Loeb's Lobs Blog for Corporate Executives and Agency Professionals

Tough times for a liberal optimist

It’s an understatement to say that these are tough times.

It’s painful to read the newspaper each morning and watch the news at night.  Our government failed to govern, a very few extremist legislators usurped the will of the majority, we thought we’d narrowly escaped a financial crisis caused by defaulting on our nation’s debt only to witness a horrifying drop in the markets and the shameful implications of being downgraded by a ratings agency. The global economies are so tied together that a financial crisis in Europe or the United States has staggering impact everywhere. Our president — who I so desperately want to successfully lead our nation back to security, prosperity, jobs and more reasonable dialog — repeatedly demonstrates how not to negotiate. As a progressive Democrat, it was hard to watch President Obama completely give up on raising revenue along with cutting spending as the debate got tough.  It’s not negotiation when only one side compromises in any significant way. 

The financial crisis has the potential to dominate our thoughts but then we’d miss noting the presidential hopeful talking about our “Christian nation.”  What happened to separation of Church and State?  The United States of American isn’t a Christian nation, nor a Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist nation. That’s the point!

And still, more horrifying than the frightening mess facing our nation is the staggering famine in Somalia and the world’s inability to get food to the starving. How can we — in the year  2011 — merely watch the devastation, powerless to help because of the armed and violent thugs who steal the food, kill the hungry and claim there’s no food shortage.

And in this morning’s, Boston Globe, I read about three fifteen-year olds in a New Orleans suburb who were plotting to shoot fellow high school students during the first day of classes. But…we’re told that guns aren’t a problem. 

These are tough times around the globe and I feel so fortunate that my family and friends are all safe, secure and well-fed. Still…sometimes this liberal optimist just feels like screaming!

Evolving good intentions into consistent habits

Early in 2011 I unveiled my new SEO-friendly website (The Loeb Group) and embarked on a strategic web-marketing effort. I thought more carefully about how I used LinkedIn, tweeted daily (mostly sharing others’ tweets that I found insightful), made a point of actively participating (aka commenting) as a member of many professionally-relevant LinkedIn groups and focused on writing two to three blogs per week. I was on a roll and very soon started to reap the benefits of my hard work. Prospective clients found me via google searches. Long-standing clients checked back to discuss doing more work together.

I’m here to testify that this web marketing stuff does work! The only problem was that I soon found myself without a spare moment to keep up with my good web marketing intentions. A week went by with no new blogging. Then a few weeks, a month and too quickly more than two months had passed. While google searches still generated many Beryl Loeb and The Loeb Group links, I could no longer boast that there were pages of links.  

My good intentions had not yet evolved into consistent habits.  Worse…Without doing something quickly — blogging, posting and tweeting — I ran the risk of becoming less and less visible. So I’m back…chastened and committing to getting into the web marketing routine again. 

I’m filled with the best of intentions and hoping that this time, with the knowledge that the effort pays off and that I absolutely need to keep working at it, that I will really, really, really make web marketing a habit.  

Wish me luck…

How to Give Positive Feedback That Means Something And Avoid Being a Human “Like” Button

Do you worry that you’re giving praise so often that you risk diluting its impact and value? Is there such a thing as being too nice?

Recent critique of the current season of “American Idol” proposes that either America has suddenly become more talented or the new judges just like everything. “When human ‘Like’ buttons Steven, Jennifer and Randy give out too many gold stars the value of gold drops,” according to Time Magazine writer, James Poniewozik in \”Six Thumbs Up!\”

Managers in Loeb Group training often say that they sometimes withhold positive feedback until a team member does something truly extraordinary rather than praise everything and render their feedback meaningless. This concern is expressed most often by the Baby Boomer generation who worry that Generation X and Millenials have grown up receiving trophies for coming in first, second, third AND last place. If you get a prize for just showing up, does the prize still mean anything?

The reality is, however, that most managers are far from over-praising their team members. A more common mistake managers make is giving feedback that is so generic “Good job” or “Well done” that it feels good for the moment but doesn’t let a team member know exactly what they did that they should repeat in the future.

Smaller things that merit positive feedback: Most often when people leave a conference room, they leave behind their empty coffee cups and papers. It’s clear that they think someone else will come in after them to clean up. But you’ve noticed that one team member (and not the most junior person on the team) always stays behind to get the room ready for the next meeting. Acknowledge this person’s thoughtfulness, awareness of his surroundings and attention to detail. Every effort that helps us all work together is important.

Bigger effort pays off: Have you noticed that you are making fewer changes when you edit something written by your team member? While you might be thinking “It’s about time that this guy finally wrote something good, instead try saying, “Thank you for the hard work you’ve been doing on your writing. The last three documents you asked me to approve were well-organized with a great opening paragraph and strong close, written with our audience in mind, and proof-read so that there were no typos.”

Exceptional accomplishments: Maybe one team member in particular has demonstrated exceptional initiative, commitment and perseverance over the past few weeks of annual program planning for an important client. While other team members seemed exhausted by the added pressure, this team member remained upbeat and demonstrated a “can do” spirit whenever asked to do more. Say exactly that!

Specific and timely feedback is not mindless and not the equivalent of the “like” button on Facebook. Recognition of the big and little things will be appreciated and will result in accountability and the excellence that you want to encourage.

Tip for Executive Spokespersons: Beware of numbers that don’t tell your story!

7.1 million iPads sold in 2010. China’s population is projected to be 1.4 billion by the end of 2011. Those are big and impressive numbers.

Tyler Perry’s movie grossed almost $26 million during it’s debut weekend. That already large number sounds even more significant when compared with two other movies that also debuted this past weekend: “Water for Elephants” grossed $17.5 million and “African Cats” grossed only $6.4 million ($20 million dollars less than “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family”).

What about the fact that there are forty concert grand pianos in the basement of Steinway Hall in NYC? Forty raises more questions than it answers. How large is a concert grand piano? What does a room look like filled with forty pianos? Are the pianos in the basement dusty and decrepit…unsellable? What happens when we add to the story that those forty pianos are waiting to be requested by one of the world’s top performing artists as their piano of choice during a concert performance or recording? With just a little more context, the number forty is actually quite significant!

How about when a company announces that it has fourteen research experts in major markets around the globe. What does the number fourteen tell us? Not much — in fact it seems a bit paltry — unless we know that the company’s two top competitors combined only have eleven.

Executive spokespersons are encouraged to include  statistics when talking with the media about corporate or product announcements. They just need to make sure that the data they share isn’t just a number.

What are your “Four Questions?”

In the spirit of Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrated around the world this week, I’m dedicating this blog to the practice of asking questions — so important for families and also business leaders, managers and client service professionals.

In Jewish tradition, the youngest children at the Passover seder (the holiday dinner) ask four questions about the holiday’s traditions. We ask the same four questions every year (and have for more than three thousand years) and yet everyone gets excited to ask and answer the four questions. I grew up asking the questions in yiddish, hebrew and english. Today at our family’s seder table children and adults ask the questions because we recognize that all of us are still learning. We ask the questions in yiddish, hebrew, english and have added french, spanish and, this year, mandarin. Everyone actively participates — including my eight-five year old aunt and my six-year old cousin.

Why bother asking the same four questions each year? In addition to honoring tradition, asking the same four questions is part of a structure, a practiced and disciplined way of examining a situation.

Why bother asking the same four questions when we know the answer? At this time every year, we revisit the questions and answers, and both provide lessons for us. The essence of the answer remains the same but the context in which we explore the answers evolves in response to our lives and world conditions.

Why bother innovating how we ask the questions? Building on the tradition is part of the mandate of this holiday — to enlarge upon the telling of the Passover story. In addition, innovating encourages us to take a new look, to examine what we’ve done for years from a different perspective.

What questions do your children know they’ll be asked at the dinner table? What questions do your team members know they’ll be asked to explore during your weekly status meetings? What questions do you explore during your quarterly or annual planning sessions with your client?  How can you enlarge upon those questions? How can you innovate to make sure that everyone’s really paying attention?

Are you a “yes” or “no” person?

In a gross oversimplification of the workplace, there are two kinds of people: those who say “yes” and those whose default response is “no.”

Let’s take a closer look at an account executive at a large public relations firm who says “yes” to everything. Not only is he considered one of the most positive, eager and open people on the planet, he’s also one of the most overworked and stressed. Despite all his effort, his work is inconsistent and he’s disappointing rather than impressing his manager. He is the first person to volunteer to take on a new project or opportunity to learn new skills. But he also says “yes” even when he doesn’t have a moment free in the day, even when he might not be the best person to get the job done and when he doesn’t feel prepared to do the work. “Yep…got it!” But does he really? When would it be better for this account executive to say “no” and how could he say “no” in a way that enhances rather than hinders his reputation?

Managers love a team member who is on top of his work, eager to take on additional responsibility and shows initiative. They welcome the confident individual who says, “Yes, I’d like to do that” followed by either “and I’ll have the work completed by 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday,” or “I have a few questions that I’d like to talk about with you so that I understand your expectations and make sure I approach the task successfully.”  Or “I have some other work due later this week and I want to confirm that I can meet those deadlines and still work on this project.”

Managers also know which of their team members always respond with the same knee-jerk, “Nope.” “Can’t do that.” “No time.” “I’m far too busy.” Or worse, “That’s not something I do…”

What about those times when a team member is genuinely swamped and the manager isn’t really asking for a “yes” or “no” rather just insisting something has to get done in what she knows is an unreasonable time frame. “The client really, really, really needs this tomorrow morning” (said apologetically yet firmly). Typically the manager has already agreed to the tight deadline in the spirit of keeping the client happy.

Is the answer to pull another all-niter or is there an alternative to keep the account executive, manager and client happy? Instead of grinning and bearing it, the account executive can do some probing to learn what the client really needs by the deadline looming less than 24 hours away. Perhaps instead of a finished product (completed to the agency’s usual high standards), the account executive could present a well-thought-through outline, or questions for discussion, or samples of work done for other clients to be used as a jumping-off point for the discussion.

The account executive hasn’t exactly said “yes.”  But he hasn’t said “no,” is still being helpful and has proposed a compromise that may make more sense given the time frame. Of course there will always be those times when the tight turn-around isn’t negotiable. But wouldn’t it be great to make those the exception rather than the rule?

As with most things in life, people in the workplace are best-served by striking a balance between the unrealistic eager beaver and the self-obsessed, unhelpful naysayer. You want to be known as the person who is positive, enthusiastic and standing with two feet firmly — and successfully — grounded in reality!

What Would Your Clients Say?

For those of us in the professional service business, client service is not an abstract concept. There are daily “moments of truth” when a client feels that you’ve delighted or disappointed them. What would your clients say about your responsiveness, the quality of your work or your billing process?

Try an experiment. Pick a week and view your client service through your clients’ eyes. This means that you can’t factor in your rationale — or excuses — for why you do things the way you do.  Take a critical look at every client touch point. For example:

  • Is the phone greeting they get when they call your office friendly, welcoming and professional or abrupt and amateurish? (I recommend that people answer the phone with their first and last name. Answering my phone, “Beryl” sounds as if I”m expecting an internal call or call from a friend. Taking the extra less-than-a-second to say “Beryl Loeb” is more professional.)
  • Does it feel as if your client’s e-mails are given priority or that their e-mails have fallen into an enormous black hole?  Even when you don’t have the answer to a client’s question, it’s best to respond by letting them know you’ve read their request and will get back to them within (fill in the blank) hours.
  • Are your e-mails, status reports and documents well-written, proof-read and formatted well?  Or does it look like everything was written in rushed, text-message lingo?
  • Does your day-to-day work come across as thoughtful, based on insight and experience or does the client see your best only on big proposals with even bigger price-tags?
  • Are your invoices easy-to-read or do you have to be “in the know” to understand what the charges are for? (The latter means that accounting will bounce back the invoice requiring more of your client’s time.)
  • Does your definition of when a project is completed match the client’s?
  • Would your client say your communication and updates are “just right,” “too sporadic” or “overkill?”
  • Do your meetings start and finish on time which demonstrates respect for your client’s time? Or not…
  • Does your client leave meetings with you excited about the good work you’re doing together or anxious and overwhelmed?

What impressions are your day-to-day behaviors creating?  Are your “moments of truth” building trust or seeding a series of small frustrations that will grow into overall unhappiness?

Winning Ways for First Meetings

What were you thinking about during a recent first meeting with a prospective client? Were you listening intently or were you distracted by what you wanted to say?

I’ve been thinking about a great first meeting that I had with a prospective client last week. From the moment we sat down the conversation was off and running. The meeting was an important opportunity, but I resisted the natural pull to stay stuck in my own brain and instead focused on the other person. Reflecting back, the meeting’s success was due to two things: 1) Curiosity-fueled preparation and 2) Demonstrating (not telling) the ways in which I could be a helpful resource.

Curiosity-Fueled Preparation

  1. I read through the background information found on the company’s web-site and in a Google search, and profile information on LinkedIn, to learn about the other person and her company but also to identify what I didn’t know yet. Rather than plan out what I wanted to say about my business, I focused on what I wanted to ask about my prospect’s business.
  2. Armed with what I knew and what I wanted to know, I anticipated a few possible openers to kick off the conversation.

Demonstrating vs. Telling

  1. I built on my questions by sharing new perspectives and insights from my unique vantage point.
  2. I respected the prospective client’s expertise and demonstrated how my knowledge, expertise and experience complement it.
  3. I offered a sneak peak at what the prospect would experience when we work together: relevant suggestions, fresh thinking about her business and tips that will help her business be more successful.

Your next business lunch

Just for fun…the next time you’re in a restaurant on a weekday, observe the conversation of business people lunching nearby.  Chances are you’ll be able to spot the good listeners and those preoccupied with their own thoughts.


Contagious Handshakes: Reminding Managers to Pass it On

An editorial in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Handshakes: Good vibes can be contagious, was one of those feel-good reads. But more than that, the article is a great reminder for managers to pass along positive experiences that they are privileged to have.

In the article, students from a school in Massachusetts visited by President Obama who had the opportunity to shake the President’s hand are transmitting the experience by shaking hands with other students. “Hand to hand, the students linked themselves to each other and to the president who honored their school. There can be no better metaphor for what makes a successful school or community or society….”

In today’s workplace, managers are moving fast — so fast that they don’t always remember to share experiences they’re having that are relevant for their teams, such as company briefings or client feedback conversations. The decision they make to break the link by not passing along information is a lost opportunity to connect. Of course, managers are sometimes privy to conversations that can’t be shared, and I’m not suggesting that they breach confidences or share content not yet ready for public distribution. But in all other instances more communication, a stronger commitment to passing it on, can go a long way in boosting employees’ sense of community.  In the workplace, communication can be the “contagious handshake.”

Managers, motivation, delegation…and the Passover seder

What does the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover have to do with managers?

As Passover approaches, Jewish community leaders in Boston realized that one of the obstacles to young adults hosting their own seders (the traditional meal and ceremony) was that people just don’t know how to do it. With that one insight, www.JewishBoston.com had the idea to create a do-it-yourself kit for celebrating Passover that includes everything from the shopping list through the materials needed to lead a Passover seder on your own.

There are two lesson here for managers about motivation and delegation: 1) hone in on the most significant obstacles that might be keeping your team members from taking more initiative; and 2) offer support with a project’s daunting first steps.

Hone in on the right obstacles: There are lots of potential reasons why young Jewish adults might not be making the holiday on their own including the possibility that they’re just not interested. If there’s absolutely no interest, then all the support in the world may not make a difference. But if you focus on helping those people who want to do it but just don’t know how, then you’ve identified a problem for which you can create a solution!

Make the first steps less daunting: Very often team members get stuck at the very beginning of a project — overwhelmed by the complexity of a project or simply because they’ve never done anything like what they’re being asked to do. In the ideal delegation scenario a manager would say, “Now that we’ve discussed the context for the project, confirmed expectations and deadlines, let’s talk about how you might get started…” Or the manager might ask, “This is a large project. How can I help you jumpstart the effort?”  Or, “Given everything we’ve talked about, where do you think you’ll begin to get this project started?”

Good managers remove obstacles and offer support to help team members successfully take initiative.