Excuses and Obstacles

Hello from Wyoming, where I’m in the midst of the vacation part of my working vacation. By the time you read this, I’ll be in the Teton National Park (shown in the photo here), one of my very favorite locations ever.

A few weeks ago I wrote about starting to work with a personal trainer and noted the similarities between that activity and business development activity. (If you missed that article, you can find it here.)  As I was packing for my business trip/vacation, and especially during the first few days, I discovered yet another layer of similarity.

The first day of my vacation, I went to the resort gym (about a 3-minute walk from my room) and discovered it was locked. It wasn’t convenient, but I walked the extra 10 minutes to and from the front desk to pick up the key to the gym.  And when I got into the gym, I discovered that the elliptical machine (my favorite) wasn’t working and that the distribution of free weights began at 15 pounds, then jumped to 25.  I usually use 8- or 10-pound weights.

Could I possibly have a better excuse to skip my workout? Being on vacation, having to walk all the way across the resort to get a key, and then finding poor equipment seemed like the trifecta for an ironclad excuse.  No one would blame me for skipping, and I’d feel guilt-free.

But (as you know since I’ve already cited the poor equipment) I walked across the resort to get the key. When I got to the gym, I used the bike, even though I grumbled the whole time.  And I did what I could with the too-heavy weights, then did exercises that used my own weight to complete the workout.  It wasn’t my best workout, by a long stretch, but it was good enough.

Why did I do all that, especially for subpar results? Because I knew that skipping one planned workout would be the beginning of a slippery slope.  I knew how easy it would be to tell myself even more excuses for not doing what I’d promised — that I needed to slip in some work, that I’d walked for sightseeing and surely that would count, or that I needed to rest since I’d been so busy before vacation and would pick up the same hectic pace afterward.  And then, before I knew it, everything I’d accomplished would go down the drain, and I’d have to start again.  I also knew that, if it came to that, I might not start again immediately, and maybe not at all.

Doesn’t this ring a bell for business development? It’s easy to lay plans and then to get knocked off-course.  A heavy workload, a sick child or parent, a stinging rejection from a potential client — you’ll always find reasons to pause your business development activity.  But success is composed of small, consistent actions.  How you respond to the reasons and excuses that could justify interrupting your consistently will likely determine your success.

How will you respond to the challenges that present themselves to you? My suggestion is that you power through them, even if it means reducing your activity to respond to the challenges.  Determine what’s an excuse (a long walk to pick up a key, for example) as opposed to a real obstacle (not having the right equipment) and respond accordingly.  When you do, even if you can’t stick to the full plan, you’ll continue moving forward and building a track record of success.

There’s no magic formula

I joined a new gym last week and had my first appointment with a personal trainer since 2004. I haven’t been totally inactive since then, of course; I’ve hit the gym on my own, gone swimming in my backyard, walked a bit (sometimes even long distances), and played with my dogs a lot.  But none of that is the same as a true workout with someone I’m paying to make me work hard.

The assessment made me want to die. That’s an overstatement, but not much.  Not only did it not feel good, but it also reminded me just how far I am from my goals and even from where I was when I quit going to the gym.  I was surprised that I wasn’t in agony the next day.

The first real workout was much harder. I’d paid the trainer by then, so she knew I was committed, and she probed the edges of my abilities.  (Fair point that the edges aren’t a long distance these days!)  I pushed beyond what she asked of me a few times, and I left feeling a little wobbly and tired, but proud.  And I did hurt the next day.

I can already feel differences — none that are objectively observable, of course, but I see them:  the satisfaction of knowing that I’m moving closer to my goals, the relief that my goals are no longer actually getting further away, and the kind of tiredness and soreness that comes with a good workout.  And the externally observable goals?  As long as I keep it up, they’re coming.  Probably nothing dramatic really soon, but they’re on the way.

That’s how it works with business development, too. You start by doing something.  Preferably, you make a commitment to someone who will hold you accountable and you create a plan that you’ll stick to.  You start seeing shifts immediately, even when no one else does, and they add up over time.  Stick to the plan, and those shifts will result in new billable work.

How was your workout today?

Trading On A Margin?

When I shifted from practicing law to consulting and coaching, I realized that it’s critical for me to protect my own time and energy. I began to get a deeper understanding that in a very real way, I am my own product and I must protect my product.  The irony, of course, is that the same was true when I was in practice.  My hunch is that if I’d come to this realization sooner, I would have been less stressed out and I probably would have accomplished more.

One of the tools that’s been most important to me is building margins into my schedule. Rather than scheduling myself back-to-back, I leave gaps throughout the day so that I can catch a breath, handle the small fires that inevitably arise, and take advantage of new opportunities that pop up.  The gaps can be fairly small, such as leaving 15 extra minutes on either side of an appointment so I don’t need to worry if we run a few minutes long.  Sometimes, a gap can be as simple as a pause between calls to grab a glass of water, stretch a bit, and breathe deeply to get the oxygen and energy flowing.

When working on a big project, though, a big margin is helpful. That’s why I shudder a bit when a potential client calls me and tells me that it’s urgent to build his clientele because he has only two months of expense money in the bank or because she’s expecting to be up for partner in the next year.  It is possible to build a solid book of business quickly?
Of course.  Is it probable?  Not on a tight deadline.

Resolve to add margins into your plans. How?  Consider these approaches:

  1. Wherever possible, build time between appointments into your schedule. When that isn’t possible, make a conscious decision to move your body and your mind between appointments to create a shift in your own energy.  Doing so will improve your ability to take on the next appointment with a fresh mind.
  2. When you’re working on a big project, estimate the amount of time it will take and add up to 25% of that time as a cushion. If your goal is to design and host a client seminar and you expect to need six weeks as lead time, allow yourself eight weeks.
  3. Use project management principles to plan out all of the steps in your project and take advantage of technology so that you can shift the steps and schedules as necessary. At times, despite your best effort, you will need to adjust your schedule or your project despite building in margins.  Using a task management system that automatically shifts intermediate deadlines when a project deadline changes will minimize the time you’ll need to spend on designing the deadlines so you can maximize your time on the project itself.
  4. When others are involved, communicate not only the deadline but also the margin — but do so selectively. If a team member is a relentless procrastinator, you might choose not to include your margin when discussing timelines.
  5. Underpromise and overdeliver, especially with clients. This has become something of a cliche in recent years, but its validity is beyond reproach.  If you promise a client or a potential client something, be sure to allow yourself extra time just in case your plans go awry.  Far better to promise a deliverable for Friday and provide it on Wednesday than vice versa.

When you add in margin, you increase the chances that you will be able to stick to the schedule, you create opportunities to respond to intervening circumstances as they occur, and you set yourself up for reduced stress. Will margins always work?  No.  Projects sometimes go haywire.  “No fail” software systems fail.  Critical team members get sick.  When that happens, you’ll have to adjust, but building in a margin in advance means that your magnitude of adjustment will be less.

Where do you need to build margins into your schedule?

Total Leadership

Total Leadership:  Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life
By Steward D. Friedman

Spurred by conversations I’ve been having with clients recently, this month’s book review focuses on “work/life balance” or (as I prefer to call it) work/life integration. As I’ve previously written, self-management is a critical skill for leaders.  That it’s also a challenge is reflected on the number of leaders who excel at work but have less satisfactory home lives, or those who prioritize “success” above health and suffer the consequences.

In Total Leadership:  Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, Stewart Friedman urges leaders to seek “four-way wins”, meaning high performance in the four domains of life: work, home, community, and self (mind, body, and spirit).  Achieving these wins creates “total leadership”, which in turn creates sustainable change to benefit the leader and the most important people around him or her.

Traditional “work/life balance” principles, which suggest that there’s one single point called balance and innumerable other points that are unbalanced. That connotation is why I prefer the phrase integration to balance, and why I find Friedman’s approach to be so helpful.  By recognizing that our lives are more than “work” and “everything else”, Friedman opens the possibility that we don’t have to live on a see-saw.  Instead, we can find give-and-take among the domains, ideally finding activities or ways of being that serve all four.  Doesn’t that sound better than stealing time from work to serve life, or vice versa?

Scoring four-way wins is grounded in a clear view of what you want from and can contribute to each domain of your life, now and in the future. Naturally, you must pay thoughtful consideration to the people who matter most to you in each domain (the “stakeholders”) and the expectations you have for one another.  Doing so raises the likelihood that you will take steps that serve not only yourself but also the stakeholders in each domain.  Otherwise, you might end up with a brilliant plan that suits you perfectly but undermines or alienates colleagues, friends, and family members — or one that serves everyone in your life except yourself.

Having done this foundational work, the next step is to systematically design and implement carefully crafted experiments, doing something new for a short period to see how it affects all four domains. If an experiment doesn’t work out, you stop or adjust, and little is lost.  If it does work out, it’s a small win; over time these add up so that your overall efforts are focused increasingly on what and who matter most.  Either way, you learn more about how to lead in all parts of your life.  The ROI that Friedman reports is truly impressive:

In a study over a four-mont period of more than 300 business professionals (whose average age was about 35), their satisfaction increased by an average of 20% in their work lives, 28% in their home lives, and 31% in their community lives.  Perhaps most significant, their satisfaction in the domain of the self — their physical and emotional health and their intellectual and spiritual growth — increased by 39%.  But they also reported that their performance improved:  at work (by 9%), at home (15%), in the community (12%), and personally (25%).  Paradoxically, these gains were made even as participants spent less time on work and more on other aspects of their lives.  They’re working smarter — and they’re more focused, passionate, and committed to what they’re doing.

Four-way wins tend to have direct impact in one domain of life and indirect impact in others. For example, a commitment to working out three mornings a week directly benefits the leader’s “self” domain, with better health and reduced stress, and the work and home domains indirectly benefit as the leader focuses more effectively on matters at hand, has greater emotional stability, and is a better “partner”, whether to colleagues or family members.

Each individual will create his or her own unique experiment, but Friedman has identified eight general categories of worthwhile experiments:

  • Tracking an activity and reflecting on progress toward a goal:  increases self-awareness.
  • Planning and organizing:  find ways to use time more effectively and plan for the future.
  • Appreciating and caring:  building relationships.
  • Focusing and concentrating:  being fully present to key stakeholders.
  • Revealing and engaging:  enhanced communication and relationship-building.
  • Time shifting and “re-placing”:  changing when and where work is done.
  • Delegating and developing:  passing appropriate tasks to subordinates and assistants.
  • Exploring and venturing:  taking steps to align the four domains of life with a leader’s core values and aspirations.

As Friedman recommends, tracking the results of the experiment is critical, tweaking an experiment as it proceeds will often increase the benefits.

What’s in it for lawyers? Friedman’s approach is an evidence-based approach to help lawyers learn to make challenges that will benefit all aspects of their lives.  Choosing no more than three experiments, measuring the results, and then deciding whether to continue the experiment removes the “high stakes” nature that so often tanks sweeping changes.  (For example, how often have you sworn “never” to do something again, only to find yourself doing the foresworn activity within the next few days?)  This excerpt encapsulates why I expect Friedman’s work will speak to lawyers:

The best experiments let you try something new while minimizing the inevitable risks associated with change.  When the stakes are smaller, it’s easier to overcome the fear of failure that inhibits innovation.  You start to see results, and others take note, which both inspires you to go further and builds support from your key stakeholders.

If you’ve been looking for a workable work/life integration solution, pick up Friedman’s book. You’ll find it a rational, sensible approach that will offer substantial directions toward a life you want to lead.

A Tale of Two Sales

I went shopping a few weekends ago. I’m in the market for a new car, and I need a dark rose or burgundy tablecloth for my dining room table.  I haven’t purchased either just yet (though I’m moving closer), but two very different sales experiences have offered plenty of insight.

Saturday afternoon, I went to the home department of a local department store and asked for tablecloths. The sales associate (Michele) told me that the store no longer carries tablecloths in the stores, only online.  Great, I said, turning away, I’ll take a look.

But Michele wasn’t done.

She asked what size my table is, and what color and fabric I was hoping to find.  Michele suggested that I send her the dimensions on my table and offered to make the first cut of the hundreds of tablecloths I’d find online to narrow down to the ten or so that I might actually consider.  I can’t wait to see what she finds.  It’s an extra step, but how nice to have someone willing to shepherd me through the search and guide me based on my needs.  That’s service.

What was right about this sales experience: Michele’s questions and suggestions were directed toward helping me get what I want and need with the least amount of effort and trouble on my end.  As a result, I left feeling that she was helping me, not just out to get a sale, even though I’m sure she’ll get a commission if I order through her.  Our exchange wasn’t about the sale.  It was about the service.

Next story:  Sunday afternoon, I went to the car dealership where I take my almost 14-year-old car for service. It’s time for a new car, and my only questions were whether I would choose the 2011 or 2012 model, and whether I could find a color I’d like.  I’d done some nosing around online, so I just needed to drive the cars and to get a little more information.

A salesman walked up right away, and I told him I was interested in model XYZ.  I mentioned that I’d looked at it online.  The salesman said that online research would give me the most information, and he invited me to come back when I was ready to place an order. A bit surprised, I asked whether he was telling me that he’d recommend I decide based on my online experience only, and he said yes.  He also told me that stock of the car was limited, so I would need to place an order within the week.  As he started to walk away, I mentioned that the colors shown online were rather dull (several shades of grey, black, white, and just one blue) and that there was some suggestion that other colors might be available.  I don’t control colors, he said, what you see online is what there is.  And with that, he walked away.

After doing a bit of looking at 2011 and 2012 models in the showroom to glean what I could about the differences, I returned to my computer and did a search to see what each dealership in my area had in inventory.  And there, in stock at the dealership I’d visited, was a car I loved:  “passion red” exterior, beige interior, all the options I’d want plus a few I wouldn’t object to. It was a bit more than I’d expected to pay, but if the salesman had shown me that car, chances are reasonably good that I’d own it right now.

What was wrong about this sales experience: where do I start?  First, the salesman sent me back to the Internet without even offering to point me to the most helpful parts of the website or to help me through the page after page of details.  He told me, in so many words, that his role was limited to taking an order.  And, most tellingly, he didn’t ask the basic questions that would have allowed him to discover that there was a car on his lot that matched what I was looking for.

What can you learn from these stories?

  1. If you’ve ever dreaded feeling “salesy” when offering your services to someone, consider how helpful it is to take a potential client by the hand to help him sort out his needs. What could be more of a service than helping someone to accomplish something they want to do, whether that’s buying a new car or developing an estate plan to care for her family?  Being in service and getting paid for it is not the same as selling something that’s unnecessary in an effort to make money.
  2. The Internet offers an ideal way for clients to get information before they speak with you, but chances are good that they need to know more before purchasing. Think of your website as an introduction of your “product” — and for attorneys, your product is a combination of your legal skills and how you bring them to the table.  But remember that even the best website is only a conversational opener, not the end of the conversation.
  3. When you speak with a potential client, be sure you ask enough questions to get a sense of her real needs. Not only will you discover what needs you need to address in talking about your service, but also you’ll show your client that you seek to meet her needs rather than offering a “one size fits all” approach that may not be a good fit.

Shake it up!

What a week we’ve had with weather on the East Coast:  if it isn’t an earthquake, it’s a hurricane. And for us east coasters, there’s nothing natural about that sentence.  Long-time readers know that I think Seth Godin is a brilliant thinker, and he hit it again with his insight into earthquakes and human nature:

  1. The first thing that happens after we encounter an earthquake is to wonder if anyone else felt it.  The need for group validation is widespread and happens for events that don’t involve earthquakes as well.
  2. [P]eople like to do something. Action, even ineffective action, is something societies seek out during times of uncertainty.

Do you see how these observations apply to business development, both from the perspective of you who’s developing the business and also from your potential clients’ perspective?

What’s more, seeming everyone on the East Coast wanted to share where we were when the quake hit, did we feel it, did we know what it was. The coverage probably would have continued for an even longer period had it not been interrupted by Hurricane Irene.  Meanwhile West Coast dwellers were bemused at East Coast reaction to what would have been a non-event had it happened in California.

The earthquake was unexpected, uncommon, and thus worthy of discussion despite its lack of widespread impact. (The proof’s in the follow-up:  how much have you heard about the 16 aftershocks, four of which were over the “insignificant” 3.0 magnitude?)

Finally, did you see that the news spread via social media much faster than it did through traditional media? CNN.com had no reports ten minutes after the quake had hit, but Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with on-the-spot reports.

There’s a lot to learn from this “little” shake-up.  Don’t let it go unnoticed, and consider what it means for your business development efforts.