3 steps to become a more decisive and respected leader

As the leader of a company – regardless of the size – you’re always communicating. Sometimes that may be to an internal audience in front of your entire team or in a one-on-one meeting. Or, it might be externally to a board or client. The medium might be in person, via phone or digital.

Across all of these, your ability to message and deliver information with strength and authority is critical to your success of as a leader and your company’s ability to execute. Try these three simple steps to become a more decisive and respected leader.

Step 1: During the next week, monitor your communication closely to both groups and individuals. Count or be cognizant of how many times you use terms that indicate vagueness or uncertainly. Keep an eye out for the following and you’ll be surprised at how much often they appear in your communication:

  • Respected-Leader“I think…”
  • “I believe…”
  • “It seems…”
  • “Probably…”
  • “Maybe…”
  • “It should…”
  • “It might…”
  • Finally, watch out for credibility killers such as “Um”, “Like”, “Right?” and “Ah”.

Step 2: Start eliminating these phrases in your communication unless you strategically want to convey uncertainty or hedge your messaging or commitment. Uncertainty is appropriate in a brainstorm or addressing a sensitive such as a personnel issue but otherwise creates doubt.

In particular, focus on being more decisive in situations in which you’re giving feedback, summarizing statistics, evaluating performance or setting direction even if you may not be sure. As a leader, you don’t “think” someone did a good job, they either did or did not. Eliminating uncertainty allows you to be concise and direct and is an easy way to increase respect and authority.

An example:  

Uncertain messaging – “For the next month, I think the best area of improvement for our company should be improving the frequency of our client outreach.”

Certain messaging – “It is critical that we improve the frequency of our client outreach and it will be our area of focus for the next month.”

Step 3: As you eliminate uncertainty, insert calculated pauses after your statements to let your message sink in. Be sure not to insert fillers like ‘Um,’ ‘Right?’ or ‘ah.’ As a confident communicator, be comfortable with a pause or silence after important statements to make sure your audience hears and internalizes your message.

Of course, confident communication cannot mask a lack of knowledge. Confidently communicating an erroneous message will greatly damage your ability to lead. Do your homework, weigh your options and make the right decision about when to communicate a point.

Overall, uncertainty, doubt and questioning are realities we face as balanced and thoughtful leaders, but to inspire and lead there should be no doubt, no hesitation, and no question about where you want to go or how you want to get there. Want to get there faster? A good place to start is by evaluating your communication.

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Now Trending: The Digital Media Company

The world of media has changed radically over the past 15 years. It’s expanded in scale and scope and has gone digital, mobile and social. And it’s gotten a hell of lot more complex. Traditional lines of separation between publisher, application developer and technology provider have blurred. The other day, I told my cab driver I ran a digital media company, ‘If it isn’t hardware, it’s media.’ I don’t think he was too far off.

The Digital Media CompanySo what’s a digital media company? How do you define companies like Amazon, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Comcast or even Google? Amazon hosts many of my company’s servers, delivers digital content, and sells sponsored advertising within its e-commerce platform. Comcast wants to provide me a video feed to monitor my home as well as deliver content. LinkedIn sends me articles. Salesforce aggregates apps and sells data. And Google is, well, Google.

In the online space, it used to be that being a media company meant you had to be a dotcom. You had a portal or, if you were really lucky like me, a ‘vortal’ (vertical portal). You created content, you marketed your site, you built a base of users and you grew your business through advertising. You competed with and tried to displace traditional media companies like print publishers or television broadcasters. Now, as lines continue to blur, it takes a lot more to build a successful online company.

Building a Successful Digital Media Company

With the growth of mobile and the increasing importance of social media, what used to be online media has been transformed into digital media. We’re in a period of rapid change. Social media and mobile usage have decreased the barriers of entry for customer engagement. Technology costs to launch sites and products are lower. The number of players competing for eyeballs is increasing. With the resulting downward trend in CPMs, it’s important for companies to monetize customers in a number of different ways. 

I believe that online businesses can no longer be narrowly defined as businesses which just sell advertising or create and distribute content.  Companies should aim to extend their business models to encompass a wide range of functions, from traditional content delivery to mobile applications to social to e-commerce.

Definition of a Digital Media Company: The definition of ‘Digital media’ is digitized content that can be transmitted over the internet or computer networks, including text, audio, vide, and graphics. However, it is important to understand that a true digital media company is one that develops and delivers both content and functionality as defined as text, video, graphics, code and applications to customers across all electronic media, from online to mobile.

But what does that mean? On the surface, my company runs content-driven websites. We’re an online publisher, but we also provide SaaS-based technology for organizations. We’re big into social media and creating social networking tools. Over the past 10 years we’ve gone from being a dotcom to a portal business to a web publisher and then an online media company.  We’re now a digital media company because we offer SaaS-based technology solutions and develop apps and online tools in addition to being an online publisher.

For us, it has been critical to our evolution and success as a company that we haven’t conformed to how the industry ’defines us’ (such as solely a content or traffic aggregator). We have evolved with the trends as a platform by adding multiple products and multiple distribution channels and customer touch points:

2005 – Online advertising – (Military1.comPoliceOne.com)

2007 – Product research, market research (PoliceOne – Body Armor)

2008 – Video (BLUTube.comFlashoverTV.com)

2009 – Government grant assistance (FireGrantsHelp.com)

2010 – Mobile, social (FireRescue1 Facebook)

2011 – Online training and records management (PoliceOne Academy)

2013 – Lead generation and qualification (In Progress)

Why is this important?

Traditional media companies – whether they be newspaper companies, magazines, TV broadcasters or even content-focused online publishers – are really good at building a highly targeted or qualified base of customers, viewers or readers through an established channel to distribute content.  Traditional software companies like Oracle or Intuit are exceptional at creating new technologies and building products that solve problems for both consumers and businesses.

Digital media companies need to do both. With the proliferation of channels to reach potential customers and declining CPMs, it’s no longer enough to just have the channel or the content; you also need the solutions. Google’s move into mobile with Android is a case in point. Bottom line is that in the digital economy:

1. If advertising is your only focus, you’re dead.

2. If you only create software or hardware, you better be really specialized or really good.

Digital media is about solving business problems. It’s about aggregating a network, building a platform with multiple digital distribution channels and solving real life problems. In terms of business models, it’s about multiple points of monetization and maximizing revenue per user or customer. It’s also what makes creating and running viable digital media companies so difficult and at the same time so thrilling. Stay tuned.

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Tip: Focus on Nurturing Problem Solvers Not Solving Problems

tipIf you’ve started a company or have been promoted up through the ranks to a management role, chances are that you’re really good at doing things yourself and controlling every detail. Early on in our careers, it’s often what makes us exceptional performers. The same skill set that leads to effective execution as an individual performer can be counterproductive as a manager. This can result in teams that are less able to solve problems themselves and reports that feel suffocated and ‘micromanaged’. Learning to let go of the need to manage every detail is something I’ve had to learn:

Tip: Instead of fixing problems yourself, focus on nurturing problem solvers by turning ‘Do this’ into ‘What do you think we should try?” Seek the joy of watching others succeed by doing something their way rather than trying to do everything yourself.

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5 Rules for Successful Partnerships

5 Rules for PartneringBack in the dotcom days, there was almost nothing as important as a good partnership and most start-ups spent a lot of time developing them.  At a minimum, a partnership provided a press release opportunity and demonstrated legitimacy and tangible momentum in what was a very confused and crowded marketplace. Plus, they gave you something to pitch to Venture Capitalists since you likely didn’t have much in the way of revenue.

From my perspective, many of these partnerships were part of the house of cards that came tumbling down in mid-2000 as often the companies that started to fail had partnerships with each other but limited revenue. My company was no exception. We had executed 30 plus partnerships and though beneficial, not one of them helped me survive the post-dotcom crash nor provided game-changing results that people were talking about at the end of the day.  As a result, I struggled with the idea of partnerships for a longtime thereafter.  The question I kept circling back to was, for a small business or startup, are partnerships worth the time and hassle?

After executing more than 100 partnerships and strategic alliances in the past 15 years – some of which failed miserably – I’d say yes, partnerships are important to develop but only if executed in the right way. Here are five rules my team and I adhere to:

Rule 1: Keep it simple and have narrow objectives.

Even the most straight-forward of partnerships require attention to manage, so regardless of the size and importance of the partnership to your business, keep them simple. For me, partnerships that are low risk, small, manageable, and meet specific, narrow objectives – i.e. reinforcing your brand presence or reaching a targeted customer segment -have worked best. I’m a firm believer that you should enter into as many of these partnerships as possible, but make them easy to execute and low risk.  As a start-up or a small company, you want to minimize the number of things you need to manage or follow up on. The last thing you want to be doing is fixing a marketing partner’s website on Christmas Eve (yes, I’ve been there).

For instance, I’ve had a lot of success in developing partnerships with associations, charities and publishers that are designed to build legitimacy and market presence for my web sites. We trade some website logo placements, put out a press release, share content and offer light promotion. They create momentum in the marketplace and can be a powerful talking point with investors and customers particularly as you’re growing. And they don’t take a lot of time and energy to manage.

Rule 2: Put dollars in the mix or identify a tangible metrics like new members or customer acquisition to which you can associate value.

When push comes to shove, while partners matter, it is only natural they fall lower on the totem pole – below investors, customers and employees. They are the last thing a company will worry about when sh*t hits the fan or sometimes, when things are going really well as they may not be needed. A great partnership should be designed to scale and operate independently, but often that’s not enough. To achieve this, make sure to set specific metrics that need to be met and turn your partner into a customer or alternatively, make yourself the customer of your partner.

As an example, we identified a company that had a customer segment we wanted to target as members of one of our websites. Instead of creating a joint marketing program based on trading services that would have been difficult to execute, we set up a partnership deal where the partner offered membership as a free benefit to their customers and in turn, we spent $500 per month on advertising and gave the partner promotion within our network.

Because we were spending dollars, we immediately became a customer for the partner and 1 year later, we had 15,000 new members for which we would have otherwise paid $15,000-20,000. The result was a partnership that ran smoothly, delivered results and didn’t need significant oversight to be successful. In most cases, I’ve found that even the smallest amount of dollar exchange changes the psychology of a partnership to that of a meaningful business relationship and leads to better execution as both parties are more invested.

Rule 3: Acknowledge that partnerships are really tough to make work; make sure expectations are aligned and plan for the worst.

Sometimes a partnership opportunity comes up where you want to swing for the fences and change your growth trajectory as a company. Maybe it’s entering a new market, creating a new product or feeling out a potential acquisition target. When you start talking joint venture or strategic alliance and you’re executing a deal that you’re hoping will have a big impact on your business, it’s time to be very careful. A good indicator that the partnership is more of a joint venture or strategic alliance is if you include the results in your financial projections.

I’ve found larger, more meaningful partnerships are incredibly difficult to execute, particularly for start-ups or smaller companies. In the best case scenario, meaningful partnerships take a lot of time and mindshare to manage. There’s a lot of risk betting on one company. With a partnership, you have twice the execution risk. Changes in personnel or corporate strategy, financial hardship, or even acquisitions are all realities that could derail even the best structured partnerships.

For instance, I’ve had an important partnership fall apart when the principal passed away and a competitor bought the business. Even with larger companies, which you assume are stable and with whom you’re working well, I’ve experienced change that comes from several levels above my contacts and rapidly derails the relationship.

Though objectives may change throughout the course of a partnership, the best way to combat this risk is to make sure expectations are closely aligned between both parties from the start. As a founder, I try to understand what the other side is trying to get out of the partnership and encourage my team to do the same. For instance if one party is interested in branding and you’re looking to generate revenue, you’ll have a greater risk of problems if you don’t know and acknowledge that upfront.

Rule 4: For large, critical partnerships, treat them as a business unit with a dedicated team and resources.

If you’re developing a major partnership, it’s critical to manage it as a business unit and build in multiple levels of accountability.  I’ve had elegantly designed, complex partnerships that looked perfect on paper fail because there were too many shared responsibilities and no one had clear accountability if results were not met. After a partnership has been executed, it’s easy to lose track of goals and it’s only logical that both parties will spend more time on revenue streams of which they own 100% over those of which they own 50%.

To best align incentives, I’ve found the more you treat an important partnership as its own business unit, the more likely it will succeed. Give it a dedicated manager or project lead. Track it as a separate P&L. Limit shared responsibilities. Staff and invest accordingly. Make sure sales and revenue responsibilities are crystal clear and there negative consequences in place if they are not met. Even consider creating a stand-alone LLC owned jointly by both parties.

Rule 5: Plan for disengagement

See number 3. Partnerships end, so be sure that you’ve planned for the worst case. Make sure you can extract the value you’ve created. Give yourself an out. Always engage an attorney if the partnership is significant, a critical component of your strategy or a joint venture. I’ve found adding an option for disengagement by either party after six months is a good out and gives both parties enough time to test the relationship.

Perpetual partnerships sound good because they tie both parties together, but can often be problematic; if it’s not working, you’re forced to spend more time than a partnership might be worth. To avoid this, be sure to include minimum performance metrics for both parties which, if not met, allow for the option for disengagement. It’s important to have the difficult conversation about who owns the customer or the jointly created assets if the partnership doesn’t work out before the partnership gets executed. What happens if either party is acquired or goes out of business?

Overall, I’ve found that partnerships can be a double edged sword.  If you can minimize risk and keep them small, I’ve found there is a lot of value, particularly in terms of legitimacy and market presence. When you’re considering larger, more complex deals, first ask if you can acquire the assets you’re seeking. I’d much rather own assets than partner or trade for them. That may not always be an option, so if you are determined that you really need the partnership, make sure to set up the program for success by ensuring clear accountability and dedicated resources. Be careful to not fall in love with your own deal. Plan for the downside, because there is a reasonable likelihood that a partnership won’t meet expectations. And make sure your company is protected if things don’t work out.

Curious if anyone has any other partnership best practices to share? Anyone have a different set of experiences with partnerships they’ve executed? Any good success stories?

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The Art of giving Negative Feedback: Part 3 – Hone Your Delivery

As I discussed in the first two parts of this series, it’s critical to set the right context for delivering negative feedback as a manager and leader as well as build a feedback process. But even if you’ve done a great job with both, there is an art to having those tough conversations and ensuring your negative feedback is received in the most productive manner possible. Here’s a quick checklist that I follow to make that delivery successful:

A. Evaluate timing and venue: Immediacy is best in addressing behaviors that are clearly out of line. For example, “Don’t check your email on your phone during client meetings.” But when the feedback gets more complex and involves skill sets, interpersonal interaction, broader professional development or management feedback, timing can be critical.

  1. Don’t make a list and wait six to twelve months for the next review cycle.  Delivering feedback is an ongoing responsibility for all managers. Its easy to procrastinate, but feedback is many times more effective and leads to better learning when delivered as soon as possible.
  2. Don’t deliver negative feedback in front of others or via email or text message. These should be no brainers, but sometimes in the haste (or frustration) to correct, a manager can lose sight of making sure to have the proper setting.
  3. Set aside the time to address it properly. Delivering feedback always takes more time than you think. There is nothing worse than rushed feedback that leaves people hanging on your expectations for how they can fix the problem.
  4. Consider what venue would be best. Sometimes feedback over a beer will be received in a more constructive, collegial manner than that which is delivered in a formal office setting. On the flip side, if the feedback is important and serious enough to threaten someone’s continued employment, a formal approach may be best.
  5. For really tough feedback, deliver it early in the week. It’s much easier for someone to get back on the horse after they’ve fallen off if they haven’t spent a weekend worrying about it.
  6. Finally, think twice about whether an error truly requires negative feedback. Criticism can have an unexpectedly large impact on an employee’s happiness and productivity. The latest research suggests that to maintain motivation you need to praise someone five times to offset that one piece of negative feedback. So even if it bugs you, ask yourself whether you’re relaying the feedback to improve the employee’s performance or make yourself feel better.

B. Identify trends: It’s easy to nitpick by focusing on individual errors. But your job as a manager is to identify trends. For example, improving attention to detail is not about highlighting one glaring typo in an email to a client. Unless the behavior is clearly far out of line, you don’t want to be the manager that jumps down everyone’s throat any time something is a little off – it’s not constructive and makes it easy for your reports to tune out.

  1. Gather multiple data points.  Before delivering feedback, make sure you have multiple, unambiguous data points and a clear trend that is in line with the context you’ve set for that person’s professional development.
  2. Be sure to leverage 360-degree feedback. Feedback from colleagues and reports can provide lots of data points and multiple perspectives.

C. Deliver feedback strategically: Really think through the outcome you want to achieve and how the feedback aligns with the expectations you’ve set for the person or your team. For example, if the feedback is that a manager is micromanaging their team, they’ll never be able to grow themselves if they can’t help their team to think for themselves and if they’re spending all of their time managing minute details.

  1. Outline the context around the feedback you’re giving. Hightlight why it’s important for the company or that person, where it falls short of the expectations you’ve discussed in the past and how it’s in line with the professional development objectives they are working on.
  2. Be crystal clear about the feedback you’re giving and that it must improve. It must be unambiguous.  A common mistake is to sandwich negative feedback between the positive to lessen the blow. This will only water down the effect, and you need your message to come through loud and clear. Be very specific about the behaviors you want to stop, start, or continue.
  3. Reference data points and give concrete examples. Don’t just say someone needs to improve their attention to detail; list out five examples so they can understand the trend and really buy into fixing it.
  4. Make the feedback actionable. How does someone act differently moving forward? Make sure the focus is on future improvements, instead of dwelling on past errors.
  5. Finally, keep this in mind: You’re giving this feedback because you care. You care about your employees’ trajectory and success – whether at your company or in the future. You care about your company. It’s the right thing to do.

Remember that setting the stage for effectively delivering feedback starts day one when someone is hired or even sometimes during the interview process. You want a team that is hungry to grow and expects feedback – both good and bad.  Make sure you have a set of feedback processes that support professional development. And when you deliver negative feedback, make sure it’s done properly and comes from the right place: collaborative vs. punitive. There are no shortcuts to effectively delivering negative feedback and it’s certainly much more art than science, but when done right, it’s an incredibly effective tool in creating a growing, thriving team and organization.

Do you have any other tips for delivering negative feedback? Any lessons learned or examples from when you delivered negative feedback that wasn’t well received? Or when it was? 

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The Art of Giving Negative Feedback: Part 2 – Build a ‘Feedback Process’

If you’ve set the right context within your team – established objectives, focused on professional development and clarified expectations – the next step is to make feedback part of your company DNA and build a ‘feedback process’. For me, having a structured process for feedback is the one of most critical elements that needs to be in place for any organization. I’m a strong believer that only those companies that focus on continuous improvement – both on an organizational and personal basis – thrive over the long term.

When I first began scaling my company after the dotcom crash, I struggled with how to how to train a very young team in online media, a space that was still very much in its infancy. There were few established roles and job descriptions and no proven processes to follow. We needed to write our own playbook, from establishing how to manage editorial functions to how best to service clients. I knew our culture needed to be nimble and  learning-focused to support multiple iterations of our business model and a rapidly evolving set of processes. To do that, I needed to create a structure for feedback and improvement.

I started by first putting in place a simple system for quarterly performance reviews. Both the manager and the report would bring for discussion a list of areas in which they were doing well and areas for improvement. Giving the report a hand in setting parameters for a discussion about their performance immediately established the reviews as constructive business conversations rather than top-down evaluations. During reviews, both the manager and report were encouraged to give frequent feedback – both positive and negative – and check in on progress toward areas of improvement from the previous review.

Afterward, the manager and I looked closely at any areas of disconnect in a particular employee’s self-assessment; for instance, items that were listed as an area of success, but were really an area for improvement. I’m a strong believer that reviews shouldn’t be a surprise in either direction, but reinforce the feedback given by the manager between reviews. When a review is a surprise, it’s a good indicator something’s wrong with either the employee’s ability to self-assess or the manager’s delivery of feedback.

We next added a 360 degree feedback mechanism where the manager emails everyone with whom the report works – at all levels – and asks for areas of success and improvement. Positioning the importance of candid feedback to the employee’s peers and stressing confidentiality of the feedback is critical to this process. Sometimes it takes a cycle or two for a new hire to fully engage in delivering feedback about their peers, but once they do it quickly becomes constructive. I can’t remember an instance where it’s led to a problem in more than 7 years and its uncovered some substantial areas for improvement which might have been overlooked had we depended only on managerial input.

As our organization has matured and grown, we’ve moved to more formal and rigorous reviews twice per year that are tracked electronically and can be better analyzed for trends, using a web-based interface called GoalSpan. But the core principles have remained the same:  Have a consistent, transparent process that is prioritized across the organization. Gather assessment from both the manager and the report. Leverage 360 degree review feedback. Give continuous feedback and improvement between formal reviews. Focus on having constructive dialogue about professional development.

I’m curious what process you’ve built for feedback in your organization or on your team. How often do you conduct reviews? How extensive are they? Any tips or best practices for making them work well?

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The Art of Giving Negative Feedback: Part 1 – Set the Right Context

Learning to give negative feedback not only constructively, but gracefully, is one of the toughest and most important lessons of being an effective entrepreneur or business professional because it’s one of the skills that elevates you from being a manager to being a leader. However, if you’re like me, it’s probably high up there on your list of least favorite things to do. Often it’s not fun, but it’s essential to building an organization or team that’s always improving and advancing.  

And it doesn’t need to be that painful. If you’ve set the right context for your organization or team and if you deliver the feedback appropriately with the right ‘feedback foundation’ (which I’ll address next week), there is no need to be anxious about delivering feedback. It’s even possible to create an organization that embraces it.

negative-feedback-graceTake a moment and recall the last time you heard surprising feedback from a frustrated co-worker, manager or even an upset significant other. How much of your own reaction was driven by the ‘out of the blue’ nature rather than from the content of the feedback itself? When you’re surprised, it’s easy to spend more time defending yourself than working on a solution.

At its essence, delivering negative feedback gracefully is first about creating a culture where it can be delivered within the proper context and with the right structure. I’ve found when leaders take the time to build the right foundation, they create teams that are pre-wired to think critically when feedback is delivered rather than be left ‘reeling’. Take the time to build that right foundation.

Create Context

As you build you team or company, make sure that you’re creating an environment where you can frame feedback constructively as part of executing on a shared vision. For me, that means being rigorous in establishing context and setting expectations upfront both at the individual and team level:

  1. Set Objectives – Establish where your company or team is going. Maybe you’re launching a revolutionary new product or trying to double the size of a company within 3 years. Make sure your team is on board and gets it. It’s much easier to deliver negative feedback in the context of shared goals. For example, imagine a scenario where your team is counting on one of your developers, but you’re seeing too many errors in his or her code. Framing the feedback around pre-established and agreed upon team’s goals can be very powerful in changing behavior and driving improvement. You’re underscoring that the feedback isn’t about your dynamic with the developer, but about a team mission and bigger picture objective that is at risk.
  2. Embrace Professional Development– Take the time to develop a shared understanding of professional development objectives – both strengths and opportunities for improvement – with each person on your team upfront. Simply, if you know where your team members want to go professionally and you’ve had discussions about their career objectives, it’s a lot easier to identify roadblocks and areas for improvement. For instance, if you know your IT manager wants to be CTO one day, then framing feedback within that context can be very effective.
  3. Clarify Expectations – Set clear expectations for performance and behavior before any feedback is given. Expectations can come in many forms from simple deadlines and minimum performance requirements to detailed metrics. I’ve found time and time again that if you and your team develop clear expectations and standards for performance, it’s a lot easier to give feedback when they aren’t being met. Make sure they are well documented and explicitly agreed upon by everyone.

Without a doubt, it’s a lot easier to give negative feedback if you’ve set the right context and you’re working together towards shared objectives and mutually agreed upon expectations. And feedback that is delivered in the right context can be incredibly motivating. However, as an entrepreneur, a CEO or a manager, how much time have you devoted recently to setting context? Think about your last week. It doesn’t happen overnight and requires consistent communication, but I’ve found if it is done right and combined with the correct ‘feedback foundation’, it makes those difficult discussions much easier.

In the meantime, I’m curious if anyone has any tips on setting context or shared objectives or examples of cases where they may not have set clear expectations and it came back to haunt them? 

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Sleepless in Business: Tips for Managing Stress and Catching ZZZs

Getting ZZZsIt’s to no one’s surprise that sleepless nights and stress go hand in hand with running a business, starting a company or working to advance your career. There is always something to worry about – an important sales meeting or pitch, a new competitor, technology problems, a difficult personnel review, cash flow or even a lawsuit to name just a few. And that’s OK. While business challenges are inevitable, we’re all human and worrying is a natural reaction. I’m a firm believer that in business, ‘only the paranoid survive’. But at what cost? Well at minimum, that cost is a lot of sleepless nights.

It’s one of life’s ironies that although we need sleep in order to solve problems effectively, it’s the problems that keep us up. However, during my 14 years of running a business and tossing and turning, I’ve developed three techniques to help manage stress, compartmentalize the problems I’m facing and get more ZZZs:

1. First, I ask myself if I’ll remember the problem or situation I’m worrying about and if it will still be impacting my business in 1 month, 2 months, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years or 5 years. For instance, an email from one of your investors has you really fired up. The tone seems disrespectful and you’re lying awake planning your response and worrying about the looming confrontation. Simply, ask yourself if you’ll remember the incident or email in 6 months. And be honest. How many of the emails you received in the last 6 months that got you fired up can you even recall?

If you’re lying awake, challenge yourself to really delve into the business impact or implication. Ask yourself what’s the best case or worst case outcome? Does it matter to the business? And as importantly, why does it have you fired up? Generally, I’ve found that I’m looking at the problem in the wrong way and often letting my ego or emotions get in the way. With the investor example, for instance, perhaps the email touched a nerve about a bigger concern I have about my investor’s perception of my company. In these cases, I challenge myself to be objective, put whatever’s worrying me into a broader context and assess how much it matters.

2. Second, I pick up a pen, jot down my thoughts and attempt to put the issue on paper.  It’s often the case that once I have my thoughts written down and they’re on my ‘to-do’ list for the morning, my mind releases hold of the concern.  And more often than not, I realize the next morning after some rest that the issue really is something that I’ll likely not remember in a year, much less a couple of months.

3. Third, if it is one of the few problems that will have a lasting impact, that’s another situation entirely. My response is to reach for a glass of wine and acknowledge that I likely have bigger problems than a few sleepless nights. As solace, I remind myself that it’s rare to find a successful business leader who hasn’t had to overcome countless gnarly, difficult business problems. I often repeat a quote from Mike Herning, the Chairman of my company – “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Why do these techniques work? First, as business owners, we tie up a lot of our passion and energy in our business and we tend to be obsessive-compulsive.  When channeled correctly, this can be critical for driving success, but often it also means we seek out problems, strategize excessively and over-analyze even the smallest details. When I look back at the hundreds of sleepless nights and the vast amount of time I’ve spent tossing over the past 14 years, only 20 to 25 were actually warranted in the bigger context of my business. These techniques are effective because they forces you to step back and assess the relative importance of the problem you’re facing within the bigger picture and approach it within the proper context.

Every stressor elicits a strong response, but the key is to throttle back your response and stress to the appropriate level. Being fresh and awake the next day is much more important than worrying about something that – in most cases – won’t have a long term impact on you or your business.

I’d be curious to hear how other business owners and entrepreneurs manage stress. Any other techniques you’ve found helpful? How do you manage stress when you’re faced with a really big issue that will impact your business two or even 5 years from now?

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Simple Rule: Don’t Give Negative Feedback in Email (or Via Text)

Negative Feedback EmailIn my 15 years of being a CEO, there is one simple rule I follow: Never send negative feedback via email. That includes chat or text message and essentially anything electronic. Particularly for those of you in the workforce under 30, this might sound surprising since electronic communication has become such a ubiquitous and often preferred business communication tool. It’s fast, it’s efficient and it’s accessible everywhere. But it’s a terrible tool for delivering negative feedback. Why?

It’s easy to misinterpret: Even when written in an emotionally balanced manner, email messages leave lots of room for interpretation. Complicating matters, they’re also frequently skimmed especially if they’re long. Remember that negative feedback is one of the hardest to receive, so even the seemingly most simple and innocuous feedback can be misunderstood or hit a nerve. Also, keep in mind that when the message is electronic, controlling tone is always challenging. Unless you’re Earnest Hemmingway, you’re not going to get it right. If you find yourself typing ‘don’t take this email the wrong way’, then you’re better off delivering the message in person.

It’s too accessible: It’s so easy to shoot off an email when you’re frustrated, disappointed, fired up or after a glass of wine. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times with contents ranging from annoying and poorly conceived to highly unprofessional. Being an effective leader is about controlling your emotions and measuring your response.

It eats up time: Keep in mind that the more time you spend on the email, the more time whoever you’re sending it to will spend digesting and responding. Too often you could be looking at a 2 hour exchange before you know it. Across an organization, this can be an incredible productivity sink.

It’s too easily shared: Finally, in the case where you might be really fired up, shooting off an email can quickly become incendiary and leaves an indelible record that’s easy to forward, post or even use in litigation. Email is easy to show to colleagues, friends or even a spouse, who’ll provide color commentary that you didn’t intend no matter how well written.

Now I’m sure that some of you are saying, ‘But sending an email is so easy. I’m better when I write it out and I don’t like giving negative feedback in person.’ Feedback is not about finding shortcuts; and it’s definitely not about finding the path of least resistance to deliver the news. If you prefer to write something out to organize your thoughts, do that – it’s something I often do – but use it as an outline to deliver that feedback in person.

I urge you to go back and look at your email exchanges. You’ll likely find you give negative feedback in email more often than you think and that it can cost you a lot more than it’s worth. So make it a rule: If you’re giving negative feedback, do it in person or, in this increasing remote business environment, pick up the phone or use Skype. You’ll be able to better read the other person, quickly clear up miscommunication and make sure your points get across correctly. You’ll also show you respect the person by setting aside time during your day. It’s ultimately far more efficient and effective, and creates a much more productive, positive work environment.

But the bottom line is that if you’re not comfortable giving negative feedback in person, it’s time to learn and develop that skill. Effectively delivering negative feedback is one of the most important business tools you can develop and essential for getting ahead. In fact, some of the people I respect most in business – including some who report to me – are exceptional at giving negative feedback in a way that is inspiring and leads to better performance.

What you think? Does this work for you? Does it fit the realities of modern communication? I’d recommend trying it for a month and if you do, let me know what happened. Stay tuned as next week I’ll be addressing the topic of negative feedback and offering some tips on how to deliver it constructively with impact and grace.

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Curate Your Company Culture – How to Build an Apolitical Company Environment

Politics and drama are often seen as unavoidable fixtures in business and corporate life. Is it possible to create a culture that spits out drama and minimizes the politics? I know a lot of accomplished business people who take a Hobbesian view of the world and suggest that people inherently like to complain and gravitate to drama. They’d say that there is nothing you can do about it other than ignore it or join the fray. Some larger companies even encourage politics and see it as an efficient way to get things done.

The other day, a new hire told me that my company has an amazingly apolitical culture. He’d been at a number of companies in the valley and was pleasantly surprised. We have a team of 60 people and I’ve never had to worry much about politics. My company is generally drama free. Everyone comes in, works hard and gets their job done. Our culture isn’t perfect, but people get along and there’s very limited conflict or confrontation. I asked myself what I’ve done to create a constructive, apolitical office culture.

1. Set the Tone as a Leader
Stay calm under pressure and be objective. Don’t yell or lose your cool. As a leader, you’re always going to receive infuriating emails or that nugget of information that drives you crazy. When you do, make sure to slow down, take a walk or sleep on it. It’s important to be thoughtful and measured in your response. And if you need to give someone on your team feedback, do it in private and not in front of their colleagues.

2. Create an Environment of Fairness
Always question if you are being fair when making compensation, promotion or bonus decisions; and always encourage your team to do the same. Assume that in a small company, everyone knows what everyone else makes.  One tip is to envision how you’d justify a comp increase or comp for a new hire to others in the organization? How would they respond? What questions would they have? You’ll likely not have to do this, but it’s a good gut-check. If you can’t or if it’s a stretch, rethink.

3. Root out Drama
Have a zero tolerance policy for drama and take an active role in enforcing it. If two people are not getting along, immediately bring them in. If they aren’t on your team, give the same direction to their manager and actively participate. Don’t wait or procrastinate and don’t feel like you need to be the arbiter or solve their problems. Simply let them know that regardless of who is right or wrong, that type of behavior is unacceptable and not part of your culture. Either it stops or neither will be working there. Emphasize that you expect members of your team to be able to work these issues out themselves. Instead of taking sides, view yourself as curator of the culture you want to create.

4. Avoid Favoritism as a Leader
Make sure to avoid the perception of favoritism by reinforcing that you put performance above all else and that regardless of their position they have a chance to do well with you and with the company. Be clear about performance metrics for both individuals and teams and make them transparent. It’s OK to like those who perform better, but don’t fall into the trap of putting favoritism over performance.

5. Eliminate Whispering
If your team is whispering at their desks or around the water cooler and the conversation stops when you or others appear, you have a problem. Pull whoever is whispering aside and state clearly that whispering is not a part of your culture and makes people feel uncomfortable regardless of the subject. Personal drama should be left at home or discussed outside the office and sensitive work issues should be discussed in a private conference room.

6. Implement a Consistent and Thorough Review Process
For a long time as my company was growing, I conducted formal quarterly reviews for my entire team. We’ve since moved to mid-year and annual reviews, but the review process is a critical factor. It’s extremely important to make cultural fit and contribution a key component. Also, implement a 360 degree format where you get feedback from direct reports, other managers and colleagues. The easiest way to tell someone that they’re being a jerk or are not aligned with your company culture is to say it’s the general consensus and although you agree, you’re there to help.

7. Stay Above the Fray
As a leader, you need to be pristine. Don’t get involved closely in your employees’ personal lives. Don’t date or get romantically involved with anyone on your team as tempting as that might be. Lend an ear if necessary or some words of wisdom, but refrain from being a therapist or providing too much advice to avoid being pulled into personal drama.

8. Walk Around
Don’t spend all day at your desk or in your office. Get up every hour or two. Talk to people. You’ll be surprised about how much you can learn about what’s going on. Watch body language and try to get in front of issues before they occur. If your team knows you’re aware and care, they’ll behave differently.

9. Care
Staying apolitical doesn’t mean you can’t care for your employees. Care about your team and their personal and professional development. Care about your culture. Put in the time to listen. Host events consistently and get to know your team. Let your employees know you care about them.  Make sure to let your leadership flow downward throughout the organization. Your team is family, not a bunch of machines or replaceable parts.

What do you think? How important is minimizing politics in the corporate environment? I’m curious to hear others’ perspectives or experiences dealing with company politics and culture at their companies.

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