Are Difficult Conversations a Mindset Challenge?

Difficult conversations

As the CEO of a small business, I found last year full of opportunities for difficult conversations, those you put off because you just don’t want to face the immediate discomfort and short term fallout from the conversation. In 2020, like many other CEOs, I faced a downturn of business. This required downsizing my staff, and asking existing staff to work outside their comfort zones. A further consequence of COVID was moving out of our office space to work remotely. Each of those situations generated conversations that I either started or was on the receiving end of and fell into the ‘difficult’ category.

Now, on this side of 2020, my company is moving ahead in a different configuration with different perspectives. We have partners who have grown with us, we are very lean and mean which means a much very different vision for the future. We have new products and a revised path to profitability. All in all, those difficult conversations likely put us in a much better place in our growth plan.

So, why do we call them “Difficult Conversations” if having them improves our company’s chances of survival and positions the company to thrive?

Calling them “difficult” sets up an expectation that they will be difficult. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why is delivering or receiving ‘bad news’ at the time so hard, when in the long run, usually it results in arriving in a stronger place?

I propose that for 2021, we change our mindset regarding these conversations.

As leaders, we know that avoidance of difficult issues only amplifies the issue. The issue grows to be the elephant in the room. So, why do we avoid them?

There is probably a unique answer to this question for everyone who poses it to them self. For me, I feel ownership for the success of my staff and my business partners. When someone quits or I have to terminate them, I feel a sense of disappointment. I don’t like that feeling.

Speaking with others, and reading the research, many other people don’t want to create a feeling of discomfort, either in themselves or in the person who is going to have to deal with the consequences of their decision.

Pam Bower, writing for the Huffington Post1, suggests that in situations like these we learn to get comfortable with uncomfortable situations. I think that’s a great suggestion.

Other professionals have to adapt to this concept in order to do their jobs. As I write this I remember the phlebotomist who had to take blood from my newborn’s purple heel at the hospital. Her heel was purple from having been squeezed so many times for blood samples. That poor phlebotomist knew she was going to make that baby cry and upset the new mom. If she avoided difficult situations and conversations, she would not have been effective at her job. I spoke to her about this, and she said that in her mind what she was doing was giving the baby a better chance at life.

It’s a mindset. We all do difficult things to achieve a better outcome. So why not take the same approach to a difficult conversation at work? The objective is to achieve a better outcome.

So, let’s chose to approach these conversations differently in 2021. Stay focused on the longer term outcome, the long term health of our ‘babies’, in this case our businesses.

1 Why You Avoid Difficult Conversations | HuffPost Life

Keeping Vigilant: One CEO’s perspective

People in masks

This week marked the arrival of the first COVID vaccines into our country, and I want to share some thoughts. We are not through this yet and, in Bill Gate’s words1, the next four to six months could be the worst of the epidemic.  

An article New Scientist2 provided a quote by Allison Schrager, an economist at the Manhattan Institute in New York, “Getting through this pandemic is essentially an exercise in risk management.” I’m an engineer as well as an entrepreneur and considering risk versus the value proposition is a way of thought in which I am well practiced. 

I have a number of stakeholders associated with my company. I have my investors who expect me to do what is necessary to make my company profitable. I have my clients, who expect me to provide them with effective and viable products that allow them to expand their reach and reputation with their clientele and also provide them with excellent client support. And I have my employees, who expect me to provide them with meaningful work, an opportunity for growth, and a safe workplace. 

My risk budget for my staff was defined by my need to provide my staff a safe work environment. Continuing to work in an open office format, with up to 10 people in 1500 square feet was no longer an option. 

To stay safe during this time of COVID, we started planning for remote work in early February. My staff, at the time, thought I was being extreme to talk of shutting the office down. But in early February, we had the data to extrapolate the worst case, and I wasn’t going to take a risk with my staffs’ lives.  

We had an all hands meeting at that time to discuss what work should look like in the pandemic. When the shutdown happened during the week of March 16, we were ready. We left the office on March 20 and never returned to work there. We subsequently gave up the space since virtual collaboration works for us. 

My risk budget for my clients was defined by client safety needs. We converted all our training to a virtual classroom and cancelled all in-person training.  

My risk budget for my investors was defined by the economics of the time. I went from a strong growth period to full stop for two quarters. That necessitated downsizing the company significantly.  

The good news from this is that as of this date, we have not had a case of COVID within my staff, and we are starting to see the benefits of our hard work over the summer repositioning our products and working with our client partners.  

Now, keeping my employees safe is out of my hands and into their own. 

I have been a bit extreme in my social isolation. This is because I am comfortable with being alone. My nature is very hermit like. My bubble has collapsed in recent months to just my boyfriend and a few friends I will see very infrequently outside on my front porch, separated by 8 feet and not talking towards one another. Am I paranoid? No, I am cautious. I have a healthy respect for the power of this virus to wreak destruction in lives, my own and the others who depend on me. 

This past weekend I received the news from one of my friends in town, a local family practitioner, that COVID-19 was running rampant here. He also indicated that the hospital units here are full and it was his belief that there are many asymptomatic spreaders. He urged us to be even more cautious than usual over the next few weeks.  

This came on top of the news that Alabama state Sen. Larry Dixon recently passed away from the virus after letting his guard down and enjoying a meal with friends at an outdoor dining venue. His last words, shared with his wife, were “please tell everybody to be careful.” 3 

In a June New York Times article4, Tara Parker-Pope wrote of establishing a personal risk budget. She noted that risk is cumulative and outlined several actions recommended to understand your risk based on your activities. These actions included knowing the exposure rate in your community and determining how much exposure you are subjecting yourself to.  

The New Scientist published an article in October 20205 providing guidance in how to determine how to evaluate the amount of social contact you have and how that relates to risk tolerance. They provided four guidelines for determining a personal contact budget.  

Define your risk tolerance. The start by asking you how much risk you can tolerate. The ability to categorize tolerance into low, medium or high is probably sufficient for this exercise. And keep in mind, all of this is subjective and relative. If you are healthy and everyone you know is healthy, you likely will have a tolerance that is higher than someone who has a senior person in their household or one with a medical condition.  

Consider the guilt effect. This one requires some introspection. How much remorse would you feel should you be responsible for transmitting the infection?  

Contact requirements for employment. Some have jobs that require contact. We are grateful for all the essential workers who have made it possible to receive medical care, shop for groceries, and function during the pandemic. If you are one of these workers, I hope you have access to appropriate personal protection gear from your employers. 

Contact requirements for mental wellbeing. For some this means continuing to have salon appointments, massages, and housekeepers. For others, it means a run with friends, coffee with a sibling, and arranging limited social engagement with children. You have to do what you have to do to stay sane.  

The bottom line here is to BE AWARE of your contacts and how you can impact others in your sphere of influence/transmission. The current CDC guidelines6 help with defining the exposure risk.  

My personal COVID-19 risk budget is defined by more than the growth numbers in my community. It’s defined by more than how much time I’ve spent in the company of others. It’s defined by more than my personal risk likelihood of a poor outcome from contracting the disease.  

I define personal COVID-19 risk budget also by how many people I could potentially infect if I was exposed and had it and spread it before I was aware of having it. 

I define personal COVID-19 risk budget by how I would feel if someone I knew got the disease because of me. And how I would never forgive myself if that person died. 

I define personal COVID-19 risk budget by my personal view of leadership.  

In the case of COVID, the risks are too high. While I could deal with accepting the consequences of putting myself in harms way, I will do what I can to avoid contributing to someone else’s dance with this virus. 

So, I stay isolated. 

I have watched social and volunteer groups, whose membership includes many retired folks, return to meeting in person under ‘socially distanced and mask wearing protocols.’ For small gatherings, the CDC qualifies this as lower risk, however it requires masks to continually be worn. What is apparent, though, via social media postings of these gatherings, is that not everyone is masked, and speakers are often unmasked.  

In the words of John Wooden, the UCLA coach, “The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.”  

Personal responsibility is what guides us when we have confusing and/or lax direction from government. As published in the Boston Globe last week7, there are actions that individuals “can take to make their communities safter— wear masks, maintain social distancing, avoid gathering indoors for any amount of time with people outside your own household.” 

So, borrowing from ‘Hill Street Blues’ Sgt. Esterhaus’ closing to his morning precinct roll-call meetings, “Let’s be careful out there!”  

Let’s Be Careful Out There | ‘Hill Street Blues’ Supercut – Bing video 

1 Bill Gates says US entering worse phase of COVID pandemic and predicts lockdowns will last into 2022 | Daily Mail Online 

2 Your covid-19 risk: How to navigate this new world of uncertainty | New Scientist 

3 Ex-Alabama Lawmaker Warns ‘Be Careful’ Before Dying of COVID-19 | PEOPLE.com 

4 5 Rules to Live By During a Pandemic – The New York Times (nytimes.com) 

5 You can manage your covid-19 risk by setting your own ‘contact budget’ | New Scientist 

6 Considerations for Events and Gatherings | CDC 

7 With few COVID-19 restrictions, personal responsibility takes center stage in the pandemic response – The Boston Globe 

Attitude and showing up for life

To all you entrepreneurs and small business CEOs: Are you having a hard time getting your arms around gratitude during this month of Thanksgiving?

I’m sure you all, like me, have been struggling as the fears of the virus lead to lockdowns, then cancellation of conferences, loss of business, and the challenges of finding your relevance in this new world. It’s been a tough year. And it’s not over yet. We still have the uncertainty of the transition of our elected leaders, the promise of a vaccine, the lasting challenges of the economy and our own exhaustion. And as we get closer to the holidays, we are feeling the stress of our families and friends as our traditions are challenged, we see the stress of our employees as they face the same, and we are all pretty tired.

When I’m down, I think of a quote my college roommate once shared with me that has had a significant bearing on my life. It was said by Charles R. Swindoll.

The remarkable thing is I have a choice every day of what my attitude will be. I cannot change my past. I cannot change the actions of others. I cannot change the inevitable. The only thing I can change is attitude. Life is ten percent what happens to me and ninety percent how I react to it.”

My social media person is a recent graduate. She did not have a traditional graduation, since she graduated with the class of 2020. But she managed a long weekend get away with her closest friends to celebrate their achievement.

My daughters both got engaged in the past couple of months. They are having to delay plans to see how the next year shapes up to have a gathering of their close family and friends to celebrate, but they are moving ahead with their lives, finding the joy in committing to a new life together, and looking beyond Covid.

My company has faced challenges, but we have come through. We have redefined our direction, shrunk staffing, and taken our programs all online, and are seeing support from past clients and have even managed to find a few new ones.

When I think back across this year, I might have gotten stuck on how hard it has been, how we were finally starting to grow, and how I’m now having to start all over again. But when I think back to that message—that my attitude is what I have control over, there are many things I am thankful for. I’m thankful for wonderful clients who have encouraged us to grow beyond what I would have expected in this short period of time. I am thankful those employees who have stepped up to the challenge of doing what ever was needed to stay afloat and get products out. I’m thankful to supportive family and friends who have been there with encouragement and support when I needed it the most.

As leaders of our companies, we need to look ahead. What’s past is past. What challenges us, we need to leap over. The future is the horizon and if we spend much time looking over our shoulders, doing the woulda-coulda-shoulda game, we are not respecting ourselves, our companies, or our investors.

Next up is another strong wave of Covid that is bearing down on us. What that will bring in terms of more economic down sliding is anyone’s guess. But I’m thankful for knowing now which employees are the out of the box thinkers that can take us where we need to go. Because they are the leaders of the future, and the ones who I want working closely with me as we brace for the wave.

L admit that I have days where it’s a challenge to muster up the energy for the endurance race I’m in. And when Charles R. Swindoll’s words can’t get me there, I go to my other inspiration: Angles Arrien and her Four Rules for Life: Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Don’t be attached to the results.

That one gets me going. I show up for life.

To-Do Lists

This afternoon, while checking my LinkedIn account, I saw an article that required a response. The article1 was titled “Why to-do lists kill productivity” and authored by Emily Spaven, an Editor at LinkedIn News. The premise of the article is that the list serves as a feel-good tool so you can cross stuff off, and it focuses the list maker on smaller, less important tasks while the hard ones languish.

I am a list maker, but I write these lists to focus on the important things I need to do TODAY. My list is short, just the most important topics are on it. It’s not a ‘feel good’ tool so I can cross things off. I use it to stay focused.

 I am one of the worlds’ supertaskers. I did not know this was a ‘thing’ until reviewing the script for our Time Management workshop in 5G Power Skills. My curriculum developer had written about how multi-tasking was a significant productivity killer. Her script was returned with lots of red (based on personal experience, not research). I reacted to what she said in her scripts.

I do not know a world without multi-tasking. Yes, I get frustrated with people who are extremely linear, having to fully complete one task before picking up the next. I do my best not to interact with them. It is one reason I am a hermit and prefer working off by myself. I come out to give gentle guidance and course corrections to my team, and appropriate gratitude and recognitions, but then I am back in my corner, tuning the world out.

When my curriculum developer saw my response to her carefully researched work, she came and sat down with me and explained that I am a super tasker. In fact, the development team, when working on this, took significant note of my characteristics and behaviors. She also shared that is exhausting to watch me work. I am very productive, however, the speed at which I change topics and want to work with my team wears them out.

So, how does this relate to lists?

There is a downside to being a super tasker. We tend to be very easily distracted. This can kill productivity for a super tasker like multi-tasking kills productivity for non-supertaskers. Having a tool to stay on topic, to keep the focus, allows for my extreme productivity. That tool, for me, is the daily list.

I confess, I also have a longer-term list. This list allows me to take an urgent task and ‘park it’ so I am not tempted to drop what I’m doing to get it done. It allows me control and choice in where my focus is, without having stress about forgetting something. And it also gives time for what seem to be urgent tasks to ‘mellow out’ and become things that while they seemed critically urgent in the moment, really do not need to be done.

Of course, when one writes an article aimed at a broad population, one should expect responses from those who do not fall within the 1-sigma curve. In this case, I’m one outside your bell curve.

The bottom line is that I am a big fan of using lists. It is a focus tool. It enables me to achieve a focus and resulting productivity that would be elusive if I didn’t have this tool.

One more thing to note. I do not cross things off my lists. I know that they are done.

1https://www.linkedin.com/feed/news/why-to-do-lists-kill-productivity-4964580/

Seizing opportunity in these times…..

We all have been challenged in unique ways over the months since COVID-19 made its appearance in the US. Some are handling it well, others not as well.

I am one of the lucky ones. I like solitude. I am an introvert who relishes time by myself. While it has been challenging to my business and my staff, we made the transition to remote work early, we had planned for it in February, and while revenue fell off the cliff, we have been slowly building a stronger product set that will work in these times and beyond.

I am an older entrepreneur and with that comes a bit of wisdom. When I see parents struggling with managing both work and daycare, I want to remind them that they are getting precious time with their children they would not have had and will never have again. When I hear of people who don’t know what to do with themselves, I want to tell them it’s a great time to learn something new, or master something they already know and love. For grandparents who lament not seeing their grandchildren, I want to recommend they spend time recording themselves reading a favorite book that will be cherished long into the future.

In June, I trekked up to a little cabin I own in remote Tennessee. It was to be a quick trip to check on the state of things here and prepare it for summer visitors. When I arrived, I found it in great shape since my niece had come three weeks prior and invited the spiders to leave. Since the cabin didn’t need extensive housekeeping, I spent my time hiking to my favorite spots and seeking out internet so I could continue working.

Five days later, when it was time for me to head home, I didn’t. I have always wanted to spend the summer here. Once I started my company that dream became very distant. But with COVID-19, with the office set up for remote work, with my phone actually able to receive calls at the cabin, with wonderful folks in town who let me use their internet, and with multiple product lines that needed to be converted to a virtual classroom format, it was the perfect time to seize an opportunity.

It’s not been without some headaches, but overall, it has been a great experience. I’ve been able to work at a high rate of productivity. The infection rates are much less here in TN than where I live in FL. I have gotten to know my neighbors, the hummingbirds that visit my feeder, what wildflowers are out in June versus September, and the pure joy of solitude in a remote area.

This summer we pivoted the company hard. Our products are updated and able to be given in a new format. My staff has taken the opportunity provided by the local university to take new professional development training.

According to Harvard Business Review1, in an article published online last month, the authors indicated that this current crisis has caused leaders to jettison an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in favor of developing growth mindsets within themselves and their organizations. It has provided the catalyst to emerge stronger on the other side of COVID-19. 

In a second article by HBR2, “crises present us with unique conditions that allow innovators to think and move more freely to create rapid, impactful change”. This has led me to consider agility and resilience as “Essential Skills” during crisis and crisis recovery.

The changes my company has made will make us stronger as we rebuild our business. I believe the opportunity I seized of experiencing a Tennessee summer will make me more resilient and give me the ability to think above the fray as we face what’s next.

I hope you have recognized an opportunity in your life. If you are still hating the disruption COVID-19 has brought, maybe it’s time to change your perspective.

1Ashford, S., Sytch, M. and Greer, L. 2020. 6 Ways a Crisis Can Help You Cultivate a Growth Mindset. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/08/6-ways-a-crisis-can-help-you-cultivate-a-growth-mindset

2Clark, L. 2020. Innovation in a Time of Crisis. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://www.harvardbusiness.org/innovation-in-a-time-of-crisis/

Sometimes a shout out is required…

Sometimes a shout out is required….

Those who know me know my suitcase is always packed, and usually with me somewhere other than home. Even in these COVID times, I find myself checking into hotels.

Last evening, I checked into the brand-new Spring Hill Suites in Alpharetta, GA. Kea was the gracious person at the front desk. Since the hotel was new, so was Kea. When I offered my method of payment, my Bonvoy e-gift card, she did not know what to do with it. After calling for help without success to several folks in her management chain, I got out my sell phone and called the front desk of the Residence Inn in Lexington KY (South/Hamburg Place—if you would like a great hotel experience in Lexington). Sidney answered the phone, and while answering other calls and checking folks into his hotel, he patiently walked Kea through the steps to accept my form of payment.

I was grateful to Sidney, for showing his patience, and for helping someone he likely will never meet (Kea).

Someone else may have railed at Kea for not knowing this aspect of her job. But I have been new in a job and in the same position and know how frustrating it is to be alone and without an answer. I commend Kea for remaining calm as she tried to address the problem. I was also incredibly happy to provide a solution to her problem so I could get into my room.

I am a loyal Marriott rewards member, and this is the kind of service I have come to expect and respect from Marriott. I hope my clients feel the same way towards the customer service we offer at Alpha UMi.

A 2018 article in Forbes pointed out that excellent customer service does not have to be expensive, and in many cases is free1. That was proven out by my experience. And face it, great customer experiences positively impact the bottom line. I am a lifetime Titanium member because of Marriott’s continuing culture of service, and presence where I frequent.

A 2019 Forbes post mentioned that “60% of millennials state loyalty to brands they currently purchase from if treated well through customer-centric experience. To ensure allegiance, companies include loyalty programs with custom discounts as well as active courtship.”2 If this is Marriott’s motivation, I certainly have been a beneficiary over the past 15 years!

At this point in her career, my network at Marriott is stronger than hers, grown from being the friendly kind of customer that encourages staff to remember my name and help me out when I need it. I hope she sees the value of the network and takes time to get to know folks at other properties. Maybe someday they will see an e-gift card, not know how to accept it for payment and call her!

And in the meantime, Sidney, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!

1https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/12/18/how-important-is-customer-service-to-success-in-business/#17adc519c004

2https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbooksauthors/2019/05/01/millennial-spending-habits-and-why-they-buy/#1db1d04b740b

Take off what you don’t need

While this article is about working in an office setting versus a remote work environment, I am starting it with a story from my father. The 1960s were known for their hard partying, when a DUI was no a badge of shame and unlikely to get you fired, when many social norms were in the midst of dramatic change. Cocktail parties were very popular then, the alcohol flowed and entertainment too many forms including games. One game in particular that I remember from the stories involved asking someone to lie down on the floor. They were then covered from toes to chin with a blanket and instructed to take off what they didn’t need. Of course, this was a later-in-the-evening game, when thought was clouded due to the gin, whiskey and vodka consumed, and everyone would giggle as watches, bracelets, socks and shoes would appear from under the blanket. But the point of the game was that the one thing none of them needed was the blanket

I’ve shared this story because I’ve often thought back to it as my workforce has transitioned successfully to a remote work environment and our lovely office, that once was bursting with ideas, became expensive storage space.

I was advised by a wise man back in April to shed the space. I had considered it since then, but at that point was concerned that an abrupt decision so early into COVID-19 might signal the wrong message to my employees. So I waited, figuring that the right time would appear.

My landlord was great. She offered me, without asking, two months of half priced rent, after I shared the news of conference and job cancellations. That bought some time. Then, in June, I started the open discussion with my team regarding a return to the office. We had adapted well to a remote work environment. Progress was being made, we had adopted a schedule of meetings that met our needs, we met socially on a weekly basis to fill in that part that makes working fun—knowing your co-workers. We saw kids on Zoom, we heard dogs and occasionally watched cats parade across laptops. We shared stories, plans for staycations, and reminisced about past vacation experiences that we longed for again. And we shared funny videos and other things we had received over the web that week.

My team let me know that they were not comfortable working in close quarters, even if we required masks, stayed six feet apart and had all the extras for sanitization. They did not want to return to that environment until we were safe—which mean an effective vaccine was available and distributed.

Coincidentally, the Harvard Business Review in July posted a seven-part series titled The New Reality of WFH1 (Working From Home). This series provided data into what other organizations are seeing which bolstered my decision to say goodbye to our office.

Microsoft2, using software tools, found employees adapted to remote work well. 22% increase in meetings under 30 minutes and 11% decrease in longer meetings were seen. While they found employees adapted well, their management teams bore the brunt of dealing with the stress of the change, fostering resilience in their employees and staying connected.

Nancy Rothbard’s article3 highlighted that while the transition to remote work was facilitated by technology, the challenge has been managing work-life boundaries. She defines “integrators” as workers who were comfortable blurring work-family boundaries and “segmentors” who established clear boundaries between work and family. Her research addressed the challenges for integrators who now needed to establish clearer boundaries in the remote work environment, and segmentors whose boundaries are under constant challenge in a WFH environment. She suggests that segmentors dress for work and establish a workspace with a door. She also suggests that managers be accepting of an integrator’s need to address family needs during worktime.

Gretchen Gavett’s4 article lets us know that WFJ has been growing for years among knowledge workers. This is supported by Derek Thompson’s work5 where he references the Federal Reserve finding that that WFH tripled in the last 15 years.

There were other articles that addressed the benefit of office space.

Gianpiero Getriglieri6 identifies that an office imposes routine and provides a boundary between work and home life that technology has been eroding.

Scott Berinato’s article7 talks about the paradigm shift of office space, where the future office will incorporate physical space as well as technology space. The change of office space definition is lagging due to the timeline of leases but will catch up in the coming year or two.

 These viewpoints have given me confidence in our decision to vacate our office. Our current lease was coming up for renewal, and rather than letting it roll into another year, we gave our notice to leave. The past two weeks has been spent pouring over the documentation amassed over the past 5 years to determine what should be kept as we downsize into our own individual spaces. As we watched donated items leave to their new owners, and the dumpster fill with documentation from the start of the first idea through to all of our copyrighted intellectual property, I didn’t have feelings of sadness. It felt incredibly good to ‘lighten up’. My young company will be stronger for this. We have shed the “how we did it before” for our new way of work.

We will again embrace space, but it will likely be temporary space, or use of shared space. We have yet to address how to add staff in a remote work environment, and that may force some change, but until then, we are pivoting and growing, and it is a new world for us.

I have taken off the blanket.

1The New Reality of WFH.Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/big-ideas

2Singer-Velush, N., Sherman, K., Anderson, E. 2020. Microsoft Analyzed Data on Its Newly Remote Workforce. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/microsoft-analyzed-data-on-its-newly-remote-workforce

3Rothbard, N. 2020. Building Work-Life Boundaries in the WFH Era. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from:  https://hbr.org/2020/07/building-work-life-boundaries-in-the-wfh-era

4Gavett, G. 2020. Do We Really Need the Office? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from:  https://hbr.org/cover-story/2020/07/do-we-really-need-the-office

5Thompson, D. 2020. The Coronavirus Is Creating a Huge, Stressful Experiment in Working From Home. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-creating-huge-stressful-experiment-working-home/607945/

6Petriglieri, G. 2020. In Praise Of The Office. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/in-praise-of-the-office  

7Berinato, S. 2020. What Is An Office For? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/what-is-an-office-for

Onboarding Your Customer

repairman photo

Last week I received a note from my air conditioner service provider, whom I’ll call GreatAC, offering me a summer special on maintenance for my one year old system and notifying me that they had merged with another company whom I’ll call All-Service. I called GreatAC and made an appointment. When the technician arrived yesterday, he wore an All-Service company shirt. He was very polite and introduced himself before going into the attic to service the unit. He came down a few minutes later, told me he that I needed a $1500 system which he could install, and might just be able to get discounted to $1250.

Since my entire heating and cooling system was replaced last year, I was surprised at the finding. He also went on to tell me he thought the air handler (which is working fine) was probably not the right fit for the house and made other disparaging remarks about the quality of work from the other company that I had been using for over two decades.

At that point, I began asking questions about the ‘merger,’ which the technician re-defined as “We bought their customer list. You have no warrantee with us. Your warrantee was with a company that is now out of business.”

At that point, the service call was terminated.

So, what had he done wrong that caused me to take extreme action? He failed to onboard me as a customer. I first came across the customer onboarding concept in a Harvard Business Review1 article that looked at customer service in five companies over the end-to-end customer journey. ‘Onboarding’ is a common phrase, usually associated with the steps used to bring a newly hired person into a company.  

I am using onboarding in the context of customer service to note that when you meet a new customer or client, you need to take the time to establish a rapport and build a foundation of trust.

I will give the guy credit. He did establish rapport when he took the time to introduce himself upon arrival and talk about his background. I was comfortable allowing him to enter my home. However, prior to initiating the service on my unit, which was what I expected him to do, he started pitching me for expensive products and a long-term service contract. He discredited the work by GreatAC, which called into question my past decisions to contract with GreatAC. We terminated the call since he had not gained my trust, and in fact, he had gained my mistrust since my system was operating well and this was only a routine maintenance call.

According to McKensey & Company2, emotions drive decisions when it comes to making purchasing decisions. They found that the key to converting customers into ‘committed brand followers’ was the ability for the company to earn trust and loyalty with that customer.

Building trust and loyalty, particularly in ‘Moments of Truth’, which McKensey uses to describe the customer interactions where the customer is investing emotional energy in the outcome, lies squarely on the shoulders of the company representative in that moment. These individuals need to possess a high degree of emotional intelligence to read the client to understand that they are engaged in a ‘moment of truth’. They also need the ability to put the customer needs first in addressing concerns. This requires self-control to put the customer’s needs ahead of their own agenda and their company’s agenda. They also need a degree of freedom from the company so they can pursue creative solutions.

When All-Service showed up at my home, I had been expecting GreatAC.  All-Service was jumping into the middle of a long-term relationship satisfactory relationship I had with GreatAC. However, the technician put his own agenda, getting me to buy more services, head of my need to have my system serviced. He did not have the emotional intelligence to understand that by throwing the company I had a relationship with under the bus, that he would be calling into question my own decision process. At that point, it didn’t matter if I actually had issues that needed to be addressed, I was not going to address them with him.

All-Service had made an investment in buying a customer list and the good will that went into building a loyal clientele by GreatAC. They were squandering that investment by not taking the time to build trust. I felt disrespected when a clear representation had not been made regarding the relationship between my old company and this new one. If my unit had been serviced first, and while concluding the transaction the technician had mentioned some concerns he had, I would have listened to him with a more open mind to continuing business since my needs in the transaction had been met. But that is not what happened. The up sell was the first thing on the technician’s agenda.

When I worked for a large defense think tank, I was given three rules of marketing: 1) Proudly provide your list of relevant experience; 2) Point with disdain to the work done by the others; and 3) Offer a better solution. I have had years of successful sales and I always omitted step 2. There was no reason to disparage another provider. The client, if they were talking to me, had already decided that a change was needed.

My industry is a close one where people talk. I wouldn’t want a competitor to disparage me or my products and I believe in the wisdom of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

1Rawson, A., E. Duncan and C. Jones. 2013. The truth about customer service. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/09/the-truth-about-customer-experience

2 Beaujean, M., J. Davidson, and S. Madge. 2006. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-moment-of-truth-in-customer-service

We’ve Always Done It That Way

Disapproving

People bad-mouth a new way of doing something because “we’ve always done it that way.”  I have heard people chastise others using that expression dozens of times.  I’ve even used it myself.  Forbes called it “the most dangerous phrase in business.”  But what’s missing in that reputation is that there is a great reason people do things the way they’ve always been done before.  We’re going to talk a little about when to change and when to fall back on “we’ve always done it that way.”

Why do we do things the way they’ve always been done?

A well-respected authority on influence, Robert Cialdini, identified six principles of influence or persuasion.  (Reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity).   “Commitment and consistency” is important because we first commit to a decision, and then intrinsically and fiercely are consistent with our mental choice on the matter.  Its a two-step process.  Cialdini says that this principle is ingrained in our makeup as humans because it helps us live life.  Biologically, we value commitment and consistency because when we are presented with new information, it gives us the ability to choose to think about it less or avoid thinking about it entirely. 

“Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore.  We don’t have to sift through the blizzard of information we encounter every day to identify relevant facts; …. or expend the mental energy to weigh the pros and cons; we don’t have to make any further tough decisions.”  – Robert Cialdini

The data wave upon us

Cialdini’s principle is vitally important today. Within the past decade we as people are consuming more information than ever before.  Regardless of if you’re surfing the net or walking down the street, our professional and personal lives have become a sea of information.  We are increasingly hit with suggestions to try a new product or service, or consider a new process, idea, or activity.

According to Science Daily, researchers in 2013 found that “a full 90% of all the data in the world had been generated over the last two years.” The sheer volume of data being created and put in front of us today is staggering.  In that respect, for most of us most of the time, doing things the way they’ve always been done has not only become important, but critical, to simply functioning in today’s society.

Why is it such a challenge to change things?

There are several good reasons people respond with “we’ve always done it that way.”

  1. Time, Effort, and Money: The time, effort, and money you expend working on improving one process are time, effort, and money you no longer have to spend on another.  This is the basic principle of opportunity cost.  You also want the resources you spend to be worth the return you get.  Spending $1,000 on a product you can only sell once for $100 would be silly.

As an example, I think about this same trade off of time and effort when it comes to making pasta from scratch.  Pasta is absolutely delicious if it’s made from scratch.  But if I have only 20 minutes to make dinner, fresh pasta just isn’t going to happen.  I also have to see if I care enough about the difference in taste.  Do I appreciate fresh pasta more than store-bought enough to spend the time making it myself?

  1. Risk: When we decide to experiment with a method, process, or decision, we are deciding to risk the successful results of the way we’ve always done it in exchange for the pursuit of a new idea.  This can be low risk, like ordering Chinese food after my attempt at homemade pasta proves inedible.  It can also be high risk, like a company’s board of directors switching the management company that operates its business.  There are many ways we can reduce risk, and there are people whose entire job is risk mitigation.  But the risk is necessary if we want to get to the reward of greater performance, output, or experience.

COVID-19 and 2020: A time of forced change

Normally in a company, we get to choose what projects we want to work on and in what order.  Employees, consultants, and leaders evaluate and research problem areas or pinpoint top areas for growth.  We can estimate the resources necessary for a project in both manpower and cash flow and prioritize projects to match those resources.  We can test solutions in safe environments until we’re satisfied before releasing them to the public.

COVID-19 threw that capability out the window.  Right now, many businesses have been forced to invent new systems, processes, products, and services.  They have been forced to try new methods that they may have never otherwise considered.  Businesses may be adopting projects at a rate that is ill-advised because if they do not adapt, they will certainly die.  They may have had to reallocate resources and dedicate effort to projects they didn’t anticipate.  Instead of carefully choosing the highest priority projects for their long-term growth, they may be gambling with borrowed resources to take their best shot on a project that will sustain them through this crisis.  Some of these forced projects will be successful.  They will give customers new products and services that they will now love.  Some of these forced projects will provide just what the customer wanted.

When does change become too much?

The trouble with COVID is that many people and companies have been forced to change many processes and products all at the same time.  The supply chain has been shaken.   Small, medium, and large companies that have not been able to bridge that gap are filing for bankruptcy or closing their doors.  The numbers of unemployed workers and filings for evictions are dismal.  People and businesses alike are just trying to hang in there.  According to MetLife’s Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, even before COVID-19, employees often felt stressed and burned out due to the pressures of a modern working environment. COVID-19 has only made that worse, as the post COVID-19 survey results clearly show.

Change demands resources, attention and effort, and “too big and too much” is indeed exhausting.  Trying new things or doing the same things in new ways is vital to the success of people and companies.  The phrase “because we’ve always done it that way” is okay when the processes and avenues have been considered and weighed.  It is dangerous for the company, though, when we are afraid of trying something new or losing control or when an employee is just plain disengaged.  Management is an important part of that puzzle as well. Having leadership that supports making mistakes as a natural part of growing, and supports employee welfare, and professional growth is important to the success of both the individual and the company.

What to Say Instead:

The next time you make a suggestion which is greeted with some variation of “we’ve always done it that way” stop and think again.

  • Research your case well.  Thoroughly assess both the current system and the system you’re proposing to adopt
  • Present the work involved and results clearly and thoroughly.  Make sure the person with whom you’re speaking can visualize those details about the project as well as you can.
  • Demonstrate a clear quantifiable return on investment.  Who will get the credit for the result?  If you’re talking with someone who is going to do the work, their perception may be different from that of someone who isn’t.  This is especially true if the worker is unlikely to get credit or management doesn’t value the project.
  • Address what resources are needed.  Detail exactly what resources you will need and the process you’ll follow to obtain them.  The person with whom you’re speaking might have no idea where to begin, who can do it, or how long it will take.
  • Different people want different levels of detail to make a decision.  Could this person be persuaded with more or less detail?
  • If you’ve checked off all of the above points, and are still getting objections, try to figure out why.  Are there other scheduled projects that provide greater benefits or are favored by higher management?

Next Time

Remember, it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it, who you say it to, and the timing of what you say.  If you present a really great new idea to your boss or colleague when they’re swamped with another project, no matter how good the idea, the answer will probably always be a no.  Wait until your listener has time to actually listen.  Until then, bide your time and work on your proposal, just “the way it’s always been done.”

REFERENCES:

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Adapting to Change

butterfly lifecycle

In the last couple of months, the world experienced events that demanded significant behavior change on the part of individuals and organizations alike.  Some have adapted well to the change demanded while others have experienced resistance and increased stress levels.  Adapting to change will determine which individuals and organizations emerge successfully from challenging times.

A major change is demanded when a discrepancy between expectations and reality occurs.  The subconscious prefers the known and will fight to preserve behaviors that support it while resisting those that support change.  To adapt successfully to change, an individual or organization must reach the tipping point where the psychological pain of remaining the same is greater than the anticipated psychological pain of adapting to a changed reality.

Once that tipping point is reached and adapting to change is desired, individuals need the mental, emotional and physical resources to adjust their expectations to match the new reality rather than attempting to merely accept or like it.  So, how do we adapt to change, and more importantly, how do we lead others who are in our charge, to adapt to change?

First of all, finding the humor in the situation can be instrumental in being able to shift perspectives to find a creative way to adapt to change.  Think of some of the creative masks people came up with during the Covid-19 pandemic.  While we never want to make light of someone else’s plight, finding an inclusive and respectful way to inject some humor can make ourselves and others feel better as we craft our adjustment process.

Secondly, understand stress and use it to adapt to change.  Negative stress is obviously detrimental to us, both psychologically and physically but eustress or good stress is akin to resilience and helps us tap into the mental strength we need to endure through a challenging situation so that we can adjust our expectations and adapt to the new reality we are facing.

A third tactic is to realize that no change must be faced alone.  When we accept responsibility for our actions and step out to adapt to a new change in our lives, we gain power by reaching out to others as mentors, coaches, and/or teachers.  When we do this, we also act as positive role models for others who may be facing similar situations.

When we consider the fact that change is inevitable, it may also occur to us to “be the change in the world we want to see,” rather than being the tag-alongs who have to react to the change someone else creates.  Granted there are changes over which we have no control and our only alternative is to shape the way we react to those changes but being a disruptor is a new kind of leadership that gets ahead of change to shape its course and thus proactively adapt to the change created. 

Lastly, expect change and it loses its power over you.  Individuals who consider changing circumstances to be challenges to overcome, adapt to change much more successfully than do those who contemplate change as the end of a “golden era” and lament its loss.  Successful adaptation to change requires us to identify the change needed, hone strategies for dealing with the required change, and then shift our behavior to accommodate it.

Change is constant and resisting it does not produce positive results.  Expecting and embracing change helps us to adapt successfully and enjoy the process.

Resources:

Hoogerhuis, M. & Anderson, J. (2019).  How to Adapt to Constant Change: Create It.  Gallup Workplace.  Retrieved from: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/268991/adapt-constant-change-create.aspx

Martin, R. & Kuiper, N.A.( 2016). – Three Decades Investigating Humor and Laughter: An Interview With Professor Rod Martin.  The European Journal of Psychology. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4991054/

McGonigal, K.  (2015). Embracing Stress is More Important Than Reducing Stress, Stanford Psychologist Says.  The Upside of Stress  https://news.stanford.edu/2015/05/07/stress-embrace-mcgonigal-050715/ 

Tasler, N. (2016).  How to Get Better at Dealing With Change. Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2016/09/how-to-get-better-at-dealing-with-change

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