Category Archives: Life on the job

Go ahead and stir the pot! Being provocative and disagreeing to move the conversation forward

This morning, I was on a panel at BIO International Convention in San Francisco to discuss what digital health technologies can learn from the experience of personalized medicine. I was invited to participate with esteemed colleagues (all female, by the way!) representing various aspects of the health care technology sector: physician, investor, data and evidence analyst, and payer strategist (yours truly).

We were well prepared going into the panel session, with multiple conference calls to coordinate on who will share what, and which case studies were relevant and insightful. I was excited to participate in this collaborative session, and I was looking forward to engaging audience members.

In fact, the content was so engaging that I admit I totally went off-script. When you are passionate about ensuring people take away important lessons from the panel, sometimes you just have to move off the softball content into provocative territory.

If it means I get pegged as the Debbie Downer, so be it.

If it means I provide the perspective of unpopular stakeholders, those who are often used as scapegoats, so be it.

If it means telling people what they don’t want to hear, so be it.

I’ve done my job.

The session was fantastic, and my fellow panelists were gracious and inclusive. But I admit that I am most proud of challenging assumptions, exposing inherent flaws in the system, and moving us away from what others should do to what we can do.

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ESPN as part of my business strategy

I like sports, I do. I like for local teams to do well, and I root for them.

But I no longer watch games or go to games since the promotion to executive and having a kid. There’s always the park to get to, finger painting to do, or that deadline to meet.

One thing I learned a few years ago was to watch ESPN at the hotel whenever I was away on business. (Actually, what I learned was that it really sucked and I hated to be in a meeting of men while they talked about “the game” and I had nothing to contribute because I didn’t watch said game.) It happened 99% of my meetings. I discovered that watching Sports Center that morning gave me all the headlines I needed to be aware of in order to avoid sitting there like a lump with a stupid smile on my face, waiting for the conversation to turn or burn out. Maybe I could follow it, or contribute.

Same with kids. Before I had one, trading stories about their kids was The Great Icebreaker if sports wasn’t the go-to topic.

Them: “Have kids?”
Me: “No, I don’t.”
Them: “Not yet? Planning on them?”
Me: stewing with a clipped smile, considering telling them about my 3 miscarriages to put the Q&A to rest already…

Small talk in business circles can be very awkward. Sports and kids/parenting are considered universal enough to tread upon. But let’s be clear: they’re not actually universal. I’m not suggesting people avoid these topics altogether, but maybe we can talk about other things too, or be sensitive and aware of everyone around the table?

Client reviews: A 6-step approach to conduct a good one, and make your business better

Part of my job is to conduct client reviews. I’d say about two-thirds of the reviews have some negative feedback. This is largely selection bias – when things are going very well, clients often don’t take me up on my offer to do a review, but if there is something we could be doing better, clients will often want to let me know.

Of course, in a professional services business, ideally you want to seek feedback on a continuous basis. At my organization, we’ve implemented a bit of a third-party approach: I head up business development and am no longer in the weeds on individual projects. Therefore, I know our service lines well and can offer a review outside the members of the project team, in which the client may feel more comfortable being frank. Here are some things I’ve learned in the last couple of years.

1. Tailor the “ask.”

Not all client reviews are created equal. How you position the invitation to a review can influence whether the client takes the bait. And you always want the client to say yes.

Some clients might not be interested in being singled out, and therefore, positioning the review as an annual or quarterly assessment that you’re doing with a number of clients might sit better with them.

Some clients have invested in a huge project, so instead of waiting for the project to be done, you may ask to do a mid-term, interim review to see how things are going and position it as an opportunity to make course corrections through the rest of the project.

For some clients, just giving them an opportunity to vent their frustrations about the industry, their internal politics, and the project difficulties to an outsider helps to release some steam and gives the opportunity to commiserate on joint challenges.

Sometimes, things are going well, and you want to confirm that you’re on the same page. Those are nice, too. (In these cases, make sure you confirm they are willing to be a reference or willing to write a testimonial.)

2. Do your homework before the review.

Interview the project team(s). Who last spoke to the client, and about what? Any difficulties or frustrations the client mentioned recently, even off-hand? Where are/were the pain points in the project? (You as the reviewer don’t want to be blind-sided if the project team knows full well about a sticking point with the client.)

Look up the company/industry for recent news. Is there anything – potential acquisition, product controversies, huge upticks in sales volumes – that might be giving people heartburn? What are their competitors up to? What do you think might be keeping your clients up at night?

3. Have a discussion guide, but roll with it.

Have a few questions ready, but let’s be clear: the clients who signed up for this rodeo probably have a thing or two they’d like to share. Unless you need to get some particular information out of the review, let them drive and listen.

4. Seek out opportunities. Turn a negative into a positive.

As I mentioned, most of my reviews have some negative peppered into them. Sometimes, you need to pull it out of the clients, though. If you ask people how it’s going, and they tell you all is peachy, I would probe further. Clients might not even be aware that our organization can help them for other business problems unrelated to a project we worked on. Probing to discover what their larger organization is grappling with may present some opportunities for additional business.

But negative feedback can be tough to hear. The key is to drill down to the core issue that represents an opportunity for change. When the work on things the client asks for is spectacular, it would be even better to have someone on our team do some horizon scanning for them and bring issues and possibilities up to the client that might not be on their radar. I love this because it allows me to go back to the project team to find ways to truly partner with our clients.

5. Implement real change, and measure it.

It’s not enough to bring the feedback to the project team. I try to work with our teams to evaluate how we will do things differently in the future. Make it tangible, make it measurable.

The client would have liked more proactive communication? Turn your emails into calls, and ping yourself with a weekly reminder in your calendar. Document your conversations and the outcomes/next steps with your client and team.

The client was concerned you may not have been operating at optimal efficiency? Review the roles and throughput of team members and make recommendations on changes to implement by a specific time, and determine how you will assess efficiency compared to baseline at the next invoicing cycle. Or, if you are at optimal efficiency, determine an effective follow up with the client that educates them on the work requirements and communicates the complexity (and value!) of the work by reinforcing what they get out of it (or perhaps adjusting your deliverables so it’s clear!), or illustrate what minefields they are avoiding.

Bottom line: what will the organization do differently so that this piece of negative feedback isn’t heard next time, or with another client?

6. Follow up.

Client reviews are pointless without a follow up to confirm that issues previously raised were addressed, and addressed well.

Did the client confirm that it actually worked? Good. You’re not done. Make sure everyone in the organization knows about how the project team turned it around, created a new best practice, has a favorable client management case study, landed a follow-on project, etc. Spread the love throughout the firm. Give props to the people who turned that negative into a positive.

Client reviews can be intimidating. It’s important to be prepared, let the clients drive, let the feedback fuel real change, and check in to make sure the change hit its mark.

Hello? Who just joined?

My 18 month old daughter puts anything and everything up to her ear and starts talking and gesturing like she’s on a phone call. TV remote controls, toy cars, music boxes, you name it: it goes up to her ear and she babbles away.

I suppose I do too many conference calls around her.

I miss the days where you could talk to one person at a time. These days, everything is a conference call.

Everyone has to be there! Everyone has to be involved! Everyone needs to know what’s going on! It saves time from explaining things to others later! IT IS SO MUCH MORE EFFICIENT!

Except that it’s not. When people are on conference calls, I can hear them tapping away on their keyboards, or I can see them scrolling through their iPads checking email. They are trying to multi-task and while I’m a BIG proponent of multi-tasking where you can, the usual conference call is not the best example of good multi-tasking. “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?” (Cringe.)

So, I’ve been trying to limit the invitees on my calls, thinking I’m giving people a gift. I’ll send you a summary! I’ll rope you in later at our one on one meeting! I’ll let you know if I need you, but otherwise, live wild and free!

Doesn’t work. People ask me, “Why am I not on that call?” and “Don’t I need to be on that call?”

Dude, you’re already double booked for that time anyway. I don’t need you multi-tasking on my call as well.

I know one thing: my daughter does NOT like it when I multi-task around her. Her whining and mischief is directly proportional to the energy I’m expending checking a quick work email at home. She is no fool. She’s teaching me to practice what I preach.

It gets easier, right?

I’m the newest parent at the company. I have coworkers with kids in their twenties, in the teens, even preteens, but no one has babies. Just me.

After coming off a tough night with my 13 month old (TWO HOURS of “I’m so sleepy but I can’t fall asleep and NO DON’T LEAVE ME YOU MUST HOLD ME but now I have the giggles oh wait I decided I’m cranky and I’d rather just cry and fuss…”) I came into the office in the morning with a much-needed coffee, and not just a little bleary-eyed.

We were gathering in the conference room, and I looked around and joked, “It gets easier, right? Tell me it gets easier,” fully expecting people to commiserate with me at this stage and confirm that it does, in fact, get much easier and more delightful.

But the other parents just looked at me, not saying a word, as though they didn’t want to dare voice to a pathetic new parent THE ACTUAL TRUTH. They were saved by the proverbial bell when the client came on the conference line, and I was left to my coffee, my sleep deprivation, and my joke-that-wasn’t-a-joke hanging in the stale conference room air.

I’m just going to assume they didn’t hear me and if they did, they would have reacted the way I expected. I would never recommend denial in client relations, but for parenting, hey! Denial *is* a parenting style.

By the skin of my teeth

On Tuesday, my daughter was 364 days old. I felt like a bad mom that morning because I decided to spend time with my husband the night before instead of doing the work I needed to do, so I was scrambling to get work done in the morning instead. I was paying more attention to my laptop than to the kiddo. I was also feeding her breakfast and preparing her lunch for later. She was content to eat her bread and bananas, didn’t fuss except when she wanted some more, but I couldn’t help thinking I was missing out on a morning of her life and now I can’t get it back. To top it off, our part-time nanny was late, causing me a lot of stress since I had a packed day at work and was going to be late, and I had done nothing to prepare for family who was coming in from out of town, much less the housewarming-plus-first-birthday party that was scheduled for the weekend. So my daughter got a stressed out mom who basically ignored her. Lucky kid.

Whatever, it’s fine. Nobody died, right?

But that was the morning. Here’s how the day actually turned out:

Got to work, was late for my 9 am call but the host pushed it back to 9:30 anyway so I had time for coffee and breakfast. Score!

Then I had a company manager meeting where I was able to report how I kicked ass in the past month and I proposed something totally off the cuff that everyone voted yes on and will be implemented. Score!

Then I had to drive to the boondocks of the East Bay to try and land a new client. I wasn’t careful about my GPS and it took me to their manufacturing facilities rather than their headquarters. %&$#!! I was a half hour late. I walked into the office and there are a dozen people staring at me from inside a glass wall conference room. I thought I was meeting with 2 people. %&$#!! I made my apologies and got introduced, and learned the CEO deigned to come to this meeting. I ordinarily love that, but I’m somewhat unprepared. %&$#!! So I had to wing it and didn’t show my slide presentation at all because it was a little weak anyway. (So much for ignoring my daughter in favor of working on slides in the morning.) Turns out the discussion was awesome, the CEO was very interested, and when I hit on something in particular, he said, “Hold on, you can do that for us?” I said, “Yes. We’re currently doing it for 5 other companies right now.” He said, “When can you start work for us?” Score!

I drove back to the city, parked the City CarShare car in its little cubby, and I quickly decided that my day needed to be topped off right. I called my husband, who reported that his sister landed safely and since they were taking care of the kiddo, they didn’t need me to come home immediately. (My poor daughter really got the short end of me today.)

And here is how the day ended:

I sat at a bar taking advantage of happy hour cosmos for a bit, then headed home to a loving husband, a delighted sister-in-law, and a happy, chirpy baby girl who would be turning 365 days old the next day, full of hugs and kisses for Mom.

Not a bad ending to a sketchy beginning.

Go ahead and write your next chapter

Will my daughter survive? Yes. Will everything go to hell? No.

Will I worry about it anyway? Why, yes. Yes, I will.

I’ve gone from 12 daylight hours per day with my newborn to 2, maybe 3 if I’m lucky, now that I’ve returned to work. What a change! I’m afraid I’m going to miss all her firsts from here on out. (Turns out I missed a first even when I was home. I was getting a pizza and paying the delivery guy at the door when my daughter rolled over for the first time with my husband watching her for 30 freaking seconds. Sigh.)

Luckily, I’ve got a flexible job – or I’ve made it flexible. I check my email in the morning before going in, feed the baby before leaving the house, get in some good “think time” for the job during the commute, do the usual back-to-back-to-back meetings and calls (reserving time in my calendar to pump three times a day so that my daughter has milk for the next day), get home in time for her evening feeding, and wrap up work after I put her down for the night. The flexibility is in the face time at work: need to come in late or leave a little early? OK. Need to work from home to cover for my stay-at-home-dad husband who has a recurring appointment on Thursday mornings? Sure.

The bottom line is: as long as my network and staff connections continue to be nurtured, and the work gets done, I should have all the flexibility I want. So should it be for any parent at the company. I planned out this flexibility – and got buy-in from my colleagues – before the baby came.

Ours is a small company – about 25 people. And more than half of the employees are smart, ambitious 20-somethings. The rest of the employees who are parents have kids who are either grown adults now or well into school age. I know that many of the younger employees – who are newly married or in long term relationships or simply female – are watching very closely what happens to me; they will take cues from my experience about how successfully this company supports new parents.

I meticulously planned the 6 weeks prior to my parental leave. I gave people new responsibilities where it was needed and then conferred the appropriate promotions upon my return. It helped that we set up the situation for me to have a new role upon my return – nothing sucks more than to step in for a higher level person, do a great job, learn a great amount, and then be told that you have to go back and do your old job, thank you very much. Wait – I stand corrected. What sucks more is to continue to do a great job but not have an appropriate job title and/or compensation adjustment.

I’m not recommending that companies give everyone promotions because one person goes on parental leave. What I am saying is (1) plan well before your leave to minimize problems while you’re away, and (2) have a clear vision for what the next chapter is for you and others upon your return, and give people something to work toward in your absence. For us, it resulted in promotions – for other companies, it might be lateral transfers, rotations to different divisions to get additional exposure, classes for skill development, or pre-approved vacation time to clear heads and get rest after carrying extra workload for 3 months.

Whatever it is, write that next chapter with your team while the current chapter is still playing out. While I have a baby as my next personal chapter, I couldn’t ignore that I had to help write the next professional chapter as well.