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.
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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.