How Does it Feel to be Wrong?

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No one likes being told they are wrong and no one likes how it feels when they realize they have been wrong about something. But, we make countless decisions every day and some will, no doubt, be wrong. It’s simply unavoidable.

Being wrong is part of being human. Admitting it, however, is not. But admitting when we’ve been mistaken not only shows humility but it shows a willingness to learn and to grow; it shows we are more than the position we take on a particular issue. It shows confidence in who we are. So, what about when we’re wrong and we don’t know it?

I am reminded of an insightful TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz titled,“On Being Wrong”. (She has also authored a book titled: “Being Wrong”). She makes a number of great points in the TED Talk presentation but the one I will highlight here is when she asks the audience to tell her how it feels to be wrong. It goes like this:

How does it feel — emotionally — how does it feel to be wrong? Dreadful, thumbs down, embarrassing — thank you, these are great answers, but they’re answers to a different question. You guys are answering the question: How does it feel to realize you’re wrong? (Laughter) Realizing you’re wrong can feel like all of that and a lot of other things, right? I mean it can be devastating, it can be revelatory, it can actually be quite funny…….. But just being wrong doesn’t feel like anything.

She then punctuates her point this way:

 It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.

I love the profound simplicity of that but after processing this, I realized it could be a pretty disconcerting notion.

In business, being wrong about important things in your field can have a profound impact and even be devastating to a career. Especially if it occurs often and in a conspicuous way, such as a bad decision resulting in the loss of significant revenue. But most of the countless decisions we make every day don’t have those kinds of consequences.

Taking risks in business is essential and that means we will sometimes be wrong. So, why the stigma? We’ve all heard the phrase “no risk, no reward”. If we can accept that we make mistakes and it’s ok to be wrong, it can actually be creatively liberating. After all, the definition of success isn’t the absence of mistakes.

And maybe if the executive making the decision that lead to the loss in revenue had been open to opposing views and not been so convinced on the correctness of his position, he may have been able to avoid a catastrophe.

The lesson in all of this, for me, is that we should not take ourselves too seriously, not be so rigid. Sometimes we will be wrong and sometimes we will be right but we should always be open to the possibility that there may be another way to look at a situation.

Maybe we just need to lighten up on ourselves and others when they are wrong. Who knows what creative possibilities might await us when we give ourselves permission to be wrong?

Taking Care of Business

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Most of us understand the importance of maintenance. We maintain our homes, the cars we drive, our bodies. Of course, in spite of our best efforts our roof can still develop a leak, cars break down unexpectedly, and we may even need to visit the emergency room once in a while. That is simply the nature of living in the material world – stuff breaks. But that’s all the more reason to perform regular maintenance on what’s important to us. In business – and especially sales –  what could be more important than maintaining our client relations?

So, how should we take care of our business relationships? I think it was Woody Allen that said, “showing up is half the battle”. Well, that’s a start. We all get so caught up in the demands of our day that maintenance sometimes takes a back seat. Take the time to get in front of them. Find a reason if one doesn’t immediately come to mind. You never can tell what will come of it.

So we show up, then what? Simple, we ask a question then sit back and listen. I know it’s cliche but it really is true – we need to be good listeners. Personally, I know I am doing a good job when I stop trying to be interesting and start being interested. It’s surprising what can happen when we show interest in our client’s business, their problems, and what is important to them. It also doesn’t hurt to show interest in who they are either. After all, they are more than their job. They are people with outside interests, hobbies, families, and dreams. That doesn’t mean we pry into their personal lives – just show an interest.

Just as we maintain our cars by performing regular oil changes, tire rotation, etc., we must maintain our client base by being sure their needs are met. Take the pulse and see if we are still held in the same high regard that won us the business in the first place.

No one would drive around on a flat tire. Why would we put off maintaining the relationships that support our business?

Time Management or Results Management?

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“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once.” That was the opening line from a time management course I took many years ago back in Philadelphia.

I remember thinking the instructor’s comment was more than just a colorful way of shining light on how we perceive time sequentially. There was another lesson in there somewhere. My expectation had been to come away with another boring way to manage my to-do list so, I was surprised to discover something else. Maybe even something profound. It occurred to me that our sequential view of time limits what we can accomplish. That bears repeating. Our view of time is limiting so, it is not time, but rather, our perception of time that limits us.

We tend to force our many tasks into allotted time slots that dictate how we navigate our lives instead of focusing on what we really want – results. Would more time equal more results?

Not necessarily. It’s similar to someone saying they want more money when what they really want is more of what money can buy (or think it can). Like money, we can spend our time wisely or we can spend it foolishly – and we’ve all been guilty of both. What we really want more of is what time has to offer – the stuff of life (or in business – results). However we perceive time, one thing is for sure: time just keeps on moving and no one can change it in any way—it simply can’t be managed. But results are another matter.

So, where does that leave us when all we can control are the results we want to achieve within the framework of time? I think managing results is very different from managing time, or attempting to. It could  be as simple as a subtle shift in perspective. It may be counterintuitive but, effective results management doesn’t need to take much time at all.

A friend once told me he completed an important project in one evening at his kitchen table that would have ordinarily taken him days. He described it to me saying “it was as if time stood still.” Somehow my friend got beyond the constraints of time and went right to the result. Somehow his focus was not hindered by time or limitations of any kind. That night he was able to shift his perspective and his focus to see clearly what needed to be done and he just did it. Time was not a factor.

We never seem to run out of reasons why a shortage of time – or money, for that matter – keeps us from accomplishing something. But when the lack of time becomes our reason for not having the results we claim to want, it might be time for us to take another look at it. In the end we can have our reasons or we can have our results. Which one is more satisfying?

Multitasking – Whatever Happened to Be Here Now?

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Multitasking is so much a part of our everyday business lives that to question it seems almost unprofessional yet, there are times when it is the epitome of bad behavior, e.g., driving while texting, driving while applying makeup, driving while doing almost anything other than driving. Whatever happened to old fashion focus? At the risk of sounding like a throwback to the sixties, I would like to state for the record the value of being here now.

Multitasking comes up almost daily in every business setting and even shows up in job interviews. To admit a problem with the concept would be the kiss of death in today’s workplace. After-all, we couldn’t function today if we actually took the time to do one task at a time. There is simply too much that needs to be done. Cut backs in support staff, etc., require us to wear a multitude of hats. Most of us are constantly switching gears and moving from one task to another.  And not just at the office. We have become dependent on our mobile devices to such a degree that we no longer have to be at a desk to split our attention between two or more tasks. And split we do. It has become so much a part of our daily practice that some of us find it difficult to relate to the idea that there may be a benefit to focusing on one thing at a time. Who has that kind of time?

Wikipedia defines human (vs. computer) multitasking this way:

Human multitasking is the best performance by an individual of appearing to handle more than one task at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking. An example of multitasking is taking phone calls while typing an email. Some believe that multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention.

I think it is important to note the phrase “appearing to handle”. There’s a case to be made for efficiency and a case to be made for accuracy. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t want a surgery performed by the “Fastest Scalpel in the West” or, the surgeon whose claim to fame is that he can perform two appendectomies at once. Some things just require more time, patience and attention.

In a piece by Jon Hamilton on NPR titled “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again”, he quotes an expert saying:

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

I understand the importance of juggling multiple tasks but, just as we must prioritize what we do throughout our day, we need to determine which tasks require our full attention. Sometimes they’re not tasks at all, but rather a moment shared with a coworker, an employee, a friend or, our significant other. Sometimes we have to make the time to focus in spite of whatever else is going on. No one would dispute the importance of regularly devoting one’s full attention to his or her spouse.  Is it really any different in business? Once in a while we need to focus on just one task and be here now.

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In Search of the “Trusted Advisor”

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The term trusted advisor is one that is familiar to everyone in business-to-business sales. It essentially refers to the best possible relationship a salesperson can have with a client: the kind of business relationship required for quality, annuity business. Recently there has been much said about the subject and there is even a book devoted to it which, I confess, I have not read. So, please forgive me if this question seems a bit contrarian but can someone in a sales role really be a trusted advisor?

First, let’s look at exactly what a trusted advisor is in the context of business-to-business sales. We all know what it is to trust, and we know what it is to advise. But a trusted advisor is a very special role, one that must be earned over time. As I understand the role, a trusted advisor must have expertise in their field, be able to educate, and give objective advice. The operative word here is objective. So, before we can answer the question above, we must answer another question: is it possible for a sales representative to be objective?

In a complex, project based sale, many clients want – and need – a trusted advisor. If that were not true there would be no need for consultants. Often a client would sooner pay an “objective” consultant than take advantage of the expertise of a professional in the field – the salesperson, who has a stake in the game. Of course, consultants sometimes have their own agenda but, that’s another discussion.

Consider the level of client skepticism that can exist in the early stages of the sales process. Often this critical stage is reduced to a poorly written RFP – a recipe for a flawed evaluation right from the start. At that point, trust is the intangible that isn’t even part of the equation, taking a back seat to the numbers. And the beginning of the process is when the client needs an experienced (and trusted) advisor most, to help navigate the complexities of the transaction. I have participated in bids where the client hired several consultants to manage the process, presumably to save money and avoid pitfalls, and no one seemed to take ownership for the result. One project became mired in confusion and probably cost twice as much as it should have – all in the name of “due diligence.” You can pay for advice but you can’t buy a trusted advisor. There’s good advice and bad advice and paying for it doesn’t make it good.

So, when can we hope to achieve a level of trust? There are always exceptions but, in my experience, it can take months, even years, of nurturing a relationship just to lay the ground work for trust and to establish credibility. Of course, sales happen in the meantime. So, in the meantime we need to be patient, nurture the relationship, and build credibility by demonstrating we can do the job. But there’s more.

Fundamental to the sales process is something we don’t often discuss, something I touched on earlier. Trust requires a client to ignore the elephant head on the table: every salesperson’s compensation is based on the successful completion of the sale. Hardly an objective positiona point not lost on the client. And, of course, the more we sell, the more we earn, in the form of commission or bonus. As a buyer, is it wise to trust that? Anyone in a position to spend large sums of money on behalf of their company would be negligent not to scrutinize every transaction. As I mentioned earlier, sales still happen even as we are being assessed. Indeed, it is how we handle those sales that is the basis of the assessment. Fortunately, trust can develop over time and objectivity can be demonstrated by the solutions we propose, and the honesty we show when we cannot offer the best solution. We must earn trust, but it can be earned. And we can demonstrate honesty, which could be seen as a close cousin to objectivity. So, we’re getting closer. But getting to the next level could require overcoming the client’s perception of what a sales person is. More to the point, overcoming a client’s preconceived ideas about sales.

Someone once asked me what I did for a living. Without hesitation I launched into my elevator speech – actually, it was a more relaxed and candid version because it was a casual social setting. The person seemed surprised to hear I am in sales saying, “you don’t seem like a salesperson.” She clearly had a mental image of a pushy, obnoxious character who, I am happy to say, was at odds with the person she was addressing. Without asking for an explanation of what she meant by the comment I replied, “I do solution selling,” which apparently gave my original response a more legitimate standing in her mind. Afterwords I thought boy, old stereotypes really do die-hard. I thought the huckster image of salespeople was a thing the past – apparently not.

There has been much written about integrity in sales over the years, and the profession today enjoys a far more respectable status than it may have a generation or two ago. And most people I know in sales approach what they do with a high degree of integrity and professionalism . These are things within our control. But the trusted advisor status requires a paradigm shift that is out of the realm of sales quotas, funnel reports and commission statements. In other words, out of our control. The status of trusted advisor implies a level of transparency that simply does not exist in any sales organization I know of. Sales organizations are set up to generate more and more sales – period. And that’s not to cast blame on sales organizations; it’s just the way it is. And it would be hypocritical of me to suggest we are not in sales to earn a good living.

That reality, however, does not need to be at odds with doing what is best for the customer. But, it seems customer-centric sales is simply not compatible with commission/quota driven sales organizations. Andrew Rudin refers to a “culture of engagement” that perpetuates this condition and Dave Cooke expands on it in his post “Changing the Culture of Engagement”- an interesting read. Sales professionals are stuck in the middle of this paradox trying to figure out a way to do it all – and many do a pretty good job of it.

In the end, I don’t think it matters what we call it as long as the result is a mutually beneficial, professional partnership of ongoing business – much like the old win/win, but with repeated regularityThe status of trusted advisor is certainly something worth striving for but, arguably, may be too much to expect when one party has something to gain from the arrangement – and a quota to meet. That said, I believe our clients recognize when our recommendations are in their best interest; like when we present  a unique solution that meets their needs regardless of the size or profitability of the sale.

The best solution at a fair price = win/win, still serves us well. If there’s a path for a salesperson to become a trusted advisor, it starts there. Maybe we need to strike a balance between what we see as an ideal (the trusted advisor) and what is realistic (win/win). It’s a laudable goal, in spite of the elephant head on the table but, I am content – and honored – when I have earned the client’s trust enough to have a win/win – every day and twice on Sundays. Then again, maybe that’s what being a trusted advisor is after all.

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Creative Business Leaders and Inspiration

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English: Sir Richard Branson at the eTalk Fest...

Image via Wikipedia

There are a few business leaders who really stand out as creative thinkers. The ones who immediately come to mind for me are Richard Branson, Paul Graham, and,  Steve Jobs. Each one is a visionary, each one unique. They are, at once, inspired and inspirational, forward thinking leaders who posses a natural charisma. I have often wondered what allows these attributes to flourish in some of us and pass the rest of us by. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with formal education or a particular upbringing. There is another elusive element at work here.

Something they all seem to have in common is a passion for what they do and a monumental confidence. That’s some combination. But where does that confidence and passion come from? Are some of us just naturally confident or, is confidence something we need to build up, like a muscle?  If each small success builds on the one before it then confidence should be the result. And success builds confidence, right?

But passion is different; it seems to be related to inspiration and looking for inspiration can be, well, elusive. We may be inspired by a book, a movie, a song, or a walk in the woods, but that is relatively fleeting. The inspiration that leads to the type of passion that results in real action is not time bound, it’s a state of being. It’s where people like Richard Branson live.

I’m pretty sure these guys don’t get up in the morning looking for something to inspire them. And they certainly aren’t waiting around for the spirit to move them.

Update: Steve Jobs, now deceased, continues to be an inspiration to many. His passion for his work is well known and his legacy continues at Apple, Pixar and with those who carry on where he left off. That passion may not always have been easy to be around but the result of that passion is undeniable.

A Lesson in Business from My Dog

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Dogs are great. They are loyal, enthusiastic, and ready to play when you are. I can’t imagine a better friend or partner. Dogs are also spontaneous. They literally follow their noses sniffing whatever is in front of them; the ground, you, other dogs’ butts. (I think the latter is sort of a doggie handshake – they can be friends after that)

I, admittedly, have trouble with spontaneity. I like to plan my work and work my plan – a phrase a former boss used frequently.  More often than not, however, I find myself needing to “punt”, my plan foiled by impromptu meetings, client needs, or some other pressing matter. Not that planning isn’t important, it is. But being flexible is at least as important.

An ability to be spontaneous is crucial, especially in business. Of course, it helps if you enjoy spontaneity; enjoy surprises. It’s what makes life interesting. I am trying to be more like my dog.

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