Category Archives: Management

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.

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Bad reviews: how to bounce back

Ah, the interwebs. Where everyone can post his opinion, and everyone else can weigh in on that opinion.

While this is fine for Facebook between friends, enemies, or frenemies (bullies not allowed!), in business? Oof! A bad or even a lukewarm review can have a lasting negative impact, especially for a small business.

It’s easy to get defensive and go straight to, “The reviewer didn’t really see the whole picture,” or, “The reviewer is just exposing their own sour grapes.”

But why didn’t they have a bigger picture to work with? And why are their grapes sour?

Maybe it’s the emotional equivalent of validating a toddler’s feelings. (I do acknowledge that I’m prone to over-connecting business and parenting.) We’ve got to explore what the reviewer is telling us.

Ineffective management? Incorrect application of performance metrics? Even if we decide that the reviewer’s recommendations for change are not the direction we want to go in, (1) at least we are re-evaluating, and (2) we can think about how to adjust communication about a policy, even if we ultimately decide we don’t want to change the policy.

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Bertrand Russell

In another separate vein, part of my job is to conduct client reviews. I’d say about two-thirds of the reviews have some negative aspect. This is largely selection bias – when things are going very well, clients don’t often take the offer to do a review, but if there is something we could be doing better, they like that we asked and want to participate.

Sometimes, feedback can be difficult to hear. It’s important to not take things personally and go back to the project teams to evaluate the feedback for developing tangible changes to address those gaps, both for the current client as well as other clients in the future.

Can do vs have done: To what bar do we hold ourselves, and does it hold us back?

“Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

This quote has really been sticking with me for a while. Maybe it’s because I have a middle management crisis on my hands, and I’m trying to diagnose issues to help resolve some bottlenecks. Did I promote the wrong people, or is there something else going on?

Issue: the women I promote to middle management really struggle with ambiguity in their new positions. As a junior person, you’re told what to do. As a manager, you direct others. But what if you haven’t directed others before? I observe paralysis from women who are uncomfortable with being promoted to a role in which they are now the ones who have to define a way forward.

I’m coming to the conclusion that many women gain confidence through experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the only place confidence can come from, and in fact, the higher up the ladder you go, the less first-hand experience from doing the individual mouse clicks comes into play. At all levels, for junior, middle, and senior female professionals, confidence needs to come from a place of “I can do that” (i.e., skills) as much as “I have done that” (i.e., experience).

The quote above points to women not being confident in what they believe they can do vs what they have actually done. Men may define their qualifications in terms of possibilities, while many women may define their qualifications in terms of battle scars.

I would like to see many more women think in terms of possibilities, point to examples of how they used relevant skills to get something, even something unrelated, done, rather than opting out of new roles entirely until they have an example of having done a particular thing.

Another aspect of this issue is what happens after a thing is done. Failure – a word I hate! – is an unpleasant but possible/acknowledged outcome in some circles. It’s always something you try to avoid, of course, but if you fail, some are privileged to have a great support network in leadership, or a decent place to land. Many white males in white collar professions benefit from this, and as a result, bounce back from “failure”, both professionally and mentally/emotionally, better than others.

Many women are terrified of failing in general, and some of this is due to societal pressure – fear of failing at being the ideal wife (“What did I do to make him leave me?”), fear of failing at motherhood (“You should breastfeed or your baby will be sickly or not as good at math!”), and certainly fear of failing in the work place. Double standards still exist, but the root of the confidence crisis in middle management among the women I observe is that failure is unacceptable rather than just unpleasant. A lack of a safety net in terms of professional network (in leadership above her pay grade, not just peers) may cause a woman to be more cautious than her male counterparts. But more often than not, we are likely to rise up to meet the challenges, realizing our potential, not come crashing down!

We can all be a part of each other’s safety net. We will pick each up, we will give each other support, and contrary to the thought that I promoted the “wrong” people, I like to think that we will give each other opportunities, learn to see possibilities, and see each other through shifts in thinking – to be successful in the end.

 

Three practical ways to say “No”

Juggling family and work – something’s got to give. All the work-life balance blogs, books, and articles say that you should learn to say no, but rarely do people talk about how to do so well so that it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re the bad guy or leaving people in the lurch. Here are some ideas – applicable to work AND home.

1. OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE. “No, but let’s do this other thing instead that will give us the same or similar result.” Often there is an alternative approach than my doing the specific thing I’m being asked to do. Can I do it differently than how I’m being asked that is more efficient? Or do I need to do it at all – are we just going through me because it’s always been that way? If I don’t need to do it, then what can happen instead? The trick to this is concentrating not just on the task you’re being asked to do, but stepping back and thinking about what youre collectively trying to accomplish in which your task is a part: is there a way to meet the objective that doesn’t require the task being asked, or at the level of involvement that is being asked?

2. PUT IT OFF A BIT. “No, I can’t right now. We should definitely get to this, but let’s connect tomorrow/next week/etc on this since I’m focusing on something else right this minute.” If it’s not urgent (truly urgent, which you’ll find few things actually are!) then you might find it resolves on its own or other things happen to get it to the next step if given some time.

3. HELP SOMEONE ELSE DO IT THEMSELVES. “No, I can’t do it myself, but I can definitely help you get to the finish line on this.” This one is my favorites because it’s a win-win. In order for this to work, you’ve got to have someone who doesn’t know how to do it and is willing to try. So many of my junior and mid-level staff are willing to try anything. GREAT! Let’s do it. I always give the baby a bath at night, but if my husband does it with me a few times, we can trade off and I can get some much needed down time. Is it going to happen exactly as you would do it? Probably not. Does this require up front investment in your time? Yes! But the ROI of saying no this way is typically realized fairly quickly.

Maybe there are other ways to say no in an effective way?

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.

I did it! Maternity leave, here I come.

I managed to comfortably set my team up for success while I’m gone.

  • Everyone knows their roles and responsibilities while I’m away.
  • I’ve distributed transition memos and have done transition calls with clients and project teams.
  • I set expectations about what I want to see when I get back.
  • I made my team’s needs primary in the transition.

One important factor in the success of this transition was to have a half day team retreat a few weeks before I was scheduled to take off. The idea was to have a safe environment off site in a fun, neutral environment in which people could communicate concerns and anxieties, and set ourselves up in the remaining weeks to address them. The retreat was facilitated by two outsiders, which was hugely important.

And it’s not like we didn’t have fun while we were at it. I made sure we had a luxurious breakfast (banana pancakes!), and we started off by talking about what we’re excited for and looking forward to in the next year, both personally and professionally.

Perhaps the biggest concept in motivating people to embrace this time rather than fear it was the potential upside for their own professional development and careers, certainly within the company, but I acknowledged, even beyond. That thing you always wanted to try your hand at? Well, now is the time.

I’m not saying it isn’t going to be rocky, but if there’s one thing I wanted my team to do more than anything else was to collaborate, cooperate, and coordinate. Rely on each other. I said that when I get back after a few months, I will be in a different role, so no one should expect things to go back to the way they were. Take this time to really show your stuff!

And the effect was immediate. The last few weeks have been characterized more by my team members practically tripping over each other in ideas, volunteerism, and excitement, than my dictating how anything should be. I’ve been mostly a silent party on client conference calls, in team meetings, and in email chains as I watch my staff step up in huge ways. I step in here and there to provide some tips and redirect where necessary, but for the most part, I think they cringe more at what they feel are larger mistakes than I believe they are in the big scheme of things. That’s a welcome sign of their taking personal accountability for their work.

Because we spent many weeks prepping clients, by the time I left, they were comfortable with my team members taking larger and larger roles and eventually felt comfortable as I transitioned out of the calls and meetings altogether.

My last few days on the job ended up being leisurely half days… no one needed me to do anything! My email volume plummeted, and I when I asked, I heard no concerns from clients. I was… bored. (Gasp!) My final “act” was to report to my business unit that we are way ahead of forecast and working more efficiently than we ever have before. How many execs can say any of those things in their last few days before taking a few months off? I’m so proud of my team! It truly is a gift.

 

Female executives: Avoid being that Queen Bee!

The Tyranny of the Queen Bee – WSJ

The term “queen bee syndrome” was coined in the 1970s, following a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan—Graham Staines, Toby Epstein Jayaratne and Carol Tavris—who examined promotion rates and the impact of the women’s movement on the workplace. In a 1974 article in Psychology Today, they presented their findings, based on more than 20,000 responses to reader surveys in that magazine and Redbook. They found that women who achieved success in male-dominated environments were at times likely to oppose the rise of other women. This occurred, they argued, largely because the patriarchal culture of work encouraged the few women who rose to the top to become obsessed with maintaining their authority.

This is infuriating to me for two reasons (just two?!):

(1) It’s lonely at the top. There’s nothing worse I can think of than being a female executive and not having a single other female executive around. My message to the Queen Bee: You think “you’ve arrived”? Until there are MANY women in positions of executive leadership, you will never know if you’re just a token, and I’m not sure how gratifying it is to have that word implied in your high-brow title.

(2) There is SO MUCH WORK to be done! Couldn’t you use a little help? I know I need all the help I can get. If others aren’t valuing women’s contributions to my company, my industry, my environment, you bet I sure as hell am because I refuse to be a slave to this “I’ve arrived” mentality of constantly proving that I deserve to be here by doing it ALL. No way, that’s not the way it goes. At the executive level, you’re responsible for making sure it all gets done, but not necessarily responsible for doing it all yourself. Where would that leave you? Burnt out, ineffective, perhaps unable to also prioritize family? Well that sounds like a bum deal to me. Why would you put yourself in that position? You’re setting yourself up to fail.

Helping other female colleagues up the ladder when deserved is such a better way of being a contributor, reinforcing your leadership potential, establishing your role as a mentor, and being effective in the workplace. A Queen Bee doesn’t break the glass ceiling; Queen Bees don’t even realize that the ceiling might have been opened for them and then perhaps closed right behind them by male executives. Don’t be fooled. You want to take credit for breaking that glass ceiling? Take all the worker bees with you and collectively smash it!

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As a side note, studies trace this concept of keeping your fellow female down to middle school and high school bullying. Now more than ever, the topic of bullying and its ill effects if unaddressed are making headlines. As parents, as educators, and as responsible community members and leaders, this is just another reason that we’ve got to nip that in the bud.