Entries in Stakeholders (5)


Too Much

My husband was carrying our two-year-old daughter up the stairs at the end of a long Thanksgiving Day, which had started with watching the Macy’s parade, continued with learning the game of hide-and-seek from her older cousins, and finished with a delicious feast.  Our daughter was exhausted, and when my husband commented that it had been a busy day, she sleepily replied “Too much!”

She probably meant that there had been too many activities crammed into one day, but her comment started me thinking about having a special day for giving thanks.  One day a year isn’t really enough; most of us have so many things we should be thankful about that if we really tried to give thanks for all of them in a single day it would indeed be too much.

I’m not talking here about giving thanks in a religious or spiritual sense, though that can also be important.  I mean giving thanks to people who have helped you with your job or your life, and made you the person you are.  Of course, common politeness prompts you to say “thank you” many times a day – when you receive your change at the grocery store, a co-worker holds an elevator door for you, or your spouse passes the salt at the dinner table.  But while such daily thanks are an important social lubricant, generally only the most trivial services get thanked in this manner, and sheer repetition robs the phrase of much of its meaning.

Make a regular practice of thanking people who help you

Pick some regular time – once a week, once a month – to thank someone.  It could be your boss for giving you some good advice, or a co-worker who got you the information you needed to complete your report.  It could be your neighbor, who always plows your sidewalk with his snow blower when he is plowing his own.  Or it could be your eighth grade English teacher who introduced you to Jane Austen – though you may have to do some searching on the internet to track her down.

Of course, giving thanks shouldn’t be limited to this regular schedule – any time you encounter exceptional service or assistance is a time for thanks.  We’ve all had the experience of poor, inattentive service at a retail store or an airline check-in counter, and may have grumbled something about writing a letter of complaint to the management.  But it’s when you receive great service, and the salesperson or check-in clerk goes above and beyond to find the shoes you need or get you on the right flight, that you should be writing a letter, to let the person and their manager know how much you appreciated the help.

At this point in the newsletter I would usually give a client story, a concrete example of how one of my clients followed my advice and it helped his or her career.  But I’m going to break from tradition here because career advancement is not the reason for this suggestion.  Sure, thanking people is a great networking tool, allowing you to keep in touch with people and making them feel positive towards you, but that’s not why you should do it. 

Instead, you should thank people because it makes you feel good – it forces you to remember how many people have helped you and continue to help you every day, and showing gratitude can take you out of yourself and give you greater enjoyment of life.  And you should thank people because it’s the right thing to do; too many people do a great job of helping people and never receive a word of thanks.

So I’d like to end this holiday edition of the newsletter by thanking all of you, my faithful readers, for allowing me to share my views with you over the years, and for the many encouraging comments you have sent me.  Thanks, and happy holidays!


Mi nah no

Jamaicans have made the English language their own, and when I lived in Jamaica for a year, it was fascinating to have to relearn the language I had grown up with.  One phrase I heard repeatedly during my stay on the island was “mi nah no,” which could be the answer to just about any question.  Eventually I figured out that it means “me not know” – in other words, “I don’t know.”  Not that I’ll never know, or even that I might not have known in the past, but right now I don’t have an answer for you.

Too often in business, we’re afraid to say “mi nah no” or the equivalent when a client, customer, or prospective employer asks a question and we don’t have an answer ready.  To avoid appearing ignorant, we’ll hem and haw while trying to think of something, or give a partial answer, or desperately attempt to change the subject.  By refusing to admit ignorance, we come off seeming foolish or unresponsive.

When you encounter this situation, instead of trying to hide your ignorance, you should acknowledge the question and say directly that you don’t have an answer at the moment, but also make it clear that you will get an answer as soon as possible.  After all, if you asked someone a question, wouldn’t you prefer an honest admission of ignorance (followed by an eventual answer) to someone who didn’t admit ignorance but never got around to answering the question?

Sometimes the answer will only take a bit more thought, and you can provide it by the end of the conversation.  Other times the answer will require facts you don’t currently have, and you’ll need to contact the questioner once you’ve had a chance to find the answer.  In either case, the important thing is that you let the other person know when they will have an answer, and then actually get it to them.

 If you don’t have an answer right now, say so, and then follow up.

Once I was helping a client practice for a job interview for a marketing position at a consumer products company.  Playing the part of the interviewer, I asked him what he would do if I wanted him to do a line extension for the company’s bottled water product.  For some reason this question completely threw him, leaving him at a loss for words.  So I called time-out on the interview and explained to him that if he didn’t have an immediate answer for a question it was okay to say so, as long as he provided an answer as soon as possible.

In the actual job interview, my client was again asked a question which floored him – “Why would your last boss not hire you?” – but this time he knew how to handle the situation, and replied that he didn’t have an answer right now, but would by the end of the interview.  And by the end, he did have an answer, and he explained that he was initially thrown by the question since he was quite sure his last boss would hire him, if given the chance, but after thinking about it he realized the question was meant to find out what his weaknesses were, and he proceeded to list them (since everyone should go into a job interview with an answer to the “weaknesses” question).  By admitting he didn’t have an immediate answer, and then following up, he had managed to save the interview.



Get an outside assessment of your strengths

It’s notoriously difficult to view yourself objectively from the outside, and the ability to do so is highly prized.  As the poet Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

While complete objectivity may be hard to achieve, there is a simple exercise you can do that goes a long way towards it and can give you some useful insights into how you are perceived by others.

Make a list of your top three strengths, and ask five other people to list what they consider your top three strengths.

Ask people who know you well, and include a mix of co-workers and friends.  Once you have all the lists, compare them – you may be surprised at the result.  A major business school where I consult has its students perform this exercise, and they are often shocked at how different other’s opinions are from their own.  The shock is sometimes unpleasant, when students learn that what they consider their greatest strength doesn’t even make the lists of outside assessors.  But the shock can also be pleasant, when they learn that something they considered unimportant or easy is perceived by others as a major strength.  What they learn about how “ithers” see them helps as they position themselves in the career marketplace.

I had one client at Core Allies, LLC who was a wiz at coming up with creative financing for deals.  But he didn’t think of it as an important skill because it was so easy for him; he assumed it was equally easy for everyone.  I had him do this exercise, and he learned that on the contrary his skill at financing deals was highly regarded.  This new information changed his work life.  By focusing on his strengths, both in his projects and his yearly review, he became much happier at work.


What does your client or boss really need?

My husband recently changed careers and became a librarian, which involved returning to school to earn a master’s degree in library science.  One of the courses he took, called “Reference/Information Services,” was an introduction to being a reference librarian – the type of librarian who traditionally sits behind the reference desk and answers inquiries from library patrons.  Much of the course was an introduction to the many sources, both online and in print, that a librarian can use to find answers.  But he also learned about the “reference interview” – the process librarians use to understand and clarify the questions they are asked.

In library jargon, as my husband explained it to me, library patrons have “information needs” that drive them to the reference desk in the first place.  But the patrons may not be able to fully articulate their needs, and it is the goal of the reference interview to elicit further information to fully understand the need.  For example, in a college library it is fairly common for a student to ask for an “article” on a particular topic.  A lazy librarian could appear to fulfill this request by quickly finding anything on the topic.  A more conscientious librarian would first ask a series of questions to discover the underlying need that led to the question.  Does the student need the article for a particular assignment?  Does it need to be from a peer-reviewed academic journal, or a popular newspaper or magazine?  Does the student need an article written at an introductory level or something more advanced?  Does the student really need an article at all – perhaps their real question could be better answer with an encyclopedia, a book, or a web site?  Only after the librarian understands the student’s information need can he or she fulfill that need.

This idea of finding out and giving people what they really need rather than what they ask for doesn’t just apply to libraries; it’s a useful skill in many areas of business.  If you are a consultant hired by a client for a particular task, you may not be able to fully satisfy the client unless you dig deeper and find out what need led them to seek your help – simply giving your client what they ask for may not be the best way to keep them happy.  Or if you are an employee, your manager will usually tell you what you should be doing, often by setting formal goals and objectives.  But if you can find out what your manager needs – often by finding out what measures upper management is using to evaluate your manager – you are more likely to be able to keep your manager happy.

 "Find out what your client or manager needs, not just what they ask for."

A colleague of mine recently told me of an experience that is a perfect example of the importance of a “reference interview.”  She is a Customer Response Management specialist, meaning she is an expert on setting up call centers – the rooms full of people who answer the phone when you call a company’s support number (assuming, of course, you manage to talk to a real person).  Not long ago she was contracted by a growing consumer electronics company to create and hire staff for a new customer call center.

Although my colleague had been hired to create a new call center, before doing so she talked to people in the company to find out why they needed the new center.  She found that the company’s products were so successful that their current call center was swamped with calls, resulting in long waits and frustrated customers, and the company wanted the new center to help handle the load.  Looking closer at the volume of calls, she discovered that most of them were being handled quickly, and a relatively small number of calls were holding everything up.  The call center staff spent a disproportionate amount of time on the few really difficult customer problems – often having to put the customer on hold and track down one of handful of people in the call center who were really experts on the products.

Instead of a costly new call center, my colleague solved her client’s problem by reorganizing the existing call center.  Using automated screening, difficult customer queries were routed directly to the call center’s small core of experts, while standard questions went to the rest of the staff.  Simply by instituting this two-tiered approach, wait times were dramatically shorted, and the number of calls the center could effectively handle was greatly increased, at much less cost to the company than staffing another whole call center.

By conducting a “reference interview” to find out what her client actually needed, as opposed to what they told her they wanted, my colleague was able to do a better job of solving their underlying problem, and saved them a lot of money in the process.


Want to motivate your employees?

Today I came across this great Fast Company video from Dan Pink How to Motivate People: Skip the Bonus and Give Them a Real Project . Ella (my daughter 6) and I watched it this morning and she said "Wow Mom I never knew your work was so fun."  Granted she liked the idea that she might some day be able to draw that fast, but hey, I'll take her adoration any way I can get it.

It is from 2010, but was referenced by a blog in August from Fast Company,

Want To Keep (And Motivate) Your Best Employees? It's Not About The Money.