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August 2007

Welcome to the Microscope

182716538_2ba6dd097b_m_2As a leader in your company, do understand that you are under the microscope at all times?  Yes, I mean at all times.  Any time someone in your organization can see, hear, or smell you - the mircoscope is on. 

You are being analyzed for flaws, consistency, honesty, ethics, integrity, and even if you are worthy of the position you hold.  I am sorry to say that there are too many leaders that are clueless to what I just said.  They have let ego and power pollute their leadership.

These polluted leaders are the ones that criticize their employees, down grade them, play games, and complain about how everyone in the company takes advantage of them and the company.  Soon they are always complaining about everyone and no one measures up.

Then when they try to initiate culture change, they wonder why it does not work.  If you want change, then as a leader you better know and understand the cultural microscope you are under.  It all starts with you.  You must exemplify what you are trying to achieve or change.  When you start to get it, then so will those you lead. 

Flickr photo by DarkMark

Don't have time for reading? Let technology help.

I love to read.  But... I don't have much time for it.Experiment

With early morning meetings... my reading sessions at sunrise tend to get cut short.

And... even though I go to bed with a book... with good intentions of reading for a while...  I usually fall asleep after digging into just a paragraph or two.  (In fact, my wife doesn't let me read hefty-hardcover books in bed any more.  I was too prone to dropping them on my face as I zonked out!)

How about you?

Do you enjoy reading but wrestle with the clock on finding the time to do it?

Well... technology has launched some options to help the too-busy-not-to-read crowd!

One big announcement came from XM Radio this week.  On September 10th, they are launching The Big Read in which celebs like Robert Duvall, Sandra Day O'Connor and Colin Powell are going to read classic novels for 30 minutes at a time.  The broadcasts will air three times a day.  So... you can catch installments of Fahrenheit 451 or the Great Gatsby while you're in your office... your car... or at home making dinner.

Another option is the growing number of titles that are available on itunes.  You can grab an audio version of many of the current best sellers (as well as many lesser-known titles) for your ipod.  So, instead of listening to 30 minutes of bad news as you jog on the treadmill in the morning... you can get filled up on some great new ideas or go on an wild adventure with your favorite secret agent.

So... again... if you're short on reading time... maybe listening to a book might make it an option.

Lastly, I will say that my wife, Melissa, always says there's nothing better than cracking open an actual book and pouring over the pages one by one.  So... if you're in that camp... and the new technology isn't an option... then hearing from the author of the Harry Potter series... J.K. Rowling... on her strategy for making time to read might help.  (click here to check it out). 

Either way... grab a book (a paper and glue version or an electronic version)... dig in... refresh... and enjoy!

By the way... how do you find time?  What are your strategies for making time to read?  Click "comments" and join in the conversation.

Photo credit: sweet destin

Auto Manufacturer Parts versus After-Market Parts

Mercedes_1_2 I always try and throw in a true story every now and then to keep things interesting. I was out at Glen Oaks for a golf tournament - watching, not playing, of course.  The day had started to wind down and I was walking back to a friend’s house where I had parked.

It was hard not to notice this beautiful, white 2006 Mercedes Benz CLK Class convertible parked at the very bottom of one of the driveways I passed.  Now, the cost for this vehicle is somewhere between $54k and $83k.  A small car but not a small price tag!

As I walked by, I heard loud music and the engine of some supped up, jacked up truck. The very young driver of this pickup started backing down the driveway when all the sudden I heard what sounded like a tin can crumpling in someone’s hand. 

The truck had struck the Benz and was hung up.  The driver - not knowing what had happened - began to give it a little gas. That's when I saw the entire front quarter panel on the driver's side of the Mercedes peeled back like a banana. 

The driver - still hung up - must have thought it would now be better to go forward. His pickup was too high and so he couldn't see the little convertible that he was hung up on.  It was like an electric can opener magnetically taking the lid off of a can of green beans.  I could see clear inside the car. May I remind you of the $83,000? 

What should the insurance carrier use to fix the car?

The controversy is this: does the insurance company use original equipment (OEM) or after market (non-OEM) parts.  How would you feel about your expensive little Mercedes getting after market parts on it?  Is a replacement headlight OK?  What about the hood or front quarter panel?  This is a huge on-going debate.  Check out this article and read more about this ongoing debate.

If you think you know what your auto insurance covers - whether personal or business - take another look. And ask some questions.

The Feng Shui Blessing and Purging

Feng_shui_tips_3I looked at the project plan for the facilities move with my client.  We had been working for weeks, ensuring that all of the tasks had been identified, that they had been sequenced correctly, that the right resources had been assigned, and that they had the correct work effort and duration assigned to them.

Because my client contact worked for a company with strong Far East influences, he suddenly remembered one critical task which had to be complete before the owners would allow them to operate in their new warehouse/office facility:  they would be bringing in a resource to perform a Feng Shui Blessing and Purging... you know, get rid of any evil spirits from prior occupants of the land, make sure that the chi was flowing freely in the right directions, that kind of thing.

I didn't bat an eye or crack a smile.  I asked him the same questions I would ask when faced with any other task I'd never heard of before:

  • What has to be complete before the Blessing and Purging can take place?
  • What is dependent on the Blessing and Purging?  Can we move in furniture and complete wiring?  (Evidently, evil spirits won't affect wiring, even though many I.T. guys have tried to convince me otherwise.)
  • What kind of resource do you need and how long will it take them to perform the Feng Shui Purging and Blessing?  (For the record, it takes two skilled Feng Shui holy people - sorry, don't know their technical title - approximately 2-4 hours to complete this task for a 50,000 square foot facility.)

So you see, the excuse of "we've never done this task before" is just that:  an excuse.  If somebody is smart enough to identify that a task needs to be done, then they become your point person for answering these simple questions to allow your project plan to keep going.  I've found that if they balk at answering these questions, I'll sometimes threaten to remove their task (blame the contrarian in me).  It's amazing how quickly they come up with answers.

The quick solution is this:

  • Find people (it may require talking to someone outside your company) who have some familiarity with the task and will help you.  If possible, avoid talking to consulting or software salespeople when seeking this kind of help; you won't get a straight answer and the result may be the same as feeding a stray neighhborhood mongrel.
  • Use estimating techniques such as the PERT tool, analogous or parametric estimating, etc.  These may all sound technical and frightening, but I've yet to hear of an aspiring project manager losing life or limb in the process.  Just follow the links I've provided and if you still get stuck, contact me.
  • Sometimes you have to be brave, suck it up, and just give a silly wild a** guess (SWAG) based on what you know at the time.  Provide a few assumptions about why you are estimating the way you are.  If your project stakeholders know up front that you're providing an "educated guess" they tend to be more forgiving when the estimate needs to be adjusted.

Changes are high that you will come across your own Feng Shui Purging and Blessing.  But instead of shrugging in the defeat that you've never done this before, you can now keep your head on straight and get your project chi flowing nicely.

Carpe Factum!

"Your Call May Be Recorded" is a Two-Way Street

Comcast_5 CNN and Money.com recently announced their 101 Dumbest Moments in Business. It's an interesting list, and one worthy of a few good chuckles and a great illustration or two for your upcoming presentation. The Grand-Prize winner for the dumbest moment in Customer Service came compliments of Comcast, whose installer fell asleep on the couch of customer Brian Finkelstein. Finkelstein took the opportunity to video tape the scene and it quickly became one of the most watched videos on the web. While Comcast apologized and fired the installer, there was no getting around the fact that the installer fell asleep while on hold for over and hour waiting for Comcast themselves to answer the phone. The negative word-of-mouth continues months later.

Companies regularly record calls to provide accountability and training. We're all used to the phrase "your call may be recorded to ensure quality service." But the recording of service experiences is quickly  becoming a two-way street. Get ready. Your customers may be recording phone calls to your customer service department and sharing them with the public. Some companies are welcoming the challenge. The Geek Squad even tells customers on their front-end IVR to go ahead and record the experience, if they wish.

Is your company ready for customers to record your calls and service experiences?

A Dose of Social Media Reality

Are you among the thought-followers thinking that Social Media and Social Networking is a fad?  Fad or not, there are some thing you may not know:

  • There are over 500 groups specific to Des Moines at Facebook? Several are either for or against local businesses. Is this a tool you can use to build a community of customers?
  • That even though folks like Todd Mundt are sharing several pages from the Des Moines Register, The Juice and Des Moines Business Record - these publications don't maintain archives -- which means they kill the sharing capabilities of users.
  • Speaking of Todd Mundt - Dig the way he shares top stories from his Google Feeds
  • Surprisingly, there's only 184 Twitter-ers who claim Iowa as home.
  • A Google Blog Search for the phrase "Business in Iowa" brings up over 4,500 results.
  • Over 17,000 videos have been tagged "iowa" at YouTube.
  • With all the blogs listed at IowaBlogs.Net - I'll bet some of them are customers (prospects?)

Here's the thing: If you don't pay attention now - you may pay the price later. Even if it is a fad - why not tap into the power and people now?

Make sure the pluses exceed the pain

Clock I can remember being a little kid and going with my mom as she changed from one bank to another.  There was a display table in the lobby covered with stadium blankets, an AM/FM radio/alarm clock, an umbrella, a camping flashlight and a bunch of other cool stuff.

Free gifts or incentives for changing banks.

Back in the early 70's, banking was pretty simple.  Conveniences like payroll direct deposits, ACH auto payments, recurring payments and online banking hadn't even been conceived.

So, it was pretty easy to lure a customer to your bank.  Offer to deposit $5 to a new account or toss in a free stadium blanket.  But times have changed. 

The pain of changing bank accounts is significantly higher today.  You have to call the phone company, the utilities, switch your direct deposit, re-create your entire online bill pay set-up, and cancel all your auto payments.  Ugh.  We often stay with a bank we don't even like, rather than go through the hassle of making a change.

Today, I received a postcard offering me a personal coffee maker if I'd change banks.  Are you kidding me?  Go through all that pain for a $10 coffee maker?   No thanks.

The moral of this story? Make sure the incentive you are offering is commiserate with the pain of becoming your customer.  Otherwise, the message you are sending is that you're out of touch and don't understand where your potential customer is coming from.

Taste that contract before you steal it . . .

Contract . . . because if you don't, having it rammed down your throat is going to be a mighty unpleasant experience. 

This week Rush Nigut wrote a great post on his blog about copying other companies' employee handbooks. I see the same thing when it comes to companies and their online contracts.

The thing about stealing contracts is that, like smoking, one puff is probably not going to kill you. Over time, however, your three pack a day habit is going to catch up to you in an ugly way. By the time a problem arises, it is often too late to stave off disaster.

The beautiful thing about online commerce is its scalability. For not too much extra effort, you can increase your sales tenfold. Unfortunately, bad decisions, like stealing contracts,  can increase your liability tenfold as well.

I have seen companies steal terms of use agreements and privacy policies from websites that have nothing to do with their line of business. Not even taking the time to read the contracts, they unwittingly leave in the original company's name, address and preferred jurisdiction. An Iowa company looks pretty awkward explaining to a court why their contract dispute should be tried in Albuquerque.

Terms in contracts are construed against the drafter. If you leave in an ambiguity, the court will read it in favor of the people suing you. That is why lawyers take such care in customizing contracts to your business and its goals.

Standard terms of use policies and online contracts are relatively inexpensive. If you need a lot of custom changes to the standard policy, the cost goes up. The more customization your company requires, however, the more likely a stolen contract would have gotten you into hot water by failing to address the unique aspects of your company. 

Finally, there are a few attorneys out there that take a special pride in drafting online contracts from scratch. They also take particular umbrage at people stealing the fruits of their labor. Sometimes even going so far as to include a unique string of words in their contracts which makes the contracts easy to Google-trace. 

So even before your stolen contract has an opportunity to get you in hot water with your clients, it may get you an copyright infringement injunction which shuts down your entire website.

First, Stop Digging.

There's a lot of wisdom in the old advice on getting out of holes.  It applies just as much when you get in a hole with the tax authorities.

One of the most common ways taxpayers get in a hole with the IRS is by failing to deposit withholdings and payroll taxes on time.  The penalties are stiff, so the hole gets very deep very fast.  How stiff? If you are one to five days late, you pay a 2% penalty.  If that doesn't seem bad, think about it this way: if you are the full five days late, you are borrowing from the IRS at an effective annual rate of 146%.  If you are only one day late, the effective APR is 730%.  Even car title loans are better than that.

The penalty rate jumps to 5% on day 6, then to 10% on day 16, and eventually to 15%.  Meanwhile, interest accrues the whole time on the whole thing at the IRS underpayment rate.

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A Minnesota business is learning about the dangers of getting behind on payroll taxes in a very stern school - the federal court system.  It got off to a bad start with the IRS, falling behind on payroll taxes in 1997, its first year.  Twice it negotiated installment agreements to get caught up, and twice it failed to keep up with either the installment plans or its ongoing payroll tax responsibilities.  The Eighth Circuit court of Appeals stopped the music this month; it allowed the IRS to levy on the business to collect $2.5 million in unpaid taxes.

Each year the IRS will tell you how quickly you need to deposit your payroll taxes.  New taxpayers find this out shortly after they apply for their employer identification number.  Be sure to be current - at best, paying late is an expensive way to borrow, and it can become a fatal habit.

Further reading: IRS Tax Workshop on depositing payroll taxes.

Find a Networking Partner

One of the biggest fears in networking could be the easiest to overcome.  The fear I'm talking about is attending an event alone and not knowing if you'll know anybody in the room.  This often causes people to avoid networking events and ultimately could lead to not getting that big client you've been hoping to sign up.

How would that be easy to overcome?  Simple.  Take a networking partner with you.  They don't have to be your best friend from high school, but they should be someone you're comfortable with.  They should also have a good grasp of what it is you do and what potential clients you're looking to meet.

When you have a networking partner, make sure you introduce yourselves to people in the room.  It helps break down social barriers and may lead to that client introduction you've been seeking.

Employees vs. Independent Contractors

Small Business Owners - Beware!  If you own or manage a small business you live in a world of substantial legal risks and increasing complexity.  It is easy to find examples of practices that once have been common but now could give rise to employment lawsuits.  One such example I often hear is "I'll just call my workers independent contractors and avoid the hassles of employees."

Construction_worker

Many businesses make the mistake of treating employees as an independent contractors so they can save money on taxes, red tape and benefit coverage.  The risks associated with this approach is often not worth it.

Businesses that misclassify workers often find themselves embroiled in wage and hour lawsuits or workforce development audits.  These businesses could also face tax penalities and lack of insurance coverage in key liability situations.

Often, businesses treat employees as independent contractors because they fail to fully understand the distinction between the two categories.  The most important difference is whether or not you have the right to control the work.  Other factors, such as where the work is performed, who provides the equipment, how payment is made and if there are set hours, also play an important role.

Generally, an employee is someone whose manner of work the employer has a right to control, even if the employer does not actually exercise that control.  True employees are sometimes known as W-2 employees because of the W-2 form issued to them for federal income tax purposes. 

On the other hand, an independent contractor is someone you engage to perform a certain task, but whose manner of work you do not have the right to control.  You have the right to tell your independent contractor what it is you want done, and you remain free to dismiss them if you do not like the work (depending on your contractual arrangement).  Ultimately though it is the results you are interested in.  The manner in which the results are accomplished is up to the independent contractor and is not subject to your control.  An independent contractor is given a 1099 form to report income for federal tax purposes.

If you have questions about whether to treat workers as employees or independent contractors be sure to consult with an employment or tax lawyer.  This area of the law is more complicated than just the control issue.  Tax lawyer Tripp Atkins is currently analyzing the 20-factor IRS test for determining an employee or independent contractor on his blog.

The safest course is to treat workers as employees if the workers' status as an independent contractor could reasonably be questioned.   

Photo on Flickr by Partsnpieces.   

Leadership Litmus Test

Followers It's all about influence. If you want to be a leader (not just a manager), you have to be influential. That means others willingly follow you, not because of your position, your power, your accomplishments. They follow you because they want to, not because they have to.

  1. The smartest people aren't necessarily leaders. We all know very bright people in high paying positions whom no one would willingly follow.
  2. The most progressive people aren't necessarily leaders. Being first doesn't make a person a leader -- unless others are intentionally following them, acting on their visions, as the individuals break new ground.

You're a leader if you make things happen. If you move people in a new direction.

Want to test your influence skills? Try leading a group of volunteers...people you can't fire, promote or punish. Oh, they can quit. But you don't really hold any power over volunteers in most cases.

So what are the qualities that separate those who have influence from those who don't?

Those with influence:

  • Sincerely care about people
  • Build strong, positive relationships
  • Actively listen
  • Are able to see things from others' perspectives
  • Balance humility with confidence
  • Demonstrate strong dialogue skills

We've all seen the quote: "He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk." If you can't influence others, they won't follow you. And if others won't follow you, you're not a leader. That's the litmus test.

Photo on flickr by http://www.flickr.com/photos/9424618@N05/

The Blessed Word - Forgive

605742531_c8550c450f_3I am sure you know people who live in the past.  A victim of circumstance, heredity, society, work, or some other significant event in life.  You feel for the story the first, second,and maybe even the third time, but at some point you start to mutter to yourself get over it.  Take ownership and get on with your life and quit dragging me down.

In your work place do you have victims or owners?  If your culture embraces forgiveness, I would bet you have owners not victims.  The type of employee that steps up to their mistakes, understands that business is not easy, and they live their life in charge of it, fully owning it.

As an owner or manager of a business, do you portray the victim or the owner?  Do you forgive the mistakes of your employees or do you act the victim and never let them forget?  Remember you set the stage at your company.

Forgiveness is not easy at first, but over time and practice it is amazing how it will free the spirit and open new doors.  Forgiveness is not for public display, it comes from deep within your private self.  That is where true forgiveness shines and when your actions start to match the forgiveness given.  This is when the individual changes, and therefore organizations begin to change.  Forgive today and watch the results of this blessed word. 

Flickr photo by yching626

Could you limit yourself to only checking e-mail twice a day?

Back in May... I blogged about the power of saying "No!"

That sparked some discussions around coming up with a list of things to say "No" to. 

Why?  Well... by saying "No" to some things... you might be freed up to say "Yes" to more of the really important things in your work-life and your life-life.

Well... Tim Ferriss (author of the book 4-Hour Workweek) recently blogged about his "Not-to-do" list.Email_3

He has some excellent... but at-times harsh... suggestions.  Here are a few examples:

1. Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers.

4. Do not let people ramble

6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers

(See them all by clicking here)

I have to say that I really like a lot of his suggestions but the one that stands out for me... is his tip on checking e-mail.

Tim suggests not constantly checking your e-mail... but instead he suggests "batching" it and checking it only at 1 or 2 set times during each day. 

I like this concept because even though you can get some immediate satisfaction from knocking out e-mails throughout your day... it can quickly become a distraction that can eat up vital time that needs to be used for more important to-do's.

So... what do you think?  How might limiting your yourself to only checking e-mail once or twice a day... help you to manage your time better throughout the rest of the day?

What do you think?  Is it realistic?  Would it be worth a try?

Would it allow you to say "Yes" to the good stuff more often?

Click "comments" and jump in the conversation. 

Photo credit: Joeri van Veen

Joint Venture Coverage - No Big Deal

Handshake Many small businesses owners look for ways to leverage their business. Here’s what I mean.  Take two business owner’s with skills that the other needs.  Certain situations may arise where it is in their best interest to form a joint venture to capture a project. For example: It is a benefit for small business owners to collaborate when increasing their capital or financial resources could help land that deal of the century. 

Two companies come together and form a joint venture. No big deal, right?   Wrong! 

Business owners need to pay close attention to the scope of coverage a policy provides for joint ventures.  You might be the lucky one, purely by coincidence, and have a policy that automatically includes the your joint ventures as insureds. 

The most common form only covers joint ventures that are specifically listed on the policy. 

Where joint venture coverage is provided, it is typically limited to your liability arising out of your participation in the joint venture.  Joint venture partners are not covered for their liability arising out of the project.  That’s why it’s important for the business owner to add the joint venture to the policy before any services are performed. 

When it comes to insurance coverage for joint ventures I’ve made it seem very simple … but the policy also contains exclusions pertaining to performance guarantees, faulty workmanship, and damage to owned property. I will leave out any discusses concerning contractual liability at this time. You may also be dealing with claims-made coverage triggers. 

That new project you’re considering may be a great idea.  But be sure to call your agent to discuss any joint venture possibilities you may have in the works.

Photo on Flickr by Pisco Bandito

Prying or Priortizing

Square_roundAs a small business manager, this scenario should ring a bell:  You and all of your company resources are busy... VERY BUSY... lots of overtime... lots of stuff happening.  Then, something occurs and you need to add yet another project onto everybody's plate.  And since you're a small business manager, chances are good that your company views project management as "that stuff that happens when your 'day job' is over."  Am I right?

So, what do you do when that next really big thing swoops down and forces an "all hands on deck" level of effort to get it done?  Obviously, something has to give.  You can't fit 50 pounds of salt into a 5 pound bag.  If you add one more thing to people's to do lists, there will be resignations.  Last month, Mark Bower posted a useful article on guerilla ROI and how to build a really impactful project portfolio (a project management geek term for all the stuff you're working on in your company).  He brings up some good points, mainly about guerilla activity in your company being quick, pragmatic, focused, and resource-conserving.

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you KNOW what people are really working on in your organization?  If you don't, find out.  It doesn't have to be anything fancy.  If you are a low-tech person, write each project or initiative on 3x5 index cards and update it monthly.  If you are a high-tech person, use Excel, Access, or MS Project for these purposes.  We'll assume the low tech approach for the purposes of this discussion.

The next time the "BIG ONE" comes along and you need to figure out how to slot it in among the 15 zillion other things your company is working on, lay out every index card on a desk or table or warehouse floor.  Get out your sharpie markers and get ready to mark on each index card accordingly:

  • Place a RED DOT on each card where the project prevents you from being sued or fined (i.e., regulatory or lawsuit requirements)
  • Place a GREEN DOT on each card where the project will prevent you from going out of business in the next five years (urgent and critical activity to keep the lights on)
  • Place a BLUE DOT on each card where the project obviously, directly, and visibly supports your mission and strategy (including your product/service mix)
  • Place a YELLOW DOT on each card where the people in your company and/or your customers are excited about the project's completion
  • Place a BLACK DOT on each card where you fully understand the scope and impact of the project and you still want to spend money on it.

Now you can answer the question, "What has to go?"  Start by discarding the projects on the cards with no dots.  If those resources can be realigned to your new project, great.  Then look at the cards that have only black and/or yellow dots.  What can go from this stack?  The projects that can stay should be on cards that contain only green, blue, or red dots.  If you are still feeling overloaded, then it is time to seriously look at the triple constraint and make some hard decisions... decisions that only you as the leader in your company can make.

Carpe Factum!

"The Ultimate Question": Science or Snake Oil?

Surveys Being in the customer research business, our group was amazed a few years ago by the impact of Fred Reichheld's book The Ultimate Question. In a nutshell, Reichheld wrote that the willingness of your customers to recommend your business to others was a sure-fire forecaster of your companies growth. It seemingly provided companies with a magic bullet. Busy CEOs suddenly had one simple question that would tell them what they needed to know. For a time, it seemed that all of our clients wanted to rearrange their surveys to ask the 'ultimate question' and get their 'net promoter score'.

The Ultimate Question has recently come under tremendous fire in places like The Journal of Marketing. A recent article in Colloquy went so far as to liken The Ultimate Question debate to a matter of 'faith versus science'.

So what's the answer?! I've always appreciated the wisdom of Dr. Bob, one of my professors, who taught me that "truth is often found at the point of tension between the two extremes". It certainly applies the current Ultimate Question debate. The truth is that there is no magic bullet and asking one question is not going to give you a perfect crystal ball into your company's future. By the same token, I certainly don't believe that Reichheld deserves the total vilification he's receiving from detractors.

Having customers who are willing to promote your business to others is a positive sign that you're doing many things right. It's also a good indicator that you can expect to reap the profitable results of that customer loyalty. But, how do you get customers that satisfied? For that, you need to strategically ask a lot more questions.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and hfabulous

Wells Fargo Small Business Webcast

Wells My friend and fellow Blog Coach, Denise Wakeman will be part of the expert panel during tomorrow's Wells Fargo Small Business Webcast: Technology and Your Business at 1:00 PM Central.

Find out more and register for this free webcast to hear success stories from small business owners.

Web Strategy Must Reads

I always tell people I work with, Be the Resource. If you find something your readers will value, share it with them (and tell them how they can get it on their own).

In that spirit, here are a few pieces that you should read (and then subscribe to their RSS feeds - here's A Beginner's Guide to RSS):

Five rules for being clever/funny in ads

Att00074 You don't have to spend $2 million dollars on a Super Bowl commercial to have a creative ad that grabs people's attention.  What are some keys to having something that breaks through the clutter?

Try these 5 rules:

  1. Surprise your audience.  Do something they don't expect.
  2. Make sure it is relevant.  Funny for funny sake doesn't sell more product.  Remember your end game.
  3. No inside jokes.  Everyone should get it.
  4. Different medium = different funny.  You can be more esoteric in print ads because your audience has time to figure it out.  Outdoor -- they have about 5 seconds, so get to it quick.
  5. Clever funny always wins over mock someone funny.

Now, to get your week off to a bang, here's a couple more very clever ads to pique your interest.  Because of this medium, these are all visually creative.  But remember, you can create the same effect with words too.

Att00071_2

Att00044

What is Your Lawyer Hiding?

Voodoo Attorneys make money because they know things you do not. In the past, some attorneys  attempted to drive business by increasing the mystery associated with the profession. They did this by increasing the perception of the attorney/client knowledge gap. These attorneys parlayed hundred dollar words and a pedantic (I’ll only charge you $50 for that one) tone into repeat business. From the time I first entered the profession, however, I noted that these attorneys were typically the least knowledgeable and least skilled.

In addition to drumming up business, the witch doctor approach serves to conceal the attorneys lack of skill and knowledge. What better way to keep you from questioning my intelligence than making you feel stupid from the start. You might not like me, but you are much more likely to hire me than if you thought I was incompetent.

The good news is that clients now are far more savvy than they were even a decade ago. They know more about the law, ask better questions and do their research. Most of the new clients that walk into my office already know quite a bit about me and the law just from reading my blog. Starting the meeting with some sense of what they want and who I am allows us to cut right to the chase. 

The quality of legal representation is tied directly to how much pertinent information you provide to your attorney. Educating yourself about the area of law and your attorney can lower your bills and leverage the effectiveness of your legal representation.  The next time you need an attorney, see what the web has to say about him or her. Do some searching. Is there a lot of information about the attorney available? Does the attorney provide information about his or her specialized area of the law?

Or is the attorney hiding in a tiny corner of the Internet, hoping no one asks to see the man (or woman) behind the curtain.

Photo on Flickr by Balizm

Credits, Deductions and the Cigar Box

200708102You probably have met someone with new house that comes with bigger monthly payments than you thought they could afford.  The proud new buyer justifies the spending on the ground that "I needed the deductions."

That statement implies that a $1 tax deduction somehow generates more than $1 of tax savings.  Sadly, life doesn't work that way.  In running your business, its important to understand how much money a tax deduction really keeps in your pocket.

A deduction reduces your taxable income.  A tax rate is applied to that income, and you pay the result.  If you have $1000 taxable income and your tax rate is 25%, you pay $250 in tax.  If you then spend $100 on a deductible amount, your taxable income goes down to $900, and your tax at 25% is now $225.

So before you spent that $100, you had $750 in your cigar box: The $1000, less the $250 tax you had to pay.  After you spent the $100, you had $675 in the cigar box - $900 in income, less $225 in taxes.  Yes, you reduced your tax by $25, but you are $75 poorer for it.

Credits work differently from deductions.  A credit is a direct reduction of your tax, rather than your income.  If you had a $100 credit, instead of a $100 deduction, your $250 tax would become a $150 tax. 

Unfortunately, not many expenditures get you a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.  Credits are typically a percentage of the expenditure.  For example, spending $100 on a new machine under the old investment tax credit would get you a $10 credit, and you could depreciate the remaining $90 cost.

The Moral?  When you are looking at a business expenditure, it's nice that it helps you on your taxes, but the real test is whether you end up with more cash in the cigar box after all your taxes are paid.  Spend money because you need to for your business, not just because it reduces your taxes.

5 Tips on Getting and Staying Connected (5)

This is the 5th and final segment of a 5 part series (Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4)

The competitive marketplace is changing very rapidly.  As an Intrapreneur (Thanks Matt Owen for pointing me to that term) or an Entrepreneur, we all must be able to adjust and change accordingly.  One of the changes that is happening is our connectivity to other businesses.

Tip #5 - Make Introductions

Part of staying connected to others revolves around your ability to create success for others.  If you go out of your way to make filtered introductions to people in your network... Your network will grow and increase your odds for success.  Here are some thoughts/suggestions for making introductions.

  • Filter But Don't Worry.  This could also be said as, qualify but don't over-qualify.  If you constantly make introductions; you won't make a good match every time.  Do your best in the beginning and you'll get better as you grow.
  • Match Personalities.  One of the easiest ways to filter is to match attitudes and personalities.  People are driven by different things, so do your best to discover what that is and you're intro-success rate will increase. 
  • Give A List.  If you are highly connected you'll end up knowing people within competing industries.  Give someone a list to choose from of your trusted contacts and let them decide who they should choose to hire.
  • Disclose Compensation.  If you're on a commission basis with an introduction; it's my opinion that you should disclose that in the beginning.  This way the person you are meeting with knows there is a vested interest in the introduction.

I encourage everyone to build upon each part of this series.  After all, I believe the collaboration and connectivity among us will ultimately cause our marketplace to grow.  Let's share resources and challenge ourselves to create business success.

Business Strategies for Litigation

If you are in business long enough it is likely you will eventually face a dispute with a customer, employee or another business.  Are you prepared to face the challenge?

Anthony Zaller of the California Labor and Employment Law Blog provides some Tips on Litigation that expand on the sage advice from Sun Microsystems general counsel, Mike Dillon.  Here are the key strategies discussed:

  1. Litigate only when you have an important interest to protect.  Litigation is costly.  Very costly.  Many businesses may consider the cost of legal fees and other expenses but forget about the diversion of employee resources.  Time spent preparing for litigation is time spent away from the business.
  2. A non-judical resolution is almost always preferable.  You lose control whether you go to the judge, jury or arbitrator.  Consider mediation as an alternative.
  3. Litigate when you have a high degree of confidence you will prevail.  Bluffing is for weekend games of Texas Hold'em.  You need to carefully evaluate all aspects of the case when you file suit to ensure a favorable outcome.
  4. You litigate to win.  This means your board, management and employees fully support the decision to litigate and are willing to commit the resources necessary (time and expense) required to prevail.  It also means hiring seasoned litigation counsel that understands your business and objectives.

Zaller makes a great point that businesses should hire legal counsel BEFORE trouble occurs to develop and implement policies that 1) comply with the law and 2) assist the company when a lawsuit is filed.  He points out that No. 2 is important because not only do you need to comply with the law but you also need PROOF that you comply with the law.

I also agree wholeheartedly with Dillon's commentary regarding litigation:

... it's important to remember that litigation is just a tool. And, as with all tools, it is effective only when used dispassionately, in the right way and for the right reasons.

I often hear business owners and individuals say they want to pursue or defend a case because of the principle of the matter.  This initial emotional reaction tends to disappear after legal fees mount and resources are diverted from the actual operation of the business.  Win or lose, business owners rarely enjoy litigation.  Like Dillon, I encourage you to approach litigation dispassionately and consider the best business approach to ending your dispute.  Sometimes the best business approach means litigation is necessary but only after you have carefully evaluated all aspects of your case to determine how to prevail, or at the very least, extract yourself from the litigation under the most favorable settlement terms. 

How's your internal GPS working?

Gps As leaders, we all have an internal GPS of sorts. Something inside that innately tells us who we are and how we're doing in navigating the normal course of work. Some of us are fortunate to have a highly refined "system." For others, our sense of how we're "showing up" is deeply flawed. Meaning we have no idea how our behavior is coming across to the people who matter-- our employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Maybe even to our family members and friends.

For example, we might think we're being resourceful and being seen as problem-solvers.

  • Others see us as arrogant and a "know-it-all."

We think we're sharing responsibilities with others, delegating-for-development.

  • Others see us as shirking our responsibilities, getting by with doing less.

We like to engage others in processes and let them think for themselves.

  • Others think we're ignoring them.

For most of us, what causes this disconnect between ourselves and others is not a major personality disorder or some deep-seated character flaw. It's simply a blind spot.

It's behaviors or habits that we repeat dozens of times a day, or a week, in the workplace until they become our norm. And we all know what happens when behaviors --good or bad--become our norm. They feel so right; how could they be the problem? And thus begins the slippery slide into the pool of denial (which can muck-up even the most finely-tuned GPS mechanism!).

How can we make changes when we are blind to what needs changing? We have to do 3 things:

  1. We have to want to see the truth of how others see us,and we have to be sincerely willing to change if we need to.
  2. We have to ask for feedback from those who know us best, and make it safe for them to give it. (This is very ticklish. If you aren't sincere in #1., don't try #2!)
  3. We have to look to those same trusted individuals who've held up a mirror for us for help in getting better. This means listening. Very carefully. With no "yeah, buts...", only "thank yous."

Interested in learning more about uncovering and eliminating your blind spots? Check out Marshall Goldsmith's book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. It's sort of like an owner's manual for your internal GPS.

Photo on flickr by MelanieThomson

A Two Year's Old Attitude

260124504_5c525d2761_m_2 Why?

The favorite question of a two year old.  Why? The question that gets many employees in trouble.

We tolerate a two-year old's why attitude because we understand they are learning and figuring out how the world works.  In many companies there is no toleration for the why attitude - just do what you are instructed to do.  The best why answer we love - "Because we have always done that way".  I do not know about you, but that answer to my why raises the hair on my neck and I am ready to throttle someone. 

The new employee asks why when they first come aboard. Just like a two year old, they are trying to figure out their job and how they fit into the organization. So why is why so wrong? 

I know I have heard managers and owners ask why their employees do not work harder or why they do not appreciate everything they have done for them.  Why is it O.K. for them to ask why?  Hold On! - a classic line - we should be making more money I just do not understand why we are not.

I firmly believe if organizations and individuals stepped up to the question of why and made it safe, unbelievable things would happen.  So why are you waiting?  Why not try it?

Flickr photo by Jeanette LaBlanc

How do you balance things... if your office is 3 feet from your kitchen?

I recently had a coaching client who was making the move from working in a corporate setting to working from home. 

She was excited about joining the growing number of biz people who are making the move to an office in the home.  But she was also a little concerned about balancing things. 

Feet_on_desk_2How about you? 

Have you made the switch? 

If so... let me ask you a question.

Has it become easier to balance work and life... or has it become harder?

There are pluses... sure. 

The commute from the bedroom to the office is measured in footsteps instead of miles.  You can do some laundry during coffee breaks.  You can even raid your own refrigerator instead of spending $8 at a local sandwich shop.

So... yes... some things might be easier.

But... is there a potential downside?  Sure.

Your computer can call to you at all hours of the day and night... beaconing you to check e-mail just one more time.  Studies have also shown that it's easier to feel isolated when your only interpersonal connection during the day comes via the phone lines and high-speed internet. 

Another BIG issue is balancing work-life... with life-life... when the two worlds are so close together.

So what's a person to do?  How do you balance things?  How do you draw clear lines and set up effective boundaries? 

Those are the questions my client was asking.  They might be the questions you're asking too. 

For my client, we started to set up strategies for planning her day... so that she could end each day with a clear sense of accomplishment and with a clear expectation for the next day.

One solution was that she decided to set aside 30 minutes at the end of each day.  (She actually made an appointment with herself in her outlook calender.)  During that time she looked at her schedule for the next day along with her to-do list.

She would do some simple math to figure out how much time she had to work on her list of "to-do's" the following day. 

Her equation?  Total hours in work day - planned meetings = actual work time for "to-do's."

For example... let's say that Tuesday she was planning on working from 8 to 4:30.  She would look at her calendar and see that she had three one-hour teleconferences.  She also had a one hour lunch meeting with 30 minutes of commute time.  Plus, she had her 30 minutes of planning time.

So... 8.5 hours - 5 hours for meetings and planning = 3.5 hours for to-do's.

Then... she would look at her to-do's and decide on what she could realistically accomplish with that time. 

Lastly, she would build her to-do list for the next day based on the actual amount of work time she had.

This helped her come up with realistic goals for the next day.  Plus, it helped her to accomplish more in the time that she actually had.

She told me, "I feel more peace of mind by being able to close my lap top at the end of the day and know that even though there's a lot to do... I got everything done that I could.  AND that I know that I can come back tomorrow and go after it again.  It makes it easier to not feel like I have to be working all the time!"

Clear goals... and clear boundaries... that sounds pretty good to me!

How about you? 

How do you balance working from home?  Join in the conversation and share some of your strategies!

If you'd like a few more suggestions... check out Scott Young's 20 tips for working from home.

Photo credit: Cynner SF

A Knock On the Door

Door_knocker_2_2 It makes no difference if you are a small company with a few employees or a major corporation with thousands working for you.  The risk is real!  You could have an attorney knocking on your door tomorrow.  “Why?” you ask.  It all comes down to dollars and cents.  Claims are being paid ... and paid in a big way.

Have insurance companies created their own monster?  Lawyers structure continuing education classes around finding ways to attack insurance policies.  Books are being published out there that discuss trial tactics.  In reality, we need each other – attorneys and insurance companies, that is.

The problem that has been created is that the employee who could only obtain an attorney on a retainer basis can now find a law firm that is more than willing to work on a contingency fee basis.  Statistics vary from resource to resource but labor law firms report that if an employment-related claim goes to trial the employer will lose 60% of the time.  Are you willing to flip a coin? Heads you win, tails you lose.

Employment practices liability insurance coverage is a coverage every company should look into no matter what the employee count might be.  Claims arise from race discrimination, wrongful termination, race discrimination in compensation, promotions, hostile work environment, harassment, retaliation, discipline as well as sexual harassment.

Risk Management
Employers are targets and need to have a defense mechanism.  That mechanism is risk management.  A wise man once told me, never ever is everything covered.  Knowing that, a good risk management program can eliminate some of the risk. 

For example, do you have processes in place for job applications, employee evaluations, and disciplinary procedures?  These should all be outlined in your employee handbook to help eliminate some real headaches. 

Maybe you want to consider outsourcing your human resources.  You might not want to be the one to fire an employee.  Leave it to someone who is more experienced and who has no real relationship with that employee.  It might not seem personal to you, but an employee may take it personally if you terminate them.

If you aren’t managing your risks, be prepared for the knock on the door.

Writer's Block

Writersblock OK, it's 10:00 the night before this post on project management is due, and I haven't the foggiest clue what I'm going to write about.  I know, I know... I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of all of the wonderful and geeky things that a project manager should know about and be able to do.  So... why can't I think about any great topics for writing?

After all... I HAVE A DEADLINE TO MEET!!!!

What?  You say you understand?  You've been there, too?  You've had a client breathing down your neck with a tight deadline and you weren't quite sure where to start?  Whew... that makes me feel a little better.  I guess if you can face your clients, I can face writing this post.

Leo Babauta of the Freelance Switch Blog wrote an interesting piece about simple project management recently, and it's worth sharing.  Let's face it:  if you're stuck, you're stuck.  No fancy-schmancy project methodology or high tech project tracking software is going to get you out of this rut.  You've got to keep it simple.  Leo's steps (condensed) include:

  1. Clearly define your outcome so that everybody knows what "done" looks like.
  2. Set up the process for how you'll manage the project - timelines and communication channels and all that sort of thing
  3. Focus on the next action - take it one step at a time, for your sake and the client's
  4. Send it to your client - when you've done that step, let the client look at it
  5. Communicate - get feedback from the client and make revisions
  6. Repeat the prior 3 steps until you're done.

See?  That wasn't so bad.  One of the myths of project management is that it's this huge fanged monster sitting in the middle of the room waiting to gobble up all of your precious resources - people, time, money - on a bunch of documents and spreadsheets and project plans.  It is possible to keep it small, manageable, and (dare I say it?) cuddly.  OK, so maybe cuddly is going too far.  We'll just have to settle for keeping your project small and manageable.

And hey!  What do you know?  My writer's block is cured!

Carpe Factum!

Image compliments of lombardi.ws

Make First Impressions Count

Greeting_2 One of my clients in the Twin Cities has placed this sign on the desk of the receptionist:

"Director of First Impressions"

I love it! As mother always said, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Whether you're working in a library, call center, or a college. It's important to make customer's first impression a positive and inviting one.

Four key ingredients are typically essential for greeting a customer and making a great first impression:

  1. A Salutation: (e.g. "Hello", "Good morning", "Hi", or "Welcome")
  2. Introducing yourself - (customers like personalized service!)
  3. Identify your company
  4. "Inviting" the customer into the interaction (e.g. "How can I help you?")

(Of course, all the ingredients should be mixed in with a smile!)

Are you going to be greeting your customers today? What kind of first impression will you make?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and OldShoeWoman

Can You Blog Without a Business Blog?

Everyone has heard the term "blogging", though many still don't understand what blogging really is - or can be.

TalkingOn a blog site, a person (or persons) share an opinion. The blog might be personal, or political, or professional. Sometimes a bit of each.

A blog post may be the beginning or continuation of a topic or opinion.  For the sake of this article, let's say the blog post author is talking.

But the author isn't the only one involved in the discussion. There are others.

ListenThese are the readers of the blog. Some are regular readers. Some find the blog post by a search engine result. For now, let's say the readers are listeners.

So now we have a picture in our minds of one person talking, and others listening. Each is an active participant in the conversation.

But what of the business that doesn't blog? Because they don't publish a blog, does that mean they can't be an active participant in the conversation?

Discern With tools such as Technorati, BlogPulse and Google's Blog Search engine, combined with feed aggregators such as GreatNews or Bloglines, every business person should be an active listener.

Get Started Reading Feeds. Understand that Blogging Has Two Roles. If you're not at least listening to what's being said about you, your clients, your competition, your industry - I wonder if you're serious about your business.

Business Blogging is like a conversation. Some talk. Some listen. Talkers and Listeners.

Of course, there are some who ignore. What would we call them?

Taking an active role in business blogging doesn't mean you have to write a blog. But at least scoot up to the table and take a listen.

Dinner_1

Photo on Flickr by greekadman

You can say thank you too

IowaBiz had an excellent post yesterday about how as a business owner, it can be incredibly frustrating when your employees always want a little more.  Victor went on to suggest some ways that you can help your employees understand the investment you make in them.

What a perfect segue to what I wanted to talk about today. 

Want to know how to create a workforce that appreciates you and all you do for them?  Appreciate them first.  It doesn't have to be big bonuses or fancy prizes or trips.  Most small businesses can't afford that sort of lavish reward.  So unfortunately, most of them decide to do nothing.

Wrong choice.

As long as it is sincere, making the gesture matters more than the monetary value of the gesture.  Case in point:

Our building had an air conditioner and furnace go down a couple weeks ago.  Yes, when it was 90 degrees every day.  The office itself wasn't 90 degrees though.  It cooled down to a balmy 87 degrees, if we had the fans going.  Because we'd had a week of record temperature days, all the A/C companies were swamped.

And our job wasn't a small one.  We're talking a crane to get the A/C unit on the building etc.  So, it took almost two weeks from the day the A/C went down until it was bearable in our office.

And my team didn't complain.  Not once.  They made sure the servers etc. were first in line for the fans, so we wouldn't fry a computer.  They tried to figure out how to stay cool and still get the job done.

2dq As the boss, I felt that they needed to know how much I appreciated their attitude during the heat wave.  So I went to Dairy Queen and got everyone a $25 gift certificate with a note that said "thanks for keeping your cool!"  Then, I went to Target and bought some silly sucker fans.  At our staff meeting, everyone walked into the conference room to find a fan/DQ gift card at each place.

For about $30 I said thank you in a way that demonstrated that I had given some thought to how much I appreciated their efforts and wanted to do something special.   

How are you doing on saying thank you?  And what is it costing you if you don't?

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