Tag Archives: Business

Listening for the Win

“Don’t puke on your prospect.”

OK, a bit crass perhaps, but it is some of the best advice on salesmanship I’ve ever been given. Any of us who have purchased B2B goods and services have experienced this. The sales rep reaches out and you grant that first meeting. Upon entering your office, the sales rep launches into a completely one-sided dialogue about how great he is, how great his company is, and why you should be doing business with him. He asks no questions, and although you try to turn this into a real conversation, he won’t allow you to participate. He simply has too much to say!

Case in point: When I was Director of Risk Management at a large restaurant chain, I was called by a representative with a local insurance brokerage firm. Upon entering my office, he asked me one question: “Do you purchase accounts receivable insurance?” he asked. “No,” said I, “our guests typically pay with credit cards…” and that was the end of the discussion. Oh, the meeting lasted another 15 minutes as the rep droned on and on about how uncollectable accounts receivable have practically sunk many businesses and how every business should have this coverage. I finally cut him off and showed him the door. As he walked out, he dropped some expensive looking accounts receivable insurance marketing materials on my desk as he said, “I’ll be in touch.” The marketing materials went straight into my trash can, and thankfully, he never did follow up. Indeed, “sales puke” is a sure-fire way to ensure that you never win that piece of business.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” ~ Stephen R. Covey

A former boss of mine was a Covey disciple. He had his entire team read Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and he recited this quote incessantly. He even found budget money for each of us to attend a live presentation by Dr. Covey himself a few years before he passed away. I agree with my former boss that 7 Habits is a must read for any business professional, regardless of your line of work. But it is this quote in particular that has stuck in my mind over all these years. I have applied it in my risk management roles and I apply it in my current role in commercial insurance sales.

People need, indeed they like, to be heard. I believe failure to listen is often to blame when negotiations end in stalemate or objectives fail to be met. Applying Covey’s principle generally yields one of two results in my experience:

 (1) The business associates (or sales prospects) with whom you are speaking are more apt to hear you out and more readily consider your viewpoint (or product) if you’ve heard them out first and asked meaningful questions;

(2) You begin to see enough value in your associate’s viewpoint that you begin to change your own mind. In a sales scenario, you may learn about a pain point your prospect is experiencing and alter your approach accordingly. In both scenarios, you learn something and the ultimate end result is best for all!

Do you see what is happening here? Both outcomes are wins!

As I look back over my career, I readily see that I have been most successful when I have worked hard to practice good listening skills. It’s a sign of interest. It’s a demonstration of respect. And no matter the line of work, sound listening skills will open doors. Go ahead, give it a shot. I dare you.

Photo credit: My iPhone 5s, Idaho Springs, CO. February 2015

Photo credit: My iPhone 5s, Idaho Springs, CO. February 2015

2015 Photo-Some-Days 6.21.2015

A former boss once told me, “Seek first to understand, second to be understood.” In reading my Bible this morning, I came across the Proverb below. I try to live this in all aspects of my life, sometimes more successfully than others. It’s a process.

Slide1

“Everybody’s Got an Angle”

Ah, the wisdom of the great entertainer Bob Wallace, portrayed by Bing Crosby in White Christmas. “Everybody’s got an angle.” Bob speaks this line in the context of discussing people’s motivation for the things they do. And, as I consider his statement, I’ve concluded that he is correct. Everybody, indeed, has an angle.

The immediate connotation of an angle tends to be negative. It implies that people use each other or misrepresent circumstances for their own gain. It implies that people’s motivations aren’t necessarily for good. In Bob Wallace’s case, he was talking about a letter written by Betty Haynes that lured Wallace & Davis to Vermont under a false pretense. Haynes was seeking an audition with Wallace & Davis, and believing they would not likely grant her request, she wrote a letter about her brother, an old army buddy of Wallace & Davis, that opened the door. Wallace understood that Betty Haynes had worked a false pretense (her “angle”) but was OK with it in the context of his world view because the end result was good for all four of them, as well as for General Waverly.

What do you seek, and what are you willing to do to achieve your goals? What is your angle? What motivates you?

Then Solomon said, “You have shown great lovingkindness to Your servant David my father, according as he walked before You in truth and righteousness and uprightness of heart toward You; and You have reserved for him this great lovingkindness, that You have given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. Now, O LORD my God, You have made Your servant king in place of my father David, yet I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. Your servant is in the midst of Your people which You have chosen, a great people who are too many to be numbered or counted. So give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” ~ 1 Kings 3:6-9

Before his passing, King David made his son, Solomon, his successor to the throne with God’s blessing. Solomon could have asked God for anything, yet what was his request? His request was that God would give him an understanding heart and wisdom to discern between good and evil, right and wrong. He didn’t ask for fame; he didn’t ask for wealth; he didn’t ask for a long life or even for world peace. His request was simply that God would make him wise so that Solomon could effectively govern the people. What was God’s response to Solomon’s prayer?

God said to him, “Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice, behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you. I have also given you what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that there will not be any among the kings like you all your days. If you walk in My ways, keeping My statutes and commandments, as your father David walked, then I will prolong your days.” ~ 1 Kings 3:11-14

This was Solomon’s angle: that he be given wisdom from God so that he could be effective and God pleasing in his role as king. There is nothing negative here. This is a man who knew his place (king over Israel, but subject to the sovereign God) and simply wanted to serve honorably. Solomon prayed from his heart and God knew that; God therefore honored Solomon’s prayer, and then some.

Like most reading this post, I work for a living. I work for and with people whose motives are very honorable, but there are also those whose motives tend towards the selfish and dishonorable. Many in the work place are outstanding mentors to those whom they oversee, but others view colleagues and coworkers as rungs on the ladder of success, to be climbed over for one’s own personal gain. Some will misrepresent facts, as did Betty Haynes, to further their cause. We all know people who fit into both categories. Both types of people have an angle.

Business these days can be very competitive. How does one succeed in a competitive environment in which, for many, the accumulation of money and power is often the “be all, end all” of motivation? I thank God for the example He offers through King Solomon. I pray that God would give me a heart that seeks Him as purely and genuinely as Solomon did. I pray that God would grant me the wisdom to serve Him honorably in all that I do. I pray that He would show me my faults and help me correct them. I pray that God will put honorable people in my path from whom I can learn, while also giving me the opportunity to serve Him by serving others whether as husband, father, boss, or colleague.

Obstacles and circumstances will come, and each presents an opportunity to work an angle. No matter what obstacles or opportunities come my way, I pray that serving God will always be at the forefront of everything I do.

Everybody’s got an angle. What’s yours?

The Art of Vacation

When is the last time you took a vacation? I’m not necessarily talking about an expensive trip to an exotic destination; I’m talking about a simple break from your daily routine. Merriam-Webster defines vacation as, “a period of time that a person spends away from home, school, or business usually in order to relax or travel” (Merriam-webster.com). Speaking strictly from personal experience, we all need to retreat from routine once in awhile to reenergize ourselves. Our minds need a break and our bodies need rest.

We work in an age of immediacy. People send email and expect a (sometimes unreasonably) quick reply. Instant messaging, a means of communication even more immediate than email, is becoming more popular at work. I’ve heard of 2-hour voice mail standards in some work places. Pile these communications on top of increasing workloads and multiple projects and we have created for ourselves a stressful work environment that leaves us exhausted at the end of the day. Multiply that day by weeks and then by months and, at some point, our minds and our bodies say, “Enough already!”

Sadly, along with the convenience and immediacy of modern forms of communications comes what I call The Fear of Disconnecting. Many of us cannot or will not disconnect from work, even when supposedly on vacation, because we suffer from The Fear. Seriously? Are any of us really so important that our workplace would collapse if we disappeared for a week or two? Unfortunately, I know many colleagues who, by their actions, seem to take that notion to heart. I’m asking you to consider otherwise.

After years of vacationing with my laptop and smart phone as travel companions, I wondered why I returned from vacation pretty much as stressed as when I departed. Then it hit me: I never really disconnected. I checked email once or twice each day and replied to most messages. I checked voice mail one or more times daily and returned or forwarded important calls. I found that I was spending an hour or more of each vacation day – working! No wonder I couldn’t relax! No wonder I was stressed! “But this is what’s expected; this is what is necessary these days,” I thought.

Two years ago, I decided to conduct a personal experiment by adopting my own personal vacation policy centered on a complete disconnection from my work routine. While the benefits of such a policy are numerous, here are three benefits that should resonate with most of us:

  1. When I disconnect completely I truly enjoy the vacation experience. Whether visiting an exotic location or doing yard work at the lake (yes, that is R&R for me) the experience receives my full attention. My mind is focused on something other than routine. That’s the point.
  2. When I disconnect completely I am a better travel companion for my family. They get all of me for those few days.
  3. When I disconnect completely I return to work from vacation feeling refreshed and rejuvenated – a win for my coworkers and a win for me.

That all sounds great, but how do we pull this off in today’s world of immediate communication? How do we disconnect while respecting the expectation that we be immediately available? Friends, it’s all in the planning. Two to three weeks before my scheduled vacation, I let my boss, my coworkers, and my direct reports know of my plans. I give them the dates of my vacation and remind them that I will not check email or voice mail while I’m away. This gives them ample time to request things from me before I leave, thus mitigating the possibility of somebody needing something while I’m away and feeling frustrated because I’m not there to deliver it. I give similar notification to important business partners outside my company – in my case those include our insurance broker, our claims representatives, and our outside law firms. I give my first notice three weeks ahead of time if possible, and I repeat the notice at least once each week leading up to my scheduled vacation.

Before leaving the office, I update my voice mail greeting and my email auto-reply to clearly state that I am unavailable while offering a means of reaching a qualified coworker. If you email me today, for example, this is the message you will receive: “I am out of the office on vacation. I will not be checking email while I’m away. I will return to the office on Friday, March 28 and I will receive and reply to your email after my return. Should you require assistance before then, please contact…” Similarly, if you call my work number today, you will receive this voice mail greeting: “This is Jeff Strege with CEC Entertainment. I am on vacation. You may press zero now to be transferred to another member of the risk management team. If you’d prefer to leave a message you may do so at the tone, but I will not receive your message until I return to the office on Friday, March 28.” My goal is to clearly state that I will not receive the message until my return while giving the sender or caller a means by which they can reach somebody else for assistance.

I offer this side comment on out of office messaging: If you say you’re out, you’re out. If you set your out of office message to say you’re out, but then reply to emails or return phone calls your Out of Office Credibility is shot. When you try to disconnect for vacation, people who know you well may expect a reply anyway. Set the message and let it be.

This system has worked beautifully for me. Fortunately, I work with people who understand the needs and benefits of a real vacation – and I bet most of those reading this do as well. I dare you to try it. If it’s a scary proposition for you, take a Friday off and allow yourself to disconnect completely for the 3-day weekend. If you haven’t tried it before, you may be surprised at how refreshed you feel when you return to work on Monday.

P.S. I am not a psychologist or a human behavior expert, nor is this piece intended to persuade anybody to behave in a manner not consistent with company policy or procedure. This piece is based solely on my personal experience. Good luck!

I Didn’t Get A Trophy

We were terrible! One winter, as a young boy in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I played on a peewee hockey team. I use the term “played” lightly, for I was by far the worst player on the team. I wasn’t a strong skater; when the team skated north with the puck, I was still headed south. When we lined up for a face-off, the referee often had to direct me to the proper position for my forward position. I loved the game, but didn’t really understand it. We were the Red Wings of the Coon Rapids municipal hockey league, and we were terrible. We won one game – the last game of the season.

Today, as I watch the winter Olympic games from Sochi, Russia I am impressed with the skill and athleticism on display in each of the winter sports. You know what impresses me the most? It’s the desire to win, and the effort put forth in order to achieve a place on the medal podium. The last skier in the final run knows the time to beat, and she does what she has to do to beat it. The aerialist on the half-pipe knows the score he has to surpass, and he adds a difficult maneuver in order to surpass it. The figure skaters know their position in the standings, and add the flair and precision to their performance to achieve their goal. It’s competition. Competition breeds excellence. If you doubt that, tune in for one evening and see how competition breeds motivation and, in turn, motivation breeds improvement and success.

When my son was four, we enrolled him in T-ball. We parents standing along the base paths could identify rather quickly the kids who “got” the game and those who didn’t. Some were bored, drawing intricate designs in the infield dirt as their team was playing defense. I was rather surprised to learn at our first game that no score is kept. “Everyone’s a winner,” the coaches proclaimed proudly. Even my four year-old son was puzzled when he’d ask me after a game, “did we win, Dad?” I secretly kept score and shared the results with him. We weren’t supposed to do that, but I did it anyway. If they lost, I’d tell him where they could improve next time and if they won I’d tell him how a good winner celebrates his achievement. Because they didn’t keep score, because there were no winners or losers, the T-ball league missed the opportunity to teach our kids a valuable life lesson. Sure enough, at the end of the season everyone got a trophy. While the kids were taught the rudiments of baseball, they learned nothing about competition – what it means to work as a team to achieve a goal.

The notion that “everyone’s a winner” is well intended, but it misses an important life lesson. In sports and in business, even in life itself, competition breeds excellence while the absence of competition breeds mediocrity. Think about it: if there was no podium, if every slalom skier received the same Certificate of Participation, would the athletes put themselves out there on that final run as they do today? Would they give it all they’ve got and then some, or would they instead complete the final run in a defensive manner, just to keep from falling?

Competition breeds success. Competition teaches valuable life lessons. Avoiding competition to preserve self-esteem can actually damage self-esteem later in life for the individual who has never been taught to compete. I’ve seen it – many people enter the workforce expecting to be handed a paycheck just for showing up, and looking at the boss as if she is from Mars when asked to do just a little bit more. After a short time on the job, the promotion is expected and they’re shocked when it’s given to someone else. They’ve not been taught to compete; they’ve not been taught to give their all. Don’t misunderstand me – competition is not a nasty thing, nor does it have to be mean-spirited. While teaching competition, we must also teach fair play, sportsmanship, and consideration. The competitor who masters those skills will find himself at the top of the podium and, later, at the helm of a successful career.

I didn’t get a trophy for playing peewee hockey. We were the worst team in the league; we didn’t earn a trophy. I did, however, learn some valuable lessons that I carry with me today. I learned what it means to be on a team that is striving for constant improvement. By watching my teammates, I learned to skate backwards, even able to change direction on the fly! I learned that those around me have something to offer and I can learn from them, just as I can learn from my coaches. And, when all that hard work paid off and we finally achieved that elusive victory, I learned what the joy of success feels like. I try to carry those lessons into my workplace each and every day.

As a society, let us not shun competition; let us teach it properly. If we embrace healthy competition, even at a very young age, our kids will learn where they are talented and where they are not. They will discover their skills, their likes, and their dislikes. They will learn to work with others to achieve a common goal and enjoy the success of having achieved it. If we embrace healthy competition in all phases of life, our kids and we will be more productive adults and our society will be better positioned for long-term prosperity and success.

New “Normal” Begins Today!

With my employer’s announcement on January 16 of the company’s acquisition by a private equity firm, my work schedule imploded. There were special projects and additional meetings as we worked with our future owners to gather documents needed to complete the sale. There were temporary changes in procedure, which although necessary, were often disruptive. Some in the office were stressed and worried while others did their jobs without any evidence of worry or concern. Not a worrier by nature, I fell into the latter group as I handled the workflow changes and calendar disruptions as they came while I looked forward to the scheduled February 14 close. Fortunately, the sale closed as scheduled and I now look forward to our new “normal”.

As I sit here on the first Monday morning following the Friday close of sale, I wonder: what is “normal” anyway? What, exactly, am I looking forward to?

Certainly, with new corporate ownership comes change. Working under private equity ownership at various stages in my career has yielded a mixed bag of experiences ranging from stressful and unpleasant (working for a PE firm that focused mainly on cutting costs by reducing head count) to new and refreshing (working for a PE firm that shared growth goals and allowed us the flexibility to work towards achieving them). How will this one conduct itself? Sure, they said all the right things as the transaction was pending, but what will they do now that the sale is final and they are at the helm? What will our new “normal” look like?

Truth be told, it doesn’t matter. They can do what they like. I cannot control or even influence what our new “normal” will be. Many in this situation find that fact downright scary, but I know better.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Joshua 29:11

When God delivered this message to Israel through the prophet Joshua, Israel had been exiled to Babylon. Talk about a new “normal”, Israel was living it! God promised that He was in control; that there was an end game to their exile. His plan would be revealed in due course. In the meantime, He told them to live their lives – build homes, build families, build careers – God told them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Joshua 29:7)

I said earlier that I am not, by nature, a worrier. I don’t worry because I trust God’s plan. This aspect of my nature is not my doing; it is a gift from God. Whatever happens, He has an end game in mind. All He expects of me is to work with our new owners in earnest and do my part to execute their plan. God’s plan for me in all of this could be a myriad of things – maybe a promotion, maybe increased job security, perhaps a new career altogether. Whatever it is, it will be grand. So as I head to work on this, the first Monday morning under new corporate ownership, I will stand firmly on the promise that God delivered to an exiled Israel and trust God for my new “normal”. That, my friends, is a relief. God is good, indeed!

Small Town Independence Day Eve

I had my eyes opened tonight.

La Plaza Inn, Walsenburg, CO. July 3, 2013

La Plaza Inn, Walsenburg, CO. July 3, 2013

After logging 606 relatively easy highway miles in our 2005 Toyota Sienna minivan, my daughter and I finally arrived at our stop for the night: an historic and quaint inn located in downtown Walsenburg, Colorado.

Before settling in for the evening, we walked around downtown Walsenburg. We noticed several shops offering antiques, clothing, gifts, and even an H&R Block. Sadly, we were past closing time so we were not able to venture inside. We also noticed several vacant storefronts. We enjoyed our walk around town and I was pleased that my daughter found the town as intriguing as I did. After our walk, she wanted to relax in the room and I wanted a glass of wine. We both had the same objective, just in different forms!

After safely settling my daughter into our room*, I headed downstairs and took a seat at the small and nicely stocked bar in the lobby. At first I was alone, but soon a few others entered and took seats at the bar. One gentleman mentioned the meeting tonight, to which the manager responded, “tomorrow is a holiday and you have a meeting?”

“Yes. We need it.”

I learned that each of them owns a small business in this quaint little downtown. Their discussion quickly turned to a building prominently located on Main Street. As they described it’s teal trim and salmon color I remembered walking by it just a short hour ago. The building’s owner had recently ordered one tenant to relocate; now they had heard that the antique store occupying the majority of retail space in that building had also been ordered to relocate. Once the antique store leaves, there will be two prime retail locations on Main Street completely vacant.

Downtown Walsenburg, Colorado. Borrowed from flickr.com

Downtown Walsenburg, Colorado. Borrowed from flickr.com

The antique store quickly became the focus of the conversation. “People from all over come to visit her. Then many of them visit me. Is there a suitable space for her downtown? Where will she go? What if she just gives up and closes her business?” I gathered that the building’s owner is not from here.

As I nurtured my glass of wine, I looked at the people seated around me and I felt empathy with them. This is huge. This development, completely beyond their direct control, could significantly impact their businesses. Their concern was evident; hence, the Independence Day Eve meeting of downtown business owners.

I have always had an appreciation for Small Town, USA. That appreciation was one of the reasons I chose this particular inn for this particular stopover. Tonight I looked the backbone of America in the eye and had my eyes opened. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a clue about the issues facing small business owners across this great country of ours. And I question seriously whether those in power at the state and federal level have a clue, either. Yes, this is a local issue. But this local issue reaches far beyond the confines of Walsenburg, Colorado. This town depends upon the success of these businesses; so does the state of Colorado and so does the United States of America.

Flag of the United States of America, backlit,...

Flag of the United States of America, backlit, windy day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I finished my wine and paid my tab I found myself wondering how many similar conversations are going on in small towns across the country. As I type this, the meeting is going on downstairs. I can’t stop thinking about these people. What can I – a person who lives in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area and who works for a major corporation – what can I do? Well, I can support small business owners – the backbone of this great country. And so can you.

Tomorrow is Independence Day. On this Independence Day Eve 2013 I pledge to do my part to honor the people I met this evening by supporting the backbone of America – local businesses – at home and on the road. I invite you to do the same.

I wish the people of Walsenburg much success.

*“Room” is not a fair word here. We have what amounts to a suite with separate quarters, each with a queen-sized bed, and a shared bath. Nicely decorated, incredibly comfortable, and priced lower than most major chain motels the inn offers a great value. I highly recommend it.

%d bloggers like this: