3 Tips for Salesfolks (and aren’t we all?)

It’s selling season (at least for another week or so) – the golden window between getting back from the holidays and the end of school when folks are running around to conferences, meetings, etc. trying to close deals and build the book for the second half of the year.

After working with some clients with their growth strategies during the latter half of last year, to help these convert into business development I’ve ridden along on a number of pitches over the past few months. While some of these can be tedious – especially if they involve software demos – it’s generally good stuff; I really enjoy the game within the game.

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Disaffected prospects

For those that are shaking the trees this quarter and next, I thought I’d share a couple of observations from the frontline on what not to do:

Enter the pool from the shallow end: Good sales work is a conversation, i.e., a human interaction. When you convene a sales meeting, don’t fail to introduce everyone – your folks are there for a reason. Also, don’t dive right in – tell a quick story or something to humanize the conversation and get everyone comfortable.

The right answer is the correct answer, then you may qualify if appropriate – Everyone knows and understands that selling opportunities are rife with exaggerations (the legal term is “puffing”). These little white lies are the motor oil of our selling interactions – they help everyone get more comfortable while avoiding the details which would divert the focus of the conversation from the value proposition. That’s ok with everyone because we all know that the details will come later. However, when you’re selling, you cannot breach the tacit gentlemen’s agreement and cross the line into lying – no one likes it and everyone can tell you’re doing it. This is a self-inflicted wound – people respect integrity. If your product doesn’t have a particular feature or functionality, say so. Then qualify your answer if you can truthfully say that you have similar functionality, you can build it, etc.

Talk is cheap . . . and you get what you pay for. Strive to make your pitches with economy of words. When I was a young lawyer, I prepared for hours for court appearances, carefully crafting my arguments and outlining points to have at the ready.  In one case, the judge was outlining how he was going to rule – for us! Unfortunately, I was so wrapped up in my argument (pitch) that I starting bringing up other points. Thankfully, one of my mentors was with me – he politely asked the judge for a minute, leaned over, and whispered to me that I need to shut the (you know what) up. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt the need to do this to members of my team in the course of sales presentations. If you listen, the prospective customer will likely tell you what it will take to get a deal – make sure you’re no so wrapped up in your own world that you miss your chance.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting.

Take care.

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Reintroducing humanity into everyday business life

In the middle of a typical meeting-filled day in DC, I was fortunately able to jam in some time for coffee with an old friend and mentor. Our chats – akin to taking myself in for an oil change – are always a great mix of catching up and warm reminiscences, along with advice and guidance about the road ahead. So, I always look forward to these hours the most among the busy day. I guess that’s why I was in such a hurry to get our coffees and find a good table that I failed to notice an older lady in front of me struggling with the coffee lids. Fortunately, my friend stepped up and helped out – turns out that she was partially disabled – but for his help I have no clue how she would have got a lid on her coffee and the cup to her table without spilling the molten hot coffee everywhere. Immediately I felt very small and walked away quietly kicking myself.

In my career I have observed (and decried in these pages) the removal of human emotions, feelings and language from our official behavioral norms and communications like so much toxic waste. My guess is that much of this has been an understandable, evolutionary reaction to some of the behavioral excesses of previous generations and to the overall acceleration/digitization of our lives. However, like any unilateral movement, the sanitization of our human interactions, even in a business setting, inevitably must be re-balanced.

We all know that mutually beneficial relationships are the foundation of business exchanges (a product or service without a market is just an idea), but we seem to forget in practice that these relationships are built upon human exchanges. Showing compassion for others – truly caring about their ideas, contributions, and welfare – and taking a few extra minutes to show despite our relentlessly busy world is an investment that pays dividends downstream.

If you linger to ask how their kids are doing, to tell a funny self-deprecating story, or to make a coffee for your colleague, they will of course have a more favorable attitude towards you, they may have a more productive day, and they’re much more likely to be there for you with a kind word, a smile, or a spare hand when you’re in the ditch.

No great insights here. However, don’t forget, there’s a big cultural bias theses days against showing (and especially telling) your employees you love ‘em, so be forewarned:

  • Showing your humanity involves risk taking – When you hear that a colleague is struggling with a personal problem, will you approach them? Even expressing concern and offering assistance could be taken the wrong way. I say it’s worth it – as folks get to know you, if you are consistent in showing your concern for others, they will appreciate your character and willingness to expose it to them.
  • Expressing compassion and following through takes time – If you approach someone in need, you have to be prepared for the fact that they may actually interact with you. Maybe this means you have to take five minutes to listen and offer up whatever comforting words you can muster. But maybe it means you have to give someone a ride because their car is in the shop or approach a peer or even an executive about a problem you now know about. Again, in my mind, this is an investment rather than an expenditure of your time but, like all investments, you must be prepared to put the principal at risk at the outset.
  • The process of dealing with human issues is not easily expressible in a spreadsheet model – Engaging with others, even for a few minutes of small talk, involves active listening, verbal and non-verbal communications, and emotionality. These exchanges will consume your energy and even small tidbits can manifest themselves as takeaways for your subconscious (you may find yourself waking up at night thinking about what someone said, how they said it, or the quality of your response). In other words, being human can be a bit messy. However, I believe that these consequences are good too – the takeaways are actually learning objects that can form the basis for mini self-improvement projects, provided that your maintain your own balance and don’t dwell on any negativity that surfaces.

As you plow through everyday life advancing your career and personal interests, take time to hone the craft of being human. These things go hand in hand.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting. Take care.

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Public-Private Partnerships in Education Go Viral

When we began the Global Workforce Initiative (GWI) at the Georgia Department of Education, we thought our biggest challenge would be convincing businesses to get involved with the K-12 education community. Although the “skills gap” in our workforce is universally acknowledged as one of the fundamental problems in 21st century education, we found the level of engagement between business leaders and educators to be shockingly low. Each side seemed to be pointing at the other saying, “they don’t understand what we need” – and blaming mind-numbing bureaucracy, historical apathy, and vitriolic politics for the lack of progress (heck, effort) towards bridging the gap. As a result, our mandate – to recruit business partners who would contribute training materials, classroom mentoring time, and executive advice & guidance – seemed daunting, even though we weren’t asking them for money!

Fortunately, we were given a head start by the German business community in Georgia – and Siemens in particular. It’s much easier for German businesses to put these types of partnerships into context – it’s part of their heritage – and their view of issues like workforce development tends to be much longer-term than that of their American counterparts. As a result, we moved relatively quickly (light speed for the education community) in getting their help revising the 10th-12th grade curriculum for our  Manufacturing career pathway. The courses in this pathway will be piloted in schools in the communities where Siemens operates, giving students access to expertise and hands-on experiences that would not otherwise be available. Ultimately, these courses will be made available throughout Georgia, and our partnership with Siemens will become the template for similar collaborative efforts with other business partners.

So, the next step would be to recruit a Siemens-like business partner for every career pathway; again, a daunting challenge. However, along the way, we made a great discovery: businesses around our State, including privately-held American companies (traditionally the most nearsighted of all), have begun engaging directly with their local school districts on similar, home-grown programs. These business leaders have apparently found the same motivations that caused me to step over the divide between business and education: (1) helping to make your community better is just good business; (2) the best source of quality workers is your backyard; and (3) nothing shows your employees that you care about them like working to improve the schools attended by their kids.

As a result, our work in expanding the GWI and making it sustainable should be made easier: these local public-private partnerships have already proved the concept in their respective career pathways, so we can “cut to the chase” and begin broadcasting their business-approved skills-based curriculum across our State. The benefits to our students and to the Georgia economy are tremendous: the local districts are a force multiplier and their efforts will shave years off of the process of tailoring the high school curriculum to narrow the skills gap. Additionally, we can now redouble our efforts to put skills-based learning “in context” by building applied courses in traditional core subjects like reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies for delivery in middle school and even – in the case of world languages – as far back as elementary school. By capturing the attention and imagination of children at a young age, we can get them to recognize the value of skills-based learning, thereby greatly increasing their chances of long-term economic success while dramatically reducing the odds of their dropping out of high school.

In a sea of bad news about education, these public-private partnerships are a ray of hope – there is a New World out there on the horizon and, if we keep working together (instead of complaining), we will get there. So, get your business involved in education – locally, regionally, and nationally – at a minimum, your employees will thank you, their productivity will increase, and you’ll probably find some great prospects for future employment among the students with whom you interact. Now that’s a great ROI, no matter how short or long you measure the results.

Full disclosure: We probably won’t see the full benefits of our work in our lifetimes. Don’t forget, however, that we have all benefited greatly from the long-term societal investments of our forbears. Pay it forward.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting.

Take care.

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Quick but not in a Hurry

Some months back I was watching a game in which one team found itself in a big although not insurmountable hole. The color analyst – a former coach – used a great phrase to emphasize the point that the team needed to pick up the tempo but without panicking – they needed to be quick but not in a hurry.

The Atlanta airport on a Monday morning has to be quite amusing for disinterested people watching – right in front of you, hordes of travelers from all over converge at once, all seemingly grumpy, sleepy and going about their business in a big damn hurry. In a recent experience, I apparently took a few milliseconds too long in removing my belt at the security checkpoint, which frustrated the guy behind me in line so much that he nearly trampled me in the process of rushing around me to go through the metal detector.

You can imagine the size of my Cheshire-cat grin when, moments later, I sauntered up behind him as he waited in line for the train out to the concourses.

The pace of life today is blinding – and business is even worse. Given the speed of communications, it’s very easy to get caught up in the trap of working too fast. Entrepreneurs in particular are notorious for a “just get it out there” mindset – this is ok as it is part of the trial & error/creative destruction process, however, it can also be very counterproductive. Among other things, being in a hurry causes:

  • Mistakes – running too hard generates a lot of mistakes, from plain errors to gaffes like copying the wrong person on an e-mail, etc. (In my haste to get to early meetings, I’ve hit the garage door with my car’s rearview mirror twice in the past couple of years). In contrast, doesn’t it seem like the revisions you make to a presentation after you’ve allowed it to “get cold” are the ones that take it from being just ok to great? Like a good pasta sauce, the flavors need to rest and meld a little to bring out the best of our work.
  • Stress – being in a hurry adds a ton of unnecessary stress to our lives, from weaving through traffic to jumping out of one con call to another. Some of this is inevitable, but it’s also worth asking – do I really need to send this e-mail at 11:30 pm, when the recipient is likely in bed anyway? Must this call take place on Saturday afternoon when I’d rather be hanging out doing nothing? Sometimes the stress of deadlines can be a good thing – the pressure enables us to avoid distractions and focus on the task at hand – but being chronically in an artificial hurry is downright dangerous (this week I observed two people presumably on their way to work speed through long-red stoplights – would it have really mattered if they were three minutes late?).
  • Miscommunication – whether it’s a cumulative effect of mistakes & stress or just the added tension being in a hurry brings, the risk of miscommunication rises exponentially when we’re flailing about and trying to do too much too fast. When we’re in a hurry, our verbal communications lose their nuance – we write and speak in short, blunt fashion because we’ve gotta go. Also, our nonverbal communications convey all kinds of bad messages – we look & act bored, frustrated, or inconvenienced – even if that’s not truly the case, because we’re already thinking about the next meeting, task, flight, etc.

The ironic net result of being in a hurry is frustration of purpose – our mistakes, stress and miscommunications lead to re-work, conflict and – worse yet – lost opportunities. So many entrepreneurs who are hung up on the ABC (Always Be Closing) mantra insist on pushing their customers hard to sign the deal – any deal – NOW, but this actually drives them away. Nothing conveys desperation like being in a hurry, and nothing repulses a customer like desperation.

Business does demand that we work at a faster pace today than in previous times, and responding quickly to opportunities, e-mails and market conditions can position us for success. However, we’re all still ultimately paid for the application of our talent, wisdom and insights, which takes a little time. Take an extra few minutes, hours, even days (especially the weekend), to think things through and deliver a well-reasoned and polished presentation, to prepare for and actively participate in an appropriately-scheduled conference call, or to engage in a comfortably-paced, consultative sales process. Being quick but not in a hurry, or efficiently deliberate and contemplative in our work, can enable our success, or “close the deal.”

So, slow it down a little – your car’s rearview mirror will thank you – and your personal and professional life will improve too.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting.

Take care.

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Quiet Success

Recently I received feedback from an interview with a prospective client: I was told that I was too quiet, too passive in my time with them – that, instead of selling, I listened too much.

This has to be some of the most rewarding feedback I’ve received in my career.

When I was a young lawyer, one of our senior partners had an odd accompaniment to his usual white-glove insurance defense practice: doctor divorces. When asked, this well-known and accomplished lawyer would explain: in these cases, he would always quote an astronomical retainer and then, two things could happen – and both of them were good! (they would either pay or go away).

To me, learning that I listened too much meant that: (a) I must have progressed to another level on Maslow’s hierarchy or something similar (there have to be some points on some scorecard somewhere for that!); and (b) I dodged a bullet – if this prospect didn’t value the fact that I earnestly wanted to listen to them and all of the details relating to their situation, they surely wouldn’t value my conclusions and recommendations thereafter. As I only want to work in situations where both sides feel like I’m adding value, the negative outcome was, in the end, satisfactory.

It seems that every day I find myself in meetings where folks are literally fighting with each other over air time. Interrupting. Raising their voices. Shaking, pacing, making faces. All to ensure that their precious points are made.

Unfortunately, the message they’re really sending is: I don’t care what you think because I didn’t even hear what you said.

In response, the natural response of their boss, counterparty, prospective client, etc., is: If you don’t want to listen to me, why should I listen to you?

The net result: No matter how insightful those precious points are, the message is not received, the sale is lost, the opportunity extinguished. What a shame.

In contrast, in my experience, if you let the other folks talk, they’ll pretty much tell you what they want and how you can help them get there – and this is probably why you’re meeting with them in the first place. Furthermore, like dressing properly, being on time, and showing good manners – active, engaged listening conveys respect, which is always the right thing to do (we generally get back what we project).

If you struggle in this area (replay your last few meetings in your mind and you’ll know), here are a couple of tips:

  • NEVER interrupt – it’s rude, it’s unprofessional, it’s disrespectful
  • PAUSE – when the other person stops speaking, take a breath, tap the table, just do something to count out a few seconds before you respond – even if you’re still intent upon speaking your piece, at least the other side will perceive that you have heard them
  • THINK and then respond – process what you’ve been told, respond to any questions they pose, build upon their point as a bridge to your next point

Ironically, as you apply these tactics, you’ll find that you will recoup more by saying less. Also, along the way, you’ll get to “meet” some interesting people. Even in a business context we are, after all, all human beings. Take some time to get to know the folks you’re privileged to get to meet. You may make a connection that will last you a lifetime (in addition to making a good deal). That works.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting.

Take care.

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Educators Without Zip Codes

At the recent Plywood Presents social entrepreneurship event in Atlanta, Sajan George of Matchbook Learning captivated the audience with the description of his work on the daunting task of reforming the Detroit public schools. At first glance, this project seems more like penance rather than the type of opportunity that would motivate anyone to roll up their sleeves and jump in – especially someone like George, who gave up a successful career as turnaround consultant to join the fight. Nevertheless, jump in he did, achieving amazing results at two of Detroit’s most troubled schools and garnering national recognition along the way.

As a result of his success in Detroit, you would expect to George to endorse other localized education solutions – charter schools, vouchers, etc., however, during the Q&A, George emphasized the importance of reforming education at scale. According to George, these solutions, while great, serve less than 3% of the student population. Instead, while system-wide education reform is hard, if you’re successful, you have a massive ability to scale. I couldn’t agree more.

Having been a business executive, a management consultant, and – worst of all – a lawyer, I’ve been subjected to more than my fair share of occupation-specific jokes. For example:

Q: What did the consultant say when the executive asked him what time it was?

A: “Show me your watch.”

When you’re flying around staying in different hotels every night working 70+ hours a week trying to support your family without forgetting their birthdays, it’s hard not to lash out in response. However, after a while you get used to the jokes and hopefully some maturity kicks in so you can laugh too – after all, there’s usually a grain of truth in there somewhere.

In this case, the joke is spot on: time and again we found that our consulting clients already had people working on elements of the solutions to the big strategic problems they hired us to fix – they had their watches on. Ironically, the joke’s really on the clients:  for whatever reason, they just couldn’t pull the solutions together and address the core issue at scale – we had to point them to their watches and try to get them to tell time.

Very few things get people more up in arms in America than our problems with education, and for good reason. We love our kids, they matter more than us, and we owe a debt to the generation that preceded us to do whatever we can to position them for success.  As a result, we draw extreme umbrage from the shortcomings of our schools – real or perceived – and we take action, often through parental organizations and private interest groups. All of that is great but, again, these are ad hoc, localized solutions.

In my limited experience with the broader education community, I’ve found that many of the solutions to our “education problem” are hidden in plain sight. We have literally hordes of highly educated and extremely earnest people working on educational programs in our country – there are no idea stones being left unturned.  In fact, I would venture to say that the elements of the solution to our problem are all being worked on somewhere by someone every day. Unfortunately, like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these elements mean nothing until they are put together.

Q: So, what’s the problem?

A: We know what to do but we can’t because . . . well, there are rules and regulations and certifications and contracts and budgets and politics and standards that originated in the 1800’s . . . you’ve gotta understand, that’s just how we’ve always done things . . .

Hmmm . . . yeah, that’s tough . . . maybe what we need to do is just give them all iPads!!!

This is how localized (albeit well-intentioned) solutions are formed. However, the quality of a child’s education should not depend upon the zip code of their residence! Oh, and by the way, it’s not what you think – more prosperous zip codes don’t necessarily have better schools (if you don’t believe me, look at the data).

Our educators know what needs to be done and, in many localized solutions (i.e., two groundbreaking schools in Detroit), they are fixing the problems. However, the system at large is a bureaucratic, anachronistic mess. As a result, parents and great folks like Sajan are taking matters in their own hands. I applaud their efforts and, for my own child, am doing the same. However, I still owe a debt. Others sacrificed for me. It may take another generation to complete the solution, but every day we wait we perpetuate the catharsis. Instead of more localized solutions (lipstick on a pig?), why not fix the problem?

If you’re a regular reader of this space, you’re probably a little disappointed in the finish. Sorry, but I don’t have the answer and don’t need to provide one anyway – that’s for the professional educators. Rather, what we can do is require our political leaders to address the problem – not with some quick fix soundbite but through institutional change that allows (much less supports) innovation by those whose job it is to educate our children. Much of our nation’s infrastructure (i.e., the transcontinental railroad) was built before the era of cranes. We can fix this broken system if we really want to do so.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding, tweeting, etc. Take care.

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Succeeding With the Team You’ve Got

In Atlanta we just experienced our first week in a long time without 90 degree temperatures, which makes us all cautiously optimistic that the annual brutality of July and August weather is coming to a close. People are slowly emerging from their refrigerated homes and offices, in a process akin to the emergence of folks from their heated caves in northern climates at the end of winter. The sidewalks are now filled with runners in the morning, and outside tables at bars and restaurants are hard to come by after 5 o’clock.

However, more than anything, in the South, the coming change of seasons really means one thing: Football! Around here, people seem to collectively lose their sanity when football season arrives, which may be partially explained as a release of the cabin fever we built up over the sweltering summer. Anyway, whether you are a fan or not (c’mon!), if you’ve watched any football you have to admit that it’s the ultimate team sport. Although the “playmakers” get all of the media attention, the reality is that not even one play can be successful without the combined and carefully orchestrated efforts of all eleven teammates. The stars themselves get that – how many times in post-game interviews have you heard them run through Bull Durham-esque clichés –  “I’ve gotta give credit to my teammates . . . I’m just happy to be here . . . Hope I can help the ball club.”

Sports and (especially) military analogies are overused in the discussion of business concepts, however, I don’t think you can ever learn or talk enough about the concepts, tactics and nuances of team building. Although teamwork is not always as necessary in business as it is in football (many services, for example, can be fulfilled solely by individuals), most significant business activities require organizations. To be successful, these organizations require teamwork.

So, every year leaders spend tons of money on books,  speakers, training programs, cheesy wall posters and – the most dreaded of them all – retreats – to encourage their employees to work together. At one of the many retreats I had the (ahem!) good fortune to attend, the facilitator had us observe each other holding stones with our Core values printed on them – Seriously! I guess it did work, as we came together as a Team thereafter in the hotel bar laughing hysterically about the experience.

Of course, as I progressed in my career, I also passed out books, hired speakers and arranged retreats for my Teams. We didn’t have any rock-holding exercises so hopefully some things were accomplished, but I’m sure some folks were similarly bored/annoyed by the experience. So, why do we do these things? Beyond modeling the behaviors of leaders we observed and/or worked for in the past, hopefully it’s because we understand the need to commit time and resources in an earnest effort to achieve the results that only come from a team that works well together.

In two recent engagements, we were hired to assist our clients with big business development projects. Although the initiatives were vastly different – one was a product deployment while the other a services effort – after getting up to speed, I quickly realized that my biggest contribution to each project could be assisting our clients in building their delivery teams. In each case, the “end client” was asking for a novel solution, requiring the combined efforts of people from different disciplines and organizations who had never worked together before in that particular context. As these were new, market-making (testing?) solutions, the budgets were “developmental” – in other words, ridiculously thin. And, of course, there was the added stress of immediacy – like all clients, they wanted the solutions NOW.

In both cases, outsiders criticized certain team members because of their perceived talent gaps, and therefore predicted failure from the outset. From there, as we experienced the inevitable frustration of slow progress and incremental failures, I even struggled to suppress doubts in my own mind about the Team’s composition and its prospects for success. However, I forced myself to stay patient and to listen to my teammates – we were going with the Team we had. Hey, there was no budget to recruit the proverbial “A” Team, so taking personality tests to “identify the gaps” seemed pointless, and there was certainly no time for ropes courses or Kum Ba Ya. However, there was also no time for turf wars, politics, and other ego-driven conflicts. It was time to get stuff done.

In short order, the Team had to develop fundamentals and attitudes such as:

Fundamental Representative Attitude
Respect Nobody’s perfect,  but everyone here has skills and has succeeded in the past; therefore, each person is due our respect.
Compassion There may be others out there that are better and we may have had issues with one another in the past, but we’re going with the Team we have and we truly want each other and the group to succeed.
Trust Each person has a job to do, so we are going to trust them to do it and, even if they fail, we are going to work things out internally and present a solid front externally.

Of course, these things take time and progress is incremental. However, both project teams completed their first Phase deliverables on time and to the satisfaction of the clients. My most significant role, it turned out, other than being “happy to be there” was to “help the ball club” by encouraging each member of the respective Teams to listen, to work through differences of opinion openly and factually, and to address adversity together. The folks that were assigned to our project teams may not have even wanted to be there, but they had valuable skills and insights that we needed, so we had to find a way to blend our talents towards the objective.

Listening is perhaps the greatest outward evidence of respect and it also implies compassion – if you care about someone you will listen to them. As my friend and mentor Steve Wiley says, you have to “listen until it hurts,” an obvious but very difficult rule to live by. However, especially in groups of people who haven’t worked together before,  it often seems that someone has the solution to the problem, but no one seems to be listening. Furthermore, under the stress of tight budgets and deadlines, it’s very tempting for a leader to cut to the chase – I know what needs to be done here so, enough debate, let’s take action. Sometimes that works, but sometimes that decision is also the one that sticks out in the post-mortem of a failed project, initiative or business.

Instead, leaders can create opportunities for the Team to succeed by questioning rather than telling and by listening rather than suggesting. I heard a speech one time by Jim Collins in which he encouraged leaders to improve their “question to ask ratio.” Rather than demanding your solution and finding “teammates” who will deliver it, maybe your questions will elicit a solution that really can be delivered NOW at a lower cost and with the people you have. In the process, the client will get most (if not all) of its needs satisfied and your people will be uplifted rather than unemployed. Sounds like a good deal to me.

In the next posting, we’ll cap it off by working our way through the last fundamental – trust. In the meantime, have fun tailgating and, as always, thanks for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting. Take care.

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