Position Matters – leading effective meetings

Have you ever been stuck in one of those interminable meetings that go nowhere?  Ever had one of your own meetings get bogged down and sidetracked? 

Many years ago (I won’t say how many), very early in my IBM career, I learned a valuable lesson in how to ensure my meetings were good ones.  In other words, we got things done and finished promptly.  Here’s my  “Aha!” moment.

 I was a systems engineer (SE) for IBM.  In that position, not only was I the technical half of a sales team, I was also responsible for making sure big computer systems we sold got installed properly and that my customers were satisfied with me and their IBM investment.  Tall order!

 When preparing for a large installation, it was up to me to gather all the various players involved in the project and go through a process called Systems Assurance.  These were big meetings with potentially big consequences.  They were attended by the marketing representative who sold the system in the first place, the marketing manager, the field engineering staff – customer engineers, managers, specialists – who performed the physical installation of the hardware, the SE specialists handling software issues, and the systems engineering manager (my boss!).  As the assigned “account SE”, running the systems assurance meeting was my job. 

Systems Assurance involved filling out a detailed questionnaire about the implementation plan and the progress we were making, with each item rated as either “acceptable” or “action required”.  From the “action required” items, an action plan was developed.  All managers present had to sign off on the results.

For my first big systems assurance meeting, I did a considerable amount of preparation.  I filled out the forms, answering the questions as I felt they should be answered, and developing a proposed action plan from my “action required” items.  Doing this in advance would, I reasoned, make the meeting go faster.  In this, I was mostly correct.

At the meeting itself, we had about a dozen people around the table, most with extensive experience and/or management titles.  Feeling a little intimidated, I started the meeting.  I took everyone through the questionnaires, my answers, and proposed plans.  There were a couple of tough moments and the meeting took too long, but on the whole everything went okay.  Not perfect, but not bad for a first time out.

After the meeting, one of my colleagues remained to talk to me about the meeting, since it was my first systems assurance meeting in the lead position.  He told me the meeting had gone fairly well, but he had some advice for me to use the next time around. 

“You are leading this meeting.  So sit at the head of the table.”

Aha!  Such a simple thing.  But how brilliant!  This had simply not occured to me.  Never one with the strongest sense of self confidence, I had selected a seat in the conference room somewhere in the middle of the long table.

Next time, I put my mentor’s advice to the test.  I walked in, strode to the head of the table, and took command.  This didn’t confer instant leadership status – one’s words and actions really do that – but it sure helped.  It also helped me to think like the person running the show.  A small distinction, perhaps, but one that can really help when you are learning and not completely confident. 

Think about this the next time you have to run a big meeting.  Start by assuming the leader’s position in the room and see if that assumption seeps into your soul.  You may be surprised by the response you get.

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Disaster Recovery – Reflections on the floods of December 2007

Like most Washingtonians, we listened to the torrential rain hitting our roof hour after hour, periodically checking vulnerable areas of our property for rising waters.  For the second time in our memory, the intrepid Dennis dug trenches in the pouring rain at midnight, helping to channel water away from one of our doors.  He wasn’t able to avoid the flood completely, but his efforts did minimize it, containing the inside lake solely to the garage.

Also like fellow Washingtonians, we listened to the news.  Stories of loss, homes, belongings, the accumulation of a lifetime of memories, and in the worst case, loss of lives, were heartrending and touched us all.  We can all identify with our neighbors who lost so much and, as is common in this wonderful country we live in, individuals and organizations jumped in to help. 

As business owners, we were particularly touched by seeing the work of lifetimes spent building successful businesses wiped out in minutes.  A mudslide inundating a popular restaurant.  Stores with carpets now brown with slimy silt and stock ruined.  Grocery stores with fresh and frozen inventory ruined by power outages.  Third generation family dairy farms with their herds wiped out.  Somehow, this story was the hardest to hear and see.  These aren’t just cows!  They are the living core of a business, generating a living for the farmers and food for all of the rest of us. 

How do you bounce back from this?  As business consultants, how would we advise our clients in the face of losses this great?  Every business is different, but there is a basic core of business principles that cross the lines between industries and types of businesses.  We believe the initial focus should be on gathering information and possible sources of assistance and making a plan to move forward.  Then take action.  Each small step will help heal the soul as the work begins to heal and rebuild the business.

Here are some initial steps to consider.

Talk to your advisory team.  Every small business owner should have an advisory team consisting of at least a CPA, business attorney, business consultant or advisor, banker and commercial insurance agent.  This is the time to tap that resource for support and guidance.  In this case, start with the insurance agent.  He/she can advise you on your coverage and how to report the loss.  Your business consultant can help with ideas, contacts, and the wisdom of prior experience.  A consultant can also provide guidance and focus at a difficult time.  Your attorney can provide similar guidance, but with a focus on the potential legal issues. 

Document, document, document.  It is tempting to dive in and start cleaning, but it is critical to document the loss first.  Take pictures.  Take videos.  Make detailed lists of equipment, inventory and other items lost.

Read the small print in your insurance policy.  It is best to do this when you get the insurance in the first place, but many of us don’t do it or, if we do, we don’t remember the details.  You need those details now to find out just how much of your loss is covered.  Most policies don’t cover floods unless you have obtained separate flood insurance from the government.

Is your loss the result of a natural disaster or someone else’s act or negligence?  Although too many in our current litigious society think lawsuit first, it is still something that may be appropriate in some circumstances.  Consult your attorney.

Consider a temporary location.  Is it possible for your business to get started sooner in alternate quarters and operate at a level sufficient to begin generating dollars?  If so, start planning for that.  Talk to a commercial real estate agent.  Make lists of equipment and supplies required.

Determine what funds will be required to get back in operation.  Know how much you need.  Then determine potential sources and go after them.

Apply for State or Federal emergency grants or loans.  Disaster declarations free up public funds to help those who face serious losses.  This may take a while, but find out what the process is.  If you are still feeling overwhelmed (and who wouldn’t be), get some help.  Again, tap your advisors.  They may be able to help handle this task, taking it off your shoulders.  However, don’t wait and don’t rely solely on state or federal aid.  It is a wonderful thing that our government does, helping citizens who have suffered so much loss.  But remember that the strength of this country is the strength, ingenuity and self reliance of its citizens.

Be open to receiving help.  There are many sources of help available to you, both personal and professional.  Use them!  Your neighbors outside of the immediate disaster area just need to know what to do and how best to help.  There are many business professionals touched by what we have seen who want to lend a hand.  But you need to ask.  Since networking is the lifeblood of those of us who work in advisory roles, if we can’t provide the exact help needed, we probably know someone else who can.

Put a recovery plan in place and begin executing the plan.  If you establish goals for your business recovery and organize the big tasks ahead, you stand a much better chance of success.

Look forward, not back.  Regret, loss, grief, worry – all these are tough to deal with and can weigh you down and hold you back.  Learn from any past errors and make changes to avoid repeating them, but don’t dwell on them unnecessarily.  Look forward.  Rebuilding is a positive thing.  Believe us when we say, all of us in the business community are cheering for you and stand ready to lend a hand.

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Management 101 – Is poor management costing you employees?

The importance of good first line management to an organization is frequently given short shrift, in my experience.  This is particularly true with small companies that may have limited training budgets.  This may not be the best place for penny pinching, however.  Consider the potential cost of ham-handed people management first.

That cost can be huge.  First of all, in our litigious society, it is important to avoid stepping into a very large legal pile out of carelessness.  We often tell the story (a true story, although we have changed the names to protect the innocent) of walking into a client’s main office for a meeting.  The receptionist, about 8 months pregnant, greeted us and said our client would be with us in a moment.

The client finally came out and we went into his office.  As we began our meeting, we asked about the receptionist.  Did our client have temporary help lined up to cover for her during her maternity leave?  Our client replied, “I’m going to fire that (expletive deleted) today.”  Taking care to close the client’s office door, we suggested, strongly, that our client discuss this with his attorney first.  The attorney, summoned immediately via telephone, said he would be happy to take the case – the receptionist’s.  It would be a slam dunk.

My point?  One potential cost of clumsy or uninformed management is the cost of a lawsuit. 

Sure, lawsuits are expensive, but I think the higher potential cost of poor first line management is employee turnover.  It’s not that easy to find and hire great talent.  So we urge our clients to consider how they manage them.  Make an investment of time and dollars – for books, training, or coaching - to improve your own management skills.  Promoting one of your employees into a supervisory or management slot?  Make sure to help him/her make that transition.  It’s not that easy to give up doing the work and start getting the work done through others.   

I was lucky to have the benefit of management training in a large corporation.  We called new manager school “charm school”.  Joking aside, it was great training.  It included direct input from our employees, too.  We worked individually with instructors to go over the results of those employee surveys.  In addition to the numeric ratings, we also had employee comments, retyped so we couldn’t identify the source.  These comments could be bruising, but ultimately helpful to our growth as people managers.  (In an attempt to protect myself, I talked to my employees beforehand, encouraging them to offer candid, but constructive comments.  They did.  Whew!)

Can’t afford fancy management school for your new supervisory staff?  There are other ways to help them grow in their new management positions.  If you are experienced, take some of your own time to work with them.  Meet with your supervisors regularly and discuss issues as a group.  This will help you establish consistent management process and style as you train.  Work with a skilled consultant who can help train your team. 

Scale your management development to your organization and budget, but don’t skip it!  Poor managers are expensive in more ways than one!

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The Word Cop and “Myself”

I’ve been reading my favorite newspaper again – The Wall Street Journal.  The breadth and depth of its subjects and coverage never fail to grab my interest and impress me.

This time, the article in question is “Me, Myself, and I”, written by Collin Levy and published in the Monday, January 14, 2008 edition of the WSJ.  Ms. Levy is commenting on the speech we have been hearing during the campaign and says the following:

“For all the rhetorical flourish on display, many of the presidential candidates still don’t have a grip on the King’s English.”

The Word Cop is not surprised.  Have you listened to the candidates as they debate and speak?  Sometimes, I just cringe. 

Ms. Levy’s article is focused on the use and misuse of the very words of her title.  She begins with “myself”.  Instead of saying “like me”, it has become fashionable to say “like myself”.  She quotes sportswriter Red Smith, who said, “Myself is the foxhole of ignorance, where cowards take refuge, because they were taught that me is vulgar and I is egotistical.”  Quite apart from the excellent point Red Smith makes, isn’t that a wonderful way to say it?  Ms. Levy goes on to say, “In the same spirit, “myself” has become the campaign’s de rigueur grammar cop-out, substituted for I or me when the candidate isn’t sure which is accurate – or worse, assumes Americans will see proper English as elitist.”

It’s a great article.  I recommend it to all of you out there who appreciate how elegant and wonderful the English language can be when used correctly. 

It is also refreshing that, for once, President Bush is singled out for using correct grammar.  The article concludes with this.

Referring to his own grammatical quirks in a debate with Al Gore, the then Texas governor’s usage was impeccable.  “Well, we all make mistakes,” he said, “I’ve been known to mangle a syllable or two myself.”

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Un-buh-lievable: The Word Cop takes on vowels

All of us endure a constant onslaught of advertising, particularly on television.  I do my best to tune out most of it.  In fact, I love my mute button when I can get to it.  However, when I am cooking and using the TV to keep me company, my hands are often too occupied, or too wet, to handle the remote.  Then I must attempt to ignore the ads, even though the volume always goes up.

Today, I heard the Hughes.net ad one time too many.  They’ve been using the same attractive red head for some time now, so she must be making money for them.  Couldn’t they give her a little speech coaching?  Here’s my beef – vowels.  We have 5, sometimes 6 of them (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y, to quote from elementary school English class) and they all sound different.  From this woman, they all sound the same.  The real rant is this.  She is not unique.  Most Americans are extremely careless with their speech.

Back to my red head.  She asks the question that goes something like, “Think you can’t get fast internet service because of where you live?”  Then, the clincher.  “Don’t buh-lieve it.”  Buh-lieve?  Is that anything like believe?  Then, to ad insult to injury, she moves on to, “Hughes Net duh-livers”.  Frankly, I would prefer that a vender “deliver”.  What’s “duh-liver”?  Duh liver and bacon I would refuse to eat if it ever appeared on my dinner plate?  I’ve heard this ad so many times, with its lousy pronunciation, that my ears hurt.

Then there is the word “immediately”.  Very useful, heavily used word.  Listen for it in speech, from everyone.  Then, note how frequently the word is pronounced “ah-mediately”.  My very unscientific and frustrated observation has the percentage at 90.  90% of the time, the word is mispronounced.

I will accept this sort of mispronunciation only in humor.  Thank goodness for Scott Adams and his well-loved characters Dilbert and Dogbert.  They speak of “in-duh-viduals”.  In other words, idiots.


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You’re at the starting gate – Are your employees with you?

This is the time of year when we all try to take stock of where we are and plan for an even better year this year.  I think it’s also a great time to make sure your employees are primed and motivated to charge forward with you.  Are they?  Spend some time and effort on management and HR chores to ensure your team is chomping at the bit, too.

Many of us in small business are new to people management and not terribly comfortable with it.  Take heart.  Even if management doesn’t come easily or naturally to you, it is possible to learn.  The rewards are well worth it.  In any business, regardless of size, your greatest asset is not on your balance sheet.  It’s your people.  Imagine how much more you can accomplish this year with a skilled, dedicated, motivated team at your side.

The beginning of a new year is a good time to evaluate your employees and set new performance goals for the future.  People need to know how they have done in the past and what is expected of them in future.  They also need direction.  That direction should come from the top.  Communication is key.  Make sure your employees are aware of your vision for the business and how you plan to get there.  Let them know what their role in this success is and how important they are to the overall success of the company.

Start by sitting down with each employee and discussing his/her performance.  Let him/her know what was done well and where you expect improvement.  As a new manager myself, I found it very difficult to confront a poorly performing employee.  No one likes confrontation.  I got over the hump by realizing that I would do my employees a serious disservice if I didn’t let them know what they were doing wrong and give them a chance to fix it.  When doing an employee evaluation, I prepare in advance so I am clear in what I want to convey.  Then, I always start with the good news – what he/she has done well – before going into what I expect in terms of improvement.  When performance issues are more serious, I convey clear expectations with specific dates attached for improvement and reevaluation.  Be direct, honest, and very clear.  It is possible to do so without being mean or nasty.  Your employees will appreciate it. 

Employee performance planning, development and evaluation will work best if it is a regular activity.  Develop a schedule and system that works for you and make sure all employees are aware of it.  Use the system and communicate regularly with your employees.  The process will help make it easier for all concerned.

As the year progresses, take time to celebrate successes.  It will help keep your team on track and motivated.  Besides, everyone appreciates an atta-boy or atta-girl now and then.  Have some fun with it, if appropriate, with contests and awards.  Make sure your employees feel appreciated and that their efforts make a difference.  It will make a difference in your business.

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What color is the hat? How to tell the good guys from the bad

In the old time western movies, Hollywood was pretty obvious in presenting good versus bad guys, heroes versus crooks.  Subtlety was never their strong suit.  The good guys almost always wore white hats, nice clean white hats to boot.  The bad guys wore black hats, usually dusty and sweat stained to go along with the dirty-looking stubble on their faces.

Nowadays, the job of figuring out who’s good and who’s not is a lot tougher.  And it remains very important, especially for the small business owner relying  on a small staff as well as critical outside resources.  I believe the ability to determine who is truly acting in your best interests can make or break a business.  Even if your business isn’t broken, it can be dealt a pretty heavy blow by an error in people judgement.

So how do you tell?  Here are a few thoughts.

What is their attitude?  This is something to watch over time.  Few people can fake it long term.  Is the person really helping you and your business, or mostly helping themselves?

Especially for an outside resource – CPA, attorney, consultant – are they telling you the truth or just what you want to hear?  If you step back and really think about it with an open mind, this may become more clear.  Notice how other members of your staff and outside advisory team react to the person.  Sometimes a brown noser is blatantly obvious to all but the principal.

For a consultant, is the person selling a product while charging for advice?  It’s fine to sell a product that will meet a client’s need, but it’s a conflict of interest to charge for your expert advice then collect a commission for the product you just recommended.

What do you do if you are impacted by a bad guy masquerading as a guy with a white hat?  Analyze the situation, determine where you went wrong in your choice, and learn from the experience.  And don’t make the mistake of painting all other people with the same broad brush.  We had the experience of talking to a potential client once who informed us, “I hired two consultants once and they both lied to me.  All consultants are liars.”  Needless to say, we didn’t get the client and he badly needed what we had to offer.  There are lots of excellent and ethical professionals out there.  Don’t cut yourself off from needed assistance.  Just do a better job of selecting it. 

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Happy New Year! Ready to hit the ground running?

It’s January 2, 2008!  The crystal ball in New York has dropped, the fireworks have exploded from the Space Needle (at least some of them), the champagne has been drunk and Auld Lang Syne sung.  We’ve had a day to recover from the late night and celebratory excess while watching more football than I thought possible.  (Go Blue!  Finally, my team wins a bowl game, not for the Gipper, but for outgoing head coach Lloyd Carr.  This U of M alumnus is happy today!)

 Now, it’s back to work - the first work day of a brand new year that’s never been touched.  How’s your attitude?  Starting the day with a groan or with a sense of excited anticipation?  I for one vote for looking forward, rather than back.  The best way to do that is to have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish with your business in the new year.  Yes, it’s time for that annual rite of January, strategic planning.

 We are devoting our first working day of the new year to our planning effort.  January is a busy month for us, so making the commitment of an entire day for planning isn’t easy.  However, it is essential!  The most productive time of the year in my experience is the first half, before we are beguiled by warm summer days, children out of school, and just general laziness.  We absolutely don’t want to waste it!

Today, we are trying to accomplish the following:

  • Review and validate our vision for our business.
  • Determine our business goals for 2008 and make sure they support our vision.
  • Develop action plans for each goal.

 It is an ambitious plan for a single day, but we are primed!  To make forward progress, you need to establish a destination, determine a course, then set out on your journey with purpose.   Based on many years of experience, we still firmly believe that, without these important steps, you will just spin your wheels and travel in circles.  With a goal, a plan, and purposeful action, you stand a much greater chance of achieving success.

Let the planning commence!

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Can you – like – speak without saying “like”?

The word cop is back today.  This time, I would like to speak more seriously to the many young people out there who are just entering the work force or preparing to do so soon.  So many of them can’t seem to speak without inserting the word “like” every second or third word they utter.  Then, there is the constant overuse and misuse of the word “go”.  Call me picky, but I thought the word to indicate something uttered verbally was “say”, not “go”.

Yes, this is a major beef I have.  It irritates me no end.  My larger concern, however, is the effect this type of speech can have on the careers of our young people.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think slang is a wonderful thing.  It is fascinating, colorful, and conveys incredible meaning to one’s peers.  Therein lies part of the issue.  Every human group has its own special terminology, allowing them to communicate in ways that say, “I am a member here.  I belong.”  There is comfort in this, especially for adolescents for whom the only sin is to be different.  (You might ask how I know this, but that’s another blog entry.)  However, it’s a big world out there and you can’t exist, or make a living, totally within your own little group.

My recommendation to young people preparing to make their own way in the world is this.  Use and enjoy your slang, but make sure you can speak well in standard, correct English, too.  Cultivate the ability to turn the slang off at will, so you can make the very best impression on potential employers, colleagues, and customers.  You will have a far greater chance of success if you master the art of communication, both written and spoken, in correct modern English.

Let’s make sure we can prove Professor Higgins, of My Fair Lady fame, wrong when he sings, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”  A ways into the song he asks, “Why can’t they set a good example, for people who’s English is painful to your ears?  The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.  There even are places where English completely disappears.  Why in America they haven’t used it in years!”

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Crucifying the English Language – time for the word cop!

I confess, I was raised by an English teacher.  I am also an avid reader and writer.  English is a magnificent language, full of rich words that allow us to express ourselves in countless ways and at every emotional level.  I love it and use it with pleasure every day.  I don’t claim to write or speak with absolutely perfect English, but I am struck by how poorly so many of my fellow professionals write and speak.  Some of the errors just grate on me!  So today I am initiating a new category on my blog – Words @ Work.  This is my vehicle for rants and raves on current English use and abuse. 

 I will start with one I hear primarily from the news media.  That expression is “went missing”.  What happened to “disappeared”?  Or “vanished”?  I am not even sure if correct English “went missing” here.  It may be a correct usage, but I hate it!

 Let me move on to another gem.  I don’t know about you, but I “graduated from” high school, as well as college.  I did not “graduate high school”.  Is this a West Coast thing?  I don’t recall hearing this when I lived east of the Mississippi.

 Here’s another one I hear far too frequently from the English-challenged TV media.  There is a distinct difference between “cache” and “cachet”.  “Cache” (pronounced like “cash”) is a hiding place or stash, such as an emergency food “cache”.  “Cachet” (pronounced “cash-AY”) denotes superior status or prestige.  “The job had a certain cachet” is an example I found in an online dictionary.  Listen to your daily dose of TV news and I’ll bet you can catch many examples of confusion with these words, over pronunciation, meaning, or both.

 Enough from me today.  What are your pet English peeves?  Please share them!

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