I Am Spiderman

Okay, I’m not really Spiderman but I do have a network, which is very much like a web. It starts simply, becomes more intricate over time, and periodically, has to be rebuilt or repaired. Some months ago, “People Collector” sounded like a cool job title since it was something I did lot of in launching a new venture. Over time, “People Broker” has come to make more sense because no one keeps every single contact that is made.

Like a web, your network will become compartmentalized as individuals are fitted to situations, and it will experience turnover. My theory is that most of us have a few distinct groups for our contacts; tell me if this is off-base:

  • The people you meet but little comes of it
  • The people you meet who become friends
  • The people you meet who become business associates
  • The people you meet who become advisors and allies

Indulge me for a second in a bit of rhetorical analysis. Networking is defined as a “socioeconomic business activity” and while everyone is crystal clear on the business part of it, how much focus is there on the social? Sure, you want to build new business relationships, but first you build relationships, meaning you are looking for like-minded people. Not all of these like-minded people will contribute to your business in any meaningful way but that doesn’t mean they cannot contribute to your life.

Take the last group first; I suspect most people will give it the highest value, it will be the group they cultivate and nurture, and it will be the one that is the most satisfying. It will likely also be the smallest. A lot of folks in business envision becoming someone’s advisor and most wind up being a vendor. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s a different status of relationship. When in doubt, the members of this group are the ones to whom you will turn.

The third group is probably the largest for most of us and the most volatile. Consider the shape of your network today vs where it was this time last year. How many new faces are part of it and how many rotated out for whatever reason? The key to this group is its value for referrals, and that is referrals in both directions. At some point, you have like said “I’ve got a guy (or lady)” during a conversation. That action brings you no money but its value in priceless and it can move you into the ally circle of the person getting the referral. If nothing else, that individual will remember what you did and will find a way to repay you.

The second group represents a mix of sanity and identity. Do you want to be what you do for living or is there more to you? If so, then this group is superfluous. But most of us have interests outside the workplace and those interests tend to be easier to indulge with people who have no economic stake in your life or you in theirs. You will likely talk about work some, maybe trade a war story or two, but these relationships are built external to the office.

The top group is a reality of life; not every contact will result in a business association or a personal one, and everyone has a stack of business cards as proof. There is nothing wrong with that. About the best you can hope for from this group is that instead of being a “no” situation, it is “not now.” Either way, this is not a point worth belaboring.

The status of these groups is also a good barometer of where you are.  Is one predominant?  Has one been volatile or stable? Take a look at the state of your network today and map out how it changes over the course of the year. Because it will change. There are people you have not yet met who will be worth meeting. So, who do you know that I should know?

Is speaking scarier than dying?

Not according to this list, but that one tells a different story. Either way, we can probably agree that there is something gut-churning about public speaking. And yet, we all have to do it in our careers, some more than others. As always, the first step in dealing with a problem is….

  • To admit that it exists. Anxiety is real and it is natural, but it does not have to be paralyzing. Your greatest allies are time and repetition. James Dyson built more than 5,000 vacuum cleaner prototypes before one was marketable. After acknowledging anxiety, you have to….
  • ….face it. And this may mean the occasional failure but very few people have succeeded without failing. Colonel Sanders peddled his 11 secret herbs and spices to more than 1,000 places before one bit on the combination. And once you have done these two things…..
  • ….you overcome it. Elvis was fired after a single performance at the Grand Old Opry and told to drive a truck instead.

Those three steps presume that you will speak regularly. Here are three other things to keep in mind for the here and now:

  • The audience wants you to succeed. People don’t show up heckle speakers so keep in mind that you are in a supportive environment.
  • You are the master of the domain. You are the subject-matter expert: you control the content, the flow of the presentation, how questions are handled, etc.
  • After practicing, practice some more.

Finally, here are major considerations as you put the speech together:

  1. Words matter. A recent mailer promised “the first step toward a debt-free life.” Unless the $35,000 figure being dangled is a gift, I have yet to figure out how more debt equals less debt.
  2. Audiences matter. During the holidays, a radio ad aimed at men promised romantic delights if only guys would buy hoodie-footie pajamas for the women in their lives. Really? Who is the woman who uses “I am freezing to death” as a come on line?
  3. Stories matter. In the 1940s, it was taboo for women to smoke in public. But the owner of Chesterfield cigarettes saw a market being wasted and the ensuing PR campaign painted cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ with the message of women being emancipated from a discriminatory society.

Take the parts that are useful and go be memorable. For the right reasons.

The Ten Suggestions

More presentations and speeches have been ruined by fear than by any other factor.  In a sense, it is ironic because no audience wants a speaker to fail.  On the contrary, people are voluntarily giving their time and, often, their money because they are interested in the speaker, the topic, or both.  You would think that knowing a supportive crowd awaits would lift a speaker’s confidence more than shake it.

I am not going to lecture you on overcoming fear; there are reams of articles for that.  What I do want to offer is a short list of ideas to keep you on track and, if all goes well, to help your audience be engaged in the presentation:

1) Think like a salesman: in a sense, you have already done this by virtue of the fact that people will show up to listen.  It could be the audience is a captive one – an internal meeting, a presentation that audience members were told to attend, etc.  Still, it is your job to make their time worthwhile, to provide information that is credible and convincing, and the first sale is to yourself.  If you do not see you as the subject matter expert, this will end badly.
2) The lectern is your friend: that thing you stand behind is not a podium, it is a lectern. The podium is on the floor. That aside, the lectern provides a place for your notes or to rest your hands.  Do not molest it by which I mean avoid gripping the lectern to a white-knuckle level.  if you do not “speak with your hands”, a former Toastmasters colleague would suggest to let them hang at your sides and “let the sweat drip off your fingers.”  One note of caution – do not allow the lectern to become more of a barrier between you and the audience than it already is.  Nothing wrong with stepping out from behind it if you are comfortable with movement.
3) Be yourself: too many people try to emulate other people’s styles and carrying this act for an entire speech is exhausting.  Besides, nothing kills credibility faster than phoniness.  There is nothing wrong with incorporating elements you have seen elsewhere so long as you are comfortable with them.  But you must develop your own delivery.
4) Know the audience: while you cannot always know the depth of every  individual’s knowledge of the topic, you can have some idea of who will be listening and, from there, make assumptions about the level of explanation that will be needed, the word choices likely to resonate, the type questions that will be asked, and whether questions should be taken along the way or saved for the end.
5) Let the audience know you: nothing is more humanizing than being human, whether it’s a personal anecdote, how the information being presented benefited you or someone close to you, or some other way through which the audience can relate to you.  Some of this will be stylistic features like smiling, making good eye contact; maybe there is something in your bio that lends itself to a quick story that puts a face alongside your credentials.
6) Few points are better than many – this does not mean speaking for as short a time as possible but in keeping the key points to a manageable number.  Single digits will be most effective and, yes, I realize this list cracks that ceiling but the assumption is that no one reading this needs all ten.  The point is to not overload the audience and it also allows you to go into greater detail on the key aspects of the presentation.  What do you find more illuminating:  a mile wide and inch deep presentation, or vice-versa?
7) Use humor only if you are comfortable with it: being funny is hard, much tougher than being dramatic, and not everyone’s personality is geared to telling jokes.  You may have also noticed that jokes these days are under scrutiny for any potential offense, real or inferred.  As with conquering fear, there are numerous resources about this.
8) Do not read it, say it – what could possibly be more boring. And that’s all I am going to write about that.
9) Bring something new – this seems obvious but how often have you heard a speech made up of things you already knew?  Some of you may be looking at this article in that vein.  People like learning new things, particularly about subjects they know something about already.  For instance, chocolate milk was re-branded as a post-workout drink a couple of years ago by the same people behind the “Got Milk?” campaign.  That is presenting a familiar product in a unique light.
10) Keep your contract – if you take away nothing else, remember this point.  A 20-minute speech means 20 minutes. The audience has consented to give you a certain amount of its time in exchange for listening to you; honor their commitment to you by not straying past the deadline.  If you go long, you have lied to your audience and that’s not how you want to be remembered.
And in the immortal words of a friend of mine:  be good, be brief, and be gone.

Unlocking Occupational DNA

Google “finding good employees” and more than 300-million entries appear. The Internet universe is full of lists and ideas and hints for finding wonderful, supremely talented people, and almost all of them tell you what you already know. This one is worth reading because it is among the few that deviate from the usual parameters: you’re hiring for experience rather than ability, you are hiring mirror images of yourself, you won’t let go of the bad apples, etc. etc. etc.

Finding good people takes time and it involves more than a resume that strikes the right notes and an interview where the prospect is charming and enthusiastic. The search is for three things: can the person do the job, how will the person do the job, and does the person want to do the job. The first speaks to basic competence and if that is all you hire for, you will always be able to find people. You will always have a large turnover rate, too, but that’s another matter. The second pertains to cultural fit and, for the most part, people are able to adapt to their surroundings. The last component is the key, as it is the one that speaks to an individual candidate’s hard-wiring, their occupational DNA.

From the hiring perspective, occupational DNA means hiring for job fit, matching a person’s skills, behavioral traits, and interests with the position. Do that and it is a process you will want to replicate each time a person is hired or even when one is promoted. People tend to perform well when doing things they like, they tend to be willing to improve their skills in those things, and they are, buzzword alert!!,engaged in the workplace. There are tools out there (full disclosure: my company sells them) that will give you a nice overview of who the people you are considering are at a deep level – what motivates them to succeed, the sort of environments in which they thrive, the things at which they are top performers, and other information that leads to better-informed hiring decisions.

The best way to lose bright and talented people is to not let them be bright and talented. I’ve seen this first-hand at a company that experienced the type growth that CEO’s dream about, and it also experienced a steady erosion of very good people. When people leave, they are not leaving behind money or workloads, they are leaving behind other people. And the reasons for that are usually ones that the rank-and-file cannot change.

However, most of the chatter about “fit” is with regard to organizational culture. While this sounds interesting on paper, it becomes another buzzy buzzword – like synergy or balance – in practice. How can you tell if a person will fit the company culture on the basis of an interview, or several interviews? Yes, interviews are part of the process but they are also like dating. Mr. or Ms. Right looks wonderful with his/her date face on, but if you want to know what someone is really like, you have to live with him/her. In the work place, you learn too late that it won’t work. And as I wrote earlier, most adults can modify their behavior to the extent necessary to fit into their environment.

A bad hire is often worse than no hire, which may be why the cycle is taking longer than it has in years. Companies are deploying additional steps – criminal histories or drug screenings or more/fewer interviews – all of which miss the broader point. These processes are great at ruling applicants out and if your hiring calculus is based on “the least worst” candidate, then that is what you will get. Good decisions require good information and good information in hiring hinges on knowing about an applicant’s willingness to do the job, the factor with the greatest predictive value for success on the job.

No, sex cannot sell everything

Words matter. Obvious, right? Maybe not. During the holidays, I kept hearing a commercial about hoodie-footie pajamas that was fixated on the word “hot” because, apparently, nothing turns a woman on quite like covering up 95% of her body because she’s cold. I may not be an expert on women, but a lady who wants to climb into hoodie-footy jammies is not looking for reasons to come out of them. But the ad persisted, as if wood aphrodisiacs are the new in thing.
-Audiences matter. While the user s of the product are women, the target of the commercial was men, but apparently not thinking men. We are relatively simple creatures but no man has ever equated “I am freezing to death” with romance. Even the jewelry commercials that occasionally make guys look scattered (do you really need her ring size tattooed on your head?) do so with the intent of making us look good in the end. When Hardee’s uses an attractive woman to seduce you into buying one of its burgers, you get a sense of self-parody – fast food so good that, well, you know. The irony is that the product actually solves the problem it is designed to solve – making a cold person get warm – but there is no interest what the item is or does, just a focus on selling what it’s not going to be. That’s known as too clever by half.
-Motives matter. The creative process is not easy. A former colleague used to say “it’s not art, it’s work” as a means of keeping the designer-y folks on track with the business outcome being served. Every effort is not going to be award-winning, but there is no excuse for laziness. Before anyone is wowed by your work, they have to be interested in your words. Lazy writing reads like someone who is not convinced about the product or curious about the prospect. The worst part about the hoodie-footie ad was that was the campaign chosen; just imagine the ones that did not make the cut.
-Stories matter. People love stories. It is engrained from birth; stories makes up history, they are how organizations operate and evolve, they describe how families are formed. Words give life to those stories. Every person and every organization has a story but what does it say? The Internet has given rise to all sorts of white noise and cutting through it is a challenge. Your story doesn’t need 50,000 words. A good LinkedIn profile can do it in a few paragraphs, a video on your web site in less than a minute, a recurring blog can document changes/ideas/information so long as you post regularly.
Communicating means that you are talking to people, not some metric. The point of your words, of course, is to compel the reader/audience to take action. Only you know what action you hope to inspire and what great things will come of it. The words that you use define the path to the outcome.

Put a mark on the wall

You already know about failing to plan.  Here’s another axiom:  it’s only a goal if you write it down.  Otherwise, it’s just a hope and hope is not a strategy.  Each of us strives for something – relevance, clients, credibility, results, but how much of just happens and how much is the result of a calculated effort.  That doesn’t mean you script every moment of life, it means you do not go into things totally blind, you have an outcome in sight and adjust to changing conditions in order to reach it.

Earlier this year, I left the corporate cocoon and struck out on my own for the first time.  Scary as hell.  The first lesson was that the 1st and the 15th are just two days in  the month, no more or less significant than the 28 or 29 others.  (Or the 26 others in most Februaries.)  I had an outline in mind and filled in the blanks as they surfaced.  On occasion, I colored outside the lines and that’s not always bad.  It helped to formulate a good part of the path for 2015.  The outcome for next year is my mark on the wall; that’s what I am preparing for as this year winds down and the next one unfolds.  Spots on the calendar are filling in, ideas are taking shape, projects are coming together.

Military folks love to say every plan is genius until the first round is fired down range and that is true in business, too.  You can scheme out every step but reality is going to force you to adjust. Your initial idea gets refined and sharpened as you try it out, it extends beyond its original bounds as ideas take root, it heads into areas you had not originally considered as your network expands.  This isn’t just some guy BS’ing you; I am living it.  What started has taken at least two turns I did not envision, and that’s to the good.  That came from having a goal and the ability to adjust to unforeseen opportunities.

Unforeseen opportunities, the philosophical mirror to “foreseeable consequences are not unintended.”  I realize the latter is a double negative but give it another go:  when actions have predictable outcomes, you cannot act surprised at the results.    Too often, you hear about someone being “victimized” by outside forces or bad advice or flawed strategy, but that sounds a bit like rationalizing bad ideas.  If you take a wrong turn when driving, it usually does not take long to realize your mistake.  Same thing with plans and strategies; you have some benchmark in mind and if the meter is not moving in a positive direction after a reasonable period of time, reconsider your approach.  It doesn’t mean you are 100% wrong and have to start over; you just have to be aware of the variables that surfaced along the way, how they impacted what you were trying to accomplish, where adjustments need to be made, and keep moving forward.

A colleague of mine in a networking organization has based his philosophy on removing negativity from your life and focusing on the positive direction in which you are headed.  It’s not happy talk.  If the goal is to drink a glass of water, then the glass being half-empty is moving in the positive direction of totally empty.  If the goal is 10 meetings this week or three new clients this month, and you get seven of the former and two of the latter, you are moving in a positive direction.  Look, all these motivational speakers and success coaches and productivity experts are in demand for a reason – whether or not what they offer actually works, people think it does and they are willing to pay for a dose of it.  No one shows up at work and says “how can I screw up today?”  And while I  believe in the notion of “first shown up, then see what happens” to a point, it is conjunction with a desire outcome and the part about ‘what happens’ is the variables that may surface.


You Don’t Fix the Roof When it’s Raining

According to the Kauffman Foundation, one-fourth of all new businesses that were started last year were founded by people between the ages of 55 and 64.  In fact, the number of people in that cohort who have struck out on their own has doubled in the past two decades.  So what, you ask?  Only this: every one of those people leaving your shop is taking with them decades of experience, a bevy of contacts, and the institutional knowledge on which your enterprise runs.  The question isn’t “so what?” It’s, who is going to take their place?

Apparently, it is not going to be the Millennials, where the outlook drifts from pretty bad to frightening depending on the metrics being used. There are plenty of alleged boogeymen who are more like straw men:

  • unpaid internships (even though those are mostly about connections and are short-lived)
  • a lack of entry-level positions (even though the departure of senior-level people would, by definition, create openings)
  • baby boomers not having the decency to retire and make way for the young ‘uns (looks like someone did not read the Kauffman report referenced at the top).

Time for a Vince Lombardi moment and a bit of strategic thinking common to sports: next man up. It means when you lose a player, someone must be ready to step into that role. Next man up is not a suggestion or a good idea, it is a defining principle of how an organization moves forward when reality strikes. And the reality is that everyone will leave a company at some point and not just to start a business.

At a networking event I attended earlier this week, a 50-something member told us that she had just taken a job with a competing firm. Now, maybe she’s right and the company she is leaving is so large that the relationships she has built won’t be missed, that someone has been groomed for her job and that person’s position also has a ready successor, and on down the food chain to the entry-level position that will be created for a Millennial to fill. But what if she is wrong? Because the evidence, for the most part, says she is.

We talk a lot here about talent gaps, about engagement, about workplace diversity, about the “human” aspect of human capital, usually topics that focus on the present. There is not as much material on the future and I get that. Organizations tend to live in the now; it’s what pays the bills, drives promotions, and makes headlines. The present just by its nature is more real than the future and people like to see the results of their planning, which is more readily done in the short-term than the long. Still, between the veteran workers and those joining the workforce, there are positions that will come open and budding talent in need of direction on how to fill them.

Some of you, no doubt, are aware of an upcoming event on this subject. And it’s a concern north of the border, too. Stories like the ant and the grasshopper represent simple truths and unheeded, simple truths can devolve into malicious truths. One need look no further than the juxtaposition between Apple and Hewlett-Packard with regard to forward planning. One company had a clear plan for the future, the other did not. Which would you rather be?