What does it take?

Driving home this afternoon from having lunch with two of my favorite colleagues and friends, I was thinking … what does it take to be successful?

We’d talked about this at lunch – not directly, but indirectly in the things we said about our own businesses and about the people we meet at different types of networking events.

What does it take to make a difference?  (It’s the same question, really – just a slight shift in perspective.)

There are a lot of things one could say in answer to this question.

For me, it all boils down to one thing:  Follow-up.

Whether you’re following up with a person, an idea, a project, or a routine task, it’s the presence and quality of your follow-up that enables success and helps you make a difference.

What do you think?

gljudson Leadership

Your Mom Was Right (and why that’s relevant)

There are things almost every mother ends up saying to her children.  We recognize these pieces of advice and instruction as amusing mom-cliches simply because they’re used so routinely.  And like most cliches, these bits of motherhood wisdom hold a certain kernel of truth.

I noticed recently that many of them also apply to running a business.

So whether or not your mother ever said any of these things to you (and I’ll bet she said at least one or two of them!), I hope you enjoy this little journey through three pieces of “mom wisdom,” and that you find them helpful in your own business.

“If all the other kids jumped off a bridge…”

I have to believe that every child, at one point or another, says, “But Mo-oooom!  All the other kids are…” (fill in the current hot activity)

And Mom’s infuriating reply? “Yes, dear.  And if all the other kids jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?”

It’s natural to want to go with the crowd.  It makes you feel warm and secure and like one of the cool kids.  And if everyone else is doing it, it must be a good thing to do – right?

Not necessarily!  Just because you see others taking a particular approach or a fellow business owner recommends that you do something – whether it’s blogging, social media, creating video, or any other apparently hot must-do activity – doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Before you start any new tactic – or even continue an activity you’ve been working on for a while – stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it.

What result do you want?  And will this activity actually achieve that result?

A colleague asked me recently about a networking group a friend of hers had recommended.  I asked, “Who will you meet there, and are they your best audience?”  As simply as that, she saw through her urge to follow the crowd and recognized that although the group was right for her friend’s business, it might not be right for hers.

What are you doing – or considering doing – just because everyone else is doing it?

“Just be yourself, dear.”

I think we all remember the painful teenage desire to be popular.

And when we agonized about dates and dances and the prom, Mom’s advice was often, “Just be yourself, dear.”

Just be yourself.  As another old saying goes, everyone else is already taken!

Trying to be someone you’re not, in business as well as personally, simply doesn’t work.  We all know that, yet it can be difficult when you’re putting your business out there in the world.  It often feels startlingly vulnerable to just be yourself – and to just let your business be itself.

But the best way to gain customers’ trust is to let them see that you’re a real person, running a real business.  You have expertise; that’s what you’re offering to them, whether in a product or through your services.  And of course they expect you to know what you’re doing within your area of expertise.  But they don’t expect, don’t want, and will never believe that you’re flawless.  The drive for perfection is, ultimately, a drive to be someone other than who you actually are.

Being yourself doesn’t mean revealing private personal information.  It just means letting yourself be seen as a complete a human being – the unique and individual human being that you already are.

Which leads me to the third and final Mom-ism.

“There’s no one else just like you, my little snowflake!”

Okay, maybe she didn’t put it exactly like that!

Yet it’s more than just wishful parental thinking or rah-rah boosterism.  Every one of us really is unique, different from all the other billions of people on this planet.  We have our own unique brilliance, as well as our own unique flaws.  We may share skills or expertise with others – but how each of us employs those skills and implements that expertise is completely our own.

As a business owner, you bring your work to your customers in your own unique way.  Identifying what that unique way is – identifying the value you provide simply through that uniqueness – is what makes you stand out from the crowd of others who do similar work.  When you’re clear for yourself about that value, you can be clear in how you communicate it.  And then you send an unerring signal to your best clients that you’re the one for them.

I attended a conference session last year led by someone who does apparently similar work to mine.  Yet it was obvious to me that the people who are his best clients would be dreadfully unhappy with me – and vice versa.

Our styles are completely different.  Even though his customers and mine appear to be looking for the same results, the value we bring to our customers is uniquely our own.

Knowing the uniqueness of your business, the individual ways you provide value that no one else can ever match – that’s what makes your message ring loud, clear, and true for your best customers.  Whether you’re in touch with your own uniqueness or not, Mom was right:  it’s there.

She was right, too, that identifying that uniqueness requires stepping away from what everyone else is doing … and definitely requires being yourself!

“My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.”  Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain (1835-1910), American author and humorist.

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The potential cost of poor communication

I got an email from American Express on Thursday.  Seems my account had been compromised and there were fraudulent charges on my card.

Theft, in other words.

But this isn’t a story about theft, or even about my overwhelming curiosity about how in the world did they know those charges aren’t mine?  (Kind of creepy, really, even though it’s nice that they do know.)

In fact, it’s not a story about American Express at all, though I will say that their customer service is superb.

It’s about the ways businesses communicate with their customers.

There was one charge on my account that I couldn’t place.  It wasn’t very much – a $6.50 purchase through PayPal.  But apparently credit card thieves use small charges like that to test whether they’ve got a “live” card number or not, which is why the AmEx representative wanted me to verify it.

I couldn’t place it.  The company name wasn’t familiar to me.  The item purchased?  Not a clue from the transaction record.

I told AmEx it wasn’t mine, because I didn’t have any idea what it was.  Later that night, though, it suddenly dawned on me:  I’d bought a knitting pattern online over the weekend.  Oh, yeah.  I called AmEx back and told them to release that transaction from the fraud inquiry.

The point here is that you want to be crystal clear about who you are in every instance when you’re communicating with a customer – and especially when that communication has anything to do with money!  If I hadn’t remembered what that charge was and called back to reclaim it as something I should pay for, the author of the pattern would have been out his fee.

The chances that this will happen to your business – that your customer’s credit card will be hacked and that a payment to you will be denied – are obviously very slim.  And of course in this instance, $6.50 isn’t all that much.

But there’s much more at stake than just a $6.50 transaction.

Because ultimately this is about credibility and visibility.

You want to be viewed as a serious business – and you want your customers to know who you are.

Whether it’s your caller ID when you call them, the entry on their credit-card statement, your email address, or any other touch-point, you want them to be absolutely clear on who you are.  And you want them to be absolutely clear that who you are is wholly professional.

Where are your communication touch-points?

Are they completely clear?

And what are your experiences with other unclear communication from other businesses?

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Why ask why?

There’s an old saying:  when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Of course it’s obvious how ridiculous that is.  Anyone knows there are also screws as well as nails – and that screws don’t respond well to hammers, but work quite nicely with screwdrivers.

But as obvious as it is when we look at hammers, nails, screws, and screwdrivers, it’s all too easy to lose track of this in your business.

Recently a client mentioned that a colleague had told her she should sign up with a service to track social media exposure.  My immediate response was, “Why?  What does this achieve for you in your business?”

Like all of us, she has limited time, and she’s committed to putting that time where it will do the most good for herself, her business, and her clients.  Right now, social media is not a marketing tactic she’s interested in.  She prefers to focus on developing in-person relationships through networking events and fostering existing connections with clients and colleagues.

With this in mind, she agreed that signing up for a social-media-tracking dashboard didn’t make much sense for her.  And her comment was telling.  “The person who recommended it is a specialist in social media,” she said.  “That’s what he does for his clients – helps them establish a social media presence.”

If you’re interested in establishing a social media presence, it makes complete sense to hire someone to help – and to sign up for a dashboard to monitor your success.

But to suggest that she should sign up for that dashboard was a classic case of “everything looks like a nail.”  To push the metaphor just a bit, her colleague is a social media hammer, and therefore to him it makes sense that everyone ought to monitor their social media dashboard!

She’s not a social media expert, and although she’s been in business for years, she’s actually just beginning to establish an online presence with her website and blog.  So she was unsure enough – and as she’d be the first to agree, uneducated enough – to wonder (since he’s the expert!) if this dashboard was something she really did need.

This is natural.  As humans, we love authority figures – especially when we’re uncertain or anxious and trying hard to learn and succeed.

The difficulty arises when we love those authority figures so much that we forget to trust ourselves.  We forget to trust our own instincts and our own understanding of what our business really is.  We lose sight of our strategy, and we allow our priorities to be set by something other than that strategy.

And that’s why you must always ask why, even when that means challenging an authority in areas you feel you know nothing about.

Here are some ways to approach asking why in your own business.

It’s learning, not arguing

Sometimes asking “Why?” can be perceived as being argumentative.

If that’s how it feels to you, take a moment and step back!  You’re not disagreeing.  You’re asking for more information – you’re asking to learn.  And if the expert in question isn’t willing to teach, then that certainly tells you something about who they are.

Trust yourself

Trust your understanding of yourself and your clarity about your business to guide you.  If you don’t feel like you’re getting a good answer to “Why?” – trust that.  Don’t second-guess yourself.

And if you’re not clear about your business, then get clear.  Because you can’t succeed if you can’t trust your own understanding of yourself and your business over that of all the experts out there. You are the best expert there can be about your own business strategy.

Please note that I’m not saying don’t trust the experts – nor am I suggesting there aren’t times when everyone needs help.  I’m saying, trust yourself first.

And ask yourself too

Don’t just ask those external experts “Why?”  Ask yourself.

When you make a business decision, ask … why am I making this decision?

It used to be that I’d say “Yes!” to any speaking request I received.  If they wanted me, I was flattered, and I’d agree to be there.

That was appropriate when I was getting started, but one day I realized that it was leading me to do talks for groups that simply weren’t right for me.  Lovely people, in groups doing good work, but not strategically aligned with my business objectives.

In asking myself “Why am I saying ‘yes’ to these groups?” I realized that I could start saying, “No, I’m sorry, that’s not right for me.”  And it was a tremendous relief.

Of course, as I’ve already said, in order to ask “why” – whether of yourself or anyone else – you must have real clarity about your work.

Because when you don’t, you’ll never know if the answer to “why” is aligned with your business strategy … or not.

“Strategy is different from other things in that if you mistake your way of strategy even a little, you will become bewildered.”  Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), Japanese swordsman, samurai, and philosopher.  From A Book of Five Rings.

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Three Strategic Threesomes: 3 you need, 3 you don’t, and 3 ways you struggle

I was talking with a friend and colleague – and sometimes client – this morning about strategy.

He’s a Vistage chair here in San Diego.  (If you don’t know what Vistage is, you can check it out at http://www.vistage.com.)  We were talking about the difference between strategy and tactics, and why some people struggle with making day-to-day tactical decisions that align with their strategic business objectives.

My contention is that when you know your foundational strategy, the day-to-day decisions become obvious.

He was saying that people don’t necessarily make the connection between their basic strategy and how it informs their decision-making process.

I agree – up to a point.

Because if your strategy isn’t informing your day-to-day decision-making, then you don’t understand your strategy at the level you need to in order to succeed.

You may have a conceptual or theoretical understanding – but it’s not “baked in,” so to speak, at the blood-and-bone level.

And if you’re in business for yourself, you need to have that blood-and-bone understanding.

Ultimately, strategy is more important than branding, or a business plan, or an elevator pitch.  Because ultimately, strategy requires you to understand three things.

  1. Yourself.  Why are you in business?  Why are you in this business?  What does it really mean to you, and do for you?
  2. Your business.  What is it that you do – really?  (And if you think this is a stupid question, just go to any networking event and listen to people struggle to describe their work in ways that make sense to the average listener.)
  3. Your customers.  Who are they – and what is it they really get from your service or product?  (Very, very few – almost no – business owners understand the actual value their customers receive.  You think you know, but I’d be willing to bet you don’t know half of it!)

You can brand yourself, you can write a business plan, and you can wordsmith an elevator pitch – without ever deeply understanding these three things.

And as long as you don’t understand those three things, you’ll struggle.

You’ll struggle to make decisions – because you won’t know how each decision brings you closer to yourself, your business, and your customers, or takes you further away.

You’ll struggle to market your business – because you won’t have the unswerving confidence you get when you  understand who your customers are and what you really do for them.

And you’ll struggle to make sales – because you won’t be conveying a crisp, clear message that speaks directly to your customers’ heart, gut, and mind.

What do you think?

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Are you a leader?

If you’re in business for yourself – really in business for yourself, rather than exploring a hobby or developing a support network for yourself – then yes:  you’re a leader.

You’re a leader for your clients and customers, whether they’re buying nine-dollar e-books, thousand-dollar coaching packages, or ten-thousand-dollar consulting engagements – and anything in between, below, or above.

You’re a leader for your friends and family, who look to you for inspiration and who – even when they worry about the risks any small business owner takes – are proud of you and awed by your determination, resilience, and creativity.

You’re a leader for the people in your network, the ones you support with referrals and recommendations for resources, the ones who rely on you for ideas and a willingness to listen.

You’re a leader for those on whom you rely for help and a shoulder to cry on when things seem hard.

If you have any sort of online presence at all – a website, with or without a blog, with or without social media activity – you’re a leader for anyone who clicks onto your site and reads a few sentences … and goes away with a little more insight, a little more hope, a little more understanding.  Even if they never come back again, and even if they never buy from you.

And you’re a leader for people who see your business and dream of – and take steps towards – developing their own because of something you, and others like you, inspired.

I recently read a book given to me by someone I originally met a number of years ago.  It was a virtual meeting, through email somehow, though I don’t remember exactly when or how it happened.

Steve is an Army Major who has served multiple tours in Iraq and, most recently, in Afghanistan; in fact, he’s on his way home from Afghanistan even as I type this.  I haven’t asked his permission to publish his full name here, so I won’t (though I’ll send him a link and invite him to comment!).

Before he left on his latest tour of duty, he happened to be in Los Angeles for a training course, and I drove up to meet him for a highly enjoyable lunch.  He gave me a copy of In Extremis Leadership:  Leading as if Your Life Depended On It, by Thomas A. Kolditz.  I’m embarrassed at how long it took for me to actually read it, but in the end – of course – I read it at the perfect time.

I won’t deny the book was a little difficult for me to get into, but once I was past the first few chapters, I was hooked.  Kolditz uses examples from the military, police, fire, and skydiving to demonstrate how leadership in these situations – what he calls in extremis leadership – have certain characteristics that create better leaders than the traditional leadership development approaches in business.

Steve is a leader, and not just because he’s in the military; I think it’s something that comes naturally to him.  Steve and his wife lead by example, and part of his leadership has involved allowing himself to be an example, through the work he does above and beyond his military service and the ways in which he shows (not just tells) people what he and his wife are up to.  I admire how Steve consistently shows up as a leader – and shows up with a sense of humor despite grueling work schedules in difficult and dangerous environments.

Reading this book, I was brought to realize the ways in which those of us in business for ourselves really are leaders, and how that means we have a responsibility to those whom we inspire through our work – and, like Steve, through showing up as who we are.

We may be individuals working alone from our home offices, or we may have employees.  It doesn’t really matter.  We’re leaders, and for me, at least, viewing it from this perspective creates a distinct shift in my understanding of my relationship to my clients, my colleagues, and my network as a whole.

Thanks, Steve, for the book – and for your service and your leadership.

gljudson Leadership

Got time for that?

“Not enough time” is a reason for not doing an enormous number of things.

I’m convinced it’s 99% untrue.

Seems to me … we do what we really want to do.

So don’t tell me what you don’t have time for.

Tell me what you do have time for.

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Strategy. It’s sexier than you think.

Strategy.

After asking around a bit, I’m pretty much convinced that most people don’t really know what it is.

I’m also pretty sure that a lot of small business owners and independents secretly believe it’s not necessary.  That it belongs in big corporate boardrooms and gets developed on expensive corporate retreats … and that it ultimately doesn’t amount to much but a lot of hot air and hand-waving.

If you’ve spent time as a corporate employee, or if you’ve been reading the business news over the last few years, I can hardly blame you for thinking that way.  Hey, up until fairly recently, I’d’ve agreed with you.

But then I began realizing something.

I began realizing that my ability to make clear decisions about (for instance) what speaking engagements to accept, and which ones to turn down … about what networking events to attend, and which I can safely skip … about who’s a good referral partner and who might not be …

All those decisions – decisions I used to wrestle with – became instantly clear when I looked at them strategically.

I began noticing that my work with clients – defining their services, helping them find crystal clarity about who their best clients are – is really strategic work, and that it results in their being able to make better decisions as well.  And – as they’ve repeatedly told me – results in greater focus on what they really want to do, and significantly more confidence about the true value of their work.

The dictionary defines strategy as “a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result: a strategy for getting ahead in the world.”

I say it goes a LOT farther than that.

I say it’s the foundation and guiding principle of my business.  It’s what I need to understand in order to make clear decisions about what projects to take on, which clients to work with, and who I want to connect with.

Knowing my strategy means I have certainty and confidence.  I know what I need to know to be successful.

Instead of being dry and dusty, strategy provides my business with vitality, purpose, direction – and most of all, with ease.

And that makes strategy a whole lot sexier than I ever expected.

What about you?

gljudson Leadership

Staving off New Year’s planning overwhelm

Show me a small business owner, and I’ll show you someone who’s been making plans, setting goals, and dreaming dreams.

That’s what happens during this transition from one year to the next.

Excitement runs high.  The struggles of the previous year are set aside.  The new year lies ahead like a field of fresh snow, trackless and pristine.

And then overwhelm creeps in.  Memories of what you didn’t get done last year start to dim your excitement.  You notice that January is half gone – 1/24th of the year is over! – and your focus begins faltering.

How can you be feeling behind already?

If this seems familiar, it’s okay.  You’re far from alone.  It’s just New Year’s Planning Overwhelm – a common experience for small business owners at this time of year.

Here are a few ways to slow down, settle down, and stave off the overwhelm.

What needs attention?

In the inspiration of planning and beginning new projects, it’s easy to forget that your business still needs the same day-to-day work to keep going.

Your excitement for those new projects can urge you into amazing feats of productivity.  And you need to harness some of that energy to keep up with the routine tasks that keep your business afloat.

Sending out invoices, meeting with long-term clients, going to networking events, and doing your bookkeeping and filing – in some ways, these things need more attention, not less, at this time of year.

By all means, enjoy the thrill of those new endeavors.  They’re a crucial part of growing your business – and the excitement is invigorating.  But save some of your time and energy for the ongoing routine work.  Because if you don’t, you’ll quickly find yourself feeling exhausted, behind schedule, and – you guessed it – overwhelmed.

Projects versus tasks

Brainstorming and planning create big ideas and big projects.

Then when things settle down, those big projects start looking like Mount Everest:  VERY large and looming.

But no one climbs Mount Everest in a single bound.  There are a myriad individual tasks – one foot in front of the other – that go into a successful ascent.

If something on your to-do list feels huge and overwhelming, that might be because it is.  It doesn’t mean you’re procrastinating, or lazy, or that you’ve lost your enthusiasm.  It just means you’ve put a project on your list, instead of a task.

What’s the smallest next step you can take?  When you break down those big projects into individual, incremental tasks, you’ll be much more productive – and you’ll feel a lot less overwhelmed.

Hold your plans lightly

Plans are great for getting started, and they’re necessary for keeping track of details.  Yet plans can also limit your perspective.  Tying yourself to a particular course of action just because you’re following the plan is an invitation to overwhelm.

Your business, and all the projects you’re working on, have their own pace – and that may not be what you expect.

Don’t assume you know what will happen.  You really only know what you believe or hope will happen.

That doesn’t mean giving up on planning and schedules – far from it.  It does mean easing up on the struggle to keep things under control and to know exactly where you’re going and how and when you’ll arrive.

Hold your plans lightly. Allow them to evolve and change.  When you allow flexibility to play a role in your business, you’ll have more fun, feel less overwhelmed – and arrive at better, more interesting results.

Be curious

Approach the year ahead with curiosity.  That snowy field hides many surprises.  Your trip across it won’t be in a straight line – and you’ll meet many experiences and people that you can’t even dream of, standing here on the edge.

Be curious.  Explore the unexpected.  Take your time.  And enjoy the journey!

“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”  Thomas A. Edison, 1847-1931, American inventor, scientist, and businessman

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  John Lennon, 1940-1980, English musician and singer-songwriter; from “Beautiful Boy”

“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”  E.B. White, 1899-1985, American author of children’s books (most notably Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web) and co-author of The Elements of Style

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890-1969, five-star general and 34th President of the United States.

“Adventure is just bad planning.”  Roald Amundsen, 1872-1928, Norwegian polar explorer.

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The Power of Gradual

This post originally appeared in my newsletter.

If you’re like most people, you want change and progress to be big, obvious, and fast.

Yet real, lasting change and progress is seldom big, or obvious – and it’s almost never fast.

It’s gradual.  Incremental.

Waves take years to shape jagged, broken bits into the beautiful, rounded forms of beach glass.  And it might be cliche to say that oak trees take decades to grow from acorns – but it’s true, nonetheless.

At this season, you may be looking back at the year that’s past, evaluating how you feel about it, comparing your expectations and goals from the beginning of the year to what actually happened.

Let go of those comparisons.  Let go of the judgments that inevitably come up when you make those comparisons. 

And instead, take a deeper look at what actually happened this year.  Take a look at the surprises, the unexpected experiences, and the ways those surprises and experiences helped create gradual change and incremental progress for you.  Change and progress that you may have been unaware of, simply because it was so gradual.

Here are a few ways to do this.

Notice subtlety

As I’ve said, progress happens gradually.  When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to notice.

I see it in my clients all the time.  When I ask them to look back, to notice where they were six months or a year prior, and compare it to where they are now, they’re often startled – and moved – by how far they’ve come.

What subtle changes have happened for you over the year? What progress has occurred that you haven’t noticed – and that you might not have taken full advantage of, or given yourself full credit for?

Acknowledge yourself

Challenges arose during the year that you could never have anticipated.  And you met those challenges.

Acknowledge your courage.  Notice the many things you managed, handled, accepted, coped with, and excelled at during the year. 

If those challenges seemed to be off-track – unrelated to what you thought you wanted to do and accomplish – you might have overlooked how you were strong, the ways in which you grew, the skills and talents you developed, and the love and appreciation you experienced.

Often what you might think are distractions from the path you expected to be following turn out to be key aspects of life.  So in looking back, consider what life might be asking you to pay attention to going forwards.

Go with the flow

When you notice how life is moving, the direction it seems to be flowing in, opportunities naturally open up for you. 

When you pay attention to what’s really happening, instead of what you think should be happening, or even what you believe you want to happen, the power and natural intelligence of life becomes available to you.

The whitewater rafter doesn’t use brute force or willpower to get the raft down the river safely.

He uses his observation of how the water is actually flowing to help him understand what direction to paddle in.

He knows that fighting the flow, insisting that it be different than it really is, will only get him wet (and possibly drowned).

Just because you can’t see the flow of life in the same way as the rafter sees the flow of water doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Let go of your assumptions and expectations.

Pay attention.

I can tell you from personal experience as well as from the experiences of my clients … it’s a lot more fun, a lot more satisfying, and a lot more productive.

“I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.”  Joanna Field – pseudonym of Marion Milner, 1900-1998, British author and psychoanalyst and pioneer of introspective journaling.

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