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How Toastmasters Can Advance Your Career February 27, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership, Project Management.
1 comment so far

Sometimes it is difficult to find the next boost for your career. For a manager or project manager, Toastmasters is a great option. It provides opportunities to enhance oral communication, quick thinking, leadership, and evaluation skills. Skills which prove critical in every leadership profession.

Thanks to Kyle Nishioka @http://www.flickr.com/photos/madmarv/

Thanks to Kyle Nishioka @http://www.flickr.com/photos/madmarv/

The Toastmaster program is not well understood by the general public. Some see it as an elite group of speakers. Some see it as a place to learn to speak. While both of these statements are true, it misses the part of what Toastmasters is.

Toastmasters started as an organization dedicated to helping young men learn to speak publicly. Over time it also grew to develop general professional and leadership skills. The program is well structured to help an individual gradually become comfortable and proficient in at least 4 priceless skill sets:

  • Oral Communication

Communication is ultimately the key in most jobs. Poor communication results in increased costs, lost customers, and perhaps even on the job accidents. With the advent of the electronic revolution, more and more, we are relying on written communication. But written communication has many disadvantages. It is relatively slow. It hides para-verbal queues that humans have developed to help understand intent and meaning. It is difficult to achieve the emotional impact to drive change or get people excited.

Where written communication fails, oral communication excels. It’s rapid. When oral communication is occurring, upwards of 90% of what is being communicated is in para-verbal or non-verbal tones and actions. Emotion can be heard and easily absorbed by the listener.

Despite the advantages, most people have a dire fear of speaking publicly. When people do speak, they are often under trained and provide weak or less effective presentations. In the finance and software worlds, with a few notable exceptions (i.e. Steve Jobs) we often see presentation at its worst.

Toastmasters is a chance to gradually improve your speaking. Initially, they ask you to speak about yourself. Then they incrementally teach you about speech organization, speech writing, using the right words, physical motions, voice, research, visual aids, persuasion techniques, and inspirational speaking. Each skill builds on the previous skills. All the while you will learn to be succinct. Unlike many of the rambling presentations you may hear today, time is critical in Toastmasters. This is just in the first level of speaking, the Competent Communicator. Most people take about a year to two years to complete this program. The 10 speeches step you through each critical concept.

Once you’ve mastered the competent communicator, Toastmasters has numerous advanced programs to help you hone your craft such as technical presentations, speeches by management, or public relations.

  • Quick Thinking

Most Toastmasters meetings will have a “Table Topics” section. Table Topics is impromptu… preparing you for those occasional but unavoidable conversations where your opinion is sought on a moments notice. What will you say? Will you say it well and with conviction? Your opinion counts and you should be able to communicate it in a way that makes a difference.

The key here is practice. By occasionally getting up and talking for 1 to 2 minutes on a topic presented to you without preperation, you develop the skill of verbal agility, an understanding of how to speak “off the cuff” with conviction. Perhaps more important, you develop confidence. Verbal agility is a key skill in interviews, “elevator speeches”, and social banter.

  • Leadership

The second “track” in Toastmasters was a surprise to me. I believe it is also a surprise to many first timers. This program is known as the Competent Leader. It is designed to help people develop leadership skills including organization, mentoring, delegation, running a meeting, keeping meetings on time, and process improvement.

The Competent Leader (or CL) track is focused around the meetings themselves which are difficult to describe unless you’ve been to one. In each meeting, members take on a role such as the “Toastmaster” who acts both as meeting organizer and MC. These roles teach the members important skills, requiring them to be cognizant of time, or prepare certain parts of the meeting.

One of the stops on the CL track requires you to help organize a special event. Another item, as you gain more experience, allows you to mentor a new member. As with the Competent Communicator, each goal is described in detail to help you specifically focus on what you are trying to develop.

Finally, once you complete your CL, there are advanced leadership programs which focus on developing your skills in broader environments and helping the club succeed. Becoming a club, or higher level officer is encouraged. I once read that the best way to develop leadership skills is to lead a volunteer organization. I think this is true, but mostly because it strips away the lie that work isn’t a volunteer organization. Ultimately, all organizations are volunteer organizations, it is just sometimes people at work leave mentally or spiritually instead of physically.

  • Evaluation

Toastmasters is about improving yourself, so we evaluate everything. How did a speech go? How did the meeting go? How is the club doing? This might sound intimidating, but Toastmasters has developed the art of gentle evaluation to a science. Concepts like the “Toastmaster Sandwich” (wrapping areas of improvement with positives on either side) help keep things light. Ultimately all this evaluation results in 2 things: 1. You become a better speaker and leader. 2. You become an excellent evaluator.

In corporate America, I would personally say that evaluations range between mediocre and poor. Developing evaluation skills and providing helpful evaluation can enhance your relationship with your employees and your boss. Perhaps equally important, evaluation done right can make change happen.

If you want to enhance your career, toastmasters is an excellent option. If nothing else, stop in and watch a meeting, it’s entertaining, and will surprise you. Toastmasters love visitors.

Let me know what you think about toastmasters.

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How to escape the Dilbert Zone February 19, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Leadership, Project Management.
1 comment so far

When someone attempts to apply a good idea into the vast reaches of a large corporation, strange pockets of policy tend to emerge. The Dilbert comics are largely about these misfit policies. Try as we might, none of us is immune to this effect. What do you do when you find yourself in the “Dilbert Zone”?

Dilbert Zone

As my leaders and I tried to apply a new corporate policy to our organization, one of them remarked, “I feel like I’m in a Dilbert comic.” The problem was the policy we were trying to implement had been corporately mandated, but it just didn’t fit our group well.

When you discover that you are in the “Dilbert Zone” I see five possible options:

1. Fight the Power

Refuse to follow the policy or ignore it.
This technique can work in some circumstances. If you have a powerful executive on your side who either disagrees with the policy or is willing to fight it for you, you have a shot. If the executive leadership doesn’t care about the policy, there may be no teeth in it. If you personally are willing to spend massive political capital, you might stave it off.
I don’t recommend this approach. All three situations have weaknesses: your friendly executive leaves or is fired; the executive leadership changes their mind and decides they do care; a single person with more influence than you decides to put their two cents in. The only gain in this approach is slowing the policy’s advance. Short of policy change, you will have to fight this battle over and over again till you lose or become CEO.
I took this stance for a time on a financial policy I felt had questionable ethics. I fought the battle a half dozen times before I was given a clear explanation of the corporate decision by those who were in a better position to understand it.

2. Sneak around the Power

Pretend to follow the policy, but don’t. Do the minimal.
Sometimes this is an approach to take, but only when you can maintain your integrity. Some policies are written with large holes in them intentionally, so that those parts of the organization which should slip through the cracks do. Be careful here though, you are putting your integrity on the line. If there is any ethical question, it’s not worth it. Leaders and project managers can only be effective if they are trustworthy. I wouldn’t generally recommend this approach except in special cases.
I have used this as well. For years our organization had a very strict “use it or lose it” policy on days off. This created problems for employees who were prevented from taking days off due to corporate needs. We “worked around” the policy by allowing employees to keep a couple days off the books to be used early the next year, if company needs prevented them from taking their time.

3. Bow to the Power

Don’t ask me why, just do it!
Sometimes you just don’t have an option. . The problem with this approach is that the manager comes off looking either stupid or powerless. It tends to have a temporary negative impact on employee or team morale. The advantage of this approach is it is often where we end up anyway. The team can confront the emotional impact and move past it.
I’ve used this several times. The problem is that Dilbert Zone policies tend to have a cumulative effect, slowly desensitizing the employee to what is worthwhile. I have seen organizations where the project managers have been so tied up in mindless red tape that their ability to actually shepherd  projects successfully was deadened. Even after the red tape was removed, the PMs retained their lack of project focus.

4. Attempt a Compromise with the Power

If you have access to the decision maker who required the policy or the person who is implementing the policy, you may be able to find an agreeable compromise.
This can be a great solution. Often the difference between good policy and bad is in the implementation. The problem is, of course, that if the contact you have changes, or changes their mind, you may find yourself right back where you started.
A good example of this was a recent EPMO Audit we went through. In our audits, project documents  are generally deposited in a sub folder labeled for the stage of the project. (Initiating, Planning, ect…) We talked to the EPMO because for our smallest projects we only had 4 documents required. They went into 3 different folders. The folder structure which helps auditors find a document when they are looking through dozens of docs, was excessive in our case. Our compromise here was a single folder, where all 4 docs would go.

5. Find a way to make the policy benefit your group

I think this is the best option. The corporation’s job is  not to make policy fit into your projects. In a way, they don’t care about your projects. They don’t know enough or have the right perspective to make the policy help you. Generally the policies have broad goals such as consistency or quality. It is up to us as managers and project managers to find ways to make corporate policy benefit us.
I have 2 examples. In the first example, the organization had essentially Bowed to the Power. Policy was treated as check boxes required to get to the other end of projects. Executives saw EMPO policy as an annoyance and regarded project managers primarily as those who kept that annoyance away. What we did was find ways to have EPMO policy benefit the projects, the project managers, and the executives. This helped morale and made the policies something more than they were.
The second example is with the organization I lead now. EPMO has delivered more requirements. We have so far leveraged this change into giving us greater visibility into activities across the base. We are hoping to find ways to leverage the new documents to improve our customer facing activities and leadership visibility. That is much better than another useless requirement.
What do you think is the best way to deal with the Dilbert Zone?

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How to Manage the Zombie Apocalypse February 11, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Leadership, Project Management.
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I’ve always said that Project Management can be applied to nearly any problem. What about something unique, say the zombie apocalypse.

Thanks to Britt Selvitelle@http://www.flickr.com/photos/bs/

Thanks to Britt Selvitelle

No, I am not decrying the evils of TV and what it does to your brain. I am asking you to prepare for the inevitable. Whether it comes from a mad cow like bacterial infection, or some strange umbrella corporation experiment, or even aliens, it is coming. Don’t believe me? Did you know that the CDC has a site dedicated to zombie apocalypse preparedness? Whether you believe or not it, is a very interesting project management problem. How do you put together a project to maximize your chances of survival in the case of the end of the world.

As project managers, we seem to be at a strong disadvantage for survival in Zombieland. Project Managers are not (most of us) Navy Seals or survival experts. What we are, however, are trained, expert strategists who specialize in moving people safely through change. What could be a bigger change than the walking dead in the streets. We just need to approach this as a standard project with ramp up time, execution, and closing.

1. Scope
Like any project we need to understand the scope. Is survival the goal? How long will we need to survive? Is it part of our plan to try to rebuild society?

Let’s say that our goal is to survive 3-4 years. This should be enough time for defacto governments of at least a feudal type to reemerge. We also should consider that members of our team need to have sufficient skills to be highly valued in that society.

2. Tasks

Now that we have our target, probably our second most critical question is what sub tasks need to occur to achieve the goal. Essentially this is our work breakdown structure or task list. Here are some ideas:

  • During ramp up get healthy. 
    Medical services will be defunct during a zombie invasion and may not recover for decades or centuries after the zombies are gone. Get your team as healthy as possible pre-event. If possible also develop high levels of cardio and strength fitness to better cope with the strain of the collapse itself. After all the old adage applies, I don’t have to outrun the zombie, I just have to outrun you. (See rule number 1.)
  • Secure Physical Resources during ramp up.
    Stockpile some food, weapons, and medical supplies. Batteries, gas supplies, and other power sources can be critical as well. Water is a must. You can’t go overboard here because you don’t know the commencement date of the disaster and do not have infinite money. Do so quietly as you don’t want it widely known that you have supplies when everyone else is scavenging.
  • Secure personnel resources.
    Pick a team that you can trust. Ideally the team would have diverse skills: medical, combat, logistics, cooking, engineering, and sanitation. The team has to be small enough to feed for an extended length of time but large enough to provide some degree of security.
  • Secure knowledge resources.
    Books on mechanics, first aid, weapon maintenance, gardening/farming, chemistry, and other documentable skills could be useful during and post collapse.

3. Create a Plan
Put it all together. Who are the resources? What are they to do pre-rampup, during the collapse, and post collapse. Document it, print it, and put it somewhere safe. Post z-day there is likely to be no electricity to pull that document off your laptop.

4. Train/Prepare your resources
In any project, other than creating the plan, I think this is most important. Given decent moral and a good plan, resources generally perform as well as they are trained. Look at your skills and close gaps with training. First Aid and basic boy-scouting skills are invaluable. Combat and hunting skills will keep you alive and fed. Every resources needs to know how to handle a firearm. I’m sure you can think of other things. Remember, as project mangers, our skills will not suffice to DO the project work. We need to augment them to make us effective (and survive).

5. Execute the plan.
When the collapse occurs it will need to be recognized and reacted to. Will you hole up in your home? Travel to some secure location?

Have a first, second and third preferred options. Plan the work, then work the plan. This gives you the opportunity to focus on flexibility in the moment, not planning.

6. Closing the plan
What’s your endgame? Sustainable living somewhere? Joining up with a large enough local government that recovery is possible? Have a target in mind. You may have to adjust this as things play out, but having a target will help you make quick decisions.

Project Management can be used to help manage any change, even the end of the world. The key is thoughtfulness and preparation followed by strong leadership.

What have I’ve missed that you would do to execute this most important of all projects?

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Why all project managers should love Mondays and hate Fridays. November 5, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Project Management.
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Why does everyone love Fridays? I hate Fridays! Fridays are the project manager’s bane. Not only is it impossible to get anything done on Fridays, but Murphy’s Law goes into overdrive. Say TGIF if you will, but when I wake up on Friday I say OMGIF.

Thank you to beau-foto @http://www.flickr.com/photos/belkins/

OMGIF is a military project term loosely related to FUBAR. FUBAR is the post project disaster term used when someone explains to you after the fact that a disaster has hit. Your response is, “How did that happen? My project is FUBAR!” OMGIF occurs when you discover an impending project disaster you cannot avoid as in “What do you mean that is happening? OMG I’m F’d.”

Most TGIFers seem to be driven by the mistaken notion of the end of the work week. The problem with this is that a large portion of the population still does school or work on the weekend. Some estimates are that 35% of the U.S. population works each weekend. The rest of the estimates say the number is higher. As service industries move more and more to 24/7 operations, it will only get worse. Think about all those poor people working next time you shout TGIF.

Here are the 5 reasons I love Mondays and hate Fridays.

1. Traffic

Mondays are the best traffic day of the “work week”. Friday between 5 PM and 6 PM is the worst hour for traffic period. Atlanta rush hour is even worse starting at 4:30 and going till 7:00.

My wife points out, however, that the rush hour is morally valuable. One has to wonder why they call it rush hour when all we do is wait in our cars. They should call it wait hour as sitting in our vehicles, on our tails for 1 to 2 hours not only makes us wait to move, but makes us gain weight due to lack of time to exercise. Then, after waiting, we eat fast food to make up time and thus we gain more weight. If you can avoid rush hour, you can lift weights which causes your metabolism to speed up. Then you might lose weight and attract the attention of fast women. Thus, rush hour keeps you safe from fast women. Moral value is proven.

2. Absenteeism

Fridays are the main day people miss voluntarily for work. Mondays are the other day people take off, but the vast majority of Mondays people take off are holidays. Projects generally take a holiday on holidays. For a project manager, absenteeism is annoying. You cannot get the answers you need, critical meetings cannot happen, and tasks may slip.

The worst thing that can happen is a project emergency that requires your missing expert. Other than during deployment, rarely are there true project emergencies. They tend to be “emergences” instead. Some black beast from the depths pokes its head out of the surface of the still, calm waters that were your project and shambles to shore wreaking havoc on all in its path. These issues can really wait. You should seal yourself in your bunker and hold on tight. But only the most talented and prepared project managers can stave off the screaming, frightened townsfolk (read clients and execs) until help arrives on Monday. Instead the project team goes charging out into the mist with baseball bats and pitchforks where the monster beats the heck out of them with their own limbs and feeds them their toes. Monday, your absentee, the Rambo-nator, shows up with his truckload of AK-47s, body armor, and slimy project monster repellent. He chases the project monster back into the depths in a few moments while you try to salvage the tattered remains of your project and patch up the bruised and bloodied team members. It happens so often and so consistently, I can only imagine that the beastly project monsters are watching us from the depths even now.

3. Running out of week.

Every week starts with lots of opportunities (translated problems). For the fearless field generals that manage projects, this is a time for hope. You will never have more of your most precious resource than you have right now. You have time.

You also have reinforcements. Rambo-nators are pouring into the trenches to relieve the poor limbless, toe-less sods that have been fighting the weekend war. The more conservative Rambo-nators are flush with spiritual renewal. The, uh, less conservative Rambo-nators are flush because of their hangovers, but they get over that quickly. They wait eagerly for deployment and direction from you.

As the week rolls on, hope dwindles. Your list of activities reduces with excruciating slowness and time tic-tic-tics away. By Friday your bulging list is never getting done and you are in frantic triage mode. Rambo-nators are AWoL (Absent with-out leave, or I suppose AWL since technically most have taken leave). The absent Rambo-nators flit through the hills happy and carefree as the still pools of your project stirs and dark things poor forth.

Always on Friday, I find my list less done than I hoped.

4. Fridays are bad for diets and projects

Have you noticed that people always want to go out on Fridays? It is not usually to Larry’s Lettuce Shop either. Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, and other Italian restaurants are the most common. Notice a common theme here? Food that is bad for you.

Besides the diet busters, there are two big things about Friday lunches that annoy me as a project manager. First is the time. Since everybody has to take their 15 man team out on Friday, it leaves no place for my 15 man team. Our time is doubled because of waiting. (It’s Friday, and no surprise, the whole time we’re waiting and sitting, the restaurants call it the lunch “rush”. Now I’m sitting on my butt and eating badly again. At least I’ll never see that fast woman.)

Second, after all that heavy food my Rambo-nator resources are turned into super-sloths. Meetings are late and decisions can be made next week. More resources crawl off in the guise of “heading out early”. I am sure they are going home to sleep off lunch.

5. 4-6 PM on Friday’s are the front line’s Dumping Ground

Note that EOW (end of week) is only one letter from EWW (EWW!) If you have ever been in project management or any kind of secondary support role (tier 2 or higher), you know what happens between 4 and 6 on Friday. The front line wants to go home and they start dumping their issues on your desk. These are issues they have been working on all day, or all week, or God forbid even longer. But at 4 PM on Friday, they know that you are charging towards the door, and they cannot help but stick their leg out to trip you. After all, if you make it out, they will be stuck with their problem. As you face plant, they dump their issue on you, and sprint for the exit. Your job is to grab them by the leg and not let them leave until you can go too. Tit for Tat.

It is real. Nearly every week between 4 and 6 PM on Friday, some disaster shows up on my desk that should have been there (if I’m lucky) hours earlier. If I’m unlucky, it’s been festering for days and has crawled forth from the still waters as an “emergence”, a true project monster. Often, I have no choice but to buckle down and venture into the mist clutching some ineffective weapon and fearing for my toes.

Go ahead say,”TGIF”. But for me it will always be OMGIF.

Tell me what you think about Friday.

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Why you should stay in your current position 3 to 5 years October 24, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership.
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In America we are driven to success. Money and power entice us to seek promotion and raises. This concept of always pushing for the next thing, can rob us of the valuable experiences of the current thing. Sometimes staying put, moving sideways, or even going backward is required for ultimate success. Patience and discipline lead to a greater reward. This is why you should plan on being where you are for 3 to 5 years.

Thanks to Amanda Yepiz @http://www.flickr.com/photos/trazomfreak/

I sometimes regret moving up too fast.  Some lessons are easier to learn at lower levels of the profession. Once you bypass those lessons by being promoted early, they become almost impossible for you to learn. They become gaps, weak spots in your skill set that may plague you for months or years.

There are 5 excellent reasons why you should wait 3 to 5 years before seeking promotion from a position. Of course, if you’ve got a “fries with that” job, it is not unreasonable to seek something better sooner.  But barring a job you can’t stand, here are the 5 reasons:
1.Opportunities abound
Many people feel that if they are not on the lookout for the next good thing, they will miss out. Assuming that you have to take opportunities when they show up or you will miss out isn’t necessarily helpful. It is a perspective thing. Are opportunities rare or plentiful? I submit to you that opportunities abound. They may not always be what you expect, but they will come when the time is right.
2.It takes around 5 years to develop true expertise.
According to Michael Hyatt, it takes about 10,000 hours to develop true expertise. This is about 5 years of work. This makes sense to me. Everyone starts out at an Apprentice level skill. Apprentices require significant supervision, training, and help to be consistently successful. It takes a year or two to move from Apprentice level skill to Journeyman. Journeyman can do all basic activities with consistent success. With sufficient assistance a Journeyman can perform well with all but the most complex projects. It takes another 2 to 4 years to move from Journeyman to Expert. Experts have mastered the basic and specialized skills of the job. They have begun to develop the subtle skills of Mastery that cannot be grasped without a firm foundation. They consistently perform well in projects. After reaching an Expert level of skill most people will move up, but some will stay in that position eventually developing true Mastery after 5 to 15 additional years. Masters have developed such a high level of skill in their job that their effectiveness often seems to be magical. The way to optimize your effectiveness at higher levels is to achieve at least true expertise at each level in the organization.
3.Organizational value increases exponentially as you remain in a position
Sometime after your 3ed year in a position, assuming you are progressing well, your value moves from slight incremental increases to an exponential gains. Mangers can back off and let you operate as you’ve learned all the basics. They can rely on you for more important and risky projects. This accelerates learning and visible successes.
Value acceleration occurs again after expertise is achieved. Masters at their craft are priceless. The key here is to watch your interest and passion. If your passion for the job is waning, it is time to change. If your passion is sustained, it may be you’ve found your nitch. Most Careers have two paths, Mastery and Leadership. One will sustain your passion, the other will eat your lunch. Pick wisely.

4.Seek responsibility, not position or money.
Responsibility is the key to advancement. As I’ve moved up in the company I want people who I can count on beside me. Having a better resume or getting promoted doesn’t make you more reliable. Taking on and succeeding at a responsibility without being promoted shows both competence and loyalty.
Also, if your boss is even remotely sane and you are doing a good job, he can’t complain about you asking for more responsibility. He can get frustrated with demands for position or money even if you are doing a stellar job. You can safely seek responsibility. Trust me, if you are successful, the money and position always follow, eventually.

5.Wait until you are invited to move up
Here is the final piece of advice. Don’t push the promotion. The worst possible career move is to ask to move up when you aren’t ready. When you’ve been doing the job for 2 or 3 years, start looking into what you want to do next. Assuming you’ve reached Journeyman level and become a reliable star for your manager, you can enlist your boss as an ally to get you ready. This is to get you ready, not make it happen. Most likely between year 3 and 6 one of three things will happen.

      Your boss will move up and pull you up with him. (Remember, he gets credit for your success too,,, if he’s got enough star players, his chance of moving up is substantially increased).
      Your boss or his boss will find an opportunity that fits your next step.
      An opportunity will move up will pop out somewhere laterally within the company.

Have you ever had a time when you wished you had been more patient before pushing for promotion or a new job?
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No Post this week. October 17, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.
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Due to business concerns, I won’t be able to post till this weekend. Stay tuned.

The simplest way to make your business succeed or fail. October 10, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership, Project Management.
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I recently had an awful customer service experience with Laureate Medical Group, an Atlanta health care provider. This reminded me how critical Customer Service is. The only more critical issue is the product itself. The thing is, improving the product is hard and complex. Providing good customer service may not be easy, but it is relatively simple.

Most people think of customer service and certain negative thoughts pop into their heads. Phone Trees, Call Centers, and being on hold are all popular images.”Musac”, the poor imitation music that plays endlessly while you are on hold, sort captures the image as well. I used to call into one offshore call center that played a stylized version of the theme song from the good, the bad, and the ugly while you were on hold. I always wondered if the managers of that call center were just clueless, or if they were trying to tell me something.

Customer Service does not have to be depressing, however. In fact, most of us serve customers, internally or externally, every day. Customer Service is ultimately providing a service or support to an individual or company. Doing this well requires a focus on the customer’s needs and a thorough understanding of the product or service you are supporting. Everyone has customers. They may be people who are paying for your service. They may be your manager or another department. Serving those customers well is critical to business success.

Why is it important that we provide excellent customer service?It is the simplest long term way for customers to gauge their importance to your company, to build good will with those customers, and to sell them more product.

A customer that feels valued is likely to stay with you. A customer that feels unvalued is likely to leave. Customers tend to have significantly more exposure to non-sales components of your company than to sales. No matter how your sales people try to make them feel important, the day to day actions of your non sales staff say more. Don’t forget, even internal customers can be lost. It’s a sad day for a company when one department outsources the activities of another department because of ongoing quality issues.

Solving problems for a customer tends to build up good will. Many customers will even accept an inferior product if the service makes them feel important. Please don’t misunderstand me,it is not enough to feed the clients ego. Many companies teach their people to listen and nod and do nothing. This may work with some customers, but the savvy folk will recognize that you are not helping them. Nothing says you don’t matter like ignoring a customers need.

Seth Godin talks a lot about permission marketing. That concept is a little more complex than I can go into here, but the key to the concept is that your best salesmen and your best prospects, are your happy satisfied customers. Finding a customer is hard and expensive. Selling something new and useful to a satisfied customer tends to be easy. You have their attention and their trust. Apple is a great example here. I like their products, but their customer service has blown me away. After a couple of interactions, I am a fan

Word of mouth is another critical sales value that a satisfied customer will provide. Anyone who does high end sales or sales of non-tangibles like insurance or investments will tell you that a personal reference increases their likelihood of making a sale tremendously. Thus satisfied customers not only buy more for themselves, they recommend you to others.

The reverse is also true and even more powerful. Negative customer experiences are amplified through the megaphones of Twitter and Facebook. Frustrated consumers are no longer limited to telling only their friends and acquaintances. They can now scream it across the World Wide Web. Most major companies have taken to monitoring these mediums to help limit the damage dissatisfied customers can do.

Finally, the processes and policies of your company are designed to make customer interaction consistent and high quality. Think for yourself and do the right thing. Don’t be a robot and allow a broken process to drive away a customer.

I firmly believe that every employee is responsible for customer service. It’s our job to put the “Wow” into the customer experience as Michael Hyatt says. We need to make our customers feel valued, solve their problems, and act to make things work for the customer when processes are broken and not serving the need. If we do these things, we’ll see higher customer satisfaction and our customers will buy more product and tell their friends to buy from us as well.

Have you ever had a customer service experience that left you saying “that’s a great company, I’ll buy from them again”?

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What to do when another department is screwing up. September 25, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership, Project Management.
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In business we often work in silos. When a businesses is segmented like this, it can make it very difficult to resolve problems. What do you do when you have a problem with another department?

Thanks to Vic @http://www.flickr.com/people/59632563@N04/

When problems crop up between business units the temptation is to shoot off an angry, frustrated email explaining your position. Don’t! This is almost always the wrong solution no matter how strongly you feel that your team is in the right. In these cases I have found that there are 3 basic steps that will provide you maximum control of the situation.

1. Assume responsibility for what you can
One of the standard fallouts from interdepartmental problems is “finger pointing”.  A key piece of information here is that often the accusations flying back at you are true. The other department probably has as many problems with what you are doing as you do with them. You need to beat them to the punch. Look at your own operations. Where have your failures made the problem worse? Identify them, document them, and own them. If you find that you have no problems, look harder. You missed something.

In one project a team of mine was having issues with the technical team correctly carrying out their requests. After they complained to me about it, I asked the lead of my team to look at the requests themselves. We found that they were often poorly written and unclear. They were also frequently submitted later than ideal. Understanding this led us to the conclusion that there was a lot we could do to alleviate the issues.

2. Change what you control

The thing that you as a manager need to remember is that you are not a victim. In most cases you can either resolve or mitigate the problem internally. Take mitigation steps. This provides you 2 major advantages. First, you can execute the internal changes more rapidly with less resistance. Second, if the problem escalates, you can show clear intent and action to address the issue.

Once, while doing a series of system implementations, we found that an internet banking group we were working with was consistently miss-configuring their side of the system. We reacted by adding a preemptive quality evaluation to the configuration. We added a double check of our requests to make sure our communication was clean. Then we wrote a document with the step by step implementation steps. It was their problem, but we were the ones dealing with the fall out.

3. How to change what you can’t personally change.
If you’ve identified your issues and implemented your solutions, but you still are having significant problems, it may be time to change the other department. Remember, this is only if you are still having significant issues. Every time you go out to change another group you are taking on significant risks.  If you upset or anger the other department with your meddling, you may end up with even bigger problems. The conflict could spread to an even wider group of departments. Managers talk, and your issue with a department of a business group could spread to the whole group. Beyond the risk, also keep in mind that you are spending personal political collateral to make the change. If you push a minor change now, you may not have the political strength to get a major change pushed through later.

If you are determined to proceed do this:

  • Carefully document the ongoing instances of the problem. The needs are different based on severity, but you need to be able to show that the issue has happened over time (I’d say a month or two in most cases) and is not a fluke (at least 3-4 cases or 10% of cases)
  • Setup a personal meeting with the manager of the other department
  • Outline the issue, what you have identified as issues on your side,and what you have done to mitigate these issues
  • Outline the evidence showing that this is an ongoing problem, and not just a fluke
  • Ask for the managers help in solving the problem. Do not suggest a solution unless they ask you for suggestions. They are the experts in their field and you will be surprised how often they will offer something better than you expected.
  • If they refuse to help, let them know (nicely) that you will need to escalate the issue. Inform your boss of the intent to escalate and repeat the above procedure with the other department’s boss. A lot of managers hate escalations, but it’s hard to get angry at you if you’ve given them plenty of opportunity to act and given them a heads-up.
  • Finally, whether they help or not, the other manager may have additional mitigations or issues for you. You don’t need to address them at the moment, but you do need to address them. This shows that you are willing to act on the other department’s behalf, which builds you significant political capital.

This may sound like a lot, but it keeps relations between the teams good. More importantly it works. Most of this process can be used for interpersonal conflicts as well.

Have you tried any of these techniques to deal with interpersonal or interdepartmental conflicts in the past?

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What to do when you fail September 19, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.
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Recently I was in a meeting where I realized one of my projects was failing. It was ugly. It was well exposed to my boss. I came away embarrassed that we were failing. I came away feeling that I had let people down. Now that the anger, embarrassment, and sulking are done, what are the next steps? What do you do when you fail?

Thanks to Kevin Jarrett @http://www.flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/

There are a lot of approaches to how to react to failure. Some people hit it head on. Some people avoid responsibility and redirect blame. For me the right approach is to quickly try to analyze the problem and then take a different direction. I find that failure means one of two things: either there is something for me to learn or I’ve gotten slack.

If there is something I need to learn, the solution is easy. Analyze the process for what failed and correct it. I see this in about 90% of the cases. By gradually improving my personal processes and my department’s processes, I see growing success both in my career and in my company.

In the second case, some kind of corruption has set in.The decay has allowed something we are usually good at to deteriorate. This can occur at either the team or individual level.It is much harder to deal with than the simple learning situations.Still there are a few steps that can help:

1.       Set aside time to specifically deal with the issue

Failures due to process corruption must be fixed quickly. They are like a disease and rapidly spread if not dealt with. You need time to do the remaining steps and without designated time your day will be absorbed by less critical problems. Time needs can vary widely from 10 minutes to 10 hours to 10 days.

2.       Identify why the corruption has occurred

When I talk about process corruption this simply implies that something that used to work no longer does. There are numerous possible issues. Perhaps you or your team has become careless because you are good at this process. Perhaps you have a morale problem. Perhaps external factors are interfering with the normal process flow. External factors can range from personal issues such as a death in the family or depression to 3ed party issues such as interdepartmental strife or uncoordinated changes by other groups.

3.       Correct the core issue

Once it is identified we need to correct the core issue. Personal issues may require counseling or at least a reminder that personal issues cannot impact work performance. External issues may require meetings or realignment of resources. Moral issues may require a look at team dynamics and how to improve.

4.       Correct the resulting failure

The initial failure that let you know there is a problem left a mess that now needs to be cleaned up. Depending on the severity of the failure time frames can vary.

5.       Look for other related failures.

Process corruption is nasty stuff. The root-cause addressed in 2 and 3 above can often impact other projects and processes. Look at what you or your organization does with a high level focus and try to determine if any other processes or projects have been impacted. If they have, correct them.

Here is a case I have dealt with:

I had a meeting which revealed that a project was out of control and the planning was far weaker than I had led myself to believe. Given that I am a strong project planner and analyst and also given that I saw nothing to indicate a lack of knowledge caused this failure, I concluded that I had slacked off and allowed process corruption to sneak into my daily routine.

1.       I immediately scheduled about 2 hours a day for the next week to isolate and solve the problem

2.       I concluded that a slow schedule and relative quietness had lulled me into a more careless management style. I was allowing uncritical and personal items to creep more and more into my daily schedule.

3.       I restructured my schedule and hardened my prioritization process to make sure I was keeping the critical items in perspective. I intentionally allowed my personal schedule to take a hit until I was convinced that my work process was successful again.

4.       I spent a number of hours analyzing and pushing the behind project until it caught up with where it should be.

5.       I looked over my whole schedule. The strengthened prioritization process in 3 above made sure that critical items stayed at the top of the list. I did find a few other items that had also suffered some neglect and moved them up in priority.

What is a situation where you have discovered process corruption in your organization or yourself? What did you do about it?
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The Final 10 Percent September 13, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.
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Success and failure are a breath apart. In writing most people quit right before their big break. In leadership and project management, it’s the last 10 percent that make all the difference. Here are three thoughts on how to achieve that critical 10 percent.

Thanks to Paul Jerry @http://www.flickr.com/photos/paj/

Proverbs 12:27 tells us “The lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions”. My pastor once taught on this little bit of wisdom and gave it a whole new light to me. How much work is roasting the game compared to the rest of the effort involved in hunting, killing, skinning, and dragging game back home? It is very little work, perhaps 10 percent. Yet a person who doesn’t do that last step loses all the rest of the effort. Roasting the meat tends to preserve it, while the raw meat spoils.

How often do we miss out on success because we didn’t do the final ten percent? More importantly, how do we as leaders guide others to push through the last 10 percent? I would suggest 3 ideas:

1. Establish quality as an expectation and inspect what you expect.

I started my career in quality assurance. Later, I moved into development and delivered my work to QA, quality assurance. I still remember the leader of the QA group. He had an expectation of a certain level of quality testing before an item was shipped to QA. In development like so many craftsmen’s arts we tended to tinker with the code right up to delivery. We sought to make it just a bit cleaner and a bit more efficient.

That QA lead saved me embarrassment dozens of times. I would do some final tinkering. Then, I would be tempted to send the code out without re-testing. After all, I had tested the code thoroughly before that last change, and the change was minor. However, the thought of that manager finding failed code and asking me “didn’t you even test this”, caused me to run one more validation. So many times that last tweak broke the code. It was annoying, but it took my code to another level.

What was operating here? Very simply there was a manager who had high expectations (of everyone, but in my mind of me especially) who simply wouldn’t accept anything less that high quality. I knew that the work would be inspected and flaws would likely come back to haunt me. So I made sure every i was dotted and t was crossed.

You can achieve this too. Define high quality. Inspect the work for that quality.

2. Search for the missing 10 percent

A lot of times the problem is that people either don’t know how to roast the game, or don’t realize that they are not doing it. Part of process and project refinement is discovering where this 10 percent is missing. How do we improve our quality?

Every failure is a learning experience. If you treat it this way instead of shaming or punishing your employees, you will find more information and honesty coming your way. You will be able to spot and correct the errors. Finally, your people will become tied to you. There is real personal capital in forgiveness. “Holding someone accountable” for something they had little or no control over simply causes mistrust.

A final thing, your resources and your leaders are going to fail. If you are going to grow them and stretch them, they will fail. We grow many times more rapidly from failure than from success. You’ve got to be a strong enough Manager or Project Manager to accept some of those failures in order to make your people stronger.

3. Create processes that drive the final 10 percent

The key to long term success with the final 10 percent is process. In general the number of lazy people is relatively low. Even introverted people-oriented personalities, who do have a temptation towards laziness, will perform when placed in the correct process or system. Most employee under-performance is due to either a resource that has been placed in the wrong position or a bad process. Three quick things to consider to drive the final 10 percent:

Make sure you constantly improve your processes. Look for gaps and enhance them.

Make sure your team knows these processes. Under trained team members are setup to fail.

Establish project and task reviews to let the employees know that adherence to process will be examined. When you inspect work, you will get what you expect.

What story comes to mind when you hear “do the final 10 percent”?
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