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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.

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.

Here’s to the Role Models

March 16th, 2015

I recently participated in a networking event for students at Johnson County Community College. This event allowed students to practice introducing themselves to business professionals, engage in conversation for a few minutes, and transition politely to another conversation.

In the course of these conversations, I met a student I’ll call Jana, who was studying fashion merchandising. I asked Jana how she became interested in merchandising, and she told me, “It started with a mistake I made at work.”

She works part-time selling women’s apparel in an upscale department store. One day, she sold the outfit on a mannequin. Rather than leave an undressed mannequin on the sales floor, Jana created a new outfit for the mannequin.

The following week, the regional merchandiser summoned Jana for a meeting. “I thought I was in trouble, that I was going to lose my job,” Jana told me. The merchandiser told Jana that the clothing promoted on mannequins was a corporate decision, but that wasn’t the primary reason for meeting. The items worn by Jana’s mannequin had sold well in the previous week, and the merchandiser thought Jana had talent. The merchandiser told Jana about the fashion merchandising program at the college, and encouraged her to apply. She has continued to mentor and encourage Jana, and wants to hire Jana when she completes her degree.

Jana’s story was the most memorable introduction I heard that day – but what impressed me even more than Jana was the forward-thinking merchandiser. This woman not only recognized Jana’s budding abilities, but also had the courage and confidence in her own abilities to take the intentional step to be a role model and mentor. She set a proactive, professional example for Jana, who hopefully will see herself as a role model for other young women as she progresses in her own career.

Whether we think we are or not, we are each a potential role model and mentor for someone in our business, industry or job function. Here’s to the role models, like the merchandiser, who are paying it forward by mentoring others.  

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.

Going Portfolio

July 1st, 2014

Reinvent your work and career before someone else does

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 to Go Portfolio. That pivotal morning marked the moment when Handy’s full-time professional attention was no longer devoted to one prescribed job using one defined set of skills in one organization. That day, Handy himself became the professional he describes in his books and lectures: the portfolio careerist.

Consultants are arguably the ultimate portfolio professionals. The best adapt broad experience and deep skills to a wide range of companies, business situations and buyer communities. They are not alone. From consultants and entrepreneurs to corporate managers and functional specialists, all professionals are part of an increasingly portfolio-based business environment. Going Portfolio is not a luxury or an option. It’s a requirement for thriving in any business, whether it’s a business of one or a global corporation of one million.

Deciding to Go Portfolio is only the first step. The greatest gains come from managing your portfolio once you’ve gone there. When a business unit identifies a previously undefined niche market, it’s on the path to Going Portfolio. The sales team who understands that they need to reinvent their business development strategy and their sales skills is beginning to manage its portfolio. When you take a chance to develop new skills or apply your skills in new situations, you are Going Portfolio. When you learn to adapt your skills and experience in response to your business environment, you are actively managing your portfolio for both business results and personal satisfaction.

Intentionally or not, we are all going portfolio because our world demands it. The companies, customers and communities we serve with them are constantly fluctuating, and so it the value they seek from each of us. You have to be willing to continually adapt the skills you use and the experience you rely on to add value, right here and right now.

That’s Going Portfolio.  What’s in yours?

Elizabeth Usovicz is principal of WhiteSpace Consulting®, specializing in top-line revenue and business strategies for high-growth companies, new ventures and business units within established companies; keynote speaking and strategy session facilitation. She can be reached at elizabeth@whitespacerevenue.com or (913) 638-8693.


Working Hard on The Smart Stuff

June 20th, 2014

Work smarter, not harder.

We’ve all heard the mantra. And when you read it or hear it after a long day, you may wonder if there’s a shortcut or workaround you’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?

Working smart or working hard is more than simply working long hours. The smartest business 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.

Tom taught me and everyone else in our business unit to ask ourselves 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. The return you get on your time is 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

Good Advice I Never Followed

April 28th, 2014

Good or bad, you own the outcomes of the service you provide

Early in my career a boss told me, “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” Good advice I never followed.

Many people do follow that advice, like the presenter of a webinar I attended that became the webinar that wasn’t. Shortly after his introduction, the presenter’s comments were out of sync with his slides. He didn’t seem to realize that there was a problem. I sent a polite comment through the chat function but the problem persisted. A few minutes later, the slides stopped advancing entirely, and for the remainder of the webinar I sat eyeball to eyeball with a photo of Bill Gates staring back at me.

The webinar support technician eventually told the presenter that no one could see the slides he was referencing. So the presenter tried describing the unseen slides – an unsatisfying process for everyone. Finally, he gave up and moved to Q&A, only to be informed that all of the questions submitted by attendees had been lost.

I felt for the presenter. Like every business professional, I’ve been in situations where the best of plans for service delivery don’t unfold as intended. For a few days after the webinar, I expected to receive a follow-up email from the presenter acknowledging the issues, or at least an apologetic reference on his blog. Like the webinar, that didn’t happen.

Two weeks later, I received a broadcast email announcing the same webinar. I didn’t click through to register, and not because of the glitches in the first webinar. The presenter lost my participation because he didn’t own his outcomes.

Technology, logistics, information or preparation – regardless of the source of success or disruption, we own the outcomes of the service we provide. Ignoring the outcomes doesn’t change that. Disruption can be an opportunity to demonstrate your integrity and willingness to see the situation from the customer’s point of view.  All it takes is a simple apology and a good-faith effort to make it right. That’s not a sign of weakness; it’s good business.

Stuff happens, and everyone makes mistakes. The webinar that wasn’t is a vivid reminder of how your customers feel when you don’t deliver and don’t own it. A sincere apology may not be the most innovative customer service effort, but it’s often one of the most effective.

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. 

Success is a Direction

November 5th, 2013

“What can we do in the next 30 days?”

This question is a knee-jerk reaction to a range of business situations – a dip in quarterly sales, a customer or client service issue, supplier cost increases, the big-fish prospect that seems to have gotten away, or a competitor’s traction in the marketplace. Suddenly, the priorities of your company, business unit or sales team take a 180 degree turn, as the clock ticks and stress levels rise.

If you’re asking this question, use it as an opportunity to get clear about your definition of success, and how to achieve it each day, every day. 

Take the case of a scratch bakery, which means that products are baked fresh every day from proprietary recipes. When the business started up, the owners decided that freshness mattered most.  They invested in high-quality ingredients and equipment, committed to baking fresh every day, and decided to donate unsold products to charity at the end of each business day. Every morning, they start from scratch again.

In the early days of the business, this approach meant that a large percentage of the day’s production was donated to charity. It also means an ongoing commitment to very early mornings and very long days for the owners. It would be easy to justify selling day-old products. Why not?  Many bakeries sell products baked one or two days earlier, to reduce operational costs and working hours.  

For this scratch bakery, day-old is not an option. Success is providing customers with the freshest products available. The owners have stayed that course each day, every day. Yes, they have adjusted along the way, testing new products, monitoring sales and production costs and adapting the menu based on customer response. Four years later, the business has a reputation for freshness, a profitable customer base of loyal patrons and solid book of wholesale accounts.

Whether you run a global company, a small business or a tech start-up, you’ve probably been tempted to cut corners on your definition of success. Or maybe you haven’t defined it for yourself and are lured by the hundreds of books that claim to reveal the secrets of success.

The real secret? 

There are many helpful ideas. There is no one-time, sure-fire, stroke-of-luck fix that guarantees success in 30 days, or for all the days that follow.  In business as in life, success is a direction, not a destination.  Success requires being clear about what you and your business stand for and moving steadily in that direction, each day, every day. 

What can you do in the next 30 days? 

Define success, head in that direction, stay the course, and make incremental adjustments along the way.  Each day, every day.



Pulling the Line: Empowering People and Prospects The Toyota Way

September 25th, 2013

Note: for a summary of the Toyota Way and Jeffrey Liker’s book on the subject, check the following link: http://www.panview.nl/en/lean-production/toyota-way-j-liker-summary

I spent last week training the regional managers of a service organization. The week of training began with an offsite session at Toyota Motor Manufacturing-Kentucky, or TMMK, as the award-winning operation is known. To a person (and there are 7,500 of them), TMMK operates on the principles of The Toyota Way, from the General Manager through every person on every team in the plant.

One of the most empowering pillars of the Toyota Way is the ability of any member of any production team to stop the assembly line. Each team member knows each standard process, and if something occurs that a team member knows or suspects is not standard, he or she can stop production by pulling an overhead line. Pulling the line stops the production process at the team’s station and alerts the team members and leader of a potential problem.  Production does not start up again until the problem is resolved.  

In their subsequent training sessions, some of the service organization managers commented that leading a service organization was entirely different from managing a production operation. TMMK was interesting, but it wasn’t really relevant to them. 

Until they pulled the line.

It started with the announcement of a goal expressed as a percentage increase.  Each of the managers was asked to achieve the goal through their regional teams during the coming year. This top-down goal generated a range of reactions. Some wanted to set their own goal.  Others felt that if the goal came from the top, so should the ideas for achieving the goal.  All agreed that that there was no standard process for them to work towards the goal.

The training agenda moved on to another session, but the managers and their concerns did not.  The unresolved questions about the goal dominated discussions during breaks and undermined engage-ment. This team of managers had pulled the line. 

As the leader of the training, I had a choice: continue with the agenda and ignore the undercurrent of frustration, or listen and make adjustments.

That night I made adjustments. Some of these adjustments meant taking risks – including making a business case for the adjustments and explaining to senior executives who had prepared presentations weeks in advance that their session times needed to be cut in half – not a comfortable conversation.  But the line had been stopped, and listening to those closest to the work had become more than The Toyota Way. Stopping was the only way forward.

The next morning, training started with three words: We heard you. The managers then worked in teams of four to discuss the goal and identify a process to achieve it. True, they did not fully develop a standard process. But they agreed that engaging and listening to the people who would be responsible for implementing the process in their regions was the best way to achieve the goal.

Ultimately, the managers realized that pulling the line is not a power play.  It’s an opportunity and responsibility to create and deliver value.  Whether we manufacture products or deliver services, run a sales department or manage a business unit, the line is being pulled by our employees, customers and prospects when our standard processes fail to deliver value.  It’s up to us to listen and adjust.