Saturday, October 10, 2015

Business Writing: Write Your Ticket to Success

If you are like most people, you probably write 50 or more emails per day. And maybe several documents or sets of slides per week. While you probably did a bit of writing in school, it’s rarely stressed in most disciplines.  If you’re one of the many people in business for whom writing has never been a major concern, you should know that writing skills are a key career differentiator more and more every year. Your goal should be to write better than the competition. Spending time to improve your writing can result in an improvement in your marketability and promotional prospects. There’s no substitute for practice, but here are a few pointers to put you on the right track.

1. Less is more.
In any kind of writing, concision matters. Ironically, as written information becomes more and more important, people are less and less willing to read. Most articles (and certainly videos) are meant to capture attention in 30 seconds or less. So use words sparingly. Avoid overly long sentences. Use bullet points to mark the important topics or key points. Get in and get out!

2. Use understandable terms, not jargon.
Everyone in business hates writing that describes “strategical synergies” when “opportunities to work together” is more meaningful without sounding ridiculous. While sometimes jargon is unavoidable – in a business requirement document or technical specification, for example – try using plainer language. Try to avoid the overuse of acronyms when possible. “Can you give me the ETA for the TPS for the EMEA meeting?” will get eyerolls from most. Even for people in the same field as you, jargon is often inefficient – the eye slides right past it without really catching the meaning. There’s a reason that jargon is so often used when a writer wants to avoid saying anything.

3. Write once, check twice.
Proofread immediately after you write, and then again hours or even days later. Nothing is more embarrassing than a stupid typo in an otherwise fine document. And nothing is worse than a hasty email, especially written in an emotional moment, that you regret forever. Except in the direct emergency, always give yourself time to set your writing aside and come back to it later.

4. Create your own templates.
Whenever you write an especially good letter, email, memo, or other document, if there’s the slightest chance you’ll be writing a similar document in the future, save it as a template for future use. Since rushing through writing is one of the main causes of typos and other errors, saving time by using a pre-written document can also save you errors. Just make sure to remove any specific information – names, companies, etc. – before re-using it! This is the one downfall of templates.
5. Be professional, not necessarily formal.
Informal shouldn’t mean unprofessional – keep any personal comments, bad jokes, and gossip out of your business communications. Remember that many businesses (possibly yours) are required by law to keep copies of all correspondence – don’t email, mail, or circulate anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having read into the record in a public trial. This is a hard one for most people to remember because it happens so rarely. But that one time it does happen, you won’t enjoy it at all if you haven’t followed this rule.

6. Remember to solve problems rather than create them.
If you give someone a problem in an email, especially if you do it often, they will stop reading your email eventually. Most business communication is meant to achieve some purpose or resolve some situation, so make sure you include a call to action and your proposed solution. Don’t leave it to your readers to decide what to do with whatever information you’ve provided – most won’t even bother, and enough of the ones who do will get it wrong that you’ll have a mess on your hands before too long.

7. Don’t give too many choices.
Ideally, don’t give any. If you’re looking to set a time for a meeting, give a single time and ask them to confirm or present a different time. At most, give two options and ask them to pick one. Too many choices often leads to decision paralysis, which generally isn’t the desired effect.

8. Benefits, not features.
A cornerstone of effective writing is describing benefits, not features. Why should a reader care? For example, few people care that the iPhone 6 Plus has an 8 MegaPixel camera – what they care about is that it can take better pictures with more clarity. 8MP is a feature; better pictures is the benefit. Benefits engage readers, since they’re naturally most concerned with finding out how they can make their lives easier or better.

9. Hire a ghost writer.
If your current writing job is important, hire someone for whom writing is their strong suit. A good freelance writer can produce training manuals, internal letters, newsletters, slideshows, blog posts, wiki entries, and just about any other kind of writing you can think of. Expect to pay at least $20 an hour, and more likely $50, for good writing – anyone who charges less is either not very good, or not very business savvy. Upwork (formerly Odesk) has made writing freelancers cheaper than ever, so take advantage if there is an important document that might mean something to your career.  

Effective writing is a learnable skill. If your business writing isn’t up to snuff, follow the tips above and see if you can’t improve it. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Deadly Gossip

Deadly Gossip
Ever wondered how an office or a business could become so stressful? An insidious enemy, gossip can easily destroy a reputation or business. In this article, learn how to spot hidden gossip and begin to eradicate it.

Recently, a company nearly reached the brink of destruction in a flurry of scandal. The legal team swooped in and started swinging, taking out the major offenders but also cutting off 25% of the company's clients at the same time. Just before it spiraled completely out of control, a savvy board member spotted the exact problem and halted it. The culprit? A vicious round of gossip about the executive team followed by a lawsuit based on that gossip.
Gossip reaches as high as the C-suite and as low as the mail room in nearly every company. It can seem harmless and inconsequential and even fun or interesting at times, but its roots can be deep and insidious. Perhaps you have seen a beneficial program cut because of gossip, or a contract lost or a person fired. Perhaps that person was you.
What can you do to proof yourself and your business against gossip? Education is the key. Gossip is so ingrained in our culture that sometimes we can miss gossip even when it is right in front of our faces. Gossip is defined as light conversation about sensational or private matters. The danger is the viral nature of this destructive and often untrue communication.
Here are a few pointers to recognize and control gossip.
1. Look for a broad generality.
"All the women around here are lazy," or "The marketing people are cold and calculating." This might seem to be obviously untrue upon inspection, but it can easily wend its way into conversations and become a stuck idea about the group. In the example above (a real one) about the marketing people, the result was that many people in the company avoided the "marketing people". This resulted in poor communications between sales and marketing, and a problem when it came to messaging the product. Not a good result. Pay attention whenever someone lays out a "truism" about an entire group. It's almost guaranteed to be a falsehood.
2. Check for negativity.
Very often, negative statements are largely or partially untrue, particularly if the statement is about a person's character or skills. These "opinions" which have no basis in fact can be very damaging. Call others on it when they throw them around as truth. Ex. "Tim is like a porcupine. Don't give him any new ideas. He just bristles." Not only is this likely false, but it creates problems for Tim. If you pass it along, you are an accomplice to wrecking Tim's relationships.
3. Look for "frequent liars".
"Frequent liars" are those who are routinely gossiping about others. Avoid them. Politely excuse yourself from the conversation. Why? Because if they are gossiping to YOU about others, they will gossip to others about YOU as readily. Don't get caught in the trap. Keep the conversation light and positive if you simply can't get away.
4. Inspect long-standing conflicts.
In any long-standing argument or conflict, there is certain to be a degree of gossip behind it. Get the two arguing parties in a room and ask them this question: "What negative things have you heard about the other person?" Get them to list out everything. Ask them who said these things. Often, the same person is giving negative information to both sides! As soon as they both see what is happening, the conflict vanishes. Make sure you get a few names of people who were stirring up the conflict and work with those people to reduce their gossip level. This is fantastically useful in teambuilding.
Not all those who gossip have bad intentions. It is easy to get caught in a web of gossip in almost any workplace. Little by little, start educating others about the dangers of gossip and you will make your business and your life a little easier.

Wishing you success...

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Seven Deadly Business Sins

The Seven Deadly Business Sins

Anyone running a business is responsible for seven major functions. Leaving any one of them out could spell disaster for your business. Learn about these seven areas so you can avoid the Seven Deadly Business Sins!

I suppose no one told you that you had to be good at every aspect of business to run one successfully? No one told me either. As a result, over the last 13 years, I have taken vast numbers of classes and read innumerable books to learn about business. Most people think that if they are an expert in what their business delivers, they can run a successful business. As a result, many excellent hair stylists, artists, cooks and other professions end up out of business and broke because they didn't know enough about marketing or sales or some other business topic. 
I don't want you to fall into this trap. The good news is that there are only seven major areas in any business. Only seven. Not 1,000, not even 500. Only seven. If you can master these seven areas and what they are supposed to do in your business, you can be successful. And you can take your talent for cutting hair, making meatballs or arranging flowers to a successful level. 
Without further ado, here are the seven areas and the seven sins to avoid:
1. Strategic Planning
   You may have a business plan or a marketing plan, but are they all integrated? Do you know exactly what size you want your business to be in five years? Do you have the policies and procedures in place to get there? Have you planned out what positions to hire? If not, you might be weak on strategic planning. 
DEADLY SIN #1:  No strategic planning. 
2. Human Resources
 Human Resources includes all the steps you have to take with employees, from recruiting them to onboarding them and training them, even including where and how they receive email and your company protocol for communication. Anything that involves people is in this area. People are so important that hiring them brings you more capacity and therefore more money. And your business won't expand without them. So you have to plan to be constantly growing where people are concerned. A wise business woman once told me, "If your business isn't growing, it's shrinking. There is no middle ground." True.
DEADLY SIN #2:  Not hiring continually. 
3. Marketing & Sales
Many a business owner cries in their coffee over lack of sales, but they have no idea how marketing and sales work together to generate leads and provide opportunities to expand. Most people I have met don't know the definition of the word marketing. Just as an exercise, I challenge you to look it up to make sure you do know. Marketing is what pulls in the majority of your income by providing leads to business. Don't neglect this vital area. 
DEADLY SIN #3:  Not understanding marketing and sales.
4. Finance
You don't have to be a blazing financial wizard to succeed in small business. But there are two components that seem to matter most:  1. accurate accounting, 2. tax planning. If you have a good bookkeeper who can keep your files in order, you are more likely to be organized about your cash flow and not run into a crisis. And a good accountant can help you plan out how to save money in taxes, a welcome relief for small business owners. 
DEADLY SIN #4:  Disorganized finances. 
5. Operations
This is the part of your business that delivers your product or service. The biggest mistake business owners make is not having this aspect thoroughly planned out in advance. A project management function that plans out your business for the next 90 days or beyond will do worlds for your business volume. Although there are many other challenges in an operations division of a company, this challenge is the most common. 
DEADLY SIN #5:  Poor future work planning.
6. Quality Control
Some businesses I work with didn't even have a quality control function when I walked in the first time. Without it, you will be missing information on how your customers like your product, what they like best about it and how you can improve. You will also be missing testimonials from clients or customers. If you don't have a quality control function, put it there now. Even if you have to do it yourself. Send out surveys to your past customers, or just talk to them directly. Anything is better than nothing in this area. 
DEADLY SIN #6:  No quality control on your product or service.
7. Business Development
If you are always thinking of new ways to get customers or new avenues for business partnership, your business development is strong. Most small business owners don't think creatively for new partnership avenues or referral sources. Example:  A sign shop needed new business and found that a key city council member was in charge of updates and renovations to local buildings. The sign shop got the list of local buildings and soliticted customers from that list. Just like that, 10 new customers. Are you thinking creatively about new avenues to get customers? Seminars? Workshops? Local connections? If not, you might be missing out on huge possibilities. 
DEADLY SIN #7:  No creativity on finding new business. 
If you are committing more than one of the seven deadly sins right now, get a plan in place to fix it as soon as possible. 
Wishing you a sin-less business!

The Seven Deadly Business Sins

The Seven Deadly Business Sins

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Career Development

Many career driven readers need to know what factors into choosing a good career, how to prepare for this career, and when it is appropriate to switch careers. If you are asking yourself what career you should choose, make sure to factor in the following five points into your decision making process.

  • Find your passion. Corny perhaps, but true. Finding a passion is the most crucial factor in finding a good career. Regardless of what the media portrays, successful people work long hours, sometimes fighting straight through 15 or 16 hours of hard labor. In such a stressful environment, you better like what you’re doing. Without a passion and purpose to drive you, you will inevitably leave your career goals by the wayside.
  • People throw money at interesting things. Research and look into what areas you have worked in. Find out how much money it’s making. Money is the attention unit of society and if people find something interesting, they will throw money at it. Other than the innovative areas that have not yet been discovered, you can determine what careers are viable by what sectors are doing well now.
  • It really isn’t ever too late. True, if you switch careers, you will be the low man on the totem pole for at least a short while. There is no getting around this. However, if you are truly passionate about another career, willing to work from the ground up, and ready to learn about the area, go for it. You need to realize the immense opportunity cost of sticking around in the wrong career.
  • Start preparing early. A significant portion of America’s society has set up the false belief that high school and college are all about having fun and trying different things. That’s okay, but sometimes it’s nice to have a purpose and follow it. Your career is your life and there is no reason to delay starting your life. This doesn’t mean parents need to grind a career into their children; however, starting early gives kids a sense of purpose and direction. For example, my oldest daughter in middle school wants to be a paleontologist, she interns with designers and engineers to see what paleontologists do on a daily basis. This early exposure is optimal for finding the right career.
  • Vocational schools are great when applicable. If you know you want to pursue a specific career, vocational schools are very advantageous, especially for hands-on careers. In vocational schools, talent is very focused and does not get dispersed. In college, I sat through my higher-level math courses only to never use the information again. Instead, I could have spent time on other things relevant to her career.
As the destabilized economy struggles to make a comeback, many readers wonder what are the top careers for the future. The two most promising fields: technology and health care.

  • The Future: Any technology, especially cloud computing, that makes it easier to have technological solutions without having the technology in the office is emerging at the forefront of business as one of the top careers for the future. The technology market will only continue to grow bigger and bigger
  • The Competition: Competition is low in America’s technology market now and Silicon Valley is always in need of more engineers. Competition will start to grow, but America’s education system is not strong enough to effectively compete in the global economy yet. Many companies are outsourcing for engineering resources because it is much more cost effective. However, Americans will be able to compete in the future.

    Regardless of whether engineers overseas cost less, work takes longer and is done incorrectly because of the language barrier. If America can produce well educated engineers, overseas competition will not matter so much in the future. Americans, the last free people in the world, have been historically intelligent and very scrappy.

    When the necessity level rises to a certain point, the United States will make a come back. Above all, Americans need to stop complaining and square away the education system. Furthermore, Silicon Valley needs support. As the heart innovation, Silicon Valley and its expanding technology market have the potential to turn America around.
  • Competitive advantages: Fluency in other languages of emerging markets is key, including Asian languages, Spanish, Portuguese, and in time, maybe even Middle Eastern languages. Because so many companies are expanding their global offices, those who are fluent enough to communicate with a global team and figure out how to handle e-commerce in Asia will dominate in technology.

    Silicon Valley flourishes when its technology sector figures out how to target emerging markets overseas.In addition, a background in engineering is optimal. Engineers translate thoughts into the physical universe better than anyone else. This skill will always be needed in the technology field. As Bromund said, “if there isn’t an engineer to turn dreams into reality, we’re screwed.”
Health Care
  • The Future: Health care isn’t going anywhere. Although its growth depends on the government, Bromund predicts it will get overhauled in some other way. Regardless of the government’s actions, health care is going to be a large field in the future.
  • The Competition: Although 2008 and 2009 were major exceptions, there will be a lot of competition to find nurses and doctors. Especially on the aging side of health care, there will be plenty of openings as well as a shortage of health care professionals. However, compared to the exciting forefront of technology, health care is a relatively lackluster field unless it especially interests you.
  • Competitive advantage: Quite simply, attend nursing schools to become a nurse or medical school to become a doctor. There will always be a demand for these professions.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Unbiased Performance Appraisal

Fair performance appraisal methods use metrics only to judge performance at regular, short intervals. In this way, he or she knows exactly what is expected and can become stable in his role.

Give each employee a set of deliverables and measure those deliverables by graphing them on a daily or weekly basis to show changes. The employee’s performance can be easily judged. Of course, other qualities in an employee matter besides his or her ability to deliver, but this comes first and foremost where fairness is concerned.

As a role becomes more complicated or you head toward the top of the org chart, certain complexities make the evaluation of performance more difficult. In this case, the best idea is to make a list of the deliverables as well as the “soft skills” or intangibles that the position needs. Do this without regard to the person currently in the role. Imagine what an ideal person would do and be in the role and write that into the job description as a standard to judge the person against.

As soon as you enter “soft skills” into the equation, the ability to keep bias out of your performance appraisal methods becomes compromised to a degree. Therefore, the job description should include these skills at the outset, not added after a problem arises. Be thoughtful about the skills, tasks and deliverables of the role as early as possible so that the standard is fairly set.

If you do not currently have a job description for each role in your organization that includes the main tasks, the deliverables and the soft skills for that role, then this is the first task you must take on to get your house in order. From there, develop regular performance reviews based only on metrics that occur weekly.

Then, at longer intervals, such as every six months or one year, look at the whole list of tasks, deliverables and soft skills and write a short comparison of the person to this list. Remember as you go over the comparison of the person to this list that the person is receiving a picture of himself which may or may not be flattering. Think of how you feel when you view an unflattering picture of yourself, and take this into account as you share the information. Be firm but kind in your appraisal and after reviewing any negative information, quickly give the person a list of ways to improve his or her performance. Allow him to improve the picture.

The performance management process is the process of looking at how someone is doing in their role and guiding that person’s performance to a higher level in the organization. The most apathetic employees are the ones who have a ceiling in their job. The performance management process is a process that gives workers hope of getting to that next level. Without this hope, an organization will have bored, irritated employees. If you are not going to do performance management and you are not going to give people feedback or reviews, you might as well stick them in the middle of a forest with no compass.

To recap how to keep bias out of your performance appraisal methods, start off with a clear-cut set of tasks, deliverables and soft skills for each position. Review the deliverables on a weekly basis with the person to judge performance regularly. This allows for no surprises at the formal performance reviews which take place yearly and contain a comparison of the person to all the tasks, deliverables and soft skills. If any negative information surfaces, give the person a development plan to help him improve the picture.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Team Building Techniques

In the business world, top team building activities for the workplace lie on a spectrum of gravitas (seriousness). They range from light hearted, easygoing activities to hard-core exercises that can expose an executive’s vulnerabilities.

On the least serious side of the spectrum, top team building activities for the workplace can involve off site recreation where coworkers can get energized and learn more about each other on a more personal, unprofessional level. These out-of-office activities can range from wine tasting to rock climbing to tours and so on where teammates can learn about what their coworkers like to do in their spare time as well as discuss big picture goals and what the team is doing as well. This side of the spectrum suits companies with the expendable budget to take their team off site to fun environments very well.

In the middle of the spectrum, take assessments as a team. Discuss the results with a facilitator who can talk the team through as to how well it handles different perspectives and how different styles impact the team’s ability to work together. These activities are typically less expensive and very workable in terms of team building perspective.

Assessments can help teammates understand how their coworkers operate and how they are different. This eye-opening strategy is crucial to team building. A team’s biggest downfall is the perspective that everyone thinks exactly the same. With this mentality, team players will approach others in the same way they do things. This kills team building every time.

As far as team building downwards, bosses can work with their employees at ground level for a day. For executives and bosses who have trouble connecting with the team they need to manage, this can be an eye-opening experience. For example, I once sent a COO to work with customer service for a day. The employees loved it and the COO finally understood the full reality of what his customer service team did every day. From this new perspective, he was able to put his finger on their daily goals and problems and, thereby, manage them better.

In the most serious side of the spectrum, of top team building activities for the workplace, upper level executives can perform 360 reviews. They can gather performance info from their peers, employees, and through direct reports. Then, the executives must share with the group what they learned as well as their development plan — how they will be working on improving.

Although 360 reviews were disparaged in the press 5 or 6 years ago, they are making a comeback. Executives work in a vacuum most of the time with nothing to compare themselves to. As a result, they do not realize what other executives are doing or if they are really accomplishing their job. Many executives make massive changes after engaging in 360 reviews.

360 reviews are a very vulnerable thing for most people and, therefore, should be done anonymously. Although some cultures are so open that peers and employees can give feedback freely, it is easier to start with anonymity as a default so that people can be open and say what they need to say.
To decide which of these team building activities for the workplace to use, take a look at the team and decide what level of team building it has accomplished so far. If the team cannot communicate at all, build commonality and get teammates talking with the least serious activities. If the team is not at ground zero but is dysfunctional in some way, start with the more serious side assessments or even 360 reviews to help teammates understand how they can work together best.