Monthly Archives: September 2013

Step Number One for Creating Positive Change

No organization is perfect. Every business has room for improvement. Even the best companies have to constantly reinvent themselves in order to stay ahead within a rapidly changing marketplace.

Business professional who care about their organization’s success must identify key steps to effectively manage change. Whether the matter is a problem to be solved or a proactive initiative to keep the business on the cutting edge, the best approach is to take ownership.

Senior leaders hire employees to solve problems. Employees do not exist in the organization so that they can delegate tasks and problems for the boss to handle. Sometimes an employee will be able to identify a problem that needs solved or an initiative to pursue, but the challenge becomes presenting an effective business case that gets to the root of the matter, initiatives a path forward, and assigns authority to the appropriate parties.

If there is a hole in my roof it does no good for me to say, “Someone needs to fix that hole in the roof. I hope someone comes along soon before it rains, or else we’re all going to get wet.” Rather, I must identify a solution: Either I can obtain the needed supplies, get up on the roof, and get my hands dirty; or I can identify and pay a competent repair person to do this for me.

In the same way, when an employee sees a “hole in the roof” within the business, it does no good to tell the boss that the problem needs solved and leave it at that. Absent a solutions-oriented approach, this only provides the employee with a reputation of being negative or a nag. Rather, the employee should lay out the problem, provide well-research options for potential solutions, and then ask for the boss to sign-off on pursuing the most feasible solution. This process can take time in soliciting input, but the boss needs to know all along that the employee fully intends to take ownership and handle the matter to completion.

The final proposal to solve the problem and drive change might involve spending time, money, or other resources. Whatever it means, the employees must take initiative and own the matter through to completion. Managers will appreciate and start relying upon those rare employees who do not try to pass the monkey onto the boss’s back.

The Future of Your Work

TIME ran a series of ten features regarding the future of work. In formulating a career development plan it is imperative to begin visualizing how work life might look in the future in light of rapid global changes. Here are a few summarized conclusions from TIME‘s articles:

  • We will see a more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world. It will be run by a generation with new values — and women will increasingly be at the controls.”
  • Not surprisingly, one of the best sectors into the future will continue to be technology. Entrepreneurs will set the tone for which specific areas thrive and dominate within the broader tech landscape.
  • Debate rages about the role of business schools in inculcating managerial ethics. One way or another, the importance of business ethics – and the consequences for diverging from paths of integrity – will not wane into the future.
  • As a cost-savings measure, companies will increasingly expect employees to contribute more toward paying for their benefits. Many companies started their benefit plans when the ratio of young workers to retirees was much higher. Now that the ratio is reversing, companies have to adjust accordingly and trim back benefits expenditures for employees and retirees alike.
  • Rather than the old traditional “up or out” model of career advancement, some companies are adopting a “lattice” model. Employees can “dial up” or “dial down” to different roles and enjoy more flexibility. Implementing telecommuting and other forms of flexible work arrangements can even be financially compelling for companies.
  • Baby Boomers will have to keep working longer than anticipated rather than retiring due to not having enough retirement savings. This can have both positive and negative effects for the economy.
  • Women will continue to extend their influence in the workplace. Women have a distinct style focused on collaboration, managing risk cautiously, and looking into the future, as compared to their male counterparts who thrive on risk. With more women comes more emphasis on work-life balance and flexibility. Furthermore, “When a company gives employees freedom, it doesn’t just feel good or get shiny, happy workers — productivity goes up.”
  • Green jobs geared toward various environmental objectives will likely continue to gain traction.
  • Generation X management styles will increasingly emerge. Gen X will have to manage Gen Y. “Companies already want more short-term independent contractors and consultants and fewer traditional employees because contractors are cheaper. And seniority matters less and less as time goes on, because it’s about the past, not the future.” Collaboration among workers from various backgrounds who are spread all over the world will become increasingly common. Cross-cultural communication and motivation strategies will become paramount career skills to develop.
  • Manufacturing productivity continues to vastly increase, coupled with less domestic demand for manufacturing workers. “Highly skilled workers creating high-value products in high-stakes industries — that’s the sweet spot for manufacturing workers in coming years. … Ultimately, what’s endangered is not U.S. manufacturing. It is our deeply ingrained cultural image of the factory and its workers.
  • In order to understand what your workplace is going to be like in five or 10 years, you need to think about what your work is going to be like. Here’s a clue: employers no longer need to pay you to drive to a building to sit and type. In fact, under pressure from an uncertain economy, bosses are discovering that there are a lot of reasons not to pay you to drive to a central location or even to pay you at all. And when work gets auctioned off to the lowest bidder, your job gets a lot more stressful. … So, are you essential? Most of the best jobs will be for people who manage customers, who organize fans, who do digital community management. … Some people will embrace this new high-stress, high-speed, high-flexibility way of work. We’ll go from a few days alone at home, maintaining the status quo, to urgent team sessions, sometimes in person, often online. … Work will mean managing a tribe, creating a movement and operating in teams to change the world. Anything less is going to be outsourced to someone a lot cheaper and a lot less privileged than you or me.”

What other trends for work and careers can we expect in coming years and decades? How should we respond? This is a significant theme I plan to explore in many future installments. Whether we like trends of rapid change, reality is reality. We can either complain about emerging patterns, or we can learn to work them to our advantage. The choice is ours. Let the planning and action begin.

Zero Nag Threshold: Four Tips for Developing a Reliable Reputation

One of the constant frustrations for many professionals is having to follow up again and again to resolve matters. None of us like to be nagged, and I doubt too many get pleasure out of nagging others. Constantly following up wastes time, consumes mental energy that can better be allocated elsewhere, and can damage trust and collegiality. Tempers can run short on both sides of a dysfunctional relationship when nagging is the mode of operation.

Here are some tips for setting your nag threshold at zero so that coworkers, bosses, vendors, customers, and others can rely on you to handle matters the first time:

  • Communicate – Listen to the concerns that are expressed by your business counterparts. Ask open-ended questions to get to the root cause of the matter. Don’t jump to conclusions or seek out quick and easy fixes, but recognize the variables and ambiguity of each scenario. Sometimes the problem solving process takes time, and it is important to communicate all along the way.
  • Provide updates – Along with the previous consideration, be sure to proactively let others know where the issue stands. If you do this before they ask, by definition no nagging will ever come into play. Perhaps you are waiting on information from another person or organization. Let your counterparts know that you have followed up, that you have so far handled the matter to the extent that you could, that you will keep pressing for answers, and when they can expect the next update.
  • Don’t dish off – I recently had a representative from a well-known national managed services provider tell me several times that she had passed my matters off to different groups in her organization. Evidently those groups had the same lack of excitement to handle my problems as she had. She had not previously demonstrated a satisfactory level of understanding about the problems I brought up, so I asked to speak with members of one of those groups. Her response was that the group did not have a “call center” to interface directly with customers. So I pointed out that she was the only contact I had with the organization, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter which group was supposed to solve my problem. She was the person I had access to speak with and was relying on to handle client concerns, so the problems were squarely on her plate. She did not give a good impression for her organization because she did not take ownership of my problem that I was relying on her to solve. She did not follow the steps of communicating, following up, and working the matter to full resolution.
  • Manage expectations – If you tell someone you intend to have information to them in three days but that becomes impossible for some reason, don’t wait until day four or even day three to mention this. Manage expectations all along the way as soon as new information is available. Your counterpart might be relying on you for the information on day 3, but if you can provide an update on day 2, the counterpart might be able to readjust in time to avert a crisis. Anytime we can know what to expect so as to avoid problems, even if it means making adjustments to previous plans, we’ll take it.

Showing a consistent pattern of taking responsibility will enable people to rely on you. Because reliability is a rare commodity, you will be that much closer to making yourself indispensable in your key business relationships.

When it Comes to Motivating Employees, Money is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

Everyone tries to get more for less. This is a foundational axiom of the economics profession. We allocate our scarce resources in a manner that we believe will maximize our satisfaction.

We might expect, as a corollary principle, that everyone wants to work less and get paid more. This is true to an extent, but it’s not quite that simple. Some people attain fulfillment out of their work. Indeed, many people would like to attain even more fulfillment out of their work. Thus, while money is important, it is often not the driving factor behind motivation. Furthermore, for those whose work is fulfilling, working less is not always the highest priority either.

The question then becomes, how does a business leader make employees’ work fulfilling for its own sake?

Many professionals are driven by a sense of personal achievement and success. When they start a new job they like the feeling that they are learning new skills and quickly contributing to a team. They like to be part of a bigger vision that will create new opportunities for growth, responsibility, and compensation (yes, including a larger paycheck).

Thus, the first step is for senior management to articulate and model a clearly defined vision. This can be captured in a vision statement about where the organization is headed. The organization should also have a mission statement that communicates what the enterprise is and what it does. Finally, the organization needs goals that help define the purpose for each function and role.

Helping the owners make more money for themselves isn’t the most compelling vision for most employees to latch onto. Employees enjoy listening to their favorite station, WIIFM: “What’s in it for me?” Senior management can best help themselves when they clearly define for employees what’s in it for them.

I suggest challenging employees to latch onto the company’s vision and to define their own goals and development plan within the organization. Management should not pretend to have the prerogative or role of owning the careers of the employees but should help the employees understand how they can fit into the team. Don’t make the environment conducive to the employees who prefer someone to hold their hand and spoon-feed them through the complexities and challenges of work life. Each employee has the ultimate personal stake in career development and should assume the burdens and rewards of the development process. This is the type of employee who can help the organization thrive.

Almost everybody wants to make more money. That’s no secret. However, satisfaction and motivation on the job is more complex than simply being able to expect increases in pay over time. Motivated professionals want the ability to demonstrate their value and earn their higher salaries. Employees will attain a sense of achievement if they know they are contributing to the vision and mission of the organization, staying on track with personal and organizational goals, and developing career skills to attain higher levels of professional success.

The CFO’s Focus: Numbers or People?

“I like numbers.” If you’re a finance professional, this is the best cliche answer to avoid when responding to the question, “Why did you choose accounting (or finance) as a career?” Although we might like this answer because it is straightforward and we can’t think of anything else to say, our profession offers many opportunities to add value in the marketplace. Thus, we can better position ourselves if we have a reason for our work beyond “liking numbers.”

Traditionally, some of the best words to describe finance and accounting practitioners have been “logical,” “linear,” and “task-oriented.” However, business trainer Tom Steiner suggests adding a flavor of emotion into our professional dealings. The Journal of Accountancy drew some insights from Dr. Steiner on A nontraditional approach to financial management, and here are some of his tips:

  • Have a “positive mental attitude” (PMA). When challenges arise, rather than emulating C-class companies by cutting costs or B-class companies by hunkering down, “A-class companies create new niches and pump people up.” See your opportunities positively rather than being negative about challenges.
  • Respond quickly to changes rather than taking too much time and blaming your situation. Be agile in light of inevitable and rapid changes, and have short-term plans for best-case, worst-case, and middle of the road scenarios.
  • Securing trust is the best way to ensure rapid response to change. Actively work on building trust rather than asserting authority over employees whose trust you have not earned.
  • Help people get excited by making their work meaningful. Senior management needs to give clear guidance on the mission, vision, and values of the organization.

Dr. Steiner says to focus more on people than numbers. Read the entire article and check out Dr. Steiner’s website.

Always Be Confident

Years ago I had an unusual experience in a job interview. When I had trouble answering one of the interviewer’s questions he calmly told me, “Always be confident.” This was a real-life lesson in being prepared and knowledgeable. I appreciated the advice.

Confidence is a very important aspect of one’s personal brand. People are more likely to trust and rely upon others who give the impression of confidence. On the flip side, there are some unscrupulous people who know very little about what they are doing but act confident nonetheless. They can use their own confidence, even when coupled with incompetence, to manipulate others into misplaced trust. This can easily morph into outright fraud, which is when the description of “con man” (i.e., a perpetrator of a “confidence scheme”) applies.

I have noticed that almost everyone is sensitive about money. Given that finance professionals deal with money at the heart and center of their work, they can expect to handle scenarios in which this natural sensitivity surfaces from their colleagues, employers, customers, vendors, and others who rely upon them. Employees of the business will come with payroll or benefit questions. Vendors will inquire about payment status. Senior management will ask any and every question under the sun regarding the business’ financial standing. Important keys to gaining trust include knowing your stuff, answering accurately and timely, and being confident.

A tone of uncertainty will create doubt in others’ minds. There are ways to handle situations when you don’t immediately know an answer without giving the impression of incompetence or lack of confidence. Rather than giving a deer in the headlights look, say, “I have that information available, just give me a moment to look it up for you.”

Be on guard against automatically trusting people who exude confidence. At the same time, recognize that this need for vigilance exists because of the natural human tendency to trust others who display confidence. Use this to your advantage. As long as you have integrity and knowledge, you have every reason to be demonstrate confidence in your professional dealings. People will trust you in the long run if you back up your confidence with proof of your competence.

Planning for Change: Be Flexible and Responsive

Though it’s almost a cliche by now, the statement is true: Change is constant and rapid. The environment of constant change requires business managers to be flexible, attentive, and responsive. A recent CFO Magazine article, New Strategies Around Strategy, provides some insights that I summarize below:

  • Have a long-term plan to set forth the direction for your products, markets, and strategy.
  • Be flexible and nimble; based on changing factors in the marketplace, test the assumptions that went into your planning.
  • Have contingency plans in place so that you will be ready to quickly respond to changes in the marketplace.
  • Recognize that change is the “new normal,” and embrace the environment by taking calculated risks.
  • Information is vital for planning, especially historical insights about how businesses responded in challenging circumstances.
  • Write your long-term plan in pencil, not in ink. Keep an eraser handy.

Read the entire article for more details about flexibly budgeting and strategically planning.

Five Ways to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

In theory, the world would be a great place to work if everyone were honest, transparent, and competent. We would not have to waste time out of our busy workdays uncovering and dealing with mistakes, frauds, intrigues, scandals, shenanigans, and so forth. We could focus on what we’re really in business to do, which is satisfying customers’ demands efficiently and effectively.

In reality, we all know the world is different from this. Regrettably, life is not so straightforward. Work and business are complicated by the ever-present necessity to maintain situational awareness and never let our guard down. Without being paranoid or cynical, we understand reality — everyone in the business world is looking out for their own best interests, regardless of how positively or negatively this might affect you or your business.

In the spirit of managing risk, here are five tips for avoiding getting ripped off:

  1. Demonstrate due diligence. Sometimes prevention is the best cure. Effectively position yourself to give others the impression that you are watching over your interests with an eagle eye. In a situation of risk and uncertainty, demonstrate that you will do whatever it takes to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s to ensure that you are not taken for a ride. At the same time, be careful to maintain the element of surprise and not divulge key facets of your due diligence strategy.
  2. Ask open-ended questions in a non-threatening manner. Take the lead on getting to the bottom of whatever matter you are handling. Know when to be laid-back and casual and when to lower the hammer. In certain situations, if you ask pointed questions or insinuate suspicions of wrongdoing up-front, you will often encounter stonewalling and defensiveness. It is better to give the other person an opportunity to voluntarily come clean if they have the impression that you are bargaining in good faith. If information is not forthcoming after a brief time period with the casual approach, more drastic steps can be pursued.
  3. Anticipate responses. Know the boundaries of what would constitute a legitimate explanation versus what you should consider an excuse, illegitimate rationalization, non sequitur, or plain old lie. Have follow up questions planned depending on what responses you receive. Also, anticipate that others you are dealing with will try to use the element of surprise to their own advantage. Expect the unexpected.
  4. Make sure you understand. Be alert for a “shark in the water” when you hear someone throw out expressions that are clearly intended to artfully baffle others. Some people are easy to manipulate, so don’t let yourself be one with the wool pulled over your eyes. Don’t take everything you hear at face value. Dig deeper, and don’t ignore red flags.
  5. Buy time. Issues arise over time. If you are dealing with a legitimate operator you will notice a pattern of competence, professionalism, and integrity. Take time to observe who you are dealing with, and realize that they are generally putting their best foot forward for you from the get-go. Always expect potential negative surprises, rarely positive ones, to surface later. If you have a negative taste in your mouth from the get-go in your dealings with someone, don’t expect it to get any better with time. Also realize there is a fine line between buying time and procrastinating. Depending on the scenario, if you wait around too long, issues can start to pile up and it can become increasingly difficult to navigate through the compounding complexity. Take enough time to work through due diligence and gain confidence, but once you’re ready to progress with a business deal or relationship, move forward.

Finally, it is important to recognize that we all will make mistakes in our dealings with others. Someone might try to rip you off and have some success, but don’t worry about it too much. Rather than getting discouraged or frustrated, learn from your mistakes and be wiser the next time you encounter similar situations.

Begin to Think About Your Personal Brand

Just as cattle ranchers brand their livestock to identify their owners, successful businesses devote attention and resources to distinguish their brands in the minds of their target customer base.

If ranchers use branding to mark out their cattle and if businesses use branding to position their products, can an individual apply this concept of branding in a professional context?

Everyone has a brand. Few people think about this. Even fewer people actively manage their personal brands. This means you have an advantage if you become self-aware of your own branding and take active steps to position yourself effectively. We can begin to conceptualize personal branding using the “Four P’s of marketing”:

  • Product — As compared to a large business with a range of products and services, the “product” you have to offer is your array of knowledge, skills, aptitudes, character, habits, and so forth. The better idea you have of what you can do and what you want to do professionally, the better you will be set up to distinguish yourself in the minds of your target market (whether an employer, a client base, a group of customers, etc.).
  • Price — This concept has two dimensions. First, what price are you willing to pay to brand yourself? Just as a business pays to build its brand, you will have to spend time learning, thinking, and planning; this implies an opportunity cost, as you have to give up alternative uses of your time. You might have to spend money on certain attributes of your personal brand, as well. Secondly (and more to the point of the “Price” concept in the four P’s of marketing), what is your price requirement for making yourself available to your target market? You have to always focus on what you can give in your business relationships, but you also need to have an idea of what you want to get out of your endeavors.
  • Place — Within the “Four P’s” concept, this refers to the distribution channels for making products and services available to the market. If you are an employee, you will primarily focus on distributing your set of services in the context of your job.
  • Promotion — You can utilize means such as building a website for professional networking and knowledge and skill development (e.g., research topics and write blog posts and informational products as you increase your knowledge in your field). You can attend events and seminars. You can send your cover letter and resume to potential employers. Additionally, the habits you develop and the way you carry yourself will speak volumes as to your personal brand.

I plan to explore more of the nuts and bolts of personal branding in future installments.

Communications 101: Listen More than You Talk

Who is wiser, the person who talks a lot or the person who listens the most? Clearly, people who listen well are among the wisest. First, they gain valuable insights from others. Secondly, they avoid revealing their own ignorance or incompetence. “Talk is cheap,” and those who talk the most often deliver the least in terms of tangible results. Better to remain silent and obscure than to make a big splash but fizzle out with nothing to show for all the fanfare.

In communicating, don’t just “hear” what others say, but truly “listen.” Tune in and try to understand the other person’s point of view. Valid or invalid, reasonable or unreasonable, you have to understand where the other person is coming from in order to have meaningful dialog and a significant relationship. Business leaders can never be isolated but must engage with their teams. Listening is vital.

I am impressed with people who have insightful questions and who truly listen. They give the impression of being wiser than most. Because of this, I often come away from those types of conversations wishing that I had asked more questions, listened more, and talked less.

I have also learned that people enjoy talking about themselves and what they do. Ask them engaging questions about what they’re interested in the most, themselves. You will be popular, not because of the brilliant and witty insights you articulate, but because of your attentiveness.

Finally, think before you speak. Never hesitate to listen and engage. When it comes to talking, less is often better.