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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.

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.  

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.

Looking for Opportunity? Look Where it Isn’t

February 3rd, 2014

“Look where it is not, as well as where it is.”

 So says a centuries-old French proverb, and there’s truth in that saying where strategic partnerships are concerned.

My client, the president of a technology company, wanted to target new customers in a highly regulated industry and needed an entry strategy. He believed that a partnership with a large, global provider of information technology (IT) security hardware that had a track record in the industry was the way to go. To find out, I went to the source – the CEOs of 10 companies in the industry – and requested a brief conversation with each of them.

Figuring out which companies or experts these CEOs relied on for IT and regulatory-related services was the key objective for my conversations.  

Looking Where it Isn’t

I went back to my client with the name of a small law firm in the Southwest. My client was skeptical – a law firm? That’s it? According to several CEOs I spoke with, this small law firm  was one they relied on for guidance.

My client and I researched the law firm. The off-the-shelf website template did not impress my tech-savvy client. We dug deeper. One page on the website included information on the law firm’s hard-copy regulatory guides, which it provided along with highly specialized legal consulting. Aha. Instead of assuming that the law firm and its low-tech approach were not a fit, my client began to see the potential opportunity in a partnership based on complementary expertise and interests.

Taking Cues from the Clues

We contacted the law firm, taking our low-tech cues from the website: we wrote a hard copy letter and sent it postal mail.  A few days later, we got a call from the firm’s principals and an invitation to meet. It turned out that the law firm had a client base of more than 1,000 companies in the industry that my client wanted to target, and was looking for an alliance to address the technology-based regulatory needs of its clients. That meeting was the start of a mutually productive partnership and a steady pipeline of prospects for my client.

What would your company do with 1,000 new prospects?

Maybe it’s time to drop your assumptions and look where it isn’t. Not every high-tech/low tech or other seemingly contrarian pairing develops into a high-yield relationship.  But sometimes, looking where you think opportunity isn’t, as well as where you think it is, can reveal an unexpected path to profitable growth.


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.