“If you were going to start your business over again, what’s the one process, you’d put into place from day one?”

Posted on February 7, 2017 at 6:12 PM Comments comments (22)
The process, or more fitting, the mindset I recommend to individuals who want to start a business should actually be implemented long before they hang out their shingle.  Before starting a consulting firm or business that depends on your personal reputation it’s to your advantage to make sure your personal brand is already known, carries influence, and inspires trust.  That means building and nurturing your personal brand and network must be top-of-mind from the very beginning of your career, even while you are still working for someone else.  I know that may feel like a conflict of interest, but it’s really not.  At the end of the day “entrepreneur” is a term that really does describe all of us.  We are all basically lifelong freelancers with our own unique brand.  Our careers aren’t based on paths or ladders but are more like landscapes that have to be navigated because there are no lifetime employment guarantees.  Our financial security and social standing is determined by our ability to influence people.  And if you want to influence people you need to understand empathically the power of their point-of-view and feel the emotional force with which they believe it.  As you can imagine, building credibility, trust and a social audience that respects you takes time and knowledge.  So, in order to thrive in that type of mission you will need to adopt the mindset of a lifelong learner.  Lifelong learning is more than adult education or training; it is a habit for you to acquire.  Here are 3 important points to keep in mind that will help convince you to make lifelong learning habit forming:

1.  Professional activity has become so knowledge-intensive and fluid in content that learning has become an integral and irremovable part of most work activities. More and more knowledge, especially advanced knowledge, is acquired well past the age of formal schooling, and in many situations through educational processes that do not center on traditional type schools.

2. Self-directed learning, learning on demand, informal learning, and collaborative and organizational learning are all fundamentally different from the traditional classroom learning dominated by curricula and tests.  Your current employer may invest in making one of those forms of learning available to you.  But don’t count on it.  Be prepared to invest both time and money in your ongoing education.

3.  Lifelong learning can influence the creativity and innovation potential of individuals, groups, and organizations.  And creativity and innovation are considered essential capabilities for working smarter in knowledge societies [Drucker, 1994].

Don’t stop learning and growing your personal brand, ever.

The U.S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it.

Posted on September 13, 2016 at 8:09 AM Comments comments (21)

My great-great-great-great grandfather John See was in winter quarters at Valley Forge with Washington.  When John was only 8 years old his father was killed at the Muddy Creek massacre in Greenbriar Co., Virginia in a conflict with Native Americans.  My great grandfather homesteaded on the eastern plains of Colorado where my grandfather was born in a sod cabin.  My parents were raised on farms in central Iowa and northern Missouri.  Neither had indoor plumbing and my mom did not have electricity.  Neither of my parents were able to finish high school, in fact my dad join the USMC when he was 17 during the Korean Conflict.
I finished high school and was lucky enough to be able to put myself through college and graduate school.  My son is a US Army veteran and struggles with PTSD.  He volunteered shortly after 9/11 and was part of our “boots on the ground” in Baghdad, Iraq.  Conflict and struggle are a part of life.  The U.S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it.  We live in a great country.  It’s not perfect and it never will be.  But I can’t imagine living anywhere else.  I’m thankful and proud of the pioneers who went before me.  I’m also encouraged and hopeful for the generations to come.  They are the cornerstones for my reason to “never forget.” 

Is freedom to fail a myth at your company?

Posted on August 25, 2016 at 12:01 PM Comments comments (18)

Is the freedom to fail a myth at your company?  Can you name one person in your organization that has had major visible failure?  If so, is that person still employed there?  If they are, is their career still on track?  If your business culture is risk adverse you may not be able to name even one person. 

Oh sure, you’ve read plenty of success stories in which the protagonist had to “overcome challenges.”  But I’m not talking about mere challenges that surfaced in a situation that ultimately was marked as an accomplishment.  I’m talking about when the lesson learned is “dismantle that thing, it won’t work.”  A few years ago it happened to me, and quite frankly I thought I might be labeled as damaged goods as a result.  But that’s not how this story ends.
In the mid 90’s a major consulting firm recommended to NCR Corporation that they create a professional inside sales organization.  Not just a call center or telesales group, but actually transition field-based, complex solution selling account management roles to a group that would not travel or engage in face-to-face sales meetings.  It sounds very easy now, but this was before the Internet and NCR’s hard charging field-based sales culture did not like the idea of being downsized.  I was asked to lead that initiative with a pilot program and after one year was then directed to dismantle it.  It turned out to be an idea before its time, but I learned some good lessons during that pilot and I wanted to document and share the experience with the organization.  That’s why I used a “learning history” format for my final report.

Learning History defined:   

A learning history is a unique approach for helping an organization learn from the experience and implications of its own learning and change initiatives.  All efforts to transform organizations sooner or later run up against the challenge of proving their value.  Yet traditional assessment approaches, reacting to everyday pressures, can easily undermine the original learning effort.  As people become aware of being judged and measured, they seek to satisfy the evaluation criteria instead of improving their capabilities.  The intrinsic motivation which drives learning is then supplanted by the desire to look successful.  Yet evaluation is vital to learning as a feedback process that provides guidance and support.  Learning histories were invented in response to this dilemma.
Creating an environment where it feels safe to fail is very difficult.  I suppose that’s why most business cultures are not really bent that way.  When you combine that with the fact that most of us are terrified of the prospect of individual failure it’s a wonder any risks are taken.  A learning history won’t change that fear.  But I can report that if you approach your change initiative leveraging a learning history point-of-view and format that the expression “experience is the best teacher” will come to life.  You and your organization will actually capture some learning from the project, and that helps take the sting out of failing.

The Tricky Art of Delegation

Posted on April 4, 2016 at 9:01 AM Comments comments (0)

When our children were young and still living at home my wife and I would “delegate” some of the household chores.  Cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, mowing the lawn and other duties were performed in exchange for allowances.  Their efforts did not always produce spectacular results, but the tasks were accomplished for the most part, and life lessons passed on.
The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership. ~ Harvey S. Firestone
When we became empty nesters we decided to delegate some of those chores to outsiders.  That is code speak for; we hired a house cleaning service.  Kim is the sole proprietor of that business, and she does a great job.  At least I assume she is doing a great job.  I can’t be certain though because my wife frantically runs around cleaning our house on the evenings before Kim’s appointed work day.  She calls it “getting ready for Kim.”  To me it feels like we are preparing for a weekend guest!  In fact I told my wife that I was confused; if we are going to spend time cleaning before the cleaner how is that really delegating?  I mean, if we decide to delegate the lawn to an outsider does that mean you will expect the yard to be trimmed in advance?
Based on recent behavior it appears that if our dirty laundry will be exposed, we’ll be cleaning before the cleaner.  However; if the grass is a little long that’s not a problem.  OK, the answer to my question seemed to depend on the chore being delegated.  But I still had trouble figuring it out because we’ve always worked together.  There have been plenty of times when I’ve cleaned the house, and she is no stranger to yard work.  And then she let me know where her mental blocks were coming from:
1. Social pressures still lead her to believe that household chores reflected primarily on her alone.
2. She also believes that if she doesn’t kick-start the process she will end up redoing elements of Kim’s work because she trusts the final results more when she takes part.
There you have it.  It’s like ownership and personal accountability for housework has been baked into her DNA.  She can’t entirely let go.  I’ll have to admit that I always feel the lawn looks its best when I mow it.  I’m not sure that it really does, or if I’m being worked over by my own social pressures and personal accountability.
In a business setting most executives will admit that they should be delegating when feasible.  However; like my home example, it’s not always that easy.  There are several potential reasons why an executive will hesitate to delegate a particular task, but for me it generally boils down to a lack of confidence or trust that the task, once accomplished, will meet my expectations.  The bottom line is that I hesitate to put my personal reputation at risk.  Therefore, I spend valuable time “getting ready for Kim” so to speak.  After all, if the person you delegate to doesn’t produce the desired result, you are still responsible for the outcome.
In order to delegate effectively, it is necessary to have competent and willing supporters.  If you assume your team is “willing” then you are basically facing a talent issue.

What are you doing in the way of training and coaching in order to further develop the talent of your team?  And I don’t just mean tapping the training budget and engaging an outside firm to provide “education.”  I’ve found that when I’m personally involved in their training, and taking an active part in mentoring, that my confidence level in their abilities to complete delegated tasks goes up dramatically.  It’s not always easy to let go, but it seems to be much easier when I feel I’ve had a hand in the development of their skill sets.  In addition, the scope and importance of the tasks I’m delegating increases when I’m involved.  It appears active mentoring and training benefits everyone.


Are High Pressure Closing Methods Ever Justified?

Posted on March 15, 2016 at 3:56 PM Comments comments (0)

“Alan, you’ve been a real professional during this process; I’ve grown to trust you, and I honestly like you. You’re going to get this order. That is, if you don’t mess it up at the end.”


It was early in my sales career and I was sitting across the desk from my client, a bank president.  It was a complex solution situation that had been playing out for months.  He was finally holding my sales contract, valued at over one million.  This deal would make my numbers for the year, secure a promotion, and I was replacing a competitive system, making the win as sweet as they come.  As you might guess, my mind set was in “closer” mode.  I was now trying to force my will on him.  I wanted him to sign the contract right then and there in order to make it official.

NCR Corporation account executives had always been known for their sales ability.  The training received was second to none, and I was now leveraging that education for all that it was worth.  I wanted the deal to close, but my client was pushing back.  Actually, he was trying to coach me.  He was letting me know that an aggressive closing strategy was not going to overcome his objection and make him sign that day, and that I needed to turn the pressure down.  Thank goodness I got the message and made the right adjustment.

When you’ve been working a deal for months and are moving towards the close it can be difficult to resist the urge to apply some pressure.  In fact, lots of pressure; because by the end of a long competitive sales cycle your brain (and sales manager!) is screaming enough already!  After all, you want to close the sale before something happens to cause the deal to fall through.  Big deals derail all the time and no one fights you harder than a major solution provider who is about to be thrown out.
So, what was the hang up?  As it turned out, the president had decided to bring in a new VP to oversee operations.  That meant he still did not have everything quite lined up the way he wanted.  But I still had fears with that type of objection.  What if the new executive wanted to start the operations review all over again, and in the process change the decision?
In the age of social networking this is where I would normally explain how my online skills saved the day by immediately reaching out to establish a relationship with the incoming executive.  But this situation occurred long before LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.  In fact, Google wasn’t even around.  Then this story is ancient history!  What could we possibly learn from it?  Well, first of all, that this isn’t a story about overcoming objections, high pressure sales tactics or reacting to the introduction of new players during the sales process.  However; it does present a lesson on why it can be useful to establish a solid relationship at the highest point possible within an organization.  Are you building rapport, developing credibility and establishing trust at the highest-levels within your targeted accounts?  If not, you should probably consider it.
So, did I finally get the order signed?  The president didn’t sign it.  He had his new operations executive sign it.

Go West Digital Immigrant, Go West

Posted on June 18, 2015 at 1:34 PM Comments comments (4)
"Go West, young man" is a phrase often credited to the American author Horace Greeley concerning America's expansion westward, related to the then-popular concept of Manifest Destiny. My great grandfather traveled west to homestead on the Great Plains. That’s where my grandfather was born - in a sod cabin. I’m not old as dirt, but I am a trailing edge baby boomer with both pre-digital and digital world footprint. That makes me a “digital immigrant,” while my children, all born after 1980, are considered “digital natives.” Technology age gap or digital divide, I don’t really care what you call it, but it’s a form of segmentation that often bugs me. I suppose it’s because I disagree with the notion that, in general, digital immigrants are not supposed to find the change brought on by digital transformation natural to their life.
Sure, over 150 years ago, in the charge to go West seldom were mentioned the hardships of the climate, the isolation or the lack of conveniences seen in the populated states back east. The West tested the courage and strength of every man, woman, and child and often only the strong survived. But they did survive, and in fact they thrived. Are you a digital immigrant? Have you ventured west on the digital media trail? If you have experienced hardship on your digital journey and feel like you’re stranded, don’t despair. Here are a couple of trail markers to get you back on track.

Create a Roadmap
What’s that - you loaded up your wagon without a roadmap? You don’t like to ask for directions and decided you would just follow the first trail headed west. Well, at this point you may be retracing your steps back East to the old family farm. In many ways, executing your personal digital transformation is similar to a westward journey. A digital journey is about lifelong learning that requires a vision of what you’d like to achieve, a map, as well as some determination. Digital goals often involve different social media platforms such as, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Pinterest just to name a few. And let’s face it, the social part of the World Wide Web can feel like the Wild Wild West because the competition between those applications often goes against the pioneering spirit to work together. Adding mileage to your journey, your personal learning curve may need to include using those applications on a smart phone, tablet, and a personal computer. The challenge will be aligning your strategy across applications and devices in the limited amount of time you have budgeted each day for learning. Remember, the pioneers didn’t cross the Great Plains in one day, and you can’t learn all about social media in a one hour webinar. It’s a lifelong journey. Circle your wagons around one platform and one device; when you feel comfortable, break camp and move to the next.
Check Your Compass Regularly
A compass is an instrument for determining directions by means of a needle that indicates true north. Your digital compass or dashboard is a set of regularly tracked measures directly linked to the metrics that matter most (your true north) to your digital vision and strategy. You don’t have to measure everything and your dashboard doesn’t need to be technology based. Sure, you can use Hootsuite or some other social media dashboard application; but if you are just starting out, learning how to use another software application may just frustrate you. Measuring, analyzing and acting on your key metrics will help keep your digital journey on track.
My grandfather died before the digital age really took off. But he experienced firsthand the way transportation was changed by automobiles and air planes, how communication was changed by the telephone, and how indoor plumbing and electricity improved the comfort of our homes. He even watched a man walk on the moon. Lots of people have lived to see the before, during and after pictures of some form of industrial revolution or technology transformation. In general, it’s called progress. And progress is what makes all of us immigrants when it comes to change.

6 Steps for Asking Better Questions

Posted on March 6, 2015 at 10:42 AM Comments comments (0)

Does your company encourage questioning in any substantive way? If so, does your company provide any training programs focused on guidelines and best practices for questioning?  In truth, many companies, whether consciously or not, have established cultures that tend to discourage inquiry in the form of someone’s asking “Why are we doing this?”  The impulse is to keep plowing ahead, doing what we’ve done, and rarely stepping back to question whether we’re on the right path.

According to Socrates, “Wisdom is limited to an awareness of your own ignorance.” Socrates used his Socratic Method as a means of uncovering this ignorance by challenging the completeness of thinking. His series of disciplined and probing questions brought his students to a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter or issue. Can a business leader use the Socratic Method to build a learning organization that is agile, adaptable, and creative? Is there a business benefit to creating a culture that not only encourages independent thinking and sound reasoning, but also accepts the responsibility of their decisions?

The Socratic process can be broken down into a series of 6 steps of questioning:

1. Clarification: Why are you stating that? What do we already know about this? How does this relate to our discussion? Can you give me an example?

2. Probing assumptions: What could we assume instead? How can you verify or disprove? What would happen if (blank)? How did you choose those assumptions?

3. Probing rationale: How do you know this? What do you think causes (blank)? What evidence is there that supports (blank)? How might it be refuted?

4. Questioning viewpoints: What are alternative ways of looking at this? What are the strengths and weaknesses of (blank)? Explain why this is necessary or beneficial and who benefits from it.

5. Probing consequences: What are the consequences of this assumption? How does (blank) affect (blank)? How does (blank) fit with what our experience tells us? What generalizations can we make?

6. Questions on the question: What is the point of the question? Why do you think I asked the question? What does (blank) mean?

The year ahead is going to be challenging for many organizations. When your business is faced with a combination of resource limitations, personal insecurity and demands for greater productivity, emotions will run high. For a business manager this represents a significant challenge, and that’s why helping your team stay focused through logical questioning will help them keep on track. One important thing to remember though is that Socrates, while an excellent teacher, also used this method of questioning to “shred” his opponents. That means the Socratic Method can be used both for both building up and tearing down - so remain mindful of how you use it.


How Quickly Can You and Your Organization Adapt to Change?

Posted on January 31, 2015 at 2:24 PM Comments comments (22)
I’m where I am today because of the 1980’s oil crash.  If not for the oil crash I may not have gone on to get my MBA.  If not for the crash I probably would not have ventured into the technology industry, first with NCR Corporation and then other organizations.  For that matter I may not have moved to Ohio.
I was from Iowa, in the heart of the corn patch.  But after completing my BBA in 1981 from Abilene Christian University I could see that the West Texas oil patch was booming.  I grew up baling hay and detasseling corn and had no idea what logging, acidizing or fracking an oil well meant.  But I learned quickly and before I knew it I had five years invested in the patch.  I was selling oil field services to oil company executives, geologist and petroleum engineers, and it was fun.  And then the boom turned into a bust.  I’ll spare you the details; let’s just say that many lives changed forever.  I never returned to the patch.  Many of my contacts did not either.  When you are in your 20’s you don’t really consider the need to reinvent yourself because you’re still establishing your credentials in your first “real world job” out of college.  But that is exactly what many of us had to do.  Petroleum engineers and geologists retooled to become high school math teachers, and oil field sales people became technology marketers.  That early experience had a profound impact on my view of the intersection between change and adaptability.

An attitude that supports lifelong learning is valuable during change.  Is it important to my job today that I still understand oil field jargon?  No, not really.  But what I learned while engaging oil field executives, engineers and roughnecks in a wide variety of environments is priceless.  Yes, those early interactions helped later as I adapted and learned to work with other executives and influencers across different industries.  Each change the economy throws at us provides another opportunity to dig deeper and learn.       
It’s also important for organizations to stop putting individuals in permanent boxes.  People reinvent themselves all the time.  Sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes just because they are ready for a change.  And when those individuals reemerge they bring a unique perspective to the job that a “lifer” never will.  I’m not saying you should throw your long-time experienced people under the bus.  I am saying that it really doesn't take years and years to learn the ins and outs of your industry.  I know some want to believe that it does, but my experience tells me that it doesn't.  What you may need to add to your organization are individuals who have a passion to learn and a track record for taking chances and being able to quickly adapt to change.