Category Archives: Prioritization

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.”

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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