Tag Archives: Real change

Writing well in business: 4 tips for succeeding, borrowed from academia

When I was in the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, I had a professor who was appalled that science students bragged about getting through college without having to write a single paper. He attempted to correct that by making a paper required as part of his class.

I work with people coming out of finance or life sciences at the university level, and some days, I wish I could just surround myself with humanities majors – you know, people who know when to use who versus whom. Sometimes, people are not very practiced at writing well in the business environment, and it’s to the industry’s detriment. So much weight is placed on doing the actual research that the communication of research findings can be lacking. (This shortcoming is best illustrated when I see work plans that reserve 90% of time to doing the research, and only 10% of time to summarizing it all!)

I’ve been following Daniel Wallace’s collection of essays on teaching composition at the university level. Over the course of 15 years in consulting and managing junior and mid-level consultants, many of the challenges Daniel discusses and helps to solve actually resonate with my own experiences outside the university environment.

A few things I have learned, or discovered for myself, after reading his essays:

  1. We are never really done learning how to write well.
    • There are infinite audiences, objectives, and environments in which we write.
    • Sometimes, we need to “unlearn” one way of writing to learn another. Over time, an assessment of what type of writing is required becomes a part of the natural process, but at first, people can have a hard time letting go of the one way they’ve been successful writing thus far.
  2. There is always an opportunity – and in fact, a goal – to gain a skill through an exercise.
    • The point of an exercise should not only be the deliverable to the client, but to ask ourselves: are individuals on the team and the team as a whole going to do it better and more efficiently next time?
  3. Sometimes, you just have to be explicit about how it should be done.
    • There is a lot to be said for giving people space to figure it out on their own… unless they start to spin their wheels. A roadmap, especially the first time, goes a long way.
    • For example, one habit that I’ve tried to break new consultants of is the tendency to leave the punch line until the very end. Your writing process does not have to mirror your research process. This isn’t some dramatic conclusion you’re building up to! You’ve got C-suite level decision-makers who want to know the bottom line. Go ahead and put all the need-to-know information up front in an executive summary. It doesn’t minimize your research diligence and in fact, a fantastic executive summary does more to demonstrate your research chops than anything else in the deliverable.
  4. Every sentence is a question.
    • I’ve pulled this directly from Daniel Wallace’s sixth essay in his series. This is a fantastic strategy for making sure your staff are leaving no stone unturned in your analysis or presentation of findings. It’s a great way to review and provide feedback on drafts, as well.
    • Especially in niche professional services, industry jargon can be used as a crutch. The key to ensuring that your message is getting across to clients, and is organized well, is to ask a question after every statement or concept, to fully explain rationale and bring your client along your thought process. Don’t leave it to them to connect the dots on their own.

It is wonderful to be able to learn from other academic and professional avenues! So much of our success depends upon recognizing where someone is coming from, and adjusting our teaching or communication to optimize behavioral change.



How my business thinking (and talking) changed between ages 30 and 40

30: I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I agree.
40: I don’t agree with you.

30: I should change what I’m doing because of their feedback.
40: I considered the feedback and will change only the parts I need to.

30: I should do it his way.
40: I’m going to do it my way because I think it will be more effective. If he doesn’t like it, T.S. I guess we’ll see how it turns out.

30: If I make the wrong decision, I’m done for.
40: If I make the wrong decision, I have a plan to course-correct.

30: I’ve got to figure all of this out on my own to prove I’ve got the chops.
40: I’ve mastered what I know, and I’m aware of my blind spots. I’m going to stop wasting time and instead talk to people more informed.

30: I have to dress very formally and conservatively to be taken seriously.
40: I can combine professionalism and style and feel great.

30: I’m in competition with so-and-so.
40: My work will speak for itself.

30: I wonder what my boss will think of me.
40: I wonder what my daughter will think of me.

Have any to add? Share in comments!

An evolution of feelings about Clinton becoming the ultimate executive mom

I’m sorting out how I feel about Hillary Clinton being the presumptive Democratic nominee. After all, if she wins the general election, she will be the Executive Mom.

I supported her with my whole heart in 2008. I cried when she lost the nomination then. I still voted for Obama, but a part of me – along with many other women at the time – felt a loss so deep, so crushing, that there were no words of comfort. We simply had to process our grief in order to move on.

Move on, I did. Over the past eight years, my priorities shifted. Back in 2008, I felt strongly that a there was value in a milestone for the sake of it being a milestone. Someone has to be the first so that it’s no longer “a thing” – even if Clinton did a terrible job in the Oval, we’ve got to get to a place in this country where a woman in the Oval is not a novelty. Get past the oohs and ahhs, for good or for bad, so that the next woman running can have the luxury of her sex being a non-issue. Hillary Clinton was my milestone-for-the-sake-of-being-a-milestone. And I felt she would actually be a good President, not terrible at all.

Now, eight years later, I don’t see the Presidency as a framework for gender politics. There is something that matters to me more, and that is the dwindling middle class, and the unobstructed finance policies allowing corporations to take advantage of Americans. Over the last eight years, both Hillary Clinton and President Obama have sorely disappointed me – no, failed me. I have little confidence that President Obama will take anything but a continued cowardly stance against Wall Street in the golden years of his Presidency, and I have little confidence a President Clinton will do any differently.

As a business woman, I feel that their their weak regulations (weak regulations at best, complete inaction at worst) is short sighted and not in the best interest of my daughter over the course of her lifetime – which is to say, is not in the best interest of the longer- term future of this country. And I am really concerned about how hawkish she seems. Will she so readily decide to send in troops to wherever there is some conflict? Isn’t that how we got into our current mess in the first place?

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spoke to me, and continue to speak to me, about this all-important issue. They hear me; I hear them. And that, as I’ve learned, is communication.

It doesn’t escape my notice that perhaps it is precisely because Clinton got as far as she did in 2008, and is now the presumptive nominee in 2016, that I even have the luxury of dissecting the issues to the point that I can say, “I wanted Sanders instead,” that she was, in effect, my desired milestone after all.

I am a tumult of emotion because so much is viewed through the lens of motherhood now. It was enough to want better for other people’s children, or just on principle alone, but I can no longer escape the call of every decision I make being one for the good and betterment of my own kid’s life.

I chose Sanders in the primary, I did. But I reconcile my mixed feelings about Clinton by voting for her in November – a powerful thing that I’ll be able to tell my daughter someday – and working tirelessly to hold Clinton, a fellow mom, a fellow executive, accountable to all of our democratic ideals.

Update 06/17/16: I read a very interesting and provocative piece that sheds different light, which can be found here https://hecatedemeter.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/everybody-talking-bout-heaven-aint-going-there/

Embarking on a digital cleanse, and what it did for my life

Like many, I love my digital tools. I haven’t purchase a physical book in a very long time, and my e-reader and smartphone are my constant companions.

I read right before bed. It helps me get my mind away from the day’s stress. Naturally, I read from my bright Kindle. People advised that the bright digital light was not good for settling the brain and in fact, resulted in the opposite. I said, “That’s fine, but I actually don’t have a problem falling asleep when I read off my Kindle at night. I regularly fall asleep within 10-15 minutes, easy!”

After reading enough articles on the topic, and after suffering from terrible sleep for other unrelated reasons (hello, toddler!), I decided to take some of the advice of many experts in the field and put my digital tools away for a weekend, to see what happened. Here is what I did on my “digital cleanse”:

  1. Put all devices away after 8pm.
  2. No internet surfing or playing on apps or streaming videos at all.
  3. Check email once per day (!!) and send/receive only necessary calls and texts.

And holy hell… What. A. Huge. Difference.

Turns out, everything else being equal, I actually fall asleep almost immediately without opening up my Kindle. I have a Fitbit which I wear on my non-dominant wrist at night, so it captures my sleep patterns – when I’m awake, when I’m restless, when I’m asleep – so I can compare my digital cleanse time period with my pre-digital cleanse time period. Not only do I fall asleep faster, I am less restless during the course of the night.

This didn’t happen slowly over time. The effect was immediate, the very night I tried it for the first time.

Another observation during my weekend cleanse was how things played out before bedtime. Once the kiddo is down for the night, I usually get online, watch some streaming videos of my favorite shows… I figure, I’ve got another few hours before it’s time for me to go to sleep.

During the digital cleanse phase, I would pull out a “regular” book (my husband, a self-proclaimed Luddite, had a nice fiction book for me to read since I had no actual books to my name), and within 10 minutes of reading it, I was getting drowsy. It’s not because the book was boring (it wasn’t) but it was because my body so obviously needed to sleep earlier, and I was artificially forcing myself awake for hours every single night!

After my cleanse weekend, I went back to status quo Monday-Thursday the following week. It was an unmitigated disaster. My average sleep went from 7 hours and 45 minutes to just over 6 hours. Believe me, I felt it! I said, “Screw this!!!” and went back to my digital void after 8pm every night. Since then, my average nightly sleep has been 7 hours and 22 minutes. Every day this week, I’ve woken up before my alarm went off.

And did I mention I’ve been kicking ass at work as a result? Turns out being more efficient and effective during normal business hours means I don’t have to check email and write later at night. I can just totally unplug.

I’ve been eating better.

I’m less moody.

I’m … happier. All because of an extra 1-2 hours of sleep a night. Who knew?

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.

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.