strategic partner that reports in directly and has full access, rather than just another business unit that happens to be project-based. Senior management and the EPMO should maintain an ongoing conversation so that business objectives and projects never fall out of alignment.

Consistent Evaluation

Management involvement doesn’t stop once a project is off and running. At the end of each initiative, the EPMO is responsible for quantifying the success rates in relation to the established objectives and communicating this data to the executive team. Senior management and the EPMO should work together to assess lessons learned and make the changes required so that future projects can better meet business goals.

Increased Accountability

As we proceed further into the 21st century, more will be expected of stellar project managers. Members of the EPMO, says Moira, will need to be exceptionally efficient and effective, and maintain high performance in the face of constantly changing economic and business conditions. Since they’ll be operating at a higher level, their results will be scrutinized by more sponsors and other internal and external stakeholders, and they’ll be regularly challenged to raise the bar.

If your PMO is still a bit limited in scope, the most intelligent first step is to open a dialogue with senior management about the EPMO concept. Review Gartner’s research with your executive team and brainstorm together how your PMO can better understand and work against current company priorities. Perhaps you can select an initial business goal and project, and engender senior management’s trust by exceeding expectations.

Project managers, do you consider yourselves part of a PMO or an EPMO? What do you see as the essential differences? Do you think full strategic alignment with the business and involvement in all business units is feasible for your team in the near future? Want the tools to help get you there? Join us January 21 for a free Webinar with expert, Gordon Tredgold, “Creating a “GPS” for Your Business – from Project Request to Success.”


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What to Do When Work You’ve Assigned Turns Out Half Baked

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 09:00

If you’re a manager, you’ve probably known the frustrating feeling of assigning work, feeling confident that your employee understood the assignment and was equipped to do it, and then seeing the completed work and realizing that it doesn’t meet your expectations at all.

Often when this happens, it’s because of failures in two possible places: the original expectation-setting when you first delegated the project and/or the role you played (or didn’t play) as the work progressed. If you want to ensure that you and your team are aligned about what you’re looking for from their work, and ensure you don’t get unpleasant surprises once work is completed, these steps can make that happen.

  • Be more explicit about expectations at the very start. Have a detailed conversation with the staff member about what a successful outcome would look like, as well as any important details the person should know (such as prioritization, constraints they need to account for, available resources, examples similar to what you’re looking for, etc.).
  • If you’re not sure precisely what a successful outcome would look like, be transparent about that with your staff member that and brainstorm together. Or ask her to go away and think on it and come back to you with a proposal.
  • Before ending a discussion about an assignment, check to make sure you’re both on the same page by asking your staff member to summarize her understanding of the assignment, expected outcomes, and next steps. For complicated projects, you might also ask for a written plan to ensure that you’re both on the same page about how she will be moving forward.
  • Once the work is underway, be sure check in periodically. If you wait until the work is completed, you’ll lose the opportunity to give input or course-correct before it’s too late. Instead, touch base periodically as the work progresses, probe into the areas that you think are most likely to cause concern, and generally ensure that you have a solid feel for how the work is coming along.
  • When a project is large enough, ask to review a piece of work before the whole project is completed. For instance, you might ask to see a short segment of a document while it’s still in progress or a page from a new website design before the whole site is created.

Using the tactics above will ensure that you and your staff member are in agreement about what success will look like, and you’ll have a chance to catch any problems early on.

If you’re doing all this and the work still isn’t what you’re looking for, the issue might instead be one of performance and you might need to address it from that angle. But even then, doing the steps above will help you conclude that with more confidence, since you’ll know that you actively set the person up for success.

Managing projects? Learn how to set up and track your projects from request to success with Gordon Tredgold and Intuit QuickBase in this free webinar January 21.


Rory Vaden: Why You Should Ignore Time Management Advice

Wed, 01/14/2015 - 09:00

Many people start off the New Year with a new calendar, gadget or app they believe will finally help them become more focused and productive. But according to Rory Vaden, those tools may be a waste of time. He says he knows a better way to finally make the most of your time.

Rory Vaden wants you to forget everything you know about time management, because it’s probably wrong.

He wants you to ignore the advice on doing the most difficult tasks first every day, or the rule about answering emails during certain time periods. Those kind of activities are simply muddying the waters when you’re searching for a way to be more productive with the time you have, he contends.

The key to truly focusing on what matters comes from understanding the emotions that get in our way and prevent us from maximizing our time, he says.

“There is no such thing as time management, there is only self-management,” he says. “Time continues on regardless of what we do, so all we can do is decide what we will be spending our time doing or not doing for that day.”

For example, guilt or fear may prompt us to tackle certain tasks or projects that really don’t help us be more productive. Even chronic overachieves can make poor decisions about how they use their time, participating in what Vaden calls “priority dilution.”

“While priority dilution has nothing to do with laziness, apathy or being disengaged (like traditional procrastination) it nets the same result: a delay of the day’s most important activities because your attention shifts to less important, but perhaps seemingly more urgent, tasks,” he explains. “You are trading your to-do list for emergencies.”

Vaden, author of “Procrastinate on Purpose” says that the most successful people, who he calls “multipliers,” have learned to manage the emotions often tied to how we use our time. The key, he explains, is that multipliers ask themselves: “What are the things that I could do today that would free up more time tomorrow?”

“They get outside of their to-do list of short-term priorities and they realize that the real key to creating more margin in their life isn’t about working faster, or somehow ‘prioritizing’ better; it’s about learning to think differently,” he says.

In his book, Vaden provides five “permissions” that he says will help you make better use of your time and become a multiplier:

1. Eliminate. Vaden notes that those wanting to achieve success will always look at what they need to add to their lives, but they actually need to ask themselves: “What are all the things that I can eliminate?” Start considering the significance of what you do, instead of the volume of tasks you complete. He notes that many people avoid eliminating anything because they’re emotionally unable to say “no.” But when you’re able to say “no,” then you will be able to spend more time with your family or working toward your dreams, he says.

2. Automate. Those who balk at automation of certain tasks do so because they’re worried they don’t have the time or money to change a system. “Every moment that passes that you don’t automate something that could be, you are exponentially losing future time,” he says. “Anything that wastes your time is a waste of your money.”

3. Delegate. Vaden suggests asking this question at the beginning of every day: “Does what I’m doing right now require my unique skill set, or is it possible that there are other people capable of doing this?” Many people don’t delegate because they’re afraid of the job not being done right or a deadline being missed. “Whether it’s in your professional life or your personal life, the size of your success is usually determined by the strength of your team,” he says. If you properly train the right people, delegation can help you make better use of your time.

4. Procrastinate. “There is a big difference between inaction that results from indulgence, and inaction that results from intention,” he says. “One is procrastination and the other is patience.” Vaden’s company, Southwestern Consulting, found in a survey that 91% of respondents believe that things will work out for the best “and yet we rush around frantically so often to try and satisfy our fear that things will fall apart if we don’t,” he adds. He stresses that “timing matters” and that delaying action because you don’t feel it’s the right time can be freeing and help you make a better decision.

5. Concentrate. Vaden explains that there is an “emotional fear” of letting other people down, which “causes us to sacrifice our own priorities.” But if you concentrate on the significant activities that will create more opportunity for those around you, then you will find yourself focusing more completely on important items. 

Finally, Vaden advocates looking at time as not something you spend, but something you invest. “Multiply your time by giving yourself the emotional permission to invest time into things today that will create more time and more results for tomorrow,” he says.


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Shep Hyken – Effective Customer Support Starts with Data

Wed, 01/14/2015 - 08:30

I recently spoke to Shep Hyken, who is a customer experience expert and the Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Cult of the Customer and The Amazement Revolution and has been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the speaking profession. Shep works with companies and organizations who want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees. Some of his clients include American Airlines, AAA, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, and AETNA. In the following brief interview, Hyken talks about how companies can develop successful customer support operations, how data can help companies improve, and how to train people in effective customer relations.

Dan Schawbel: How can data help you create a better customer support process?

Shep Hyken: There is an old saying in business that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Measurement sets a benchmark – a baseline – from which to recognize if your company is improving or losing ground in the customer support process.

Schawbel: How can empowering employees help a company develop better customer support?

Hyken: There is a strategy/tactic that I strongly believe in: One to say YES and two to say NO.  This is opposite of what many companies do. They require their people to seek the approval from a manager or supervisor before they can say YES to a special request. The best companies have empowered their employees to come up with good solutions that are customer focused. It starts with hiring the right people, training them properly and then giving them the opportunity to do the right thing. If they make a mistake, consider it to be a learning opportunity. Obviously, if they make too many mistakes they either haven’t been properly trained or they are in the wrong position. That said, if you get the right people in the right job, train them well, empower them to do their jobs and take care of the customer, you will have better response and ratings from your customers, and a side benefit, you’ll have more engaged and fulfilled employees.

Schawbel: What does an effective customer support system look like?

Hyken: This is a difficult question to answer as it looks different from one company to the next. So, let’s look at this as a bigger picture. It’s not so much the system as it is the culture. If the organization’s culture is truly customer focused, then the systems will fall into place. It starts with leadership determining the customer service vision. Then it needs to be communicated to the employees. This puts them in alignment with leadership’s vision. At that point all employees need to be trained to that vision. Note: Training isn’t something you did, it’s something you do. Constant reinforcement of the vision through training is necessary to create and sustain the customer focused culture. From there, the vision must be demonstrated. Leadership, and all employees for that matter, must demonstrate and be role models for others to admire and emulate. Finally, a truly customer focused culture celebrates their successes, letting employees know the organization is fulfilling the vision and initiative.

Schawbel: What do most companies get wrong about customer support?

Hyken: Customer support shouldn’t be limited to just the “customer support” department. Sure, the people in that department may be responsible for support, complaint resolution, etc., but a truly customer focused company recognizes that customer service and support is everyone’s job. Internally we all have customers. These are our fellow employees who depend on us to do their job. If we don’t take care of them, and they can’t do their job, then it trickles out to the customer. One of the favorite things I share with companies is that what is happening on the inside of an organization/company is being felt on the outside by the customer.

Schawbel: How do you go about training companies to be better with customer service? What kinds of things do you talk to them about?

Hyken: As mentioned, training isn’t something you did. It is something you do. The foundation has to be set. That’s usually a bigger training session. It could be kicked off with a keynote speech and followed up with a half-day or full-day of training. Some of our clients have us come back several times over six months or a year. Even if they don’t have our trainers come back, they recognize that the training sessions can’t be an event. To be effective it has to be a process. Many of our clients have short weekly meetings – some even daily. Our suggestion is to take a few minutes of these meetings and reinforce some of the customer service lessons that everyone has been trained on. We have ideas and exercises we share with our clients so that they always have something they can talk about in these sessions. Several things that we always share in our trainings:

Customer service is everyone’s job. Every employee has two (at least) major responsibilities. One is to do the job they were hired to do. The other is to take care of their customer.

Customer service is common sense that unfortunately, is not always so common. The ideas we share in our training sessions aren’t that sophisticated. They really focus on the interaction that people have with their customers, both internal and external. Sure, there are systems that happen behind the scenes, and we are happy to consult with our clients about them, but our over-arching philosophy about customer service and support is that it is about interactions. Manage the interactions for a positive experience.

Finally, I want to emphasize one of my customer service mantras: Customer service is not a department. It’s a philosophy to be embraced by everyone in the organization.


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Are These Workplace Trends Making You Less Productive?

Tue, 01/13/2015 - 09:00

You’d think that workplace trends would help us be more productive, and they’re usually heralded that way. But in reality, many modern workplace trends can actually impede your productivity rather than raise it.

Here are four current trends that might be making you and your coworkers less productive.

1. Open office plans. Workplaces that consist of wide open space – no private offices and not even any cubicles – are gaining popularity, even though most workers hate working in them. While companies that have made the switch have promised improved collaboration and team work, most workers dislike the loss of privacy and the distractions that make it hard to focus.

As it turns out, those complaining workers are on to something. A flood of new research shows that open layouts increase stress, raise blood pressure, and cause workers to take more sick leave. A Harvard study found that whatever collaboration benefits these layouts provide were outweighed by workers’ dissatisfaction with noise and privacy issues. Noisier work settings undermine both motivation and productivity, according to research in the Journal of Applied Psychology. And “workers in two-person offices took an average of 50 percent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of 62 percent more,” reports a recent study of more than 2,400 employees in Denmark.

Adding insult to injury, that collaboration promised by open-office proponents isn’t even happening: Collaboration dropped by 20 percent between 2008 and 2013, while time spent alone has increased by 13 percent, according to a survey by design firm Gensler.

2. Constantly being on call. Before email and cell phones became so ubiquitous, most people could disconnect from work at the end of the work day. (Remember when it used to seem that doctors were the only ones in danger of being contacted by work during a weekend or evening?) Now people in all sorts of jobs and at all levels are expected to stay connected and respond to calls, texts, and emails 24/7, meaning that some people never really get to turn work off at all. While this is supposed to raise productivity – after all, if you’re working at 10 p.m., you must be getting more done overall, right? – in the long-term in tends to lower productivity, as people become burned out and miserable.

3. Email. I say this as a lover of email, but while email has made many things easier and more efficient, it has a dark side too. We field way more messages via email than office workers in earlier eras ever fielded via memos, phone calls, or in-person conversations. It’s so easy to dash off quick questions to coworkers or send FYIs or otherwise fill up our colleagues’ in-boxes that we all do it without thinking about our collective abilities to process all these messages and still get our core work done – or rather, still get our core work done within a reasonable number of hours and unplug at the end of the day.

4. Group work. Modern companies are fond of organizing employees into teams, but some research indicates that group work can actually lower productivity. That’s because people in groups tend to exert less effort than they would individually, partly because they’re less accountable for results. In fact, studies consistently show that as a working group size increases, work capacity declines.

Making matters worse, research finds that creativity can be stifled in groups because of the pressure to conform to the majority opinion. If that makes you wonder about the utility of group brainstorming, you’re on to something: A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that group brainstorming generates far fewer ideas than the combined efforts of several individuals working alone.

It’s something to consider before assembling your next project team.


Photo Credit © gaston gazette

How to Save Your Sanity When Overworked and Overwhelmed

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 08:30

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 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 09:00

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 - 08:30

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 - 09:00

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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