The hard parts

The parts that are uncomfortable

The bits that no one else really wants to do

The things that make you feel exposed

And stretched

And outside of your comfort zone

The things that make it clear that what you thought it was going to take to get this done wasn’t right at all.  The funding isn’t there. The strategy hasn’t been sorted out. The roles and responsibilities aren’t clear enough. The team is too small and it doesn’t have all the right skills.  We’re just not where we need to be, and fixing things is going to be a heck of a lot harder than we expected.

All this really messy stuff?

That’s why we need you.

It’s because it’s hard that the work hasn’t been done….yet.

Posted in Linchpin | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

But that’s what I’d said!

There’s a stage in one’s professional life that is defined by spending our days figuring out right answers. Do this analysis. Value this company. Research this donor. Share your recommended plan of action.

This is an important skill to develop – we need to be able to understand a problem, take it apart, find out an answer and share that answer with others. But the half-life on this sort of approach is shorter than it initially appears. More often than not, the right answer is only worth the paper it’s written on, since what really matters is what people do. Indeed, Nate Silver’s great book The Signal and the Noise points out that pundits with the strongest opinions are most often wrong, even though they of course get the most air time. One of the tough realizations as we progress in our careers is that the right answer or the best analysis is nearly always a small part of the equation in getting people to act.

At a certain point, what the world is asking of us is that we to get out of the audience. The world doesn’t need more critics, sitting back with arms akimbo, taking mental notes for tomorrow’s water cooler conversation. We need more protagonists, people willing to take the risk of standing on stage, being on the line to make things happen.

What role are you playing?

Here’s a nice test: what do you think, and do, each time something goes wrong when you had been on the other side of the argument? What goes through your head each time someone else says what you were thinking (or said) in last week’s meeting, but it’s their comment that turns the conversation?

The safe, self-validating approach is to say, “You see, they should listen to me. I was right.”

But what really makes change is to use that as a moment of introspection to ask, “What is it that I’m doing, or not doing, that my great ideas aren’t shifting the way people think and act?”

And if it turns out that the reason they listened to that other gal, and not to you, is because of who she is – the experience she has or the position she holds – then go ahead and spend your time trying to influence her thinking. That counts too.

Just finding the answers, though, isn’t nearly enough. You can do more.

(Of course, the same logic applies to “I created great art, it’s not my fault that no one wants to see it.”)

Posted in Change | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

This Leads to This

We get rapid-fire requests every day, and often end up beating them back with a stick.

As in: can you….write a quick response here? ….help this new potential Board Member better understand the program that you run? …meet with this journalist for 45 minutes? …share your 200 word biography for this conference? …write the first draft of our next quarterly newsletter? …give the team a 60 second update on what you’re focused on this week.

Most of the time, when we’re asked questions like this, a quiet internal narrative takes over, often with a dollop of panic: “I need to be really complete” “I’ve gotta to show them I’m on top of things” “So and so will be mad if I don’t include something about their work” “Why are you asking me that question????!”

Put another way, so often when we’re in the “answering the question mode” we feel put on the spot, and our deep desire to “do a good job” takes over in a way that shuts off any real sense of strategy or purpose.

The antidote to this natural response is to get into the discipline of saying out loud (or just to yourself):

I would like THIS (update, letter, email, 1-on-1 conversation, speech) to lead THIS person to do THIS.

Each and every time, I have the chance to start with clarifying, to myself, that this thing I am doing will create, for a small number of people (maybe just one), a specific response, a specific change, a specific action. Achieving that change is the purpose of what I’m doing.

*phew* that helps.

Step 1, then, is being able to say what that change is in what kind of person.

Step 2 is, for every word you write or say, for who you look at, for how you stand, for how you dress, for the words you choose, and, most important, everything you decide not to say…every thing is in service of that single purpose. Everything utterance that doesn’t help you achieve that goal becomes extraneous or, worse, undermines that purpose.

Here’s a nice test: when we brief someone on your next _______ (speech, email campaign, fundraising meeting, brief at the staff meeting), what do we tell him? If we dive in to “here’s how we do this, this is the content we have to cover,” we’re failing the “this leads to this” test. Whereas if we start with, “we’re trying to reach THIS kind of person to tell them THIS part of our story so that they will do THIS,” we are very much on the right track.

And every time someone on your team says “can we stop talking about this purpose stuff and just get on to creating the _______ (document, email, video, etc.) you’re well within your rights to say, “Actually, until we know what we’re trying to do here, I’m pretty sure that’s the only conversation we should be having.”

Posted in marketing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Six months later

When I was in business school, private equity was all the rage. I’d never been an investment banker, and I didn’t even really understand what private equity was, but I did throw my hat into the ring for a few private equity jobs.

The notion of actually getting any of these jobs filled me with dread. I had no passion for that work, and I only managed to land interviews with lesser-known firms where the people I met seemed to truly dislike their jobs and the lives they’d signed up for for the next 5-10 years. I vividly remember the pit I’d get in my stomach waiting for these firms’ final decisions – fearing I might actually get one of the jobs I’d applied for.

When I did get a couple of those job offers, I remember discussing them with classmates who said I had no choice but to take them. Objectively I was not qualified, yet I’d managed to get my foot in the door. I should take the job to learn the ropes, as a stepping stone to the next one and the next one and… My friends essentially rolled their eyes at me for even considering turning the jobs down.

One person, not a classmate, shared a different perspective. He said, “six months from now, all of these people who are telling you what to do, all of these people whose approval feels really important right now, they’ll all be gone. Six months from now it will just be you sitting at that desk at whatever hour of the day. Not them, you. Think of how you’ll feel six months from now when you’re the one doing the job. That will tell you what you should do.”

This isn’t a post about following our passions. Even the chance to follow a true passion only comes up once in a while – most of the time we don’t know what our passions are or we don’t have the skills, the perspective or the wisdom to really make the dent we dream of making in the universe.

But we do, each and every day, and especially when we are at real junctures in our lives, have the opportunity to understand the choices we make. They are our choices, and the minute we own them is the minute we understand who it is who is walking our path.

It is only us.

Posted in decisions | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Garlic Mashed Potatoes

For a period of about five years, whenever we’d go out to a restaurant either my wife or I would order the dish with the garlic mashed potatoes. They were so yummy and creamy and decadent, with heaps more butter and garlic than we’d ever dare cook in at home. It pretty much didn’t matter what the main dish was.

Once garlic mashed potatoes began appearing on every menu, the allure went away. But the power of the surprise, the power of the side dish, hasn’t. As in, I just ate a take-out bowl of lentil chili, and at the bottom of the bag I discovered a completely unexpected corn muffin, which was really good. Not great enough, on its own, to make me go back next week nor (better still) so good that it’s really worth talking about, but still pretty darn good and worth remembering.

The thing about the garlic mashed potatoes or the corn bread is that they allow you, for once, to define the terms of the game. You rarely get to set expectations  – expectations mostly arrive in force when your customers show up – meaning you’re usually running as fast as you can to meet/not meet:surpass those expectations.  But with a side dish, with an unexpected surprise, you have the luxury of competing in a category that your customer didn’t even expect. It’s like applying for a job that hasn’t been posted yet: yes, you still have to be amazing, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to blow people away when they’re not busy systematically comparing you to the other 500 people whose names came in over the transom.

The garlic mashed potatoes is the best handwritten note your customer got all week (they haven’t received any), the phone call when everyone is busy filling their inbox. It’s showing up in person when everyone else is calling; giving a presentation with no slides when everyone who came before you bored them with a thousand bullet points; doing something wildly generous when you really, truly, have nothing to gain. It’s not being different for difference’s sake – garlic mashed potatoes are still dinner, after all – it’s doing something fabulous and unexpected that’s relevant to the core story you’re telling them.

Go ahead, why don’t you whip up a hot, piping batch of garlic mashed potatoes?

Posted in delight | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

When it works

The line at my local Chipotle looks like this each and every day at lunchtime, with 20+ people on line and more streaming through the door.  And each time I’m there, I’m in and out in 7 minutes or less.

chipotle

Conversely, there’s a lovely little bakery across the street from my office called Amy’s Bread. Most everything there is delicious (though wildly expensive), and I’d be there once a week if it weren’t for the fact that if Amy’s has anything more than four customers working their way through the line at the same time, their system grinds to a halt and it can take 10 minutes to get a salad and a piece of bread (let alone a hot pannini – 15 minutes or more!).

What’s going on here?  The fact is, it’s easy for us to spend our time time and energy focused on what went wrong: the customer that got away, the sale that didn’t close, the photo that we sent that didn’t pop as much as it should have, the pitch meeting that got off track and ended before it really started. What about the value we can create by making sure that everything goes just right when things go exactly the way they’re supposed to go?

What do we do when we come across a funder (customer) for whom our story completely aligns with their worldview, someone who jumps in quickly with both feet ready to help in a real way? Do we go above and beyond to make her experience more extraordinary, more remarkable, and more worth talking about than her wildest expectations?  Or, right after “closing the sale,” do we run around after the next potential customer or, worse, are we too busy breaking a sweat doing backflips for our loudest, most disgruntled customer – never mind that they might be the wrong customer for us – that we don’t pay enough attention to anybody else?

Step 1 is figuring out who, exactly, we are trying to serve, what their worldview is, the emotional change we expect to happen when they come in contact with our story, and what action we would like them to take when we’ve succeeded in making that change.

*phew* we say. Success. We did ALL of those hard things.

Yes, it’s success, and it’s just the start. The most important, value-added part we can do is to make sure that our perfect customer is beyond delighted after they become our customer.

Chipotle knows exactly what to do when 10 hungry people walk through the door on the hunt for a hot, fresh burrito.

Are you also ready to delight your best customers when they say “YES, I’m buying what you’re selling”?

Posted in Customers | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Word Economy

Most emails are too long. And most emails, long or short, are either emotional deserts or they transmit the wrong emotional content.

Short is the only solution to email overload, and radical email shorthand is employed by nearly all the successful busy people I know. But it only works if you pick words that transmit feeling too.

One word shorthand for…

Friendly: Hey, hi, please, help, okay, great

Informal: yeah, yup, nah, sure, yo, …,

Aggressive: just (“it’s just that”), never mind, forget it

Dismissive: whatever (…you want), fine, c’mon

Connection: thank you, truly, warmly, visit (with), sorry

Encouraging: go for it!, absolutely, fabulous, super, yes!

“Just the facts” is a nice idea. But like it or not we’re communicating emotions, even in six words or less.

Posted in emotions | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment