Category Archives: Management

Stop Asking for Things

“Know your worth.” How many times have you heard that phrase? It’s probably one of the most commonly uttered pieces of career advice. Somehow, that very broad statement has come to mean asking for something. That “something” is usually a raise, promotion or perq. And, generally, it’s good advice. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your value and asking for it. But, when should you stop asking?

Mad MenI’m a huge fan of the series “Mad Men.” In that series, the main character, Don Draper, is an unlikely source for all kinds of career and life wisdom. In one famous episode, he has an exchange with Peggy Olson, his protégé. It’s the late ‘50’s, and women are not treated well in Corporate America. Peggy’s no exception. But, when she asks Don for her next bump up the ladder, for which she’s not ready, he rightfully says, “You’re good. Get better. Stop asking for things.” That quote has been emblazoned on my brain ever since because I’ve wanted to say it so many times in the course of my career.

In my experience, the employees who ask are often the people who don’t deserve it. They’re heavy on courage and light on self-awareness. In my last blog, I talked about ‘A players.’ A players rarely have to ask for things. They distinguish themselves with hard and smart work. They produce and managers notice. It’s really that simple.

In my 22-year career, I’ve never once asked for a raise. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I don’t lack in the courage department nor do I tend to undervalue myself. But, I am usually very focused on the task at hand…A.K.A. my job. My approach has been to focus on excellence in performance and the rest will follow. And, it has. In one of my previous roles, I took on two new departments. My first thought was not, “I need to get paid for the new workload.” Instead, I thought, “How can I turn these two departments into bottom line contributors?” Within two months, my boss saw momentum in my new organization and gave me a significant raise out of the blue.

Feel like you’re always asking for things? Consider a few things:

  1. Your boss is smart and decent. He/she likely understands the business and your contribution. It’s rare that true ‘A players’ get overlooked. Superstars make life easier for managers. They reduce worry and workload.
  2. Pay attention to feedback. If your manager consistently points out areas for improvement, believe them and address them. Come up with a meaningful plan for improvement and make your boss part of that plan. People want to help those who help themselves.
  3. Stop looking at what other people have. I’ve found that envy often drives people to ask for things. I can’t tell you how many times employees have asked me for promotions and raises based on merely seeing other people move up the ladder. It’s petty, and most managers see through it. Focus on yourself, and the rest will fall into place.
  4. Believe in yourself. The world is full of opportunity. If you feel like you’re always (legitimately) asking and not receiving, maybe it’s time to move on. Over the weekend, I was reading about the new head coach of the San Francisco 49’ers, Jim Tomsula. Tomsula has a fascinating background. He started his coaching career at his high school alma mater and eventually became the 19th head coach of the storied 49’ers franchise. There were some notable and unusual detours along the way, including two stints in sales roles outside of football to support his family. Through it all, one thing remained constant: his belief in himself and his desire to coach in the NFL. We can all learn something from that.

 

 

 

Constructive Conflict

When I was in graduate school, I worked with kids involved in gangs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. My work was part of a federally funded program to teach gang members conflict resolution skills. Every week, we’d have group sessions with these young gang members so they could talk through their issues and learn the language of constructive conflict resolution. I know it sounds very “touchy-feely,” but it worked.

One morning, one of our group members arrived late and visibly shaken. He apologized and explained that his mother and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight the night before. The fight went on all night and ended with the boyfriend holding his mother at knifepoint well into the morning. When we all voiced our sympathy, he quickly responded, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

I’ve thought about that kid a lot throughout the years – and that quote. (NOTE: It’s actually part of a longer, very powerful Frederick Douglass quote.) Work environments tend to be conflict averse. When examined within the context of that kid’s struggles and those of the quote’s original author, our aversion is, well…pathetic.

155HHow conflict averse are we? A recent survey published in June’s Harvard Business Review revealed that over a quarter of people hint at disagreement rather than objecting outright. Furthermore, only 28% say they “always speak up when they feel they’ve been misunderstood.”

That’s unfortunate, as conflict can often give birth to great things, especially when that conflict is constructive. At its best, conflict gives daylight to divergent views and starts a meaningful dialogue among smart people. It can also be a great way to destroy silos, build team cohesion and improve working relationships.

People tend to think that conflict has to be unpleasant and include yelling. It doesn’t. Here are five things to keep in mind when initiating constructive conflict at work:

  1. You’re Paid to Have a Clear Point of View. People value individuals with a clear perspective. In order to show yours, you may need to disagree with your colleagues. That’s ok. Keep it calm, professional and thoughtful.
  2. Minimize Emotion…And, PLEASE Don’t Whine or Cry. I’m amazed at the number of high-level executives I have witnessed resort to whining when they disagree. Resist the urge. It makes you look like a two year-old and diminishes your reputation. Similarly, if you’re going to cry, don’t. Take a step back, get some perspective and address the issue when you can do it sans tears. I’d like to say that tip is directed solely at women. Sadly, it is not.
  3. Use Your Words. Instead of bluntly saying, “I disagree,” sometimes it’s better to say something like, “I have a bit of a different view. Let me explain…” For the really sensitive one-on-one discussions, use the classic active listening formula. For example, let’s say someone leading another department (Bob) hasn’t been responsive to collaborating with your team, and it’s no bueno for growth and progress. I recommend approaching Bob and saying something like, “I feel frustrated when you don’t respond to my calls/emails to improve our teams’ working relationship. I’d like to work with you to find a way forward.”
  4. Keep It Out in the Open. Passive-aggressive behavior is so common in today’s workplace. And, it’s absolutely destructive. If you have to disagree with someone, go directly to that person and privately explain your perspective. If you need to offer an opposing perspective to a group, do it with the group instead of complaining after the group has disbanded. Being open and direct will lead people to view you as a straight shooter, and that’s a good thing.
  5. Get Over It. Once you’ve offered your differing point of view, move on. Grudges are toxic – for you and the people around you.

Keep these simple things in mind, and remember that constructive conflict is the surest route to progress. And, as my friend from grad school reminds me daily, progress is the goal.

Tell Me More About That

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Ned and I on our wedding day. He’s mesmerizing me with his mad listening skills.

My husband, Ned, is a master conversationalist. He’s gregarious, articulate, well read, authentic and very funny. But, it’s not what he says that makes him special. It’s actually his listening ability that sets him apart. He has a very simple yet effective tool that he uses in conversation. He often inquisitively utters the phrase, “Tell me more about that.” It’s amazing to watch that simple phrase transform a conversation. The other person lights up. And, Ned gets the opportunity to listen and learn.

I’ve always been fascinated with people. I’m curious about what makes them tick. It’s little wonder that I started my career in market research. Focus groups, surveys, quick polls…I love it all.

Obviously, listening is a huge part of understanding people. And, I’ve always considered myself to be a good listener. So, imagine my dismay in 2009 when I went through a professional 360 survey and learned otherwise. For those not familiar, “a 360” is a type of employee evaluation where you get reviewed by your manager, employees and peers. The intent is to give a well-rounded assessment of performance, where you’re at in your career and the things you can focus on to progress.

SelfawareI did my first 360 as the kick-off to the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute (BMLI). A yearlong program, BMLI is the flagship leadership development program for female executives in the cable TV industry. It’s also a life changing experience. Since its inception 20 years ago, the program has mentored over 800 executives.

For a high-strung Type A personality, your first 360 can be intense and harrowing. You can get 1,000 pieces of positive feedback, but it’s the areas for improvement that are emblazoned on your perfectionist brain. I learned that people didn’t think I listened very well which came off as arrogant. My first reaction was something like this:

“What?!?! Me? Arrogant? I’m the most down to earth person I know! Who said that? Those people are jerks. Humility is my middle name. I’ll bet it was Jeff who said that….”

Once I calmed down, I met with an executive coach who was able to put everything into perspective. The first thing she asked me about was my speaking style. She asked me how often I asked questions that started with words like “how” or “what.” The benefit to these sorts of questions is that they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They require a more detailed response, and they also require the person posing the question to listen.

92HI started to reflect on my behavior. I realized that I frequently relied on closed-ended questions in the interest of getting things done. I’d wrap up meetings with phrases like, “Everyone good with that?” Unbeknownst to me, I was curtailing discussion and conveying that I knew all the answers. What sorts of people know all the answers? Arrogant ones.

Honing your listening skills isn’t just important for the knowledge you can gain. It directly affects people’s perception of you. Perception is everything. Here are a few things I’ve learned on my path to becoming a better listener:

  1. Watch the Closed-Ended Questions. Closed-ended questions are a one-way street. I know we’re all in a hurry, trying to accomplish more and more. But, be mindful of how many times in the course of a day you ask questions that can only be answered with a simple yes or no. If it’s the majority of your questions, you’re probably missing out on some good collaboration and the opportunity to let your direct reports solve problems.
  2. Pose “HWW” Questions. Ask questions that start with the words how, what or why. These sorts of questions encourage dialogue and provide the opportunity for you to become a better listener. Example: You might ask your team, “How might we proceed on this project?” instead of “Should we come up with a promotional plan and timeline to move this thing forward?”
  3. Be Patient. If you’ve been asking primarily closed-ended questions for a long time, people get used to that style. It’s very intimidating to some. So, when you start asking open-ended questions, be prepared to hear crickets. It will take people a little time to adjust to having the opportunity to talk more. The first few times you pose an “HWW” question, you may have to wait as long as 20 seconds for a response. It will seem like an eternity, but stick with it.
  4. Practice and Keep Track. Like any good habit, becoming a better question asker/listener takes lots of practice. When you start out, keep track of how many times in the course of the day you ask open-ended questions. And, note how people respond. I know it sounds nerdy, but when I started building this skill, I used a simple spreadsheet to keep track. I noted the question I asked in one column and how people responded in another. At the end of the day, I reflected on it. It only took a few weeks before it became a habit.

Being an effective listener is absolutely critical to being an effective leader. And, with a little self-awareness, practice and patience we can all get there.

 

 

 

 

Relentless Civility

I traveled to London on business a week ago. While stuck in traffic on the drive from Heathrow to my hotel, I had a delightful conversation with my cab driver. In our musings, we stumbled on the topic of civility. Something he said really stuck with me: “Civility is easy to give and costs absolutely nothing.” If you imagine that quote in a British accent, it’s even more erudite.

This simple statement got me thinking about civility in business – or rather what I often see as a lack of civility. Undoubtedly, business is harder than ever in many regards, and that affects simple interactions. Technology has definitely made things easier. But, it’s also eliminated boundaries, rendering us on-call 24/7. We’re now constantly bombarded with emails, texts, LinkedIn messages and myriad of push notifications.

Even the best at time management can find it overwhelming. Often, people just respond to the critical things. The rest falls by the wayside. That’s an understandable and common tactic. But, it’s extremely limiting.

Business is all about connecting with people. It’s really hard to widen your circle if you’re just doing the bare minimum to keep your head above water and make it to the next day. Relationships matter, and the world is increasingly small. Someone emailing you about a job today might be in charge of hiring for the job of your dreams tomorrow. Likewise, a cold call about a partnership that’s not a fit right now might generate ideas or open a door in the future.

During the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate to have two exemplary role models for graciousness. The first was Roger Werner. Roger was the President and CEO at Outdoor Channel, and a real pioneer in television, building and transforming cable networks like ESPN and Outdoor Life Network. He was also a master of civility. I used to marvel at his handling of virtually every cold call or introductory email that came his way. He treated every inquiry with brevity and grace. I still think about his demeanor often, as it’s such a rarity in today’s harried, disconnected business culture. He made everyone feel important and at ease.

My second role model for civility was Kathleen Finch, President of the Home Category at Scripps Networks Interactive. As the head of HGTV and DIY Network, Kathleen has reinvented both brands, catapulting them into a viewership renaissance. She’s also perhaps the most gracious person I’ve ever met. She has a super-human ability to respond to virtually everyone who contacts her. And, she’s exceedingly generous with her time, often taking time to mentor lots of people inside and outside of her organization.

It’s no accident that people like Roger and Kathleen have been successful. Treating people well matters. And, as my cabbie friend in London said, “It costs absolutely nothing.”

Admittedly, I’m not perfect when it comes to returning every email, LinkedIn/Facebook message or phone call. But, I never let perfect get in the way of better. In the last year, I’ve put disciplined effort into building better habits around increased responsiveness. My goal is relentless civility.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Turn Off Notifications. A constant barrage of email and other push notifications makes genuinely connecting with people seem daunting. Turn them off. Bonus: you’ll be more attentive to the people around you, making you more memorable — and a rarity.
  1. Set Aside Time for Civility. I set aside 90 minutes first thing in the morning and 60-90 minutes at the end of each day to return emails, phone calls and other messages. I receive anywhere from 100 – 200 emails/messages per day depending on the season/day. I make an attempt to respond to everything, including cold calls, job inquiries and introductory emails. Which brings me to my next tip…
  1. Keep It Brief and Be Honest. People tend to overthink this stuff. I hypothesize that rejecting people and ideas is perceived to be negative. Most folks avoid the negative. I believe that ignoring people under the guise of “I’m too busy and important” is a more negative signal than merely telling the truth.

Take Jane Jobseeker as an example. Her resume looks great, but you’re headcount is frozen for the foreseeable future. I have found that it is perfectly acceptable to respond by saying the following:

Hi, Jane.

Thanks for reaching out. Your resume is impressive, especially your experience with Big Data. We don’t have any roles that fit your skill set right now. Please keep in touch and ping me again in 6 months just so we can keep the lines of communication open.

Best of luck in your search,

Denise

You know how long it took to write that response? 30 seconds. It’s brief, honest and polite. And, I kept the door open to someone who could be a valuable resource in the future. Most importantly, I was gracious to someone who is working hard to find her next role. Think she’ll forget that?

  1. Be Vulnerable and Punt. Sometimes I need more time to respond to someone. I might need to do some research before offering an opinion. Or, if it’s something really critical or delicate, I may need some extra time to be thoughtful. In those instances, I just say so. I send a brief (2-3 line) email to the person and tell them why I need additional time to respond to their inquiry, and I provide a date by which I’ll respond. And, I make sure that I keep my promise and respond by that date.

For example, last week, I was playing catch-up after a chaotic week of international business travel. I needed some extra time on a few email inquiries. I simply told those people that I was playing catch-up (that’s the being vulnerable part), and I told them that I would provide them with a full response by Monday (that’s the punting part).

If all else fails, remember the advice of Henry James. The author said, “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virtuosity

I started doing Crossfit almost three years ago. I was living in Knoxville, bored out of my mind outside of work and looking for a new fitness routine. A few friends suggested that I try Crossfit. I’d never heard of it. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Crossfit is a fitness regimen that entails constantly varied functional movement performed at relatively high intensity. Simply put, one day you might be doing heavy back squats; the next day you might be doing 200-meter sprints, push-ups and pull-ups. Every day presents a new and exciting challenge.

So, one muggy June evening, I showed up at Crossfit Knoxville after work. You never forget your first WOD (workout of the day). A lot of Crossfit workouts have names. My first one was called “Badger,” a hero workout done in honor of a fallen soldier. In this case, that soldier was a Navy Seal named Mark Carter. Badger consisted of three rounds for time of 30 65-lb. squat cleans, 30 pull-ups and an 800 meter run.

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Competing in my second Crossfit competition in 2014

Needless to say, I scaled the workout – Crossfit lingo for modifying weights and movements to fit your capabilities. I did very ugly 55-lb. squat cleans, assisted (banded) pull-ups, and my running was APPALLINGLY slow – zombies from The Walking Dead could have caught me. It was a brutal workout that left me exhausted. I was instantly hooked and couldn’t wait for the next one!

As I got more immersed into the culture of functional fitness, I kept hearing the term virtuosity. Virtuosity is doing the common uncommonly well. In any serious functional fitness routine, you’re always trying to get better. Small tweaks and improvements add up over time and make a significant difference in performance. For example, you might practice a clean and jerk fifty times, making minuscule technique improvements to increase your weight by a mere five pounds. The improved results are important, but what you learn in the process is the real treasure.

The same applies to leading people. Seeking even small ways to improve on everyday things that are at the heart of your organization can pay big dividends over time. Furthermore, the more you pursue your own virtuosity at work, the closer you get to your team. And, close teams can accomplish anything (see Five Things the Pittsburgh Steelers Can Teach Us About Leadership http://www.deniseconroy.com/?p=38).

For example, I’m continuously tweaking meetings at work. I’m obsessed with having a few hard working ones that matter as opposed to a calendar full of hour-long sessions that have no real agenda or purpose. I’m fearless about canceling meetings that have lost relevance. Rather, I’m most concerned with creating get-togethers that are smart communication forums focused on action and accountability. I often solicit feedback from my team and colleagues on how to make these forums better. Each time, I learn something valuable about improvement and my team/colleagues. Virtuosity in action.

Don’t get me wrong: I love forging a new course as much as the next person. Just don’t save your innovation and energy for start-up initiatives. Give some attention to making everyday practices better. And, remember that your goal isn’t perfection. We all know that’s elusive. But, as Vince Lombardi once said, “We will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

Five Things the Pittsburgh Steelers Can Teach Us About Leadership

I’m unabashed about my love for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The day I met Lynn Swann still ranks as one of the best days of my life (squarely behind my recent wedding to the love of my life, of course!). As a little kid in the 1970’s it was easy to be swept away by the legendary Steel Curtain, the very embodiment of blue collar camaraderie and all that is right about sports. Some kids liked flash; I liked the bravado of “just shut up and play hard.”

As a lifelong football fan and leader of people, I read everything I can get my hands on about the Steelers. And, I see so many secrets to success in the history of the greatest franchise in American sports. Seriously, it’s hard to argue with the Black and Gold’s success: 6 Super Bowl wins, 8 AFC Championships and 22 Hall of Famers. Success like that doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a result of a strict ethos that permeates the entire culture of an organization.

The Rooney’s, the owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, provide a great case study on how to lead. Here are five things the Pittsburgh Steelers can teach us about leadership:

1. Close Teams Win Super Bowls. Dan Rooney is often asked why the Steelers have been so successful. Of course, the team has had top-notch players, coaches and team management. But, Rooney maintains that closeness wins Super Bowls. Even against the toughest of odds, close teams pull together and make things happen.

In my experience, the same applies to business. Close teams are successful teams. Closeness is built one day at a time, through every day interactions. It won’t happen if you’re locked away in your office on an executive floor. Get to know your people. Talk with them over coffee in the morning or take a handful of people to lunch on the fly. Realize that some of the greatest strides in building closeness come from low-key interactions that often have absolutely nothing to do with business. In fact, connecting on non-business topics like kids, sports or pop culture is actually the quickest route to fostering authentic closeness with your team.

2. Let the Coach Coach. This one’s simple: coaches are hired to coach. That means that the coach is the ultimate decision maker. The Rooney’s don’t micromanage the head coach. Instead, they let him do his job in good times and bad. This is refreshing in a sport that is replete with meddling owners who jump in and interfere at the first sign of adversity.

This has direct applicability to leadership in business. Micromanaging bosses are abundant. They swoop in and direct even the most minuscule activities, especially when times are tough. Resist the urge. Instead, focus on paving the way for your people’s success. Provide advice and encouragement, remove obstacles and let your direct reports do their job. It’s really that simple.

3. Don’t Believe the Hype. The Steelers are completely adverse to hype. Maybe it’s a Pittsburgh thing, but we’re programmed from birth to believe that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In no place is this more apparent than the franchise’s drafting history. In general, the Steelers won’t break the bank to pay for the next big player. Instead, they often look for value players. A study conducted a few years ago revealed that the Steelers are the best in the NFL at drafting value players. It’s a philosophy that has served the franchise well.

Eschewing hype has direct applicability to business. Hype makes people frantic. Frantic people make poor decisions.   For example, when I started working at a television network a few years ago, we were positively wild about social media. A colleague and I actually coined the phrase “social euphoria.” In every corner of the business, people were doing small, disparate things on every social platform known to man. There was no strategy or stated endgame, just a lot of enthusiasm and activity. Once we slowed down, ignored the hype and formulated a strategy, measurable things started to happen in the social realm.

4. Patience is a Virtue. I know it’s trite, but the Steelers are a classic example of why patience is a winning strategy. The franchise has had three head coaches since 1969: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. Compare that to the rest of the NFL, and you’ll see how truly rare it is. The Steelers don’t make knee jerk, reactive decisions. They don’t freak out and fire everyone after a poor season.

Patience pays off the business world as well. When I first started in one of my TV jobs, our network was struggling with ratings. The president was a brilliant guy, and when he took a deeper look into our issues, he noticed that we were changing our schedule frequently. We’d premiere a show and if it didn’t do well within a week or two, we’d pull it. This gave the audience no consistency, and it was a huge waste of programming and marketing resources. Once we committed to giving new shows a chance and “letting them breathe,” we started to see gains.

Making knee jerk decisions every time you encounter a setback is counterproductive. It hurts consistency and sends a message that you panic easily. Panicky people are scared people. Scared people inspire no one. Be patient, stay the course and figure out what’s going on before you react.

5. Character Matters. The Steelers are known for running an organization that does the right thing. They regularly pass on players with character issues, and they’ve spearheaded important policy changes in the NFL. The best example of this is The Rooney Rule. Established in 2003, it requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior team jobs. The rule isn’t perfect, but it’s a better, good faith effort for the league to get with the times and respect its audience.

Character is of paramount importance in business too.  Weave your commitment to it in everything that you do at work, and don’t compromise. A commitment to character takes courage. Surround yourself with only the best people and be brave.

Football fans are passionate people, and I run into plenty of folks who aren’t Steeler fans. Hopefully, these five lessons give even the biggest hater a reason to look at the Black and Gold in a different light. And, for those of us who love our “Stillers,” maybe it gives us something else to brag about.

My Favorite Business Book

I’ll be completely transparent: I’m not a fan of most popular business books. Admittedly, I went through a ten-year phase in my career where I read anything and everything that was on the bestseller list. In truth, very few of those books inspired me. I found them to be very expected, not telling me much that I didn’t already know.

Now, I prefer to read books from a wide variety of disciplines. I’ve found that I can learn about leadership and strategy from a variety of genres – everything from the classics to biographies to fiction.

Still, people often ask me to recommend my favorite business book. Actually, that’s easy. My favorite business book is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. No other book has left as much of an impression on me. I love this book so much that I regularly give it as a gift. I know I’m showing my age, but before e-books, I kept a box of these books in my office so I could send them out at a whim.

Never Eat Alone completely transformed my perspective on networking and informed my approach to professional relationships. This approach has very much been the basis for my career success during the last decade.

In a nutshell: Never Eat Alone aims to reinvent networking as we know it. This book eschews the cheesy, disingenuous days of trading business cards, initiating trite conversation and hoping for the best. Instead, the author gives a compelling argument for forging meaningful intimate business relationships. He even goes as far as to (gasp) advocate showing vulnerability in business interactions because it gives you an authentic reason to bond with people. And, that is most certainly how the best business relationships are formed.

The author of Never Eat Alone is inspiring which makes for a great read. Ferrazzi grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the son of a steelworker and a cleaning lady. As a fellow Pennsylvanian, I love a success story that starts in “The Keystone State.” His remarkable ability to connect with others led to a scholarship at Yale and a Harvard MBA. Plus, he was the youngest person to make partner in the history of Deloitte Consulting. Think he can teach us a thing or two about relating to people? Um, yeah.

I’m obsessed with building unmatched relationships with amazing people. In business, I surround myself with the best people, and to be fair, these people often become close friends. I have a strict “no asshole” rule. That means that I avoid forging deep business relationships with unpleasant, inauthentic people who lack character. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll deal with difficult people on a surface level. But, for my deepest, most meaningful, long-term business partnerships, I choose to work with positive “can do” people who share my commitment to doing great things. Life is too short to surround yourself with jerks. And, I find that terrific people tend to introduce me to other terrific people. As my husband is fond of saying, “Momentum builds momentum.”

So, if you’re looking for a business book for your next plane ride or vacation, try Never Eat Alone. I promise it will inspire you and transform your thinking about surrounding yourself with the very best people.

Cultivate Your Garden

A good friend of mine is struggling at her job. She’s a brilliant contributor who, despite her best efforts, can’t seem to move her perplexing and often inert organization forward. We’ve all been there. Tolerating mediocrity and taking the path of least resistance is way too commonplace in business today. I’m not a fan. Witnessing her woes reminded me of the concept of “cultivating your garden” at work – an important way to keep your sanity and pursuit of excellence in tact.

Let me explain. When I first started working at Outdoor Channel, I reported to the head of ad sales who also happened to be a Berkeley-educated English lit major. He was a very smart, well-rounded guy and a great mentor. He had worked at the network for several years and had a keen sense of what the culture would and would not tolerate in our quest to grow the business. Each week, I’d sit in his office for my weekly meeting, talking about all of the things I wanted to accomplish. I’d lament about my desire to move lots of things forward very quickly…and my frustration at how slowly things moved.

One day, after listening to me complain, my boss sighed and said, “Denise, sometimes it’s best just to cultivate your garden for awhile.” I was not familiar with the phrase, so he explained its origins to me. The phrase “cultivate your garden” is from the book Candide by Voltaire. Candide is a satirical look at unbridled optimism, and the phrase is Voltaire’s attempt to assert a more pragmatic perspective of the world.   Pragmatism? Sign me up.

From that point on, my boss used the phrase as a magical re-set button for me. He’d see me getting frustrated, utter the phrase “cultivate your garden,” and I’d get back on track.

What I love about these three simple words is that they keep me grounded and positive when things are at their most exasperating. They remind me to focus on absolute excellence in the things I control absolutely. Struggling to get a wrenching reorganization approved? No problem: focus on developing the superstars you have on your team. Things are moving slowly with a new business development project? Tighten up a critical internal process in your function.

This doesn’t mean that you drop your agenda for moving the business forward. You just lay off the gas pedal a little bit and focus your attention elsewhere. Cultivating your garden gives you the much needed energy to continue being a change agent. Let’s face it: pushing change can be exhausting. And, change activities often touch areas outside of the ones you wholly control. It’s easy to get discouraged and burn out. But, taking a step back and focusing on the things you control is a powerful weapon in your leadership arsenal. Plus, it guarantees that you continue to make positive things happen for your organization.

So, the next time you get discouraged on your leadership mission, remember that the path to change is more like a marathon than a sprint. Bring your best running shoes, gardening gloves and a trowel.

Have a North Star

I’ve always been a strategic soul, plodding and planning my way through life. Along those lines, I’m a big proponent of having a central point of focus in both my personal and professional life. Some people call it a rallying cry. Others may call it a reason for being. The French call it a raison d’être which is just too cool for me to pull off. I call it my North Star.

Writing about my North Star seems especially appropriate, as this is a very important week in my life. You see, it’s the week of my wedding. On Saturday, my fiancé Ned and I are getting married in New York. Without a doubt, the North Star in my personal life is Ned. He’s my anchor, the one who holds the ground while I fly. He keeps me grounded, makes me laugh and makes ordinary days idyllic. He’s my barometer of sorts: if he’s content, it’s likely that I am too.

In my professional life, my North Star operates the same way. It’s the focal point for all strategy and goal setting. It’s what aligns my team and helps everyone focus on what matters. In my 20+ years of professional experience, THIS is the difference maker.

What’s that? You don’t have a North Star at work? No problem! Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to establish one.

Fair warning: for some people who are less math/numbers inclined, this exercise is going to seem like one giant, horrendous word problem from your SAT’s. Fear not! With a little perseverance and some help from your numerically inclined friends, you’ll find your North Star in no time.

Figure Out Your Key Metric. This sounds simple, but it’s stunning to me how many top executives within multibillion-dollar organizations don’t know what their key metric is. Every employee, from the top to the bottom of your organization, should know how your money is made and be oriented towards that thing.

Simply put, the key metric is what drives revenue. At this point in your journey to find a North Star, I recommend enlisting a savvy numbers person in your organization. This might be a financial person or someone in your research department. These people are close to the metrics that move your business, and they’ll likely help you find the right path more quickly than going it alone.

In television, the key metric is ratings or impressions within a given consumer demographic (e.g., Adults age 18-49). For an online retailer, it might be average dollars per order. Keep in mind though, this step is only the tip of the iceberg.

Levers: What Drives the Key Metric? Knowing this is truly crucial. Typically a few things – I call them levers – underlie your key metric. These levers are things that you and your team can directly control, and that’s how progress happens.

Let’s go back to the traditional ad-supported TV example. In television, there are only three ways to affect ratings: get new viewers, get viewers to watch more frequently and get viewers to watch for longer periods of time. Those three things have the potential to be directly affected by things that people do every day, from marketing to scheduling to production.

In the online retailer example, you might affect average dollars per order by finding more high value customers, getting existing customers to buy more and/or getting existing customers to buy products at a higher price point. Again, all of these levers can be directly impacted by things people do including promotion, pricing, research and product development.

Set Goals Based on your Levers, NOT Just Your Key Metric. I know, I know. This seems counterintuitive. If it’s all about moving the key metric, shouldn’t goals only be based on the key metric? Goals should be based largely on things you can directly control. They should also set a timeline for your progress: from x to y in a given timeframe.

I like having one BHAG and a few lever goals. BHAG is a term coined by Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great, and it stands for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.”

Let’s play this out in our online retailer example:

BHAG: To increase average dollars per order from $100 to $110 in 2015.

Lever Goal #1 – High Value Customers: To increase high value customers (AVG order size >$125) from 20,000 to 25,000 customers.

Lever Goal #2 – Premium Package Orders: To increase sales of premium packages from 1 million orders to 1.2 million orders in 2015.

Over-communicate Your Goals. Once you establish your goals, you’ll need to communicate them to your team. I’m a big fan of kicking it old school and creating a simple infographic that people can hang in their workspaces. I also like to see these hung in common areas like break rooms, conference rooms and even on the door inside bathroom stalls. When I said “over-communicate,” I meant it!

Keep Score. Business is inherently competitive. Yet, so many organizations refuse to keep score in a meaningful way so their employees understand the health of the business and can act accordingly. I love sports, and I love the notion of an ever-present scoreboard. Once you establish your goals, you need to decide what form your scoreboard will take. I like a simple weekly email that states the goals and how you’re pacing. Additionally, an online dashboard is great, provided that that it only tracks your goals and not a bunch of other metrics. Simplicity is the goal here so people can stay focused.

Set Meetings to Stay on Track. Full disclosure: I abhor most meetings. They lack focus, are too long and seem to be a real life compendium for human neuroses. That said, a weekly meeting where you discuss progress on your goals with your direct reports is a beautiful thing. I recommend setting a weekly 30-minute meeting late in the afternoon every Monday. Every people manager, from the top to the bottom of the organization should have his meeting. It creates an unmatched cadence of accountability.

Open the meeting by talking about the latest progress towards the goals. Then, talk about what you personally did the previous week to advance the goals. Next, commit to what you’re going to do this week to move the ball forward. Go around the room and have each team member do the same.

FYI…you don’t have to commit to vast, sweeping activities. For a CMO, this could be as simple as reviewing a contract for a new consumer research vendor that will help you segment your customers more effectively. For a web designer, this could be making progress on a phase of design for your mobile site that will attract more high value consumers. Always remember: small steps to greatness. Just be sure that every team member’s activities can directly impact the goals. And, if they don’t, call them out on it, and redirect activities.

At first, these meetings will be awkward because you’re talking about things that matter as opposed to the typical “round-robin” staff meetings where everyone tells you what he or she did on summer vacation. Give it time. In a few weeks, this will be the best meeting on your schedule. Better yet, the efficiency and importance of this one meeting will forever change how you and your team conduct meetings.

And, BOOM! You’ve completed all of the necessary steps for finding your North Star at work. On the personal front, I can’t help you. I’m just grateful that I found mine!

 

Do the Hard Things First

When I was a kid, I hated math. This is totally ironic because I’ve dedicated my career to a very “mathy” discipline of marketing. Nonetheless, growing up, I abhorred what seemed like an endless supply of math homework. One day in the third grade, I was complaining mightily about my personal feud with numbers. I was also procrastinating. My mom, a wizard at time management and pragmatism, looked at me and flatly said, “Life will be a lot easier for you if you do the hard things first.”

That bit of wisdom stuck with me, and it has been a guiding principle throughout my life. It applies to every facet of my being, from fitness to work life.

Doing easy things is, well, easy. Our tech savvy culture is increasingly conditioned to do a bunch of little things now. Over the years, I’ve watched some of my smartest colleagues focus on the smallest things: endless emails, unproductive meetings and random tactics that do nothing to advance the business in measurable and significant ways. These are otherwise smart people who allowed themselves to be sucked into the quotidian.

Why? My theory is that crossing small things off of a list makes humans feel accomplished. It’s the “Hey, Mom…Look what I Did!” approach to management. Additionally, most people are conditioned to avoid conflict. Doing hard things often requires conflict.

I once worked for an incredible company full of energetic, talented people. Let’s call it Nice, Inc. because it was also known as having perhaps the “nicest” culture in its industry.

When I came into Nice, Inc., I was charged with growing our consumer audience which had been flatlining for almost six years.   After about a month in the business, I figured out what was hampering growth: an unwillingless to do hard things – not merely doing them first but doing them at all. The company’s renowned niceness often translated into a culture that avoided conflict and played what I call “small ball.” “Small ball” is my very technical term for doing a litany of random and often fun things that do nothing to move the needle on growth.

In the early days, I did a bunch of hard things that were not always well received. I assessed the team and restructured based on the people and skill sets our business needed to grow. I actively and aggressively implemented a goal setting and tracking program, creating a cadence of accountability in every corner of my marketing organization. I put an end to endless unproductive meetings and instead, encouraged my people to (gasp!) have the courage to decline unnecessary ones with their colleagues. Plus, I encouraged them to hold shorter meetings as opposed to the longer, soul-sucking 60-minute ones. Most importantly, I also stopped greenlighting small, random ideas and instead, helped my team understand how to do big things that matter (A.K.A. big ball).

The bottom line is that all of this worked. Within a few years, we were able to become a top 10 player in our competitive set. Plus, most of the folks on my team appreciated the clarity of direction. To this day, when I see someone from my former team at Nice, Inc., he/she almost always references the term “big ball” or the phrase “do the hard things first.”

Pop quiz: what might doing the hard things first look like in the typical week of a people manager?

A)  Take a 90-minute meeting to hear Jane Sadface, your chronically dissatisfied non-collaborative employee drone on about her unfulfilling work life

B)  Engage in a 27-deep email tete-a-tete with Bob McAnger about a silly turf war between departments

C)  Have a hard talk with an underperforming employee on your team

D)  Launch a new project, well, because it’s super cool!

Of course the answer is “C” because it’s the hardest thing on the list. And, while it has the potential to be emotionally charged, it also has the highest probability of pay off. With your exemplary coaching, that underperforming employee may become a great turnaround story. And, if not, you’ve put them on notice that underperformance won’t be tolerated, and change will be imminent at some point in the future. You’re laying the groundwork for your team’s success. Successful teams are happy teams.

So, if you want to be genuinely accomplished, I recommend tackling the tough issues first. It forces you to play “big ball,” and it makes the rest of your “to do” list a breeze. More importantly, it moves things forward for your business – quickly and with purpose. Now, suck it up, and do something hard.

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