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Two Simple Ways to Make Your Next Meeting More Productive

October 21st, 2015

2136AA314EAre you a Risk Manager or Opportunity Seeker?

Knowing the difference can have a significant impact on your meeting outcomes. Early in my career, I worked for a global consulting firm. I vividly remember one of the first meetings to discuss a new initiative that I had been assigned to spearhead. I laid out the opportunities, expecting an animated exchange. What transpired instead was a detailed discussion of the possible implementation challenges.

That meeting was a Eureka moment in my career. I had approached the meeting as an opportunity seeker, while most of my colleagues had approached it as risk managers.

Since that time, I’ve seen countless examples of meetings that have gone awry because of similar opportunity/risk miscalculations. Chances are you’ve experienced a few yourself. Why does it happen? Most people have a dominant mindset along the spectrum of opportunity seeker to risk manager, and will frame their meeting participation according to that mindset. What’s the difference? These two comments illustrate the distinctions:

Risk Manager: “We must make sure that the trains run on time.”

Opportunity Seeker: “Why does it have to be a train?”

A Meeting of the Mindsets

There’s nothing wrong with either point of view. Each mindset is valuable in developing an idea, project or initiative. The key is to find a balance that allows both ideas to be explored and challenges to be uncovered. How do you give risk managers permission to think in terms of possibilities, and encourage opportunity seekers to consider the downsides? Here are two simple ways.

Ideal Scenario: Begin by discussing the ideal scenario. Ask each participant to describe the ideal scenario for the idea, project, or initiative, from his or her point of view.  Remind everyone to focus comments exclusively on the ideal scenario.

Pre-Mortem: After you have documented the ideal scenario, shift gears using a technique developed by James Macanufo. Fast forward your idea, project or initiative into the in future (next year, end of next quarter, next month).  What could go wrong? Ask everyone to focus discussion on aspects of the idea, project tor initiative that might not go as planned.

Spend the remainder of your meeting identifying steps and processes for implementation that maximize the opportunity and limit the risks.

Opportunity seekers and risk managers both bring useful skills to the table. When you balance their perspectives, the result is a meeting of complimentary mindsets.

The Most Powerful Time Management Question You’ll Ever Ask

September 29th, 2015

clockSusan is a business owner who loves to innovate.

She generally makes good business decisions, except when she’s under pressure. A week before the most important trade show of the year, Susan decided to create a holiday-themed video. She spent several 20-hour days working on the video, pulling staff away from important show preparation.

At the trade show, the video got only passing glances from attendees. Susan was too exhausted to work the company’s booth effectively and hadn’t prepared her staff to step into her role. The company’s show orders decreased 30 percent from the previous year.

Maybe you’ve been in Susan’s shoes. You have a significant project to complete, a month-end quota to meet or a looming deadline. Just thinking about the work overwhelms you, and your knee-jerk reaction is to focus on something else – anything else. The decision you make in that moment will move your business forward, or set it back.

You can break this bad-decision cycle with one simple question:

What is the best use of my time right now?

Here are three simple ways to manage your time for the results you want.

Reviewing Your Goals

Write down your goals in an easily accessible format. Two options are to store them on a mobile device or keep them on a card in your wallet. As you review your goals, ask yourself: What is the best use of my time right now? Identify actions that will move you toward your goals.

Setting Your Daily To-Do List

Chances are that the tasks on your daily to do list exceed the time you have to accomplish them. Start by categorizing your list by:

  • Tasks that maintain your current business
  • Tasks that grow your business
  • Tasks that simplify your business

Review the tasks in each of these categories and ask: What is the best use of my time today in each of these categories? Then select the most important items for the day.

Using the Gaps in Your Schedule

Every business day has schedule gaps. Some are intentional windows of time between meetings; others take shape due to cancellations or unexpected adjustments. Examine how are you using those gaps in your schedule, and ask yourself again: What is the best use of my time right now?

Fifteen minutes between meetings can be a coffee run, or a time to connect with a high-value customer. Having lunch with a friend could be time better spent having lunch with a new business contact. That 40-minute task could be halfway to completion in 20 minutes

Deciding to take action is not the issue. Deciding to spend your time wisely is. Using this simple, powerful question on a daily basis can help you manage your time for results.

The ABCs of Always Be Closing

August 18th, 2015

Closing isn’t just for the final stage of the sales process. ABC

 

Early in my career, I landed a meeting with the CEO of a prospect company. When I arrived for the meeting, the CEO’s assistant told me that the CEO had been called out of the office, and that if she wanted to reschedule, she’d contact me. I had committed to the meeting, but I hadn’t closed the CEO’s commitment. It was a tough and valuable lesson.

ABC – Always Be Closing, the sales mantra of Alec Baldwin’s hardball character in the film “Glengarry Glen Ross,” doesn’t have to be aggressive. Always Be Closing is a mutually beneficial way to confirm buyer commitment. No matter where you are in the sales and buying process, continually and respectfully confirming your prospect’s commitment is smart and proactive. Here are two examples.

Setting Your First Meeting

A first meeting should be focused on learning about your prospect’s business needs and issues, and determining if there’s a fit with your products or services. Be candid with your prospect and yourself. Make sure that your prospect is willing to invest the time needed for a productive meeting. Confirm your prospect’s commitment through questions such as:

  • Is there anything before or after that hour that affects your availability?
  • Is this date soft-circled for our meeting, or is it a confirmed date?

If your prospect waivers on a date and time, ask: Is he genuinely interested in resolving his business needs and issues? A “no” at this point may be disappointing, but it saves your time and effort for qualified prospects.

The Signal that You’ve Missed Something

The definition of a successful meeting with a prospect is a clear next step. Many salespeople focus on describing their own next steps, such as, “I’ll send you those specs” or “I’ll call you next week.” Focus instead on confirming your prospect’s commitment by asking:

  • What do you see as the next step?
  • Is there anything we’ve discussed that can prevent you from moving forward?

Never leave a meeting with “I’ll think about it” as your prospect’s next step. It’s a sign that you missed something. Follow up with questions that address the gap:

  • I honestly thought I clarified your questions and concerns, and I’m wondering: what exactly didn’t we cover? What information do you need? What questions do you still have?

Give your prospect time to respond, even if that means a long silence. You’ll uncover information that will help you to determine the next steps – or if the next steps are worth taking.

The sooner you intentionally apply ABC throughout the sales and buying process, the more time you’ll spend with people who have a true interest in your product or service.

 

Letting Go: Delegating for Business Growth

May 28th, 2015

Ann started her company from her dining room table fifteen years ago, and gradually grew it into a nationally recognized brand in a specialty market. Like most business owners, she wore many hats in the early years. She wanted to grow the company and knew it was time to stop doing everything herself.  Ann learned how to delegate the hard way – by not getting the results she wanted.

Ann announced to her team that she was only going to focus on the activities that she enjoyed: managing the company’s social media presence and creating new products. She told them to figure out how to deal with “everything else.” Within a few weeks, Ann was inundated with questions from her team on everything from how to deal with distributor relationships and customer fulfillment issues, to partnership opportunities and production adjustments. 

Here’s what Ann learned about delegating for business growth.

Don’t Delegate by Default

Ann defined her own responsibilities without clarifying her team’s responsibilities. Before you delegate, ask yourself what you expect your team to do, as well as what you intend to do.

Let Go of the Right Things

Ann decided to focus only on what she enjoyed doing, but letting go of what she didn’t like doing may not grow her business. It’s a fact of business ownership – doing what you like to do is sometimes different from doing what you need to do. You can explore your own want to/need to activities with these questions:

  • What do I enjoy doing most?
  • What activities do I need to do myself, and why do I need to do them?
  • What activities do I need to be kept informed about, and what information do I need to stay informed?

Delegate to the Right People

Ann didn’t match specific activities with specific team members’ strengths. Assigning additional work to a team won’t compensate for a lack of specific skills or expertise. If you don’t have the right people on your team, delegating for growth requires hiring or outsourcing.

Delegate Authority and Accountability

Because Ann didn’t specify what “everything else” meant, her team brought everything back to her for resolution. Effective delegation requires three elements:

  • Assigning specific activities to specific team members
  • Empowering them to make specific decisions
  • Clarifying what results they are expected to achieve and how to keep you informed

When you’ve built your business from scratch, delegating can feel strange and uncomfortable at first.  You can make it easier by applying Ann’s lessons before you delegate for growth.

Networking for Meaningful Business Relationships: Three Questions to Avoid

March 3rd, 2015

It happens all the time at networking events: someone asks a question that is awkward to answer.

At one such event, I was standing in a semicircle getting acquainted with three other attendees. After I introduced myself, a person in the semicircle asked me,

“What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?”

Three sets of eyes fixed their gaze on me, waiting for my answer.

Every networking situation has a context, and if you’ve ever engaged in small talk with business people you are meeting for the first time, the questions you ask and answer depend on the context. For example, the kind of exchange you might have with someone you’ll probably never see again while waiting for your flight at an airport terminal is very different from the exchange you might have at a business networking event.

How do you establish a meaningful connection in a business context, often in five minutes or less? First, be aware of three types of questions to avoid.

Personal or Private Questions// “What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?” is a relevant question for a salesperson to ask a prospect, but only after establishing a connection and developing a relationship of trust. The question is out of context in a first, informal meeting with someone you’ve never met before. People like to connect with people who bring out the best in themselves and in others. “How did you get started in the industry?” is a context-appropriate option that fosters a connection.

Yes/No Questions// Networking questions build rapport by building momentum into a conversation. Asking yes/no questions is like trying to play tennis in a padded room – it absorbs all the forward movement your exchange. If you’re asking questions that begin with do/does or is/are, reframe them as what, where or how questions.

Why Questions// In a first meeting, your goal is to find common ground. Why questions can seem judgmental, or imply that there’s a right or wrong answer. Don’t risk putting a new contact on the defensive. Like yes/no questions, why questions can often be reframed as what, where or how questions. For example, “Did you like the speaker? Why?” could be reframed as, “What are your thoughts about the program?”

In addition to being intentional with your questions, be intentional with your answers. When you’re faced with an out-of-context question, answer it with a context-appropriate question. My answer to the question about the two biggest issues I face in my business:

“That’s an interesting question. What I love about my business is helping clients find new revenue streams. I’m curious – what do you enjoy most about your work?”

You have only a few minutes to establish a connection. Make that time meaningful by matching your networking questions to the context.

Growing Your Business? January is Get Real Month

January 21st, 2015

It’s claimed as Hot Tea month, Hobby month, and even Divorce month. I think of January as Get Real month. It’s time for reviewing your business behaviors. What’s moving you forward? What’s holding you back? Here are three behaviors that top the list:

I’m Not Wired to Sit at a Desk: Some business owners will do anything to evade think time. They’re great at networking and generating ideas. When it comes to thinking through the implementation, they are equally adept at evasion tactics.

I Put Out Fires: I once worked for a boss who felt most productive when putting out fires. When his company was operating smoothly, he would create a crisis that he could step in and resolve. Constantly dealing with crises prevents you from thinking about your business.

I Have to Do It Myself: These business owners are overwhelmed with daily decisions and tasks that others should be doing. Every business owner must eventually face the operational consequences of growth: you can’t continue to make decisions or execute on every detail of your business.

If you recognize these behaviors in yourself, maybe it’s time to get real.

First, make and keep a recurring weekly appointment with yourself to think about what’s happening in your business and prioritize your activities. Figure out which day and time of day you feel most focused and open to stepping away from the daily details and claim that time as your own. Consider choosing a non-office location for your appointment if interruptions or distractions are an issue. Make certain that you’re not substituting office interruptions for distractions in another location.

During your appointment, keep your business goals, opportunities and issues visible. Reviewing a standard list of questions at each meeting can help you to focus.

Business Changes

What needs to change in my business?

Who or what resources do I have to make this change/who are my best change agents?

Whom do I know who can help with this?

Which of m y current activities need to change?

Opportunities and Issues

What can be done right now to help to resolve this issue/leverage this opportunity?

Who can take this action?

What is the most productive use of my time?

What were the top three things I did last week?

How do these things contribute to my business goals and opportunities?

Priorities and Productivity

What percentage of my time did I spend on those things?

What were the least important things I did in the last week?

How could I have deferred or delegated those things?

Then ask yourself the same questions for the coming week.

The most important appointment you can keep is the one you make with yourself. Get Real in January, and you’ll see results in 2015.

Are You Defying Gravity? Newton’s Law for Salespeople

November 4th, 2014

“Gravity. It Isn’t Just a Good Idea. It’s the Law.”

Gerry Mooney coined this tagline in 1977 and immortalized it on his cult-classic poster of an apple bouncing off Sir Isaac Newton’s head.

The law of gravity applies to sales just as much as it does to apples falling from a tree. Like gravity, an effective sales approach is a force of attraction – it draws prospects to your product or service. Unless you defy the law. Here’s an example from a mail piece I received recently.

The letter was from a financial advisor I don’t know. Inside the envelope was an informational piece about asset allocation in a financial portfolio. The advisor’s photo and contact information were printed on the piece, and next to his photo the advisor had written: “Congratulations on your award. I thought this article might interest you. I will follow up next week.”

This advisor deserves credit for proactively seeking out prospects, but his approach failed. In sales, as in physics, you can’t defy gravity: it’s the law. Here are three simple adjustments to turn a gravity-defying attempt at prospecting into a force of attraction.

Have a Clear Purpose: A handwritten note of congratulations is a considerate touch and an effective opener. The advisor’s note just didn’t have any connection to the asset allocation piece, and the piece had no connection to me. The communication lost its force of attraction. A simple card or separate note of congratulations would have been more effective as an initial approach.

Be Helpful: The advisor doesn’t know me or anything about my interests. What made him think the asset allocation piece would interest me? Do your homework and find out about the prospect and his/her company, and don’t push too much information too soon. A relationship-building approach might be, “As you explore financial options as a business owner, I’d be happy to be an information resource for you.”

Communicate a Meaningful Follow-up Plan: The advisor’s note said, “I will follow up next week.” Follow up on what? Open the door to getting acquainted with a local prospect by requesting a time to introduce yourself informally and in person. If your prospect is involved in a local chamber of commerce, professional association or civic group, suggest meeting and introducing yourself to your prospect at an upcoming meeting. It’s a low-key way to establish a connection.

Gravity always pulls; it never pushes. If your sales approach is pushy, you’re defying gravity. Use the law to your advantage, then watch the impact it has on your sales.

Find a Way to Win: Focus on the Preferences that Matter

October 15th, 2014

Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas made two stellar catches in game three of the American League Championship Series, including a deep dive into the dugout suite. In a post-game interview, Moustakas was asked about the team’s strategy for game four. “Just find a way to win,” he simply said.

His “find a way” attitude reminded me of a business owner who did. A few years ago, I frequented a Vietnamese restaurant near a client’s office. My client and I met there so often that we had a regular table, a standing order and Tuan, the owner, greeted us by name.

The restaurant had opened about a year earlier and I came to see it as a midday haven from multitasking. No adrenaline rush here. We and the handful of other regular diners found ourselves speaking almost in whispers, not wanting to disrupt the peaceful environment. 

My client and I left Tuan’s place after each lunch with the same reflections: how much we liked the restaurant and Tuan, how worried we were that if his business didn’t pick up we might be looking for a new lunch spot, what a shame that would be. 

One day during lunch at Tuan’s, I noticed that the restaurant’s vibe seemed different. The décor and food were unchanged but the dining areas were buzzing.

Nearly every booth and table was occupied. The clientele was a mix of hip young professionals, students and seasoned business types engaged in audible, animated conversation.

I noticed that Tuan had made two changes in his operation. He had installed a fixed-price noodle bar which was constantly ringed with diners. Gone was the Vietnamese background music, replaced with Anglo rock. Those relatively minor changes had clearly made a big difference in his results.

I was happy for Tuan that business was good although part of me missed the way things used to be. When he stopped at our table to thank us for coming in, I congratulated him. He didn’t seem like the rock music type and so I asked him if he missed his Vietnamese music. Palms up, he shrugged and smiled his gracious smile. “Same one, same the other,” he said. “People like it, so I changed.”

Spoken like a true entrepreneur. Determined to thrive, Tuan took his cues from his customers and made two plays that increased his lunch business. The original restaurant culture he had created was familiar and comfortable for him, but when it didn’t work for his customers, he took the dive and adapted.

Being humble and open are attributes of both successful sports teams and successful businesses. Business owners can become so focused on their personal preferences that they overlook their customer’s preferences. Tuan found a way to win: be flexible and focus on the preferences that matter – your customer’s.

Would You Hire This Person?

October 2nd, 2014

I recently led a whiteboard session at Summit Technology Academy. This forward-thinking high school accelerator is a national model for providing pre-professional, college-level coursework for students interested in science and technology-related careers.

The session was like many productive whiteboard sessions – a sometimes messy, muddy, process. Getting to clear outcomes requires asking crystal-clear questions – and answering those questions with honesty.

During a break in the session, I took a walk through the hallways to incubate my questions. As I turned around a corner, I came face to face with myself.

A full-length mirror was mounted on the wall. Above it was the question: Would you hire this person?

Well, there’s a crystal-clear question. Most of us have thought about that question when it pertains to someone else. The students that call the Academy home pass by that mirror on a daily basis, and are challenged to answer it for themselves. How would you look at yourself from an external point of view and answer that question from an internal point of view?

It’s about more than just what you’re wearing. It’s the intangibles that the mirror challenges you to confront. Do you project the confidence and determination to do what it takes? Does that show in your expression? Your demeanor?  Can you look yourself in the eye and honestly answer, “Yes, I would hire myself?”  If you honestly answer no, what could you change? How could you develop those intangibles? 

Beyond the job interview, every business interaction is an opportunity to be hired. Lunch with a colleague, a sales presentation, informal networking over coffee or a department meeting – all of these interactions give everyone you meet a full view of what you bring to the table. If you take an honest, full- view look at yourself and challenge yourself to answer “yes,” you just might bring more to the table and get better results.

Take a look in your mirror today and ask yourself: “Would you hire this person?

 

Strategy: What the Greeks Knew

September 19th, 2014

The Greeks knew it. The Trojans learned the hard way. From its political and military origins thousands of years ago through the current business climate, strategy – how to develop it, execute it, out-position your competition with it, achieve results with it – is essential to business success. Results matter more than ever to business owners and company leaders, who expect more from the strategy development process than a plan in a binder.

Ask yourself or your team about strategy, and you’re likely to uncover long-held assumptions about the process. Here are two of them:

Assumption #1:  Strategic planning is a logical, intellectual exercise. True, the strategy development process is partly logic-driven, and it’s also very much colored by emotions. Strategic planning involves people – individuals and teams who have a stake in the outcomes. Some may initially see the process in terms of an evaluation of their performance, as a challenge to the ways they’ve become accustomed to working, or as a change that alters how their value to the company is perceived.

The variations on these perceptions are as numerous as the people who hold them. When emotion-based perceptions are not acknowledged, the collaborative benefits and outcomes of strategic planning suffer. Participants can become defensive and competitive. The process can be compromised by hidden agenda, or take on a tone of risk management. These unintended consequences are avoidable. Leaders that recognize and accept strategic planning as a non-linear, often emotional process can make a significant difference in the outcomes.

Assumption #2:  Classic strategic planning is the only valid approach. Classic strategic planning emerged in the 1950’s. Assessment and analytical tools such as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) evolved during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The classic approach can be effective. It’s also one of many approaches. I sat down recently with a company president to discuss his company’s upcoming planning retreat.  When I suggested that the company could consider a range of options in addition to a classic approach, he visibly relaxed and commented, “I didn’t realize we could do this in other ways.” 

The optimal approach and tools for your company depend upon a range of factors – your current business situation and market position, the personalities involved and your expected outcomes from the process. Exploring a range of approaches to strategy development can be energizing, especially if you aren’t aware that you have options. You do.

Strategic planning is big thinking about the big picture. And it’s only part of the story. Developing and implementing strategy also takes continual refocusing on the intended outcomes. Refocusing doesn’t end with the retreat, the whiteboard diagrams and the carefully bound document. It’s an ongoing and constantly evolving process. As the Greeks knew.