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Opportunity Doesn’t Always Knock

August 21st, 2014

Don’t let it slip away from your business

In the 1970’s a friend of mine was in graduate school on the East Coast. 

One weekend, his church’s pastor invited him to stop by and meet a visitor who was serving her vocation in India. Bill was busy and never quite found the time to stop by that weekend. Years later, he discovered that the visitor he had been too busy to meet was Mother Teresa.

It’s a testament to Bill’s character that he still tells that story of a missed opportunity. And there are business parallels in his experience.

If you’re a business owner, sometimes opportunity knocks on the door – in the form of an idea, a connection that gets made, a realization that you need to focus on a strategy or process. Listening to that knock on the door can change everything. But opportunity doesn’t always knock. Sometimes it just slips in and waits expectantly for you to notice, ask questions and commit to working on your business instead of in it.

When you read a survey on sales trends in your industry, and you don’t explore your own numbers and practices, you let opportunity slip away.

When you set growth goals for your business and don’t develop a plan to achieve them or measure your progress along the way, you let opportunity slip away.

When you turn down a meeting that could lead to new insights and contacts, you let opportunity slip away.

Opportunity doesn’t always knock. When we don’t notice opportunity, it just slips away, perhaps to visit a competitor.

Maybe it’s time to take a look around your business and see whether opportunity has slipped in – or away.


Leadership Secrets of Toys

May 16th, 2014

Ever notice how many books promise to reveal secrets?

I started collecting leadership books when I was in graduate school and I’ve been intrigued by them ever since. The first I acquired was “A Book of Five Rings”, on the leadership secrets of samurai warriors, followed by “There’s a Customer Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum’s Secrets to Business Success.” Two of my favorites are “Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun”, and “The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus” (Santa and Atilla apparently did not exchange secrets with one another).

When my niece was a toddler and my sister asked me to watch her for a few hours, I would generally take my newest leadership secrets book to scan between talking and playing. During one of those babysitting sessions I was mulling over a problem I was having in my work and I was too districted to peruse my newest book, “Make it So: Leadership Secrets of Star Trek the Next Generation.” I had been thinking about the problem for a few days and didn’t see any good options for solving it.

My niece was engaged in one of those sing-song dialogues that 3-year-olds have, partly with themselves and partly with an imaginary playmate. She was surrounded by her toys and one of them caught my attention. I knew that if I showed interest in that toy, she would decide that she wanted it. So I gingerly said, “Um, can I look at that?” She had obviously read The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, but after a few minutes she went back to her dialogue and I settled back on the couch with the toy.

It was a kaleidoscope.

An inexpensive, low-tech toy with bits of plastic inside a rotating cylinder. I started turning the kaleidoscope and as the patterns changed – same bits – different perspective – it occurred to me that the secret to solving my work problem wasn’t “out there.” All I needed to do was shift my perspective. I thought about my colleagues and how each of them might view the problem, and soon I had several possible solutions.

No matter how sure you are that your point of view is right, sometimes you need a reminder that your perspective is one of many possibilities. Ever thought or said, “That’s not the right way”, or “That’s not how I’d do it”? It’s at those moments that you most need to turn the kaleidoscope in your mind and see things from another point of view.

I keep a kaleidoscope on my desk to remind myself of that fact every day. When I become too fixed in my thinking or no longer believe there’s more than one action to take, I give the kaleidoscope a turn or two. The secret to solving problems isn’t in a book. It’s in changing our perspectives.


Thirty-Second Sales Catalyst

April 15th, 2014

A small change can make a big difference in your results

I recently sold newspapers on a high-traffic intersection during the Friday morning commuter rush – not for necessity or novelty, but for charity.

My Rotary club volunteers at this intersection every year on opening day for the Kansas City Royals, to “sell” papers in exchange for donations for children’s charities. It’s always cold and it can be a long two hours. To pass the time, I considered ways to maximize my newspaper sales.

At peak rush hour, traffic lights are red for about 30 seconds, with three lanes of 4 to 6 cars stopped per red light. I was averaging one or two donations per stop, with an average donation of 2 or 3 dollars per newspaper.

I watched how my colleagues on the intersection were handling the papers, which were pre-folded in half, and had a full-color front page. One person held the paper above his head in his right hand, and held half a dozen additional papers tight against his left side. Another person folded the paper into a quarter-page size and waved it at specific drivers.

What could I do differently?

I imagined myself in the driver’s seat of a passing car. What would I see most easily from behind the wheel? Would I look up and over the head of someone standing on the side of the street?

Probably not, I decided. If I were a driver, I would look at eye level to the left or right. I decided to try holding my papers with the front page headline facing the traffic at driver’s eye level – my standing hip level. I also decided to make eye contact with each driver, just for a second or two. 

The result?

Based on two simple changes, I increased my donations by at least 33 percent and doubled or tripled the average dollar value of each donation.  I averaged 2 to 3 donations per thirty-second stop light. Donations jumped from 2 to 3 dollars to 5 to 10 dollars per newspaper from approachable, friendly drivers.

Whether your sales venue is a busy intersection, a website or the C-suite, these take-aways apply:

  • Be willing to analyze one of your sales activities and focus on small improvements
  • Watch how others are handling the same activity and explore ways to do it differently
  • Put yourself in your prospect’s seat
  • Experiment by making one or two small adjustments
  • Measure the impact in outcomes– number of sales, value of sales and new relationships

Think about one of your sales activities.  What can you do differently? A small change just might be the catalyst for a big difference in your results.

Ride For Your Brand

March 18th, 2014

A Business Tip from the Cowboy Playbook

James Owens’ book, Cowboy Ethics” (www.cowboyethics.com), points out that cowboys seem to be an undisciplined breed, but for more than a century they have lived by an immutable set of guidelines – the Code of the West. If you want to be a cowboy, you have to live by the Code.

The Code includes “riding for the brand” – in Owens’ terms, “giving allegiance and respect to the brand, where they are deserved and returned.” Owens, a 35-year Wall Street veteran, points out that what’s good for the cowboy is good for Wall Street, and for other industries as well.

I frequently give and get business referrals and I recently saw how Owens’ perspectives apply to business leaders.  A company CEO mentioned one of his service providers to me that could be helpful to my company. He specifically mentioned Jake, a young associate with the provider, and gave me Jake’s contact information. I sent Jake an email mentioning our mutual business contact and requesting a time to discuss my business need.  Jake replied, “I’m really busy, but you can try to call my cell phone if you want.”

Apparently, Jake wasn’t interested in pursuing a warm lead. Did this service provider have enough business already, or was Jake just too busy to care?

The next morning, I received an email from Jake, inviting me to connect on a social networking site.  Part of me admired his outlaw audacity. Here was a guy who was too busy to talk to me about my business. Yet he had time to ask for my connections to people that I trust and respect without showing me the same.

Most business leaders would ignore the invitation to connect and move on by doing business with someone else. Or they’d tell others about their experience, reinforcing a negative perception of the offender’s brand. What if they borrowed from the cowboy playbook? What if business leaders viewed situations like these as opportunities to ride for their own brands?

I sent back the following reply: “Jake, I received your invitation to connect online; thanks very much. I hope you understand that since we haven’t met or spoken yet, I’ll defer acceptance until after we’ve gotten to know one another. If you’d like to do business with me, you’re welcome to give me a call this afternoon.”

That afternoon I got a call, an apology – and great service. Jake gained a customer that he treats with respect; I’ve gained yet another business connection that speaks well of me and my company in the marketplace. Like cowboys who honor the Code and ride for their brands, business leaders need stand up for theirs, even and maybe especially when others don’t.  When you ride for your brand, what might have been rough terrain can become fertile grazing.

Lesson from the Olympics: Make the Most of A Penguin Slide

February 13th, 2014

I am part of the bi-annual social tribe that can’t get enough of the sporting triumphs and letdowns called the Olympics. Like every Olympics, the news from Sochi covers not only the competitive events, but also the lifestyle sacrifices that athletes have made in dedication to their sport.

Olympic coverage and commentary is filed with metaphors, secrets and lessons for business from the back stories of Olympians, and this column isn’t one of them.

The incident that caught my eye was a real-time penguin slide.

Devin Logan had a solid first run in the women’s ski slopestyle event. The effort was enough for a medal, but not enough for gold. What looked like a strong second run might have changed the medal standings for Logan, until her final jump. Logan landed off-balance, fell forward, and raced to the finish line on her stomach, skis uplifted and crossed behind her. Logan did a penguin slide – the skiing equivalent to a belly flop.

It wasn’t this dramatic setback that impressed me. It was Logan’s attitude after her penguin slide finish. Even through a helmet, goggles and a face full of snow, she stood up laughing, raised her arms and hopped like a gymnast sticking the landing of a pommel horse dismount. She laughed, and the world laughed along with her. 

British philosopher James Allen noted that “circumstances do not make a man; they reveal him.” That penguin slide revealed volumes about Devin Logan.

No coulda-shoulda-woulda blaming about a run gone awry and the loss of a gold medal. Just good-humored, total acceptance of her best effort at that point in time. Logan may be remembered for her very human connection with Olympic viewers long after her silver medal accomplishments have been celebrated. 

Whether you’re in sales, leading a business or managing a project, that penguin slide is an Olympic-sized take-away. Savor those preparation-backed, medal-worthy moments when you deliver a product, service or outcome that exceeds expectations. If your effort turns into a penguin slide, remember that it’s one point in time. And that circumstances don’t make you; they reveal you. 

David Bowie and the Power of Clean-Slate Thinking

May 29th, 2013

I was in London with a client a few weeks ago and managed to squeeze in a museum visit between the meetings and the jet lag. The venerable grand dame of decorative arts, the Victoria and Albert Museum, was featuring a much-hyped, 300-artifact exhibit on David Bowie. I have to admit I’ve never been a huge Bowie fan, but I was curious. I assumed I’d see Bowie’s flashy costumes for Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom, but I was not prepared for the astute business strategy behind the spacesuits and performance art.

David Bowie was unafraid to clean the slate and reinvent himself.

While I’m not suggesting a glitter jumpsuit will jump-start your sales, there’s more than one takeaway for business owners from Bowie’s clean-slate thinking. Here are three gems:

Take control of your brand: Brand control was a lesson Bowie learned in his first job. Before he started performing, Bowie worked in a London ad agency, which had a career-long impact on him. For the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit, Bowie personally selected the images used for merchandising and authorized the collateral used for promotion.

The message for business owners and executives? Intentionally craft and manage your company image, especially if you are reinventing that image or collaborating with agencies, consultants and other business partners. Be clear about what your company stands for, and maintain that clarity through any changes that you make in branding, strategy or response to your business environment.

Remove mental blocks and barriers to success:  While working on an album with musician and producer Brian Eno, Bowie became a fan of Eno’s Oblique Strategy. The Oblique Strategies were originally developed for musicians and consist of a deck of more than 100 barrier-busting thoughts or questions, each typed on a square card. Here’s a sampling:

  • What mistake did you make last time?
  • Is something missing?
  • Look at the order in which you do things
  • Who would make this really successful?

Whether you are writing a song or thinking about a business situation, having a reliable method of dissolving metal blocks can save time and lead to valuable breakthroughs. Several websites feature the Oblique Strategies as software that displays one randomly-generated strategy at a time. Here’s one to check:  www.oblicard.com

Change your environment, change your perspective: In the mid 1970s, Bowie moved to Berlin. He was at a low point in his career—broke, burnt out on fame and addicted to cocaine. He spent two mind-expanding years in Berlin that reinvigorated his career and produced three new albums.

I don’t recommend hitting creative and personal rock-bottom, moving to Europe or having rocker Iggy Pop for a roommate to change your perspective. There are simpler ways to look outside of your comfort zone for new ideas. The next time you’re at an airport, pick out a magazine you would never normally buy to peruse during the flight. Not traveling? You can do the same at a local bookstore—and read in a café or eatery you have never visited. Another effective option (and the basis for this post) is to visit an art gallery or museum exhibit that you wouldn’t normally visit.

Bowie built a highly successful career around clean-slate thinking. It allowed him to innovate in small ways on small processes to produce big ideas with powerful impact. Clean-slate thinking about your business is what I hope I share with you on this blog, and as always, I look forward to the exchange.

Going Portfolio

March 17th, 2011


In his book Great Work, Great Career, Stephen Covey describes Charles Handy, the Irish oil executive-turned-academic-turned-social and organizational philosopher and author, waking up one morning and deciding that this was the day he was Going Portfolio.  That pivotal morning marked the moment when Handy’s full time, professional attention would no longer be devoted to one prescribed job in one organization.  Handy himself became the professional he has described in his books and lectures: the portfolio careerist.

In many respects, consulting is the ultimate portfolio career.  At its results-enabling best, consulting combines a Renaissance Person’s broad expertise with fluid engagement in overlapping business and buyer communities.  Both Covey and Handy suggest that all professionals, regardless of their job description or employer, are eventually moving into an increasingly portfolio-based business environment.

It’s not just individuals that are affected by a portfolio business environment.  What about the business units and departments in a company?  How do they Go Portfolio?

Deciding to Go Portfolio, it seems to me, is only the first step.  The greatest gains are arguably in managing what’s in the portfolio once you’ve gone there. Particularly for a unit in a company.  When a business unit identifies a previously undefined market segment, it’s on its way to Going Portfolio. The sales team who understands that they may need to revise their business development strategy, and the sales skills that go with it, is beginning to manage its portfolio. When we figure out how to first sustain and then shift our focus from one element of our portfolio to another, as opposed to multi-tasking, we are actively managing our portfolio for both results and personal satisfaction.

In this dynamic business environment, we are all going portfolio.  And since our skills and the community/clients/customers we serve with them are in a constantly fluctuating balance, we’re also responsible for managing our portfolios. 

What’s in your portfolio?

Is Your There, There?

September 22nd, 2010

I ran into a business acquaintance recently, the founder and CEO of a successful company, at a networking event. We hadn’t seen each other in a few months so we spent some time catching up on our respective businesses and the activities of our mutual acquaintances. 

John mentioned that Derek, an inveterate pitchman we both had known for years, had recently contacted him once again. Derek was involved in yet another business and had another proposal for John.  “Did you consider it?”  I asked.  John shook his head. “Why not?” 

John stammered something about the services not being a fit for his company and being too busy while I listened in silence. Then he shrugged, palms up, and sighed, “Because there’s no there, there.”

John had articulated a hard truth.  And it spoke volumes about the difference between a pitch and a meaningful business dialogue. This kind of candor doesn’t often surface in casual conversations, and the fact that it did set me to thinking. What does it mean to have there, there?

No there means you’re not here.  If a prospective client, customer or business partner thinks that you have no there, it means they’re not willing to invest the time, energy and ultimately their hard-earned cash to work with you. 

It’s often said that every business relationship involves give and take. I prefer to think of it as an exchange.  If what you bring to that exchange isn’t a blend of substance, character, and space for the prospect’s point of view, then there’s no there, there.  And no chance to develop the mutual trust that keeps the there there for both of you.

Of course it’s important to craft a simple and compelling statement of the value your product or service brings to the exchanges you have with prospects, clients and customers. But when a prospect starts to feel like Dorothy wishing for a little dog to pull back the Great Oz’s curtain and reveal the person behind it, perhaps it’s time to dig deeper than the pitch. 

Where’s your there

Rotary: Is it Time for a Re-Read?

July 21st, 2010

Note: The first Thought Spot was drafted at a bed and breakfast in Kirksville, Missouri a little over two years ago. In appreciation of all of the Rotarians in Kirksville and their special contributions to Rotary International this year, it seems fitting to revisit that first edition as we begin Building Communities and Bridging Continents.

To Kirksville’s Rotarians, and to every Rotarian who leads by example, inspiring others to new perspectives on Service Above Self, thank you. This one is for you.

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.”
                                -Louis L’Amour, Lonely on the Mountain

English was not my father’s first language. 

And like a lot of second language learners, he was an avid reader.  He especially liked Conrad and Melville and read their bodies of work not once but several times during his life.  As a young man, it was not uncommon for him to drop my mother off at her home after a date and head for a neighborhood diner, book in hand, to read and drink coffee until the night waitress closed up and shooed him home. 

 Later in life, he added Louis L’Amour westerns to his list of favorites.  One of the simple and great pleasures of his day was to settle into a comfortable chair in the evening to revisit a favorite read for a second or third time – or more.

 Why did he prefer to re-read, rather than switch to something new?  I asked him once.  His answer, like him, was straightforward but not necessarily simple:  it was a good book the last time, and he got something new from a book every time he read it.  

 Lately it’s occurred to me that my father got something new out of old favorites in part because his insights changed with his life experience.  The books weren’t different but what he brought to them each time was.

 As we enter a new Rotary year, I’ve been thinking about what we each bring to our Rotary experience, both individually as Rotarians and collectively in our clubs.  Beginning a new year brings with it an opportunity for all of us to take a “new read” on Rotary and on our clubs.  

 Are we truly bringing new perspectives to Service Above Self?   Or are we operating from perspectives we’ve always held? 

 Maybe it’s time for a re-read. 

To gain something new from being a Rotarian by bringing something new to the experience.  And like my father reading in the neighborhood diner, we can change our local perspectives and open ourselves up to a whole new world of possibilities. 


PDG Elizabeth

(originally published July 17, 2008)

Working Hard on the Smart Stuff

May 11th, 2010

Work smarter, not harder. 

We’ve all heard the mantra.  And when we read it or hear it after a long day, we wonder if there’s a shortcut or workaround we’ve missed.  Is there a cadre of smart people out there that manage to do in three hours what others need eight, or ten, or twelve hours to complete? Is there a silver bullet that they know about?

Truth is, working smart and working hard is more than simply working long hours. The smartest professionals are those who take the time to figure out what their smart work is, and then work hard at the smart work.  One of the best “smart workers” I’ve ever known was a former boss who had laser focus on his goals.  All of Tom’s activity was centered on two things:  Producing results that grew the company, and building positive relationships with the people he interacted with while producing those results.

One of the key lessons he taught me and everyone else in our business unit was to ask questions. How will this activity produce results for the company?  With whom do I need to collaborate or communicate? What effect will this activity have on our customers? My colleagues? Our partners and stakeholders?   Is this the best use of my time right now?

I worked hard during those years I spent in Tom’s business unit – and I’m grateful for all that hard work.   I learned to work smarter because I learned to benchmark the value of my activity. 

Smarter, harder.  It’s not a question of being busy or working less.  It’s the return you get on your time, measured in results and relationships. It’s working hard on the smart stuff.

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
Carl Sandburg