As a leader, you might think you should have everything figured out already, but this simply isn’t true. While all of us have our own talents, leadership skills are often something we have to learn along the way.
Enter the business coach. A business coach oversees and guides a manager or founder in starting, growing or developing a business. Like a sports coach, a business coach’s job is to help you develop the skills and resources you need in order to be successful.
Whether you’re overwhelmed, in need of advice, or want to see better results — below, eight members from Forbes Coaches Council explain the No. 1 sign to seek out a business coach.
1. You Are Overwhelmed
The No. 1 sign that it’s time for a coach is when you hit that feeling of being overwhelmed. You are overwhelmed by feeling like there is too much to do and too little hours in the day. You are overwhelmed by not knowing how much profit you are making at the end of your month. And you are overwhelmed because you don’t feel like you have control of your business, your employees or your vendors. — Terra Bohlmann, BrightBound
2. You Need a Confidant to Talk About Your Business With
Standing center stage holds an expectation for excellence. Who can you trust to speak without feeling exposed, or impairing your credibility or reputation within the organization or its clients? How would it feel to have a safe sounding board for honest feedback on your ideas and a partner to support you in the process of design, implementation and evaluation? Time to hire a coach! — Donna Spina, Coaching InDeed Inc.
3. You Intellectually Know What to Do But Don’t Do It
You need a coach when you “know” what to do but don’t implement. Lack of change typically occurs because you need to experience some paradigm shifts that require someone with an outside perspective challenging your assumptions and because you need someone to help you translate general principles into specific steps that you can take in your own life. — Elizabeth Saunders, Real Life E
4. You Aren’t Getting the Results You Want
Sometimes we think we know the right path to take in our career growth or business growth, but we come to find it isn’t working. In order to get results we want, we may need guidance from someone who can see things from a more objective view, not a subjective view. Turning to a business coach can increase ROI, surge active engagement, and allow one to remove obstacles that are precluding results. — Wendi Weiner, JD, NCRW, CPRW, CCM, The Writing Guru
5. You Want to Save Time and Money
If you’re business or thinking about starting a business and thinking, “Wow, I could really use someone to help me figure out the best way to do this,” you should be considering getting a coach. Going the “lone wolf” route can cost much more in wasted time and money, and that can all be avoided by working with an excellent coach. — Tina Dietz, StartSomething/Tina Dietz Business Development
6. You Find Yourself Listening Only To Your Own Ideas
The No. 1 sign you need to hire a business coach is when you find yourself only listening to your own ideas. The higher up the ladder you are, the more people tend not to be honest and just comply. The same thing can happen to entrepreneurs because they have a tendency to work alone; they have the tendency to only hear their own ideas. We all need checks and balances. A coach can help you. — Dr. Cherry Collier, Personality Matters, INC.
7. You’re Feeling Stuck and Frustrated by Others
My clients often have a similar story reappearing in their lives in different ways. A great time to work with an executive coach is when you find yourself repeatedly frustrated by others around you at work, or if you can see that you have some unhealthy workplace dynamics, but you’re not sure how to really shift them. The unbiased perspective of a coach can be just what that executive needs. — Jo Ilfeld, Success Reboot
8. You Want Your Company to Grow
If you’re alive and breathing as an entrepreneur, you need a coach. I’m not only a coach, I’m also the CEO of a company of 40 people. I’ve hired half a dozen coaches, been the beneficiary of a couple dozen mentors, and worked with multiple therapists. Your companies only expand at the rate of your own growth. Find a coach you can rely on and get to work. The ROI is ridiculous. — Corey Blake, Round Table Companies
I was listening to my favorite sports radio station when I heard: “Up next we will discuss Jon Gruden’s new $100 million contract to coach the Oakland Raiders.” Did I hear that right? Yes indeed, the Raiders are making a 10 year, $100 million commitment to their new head coach. Talk about a ringing endorsement for the coaching profession.
Sports teams are seeing the value in having great coaches lead them: in hockey the Toronto Maple Leafs made a long term investment in Mike Babcock, and Phil Jackson was also well compensated for his work building championship teams.
It’s not uncommon for coaches to be paid more than the players they are coaching. And this makes perfect business sense to me. If you invest a lot in building a strong a group of talented players, why wouldn’t you invest in a coach to lead them to success?
With the Olympics underway, can you imagine any world class athlete not having a coach, or a group of coaches?
The same rings true in the corporate world. Your company invests a tremendous amount of resources in finding, engaging and keeping strong employees. But do we invest in the leaders who will be coaching them? Famous leaders like Jeff Bezos, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs all had great coaches in their corner.
Take a moment right now to think about someone who made you better. They could be a mentor, boss, friend, teacher, or coach. The truth is that your best chance at becoming the greatest version of yourself is to be supported, and pushed, by someone else.
Think of a great coach as Sherpa or guide, there with you every step of the way. Seeing new possibilities and moving you into action. It’s someone in your corner to be brutally honest with, that listens, and customizes a plan of action to meet your needs.
Now I know what you‘re thinking: “what a surprise, a business coach is telling me why I need a coach.” Fair enough, it’s a bit like a car salesman telling you that you’d look great in a new car.
But the truth is I didn’t always have this belief: there was a time when I was actually resistant to getting real, honest feedback. I often lied to myself and said things like “I’m doing well, I’m good at what I do.” Or the worst lie, “I don’t need any help.” Like asking for help was a sign of weakness.
I was hiding, and that was not only hurting me, but everyone around me—personally and professionally.
Being honest with yourself is not for the faint of heart: it exposes you and makes you vulnerable. But it’s also where all the growth is.
Whether you hire a coach or not, there is tremendous benefit to adopting a coaching mindset. Embracing coaching principles can help you make your future bigger than your past.
Listed below are what I have experienced as the top three benefits on having coach. And if hiring a coach is not an option for you right now, for each point I will offer an alternative to get you started.
1) Asking Questions that Bring You Closer to Your Vision
“If we were meeting here one year from today, and you were to look back over the year, what has to have happened during that period for you to feel happy about your progress?”
Your answer is your vision.
Of course, it’s one thing to answer a question thoughtfully, and another thing to turn that vision into reality. When you’re heads down in your day-to-day, juggling meetings, putting out fires, and responding to a barrage of emails/messages, it can be difficult to align your actions to your vision. A good coach will help guide you toward your goals.
Asking for help is an act of courage and true leadership. A great coach will help you support your vision, move you into action, and hold you accountable. They are in your corner every step of the way.
Three months into working with a new client, she told me: “My team keeps asking what’s different with me. I’m happier, more productive, and smashing our goals. That’s when I knew the value of having a great coach!”
If you’d like to be a more effective coach for your team, or just learn more about coaching, two great books to get you started are:
2) Real Feedback and Unbiased Opinions
The higher you climb in most organizations, the lonelier it is. Many leaders I work with feel they can’t share what keeps them up at night, or admit that they don’t know the answer to everything.
With a coach they have permission to cut the BS and be honest. The experienced and unbiased perspective of a coach can expose your blind spots, and open you up to new possibilities.
Part of my process involves asking the following questions:
- What are your goals for the year and quarter?
- Where are you spending your time daily?
- What skills are you exceptional at?
Then I work with my client to create a plan to increase the amount of time invested in the areas where they excel.
I was once working with a sales rep, “Joe,” in the field. We were driving to a client meeting when the national boss called. Joe put the boss on speaker and let him know I was in the car.
I knew the boss well and asked him a few questions: “What does success look like for Joe at the end of the month?” He answered with a sales target—to be expected. “What’s the number one thing Joe needs to do to reach that goal?” More one-on-one meetings, the clients love Joe, and love meeting with him. Ok, so: “If that’s the case, why are you making him spend more than half of his day on conference calls, filling out forms and other activities that take him away from the real goal?”
Silence. Followed by the response, “Good point, I hadn’t thought of that.“
We hung up and Joe thanked me. He didn’t feel that he could speak to his boss so frankly, which is a big part of the problem. A good coach can ask you the tough questions to help you find the highest value activities for you and your team.
If you’re not ready to hire a coach, schedule time with a co-worker or friend to ask each other about your goals, how you’re spending your time, and what you are exceptional at. Commit to making one small change as a result of your discussion, and follow up with them in a few weeks.
3) Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
It’s hard for most people to admit, but I’ve noticed that many people would rather stay stuck (or even miserable), than make the effort to change their circumstances. I call this phenomenon “comfortable misery.” Let me explain.
A few years back I was asked to speak to a team that worked together. Morale was at an all time low. The manager hoped I could help get them out of their funk.
I started the session by asking two questions:
- What’s working well right now?
- What’s not working well right now?
When I asked the first question, everyone in the room started studying their shoes. Silence. So I moved quickly to question #2.
27 minutes and 6 flip charts of grievances later, we stopped. No wonder there was low morale! We circled their top 5 concerns, and started to discuss some small changes they could make to improve. They had some really great ideas.
But then one member of the group, visibly concerned, pleaded with me loudly: “Don’t come in here and start changing things!” This was right after 27 minutes of sharing what was making them miserable.
The group, or at least that one person in the group, was choosing to be miserable over making change.
Change is uncomfortable. You have to move out of your comfort zone and be willing to confront the ways that you are contributing to your own circumstances. This principle can apply to any area of your life: work, fitness, relationships, etc. A good coach can help you recognize when you are getting too comfortable in your misery and help you get unstuck, back in motion toward pursuing your true vision.
“There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”
—Dr. B.J. Fogg, Director of Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab
Everything is an environment. The people you hang out with, your thoughts, your physical space, the books you read—all affect how you perceive and react to the world. If you don’t have a coach to help push you out of your comfort zone, making a deliberate change to your environment can help you overcome the challenges of of change.
One of the most fun ways to change your environment is to host a dinner party or mastermind group with friends, and have each friend bring someone new to the party. Come with an open mind and ask some great questions, and let the fun and magic happen.
I’ve had a business coach for the last 8 years, and I admit there were times that I couldn’t afford it. But they have made me better, uncovered my blind spots, moved me into action, and played a huge part in helping me create a life I love.
A coach can help you get your life back, become an even more respected leader at work and home, achieve results like never before, and better enjoy free time. All while escaping the hamster wheel of day-to-day activities many of us are stuck on.
If hiring a coach is not in the cards for you right now, there is tremendous benefit in developing a coaching mindset and playing with the exercises above.
The most important investment we can make is in ourselves, and I can’t quite believe I am citing lyrics from Fifth Harmony as life advice, but “Baby, I’m Worth It.”
Think about the most enjoyable business relationships you’ve had. I am going to bet that you shared similar values, expectations, and more.
I have been happily married for over 18 years, so I don’t know that much about online dating sites. About ten years ago my goalie in hockey starting dating someone and it quickly became serious (they have since married). Over drinks after a game I asked them where they met. They sheepishly exchanged glances and whispered “online,” like it was some dirty secret. Since then many of my friends have found their life partners online.
When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. People with similar interests, values, and expectations for the future have a much better chance at long term success. Using the tools available to screen potential partners for common values and interests before investing time in meeting them is more than reasonable.
When we start having honest conversations at the beginning of a relationship (and of course, throughout the partnership), I really believe it serves both parties. Let’s share our beliefs and values upfront and it will save everyone lots of future frustration.
When I started my journey as an entrepreneur, I was just so happy to find anyone that would actually pay me for my services. It was like, they are going to send a cheque? Whoo hoo, awesome. To extend the online dating metaphor, it was the equivalent of accepting a date with anyone who said yes, without reading their profile or thinking about what I hoped to get out of the relationship.
The problem was that I was not a good fit for many of my clients, and they were not a great fit for me. And what happens when you stay in a relationship that isn’t working for either side? Nobody wins.
Think about the instances in business where each side has a tendency to withhold information. In the hiring process, if both sides avoid big discussions like salary expectations or frank conversations about the company culture, it extends the process unnecessarily and nobody wins. Or when you are hiring vendors or consultants, not understanding how they work or how they bill, and having unclear expectations, can lead to disastrous results.
One of the most influential business books that had a major and immediate impact on my business many years ago was Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port. It was a real game changer for me. In it, Port talks about developing your “Red Velvet Rope Policy.” Simply put, as a business owner, who are the clients you love working with, and who in turn love working with you? What traits do they have that you absolutely love and make them a great fit to work with? What are the deal breakers that clearly indicate a bad fit?
My goal here is not to waste a potential client’s time or mine, and that starts with getting to know each other a lot better. If we are not a great fit, no problem at all, we can continue our search for a more suitable partner. If we are, fantastic. Let’s start a conversation.
With that in mind here are my business turn ons and turn offs. I use this list to help me evaluate fit for potential clients, but a similar list can help you to determine potential fit for any new (or ongoing) business relationships:
Willingness to Try New Things
If you want new results you have to be willing to try new things—which also means that you have to be willing to fail from time to time.
They Love Their Customers and SHOW It
They actually have a meaningful relationship with their customer after the sale and genuinely care about their customer’s success. And they show it through their actions (not just their words).
They Invest in Their Employees
They care about employees and invest in them. That could involve a professional and personal development plan or coaching.
Too Many “Experts”
Don’t get me wrong, experience in an industry is great. But relying too heavily on expertise, or being unwilling to bring in fresh eyes can lead to a serious lack of new ideas.
Having too many card carrying members of the CYA Club, or overly rigid decision making processes is an innovation and creativity killer.
Arrogance & Abuse of The Customer
This is one that really gets my blood boiling. Treating customers like a line item in a budget, assuming that you always know what’s best for your partners, or acting as though you’re more important than others is a quick way to send me running for the door.
As you enter into new professional relationships and partnerships, whether it’s hiring a new team member, bringing on a coach or consultant, or working with a new vendor, I urge you to write your own list of must haves and deal breakers. And at the start of a new relationship, ask people to share their own ideas and lists as well. It’s a clarifying exercise that can save a lot of time and energy down the road, and build a foundation for more productive relationships.
What is really boils down to for me is the power of having honest conversations right from the beginning of the relationship. The cost of not being honest upfront is wasted time, energy, and money.
Whether you meet a new partner (in business or in life) the “old fashioned way,” or connect online, the power of laying your cards on the table right from the beginning cannot be overstated. Understanding how your values align (or don’t) right from the start means that you save time and energy down the road, and allows you to build relationships that work.
It starts with a text message or email saying: “Can we meet for coffee or lunch? I want to pick your brain on something.”
What this message really means is: “I am stuck and would love to get professional coaching from someone I respect and is really good at solving business problems. I would like this for the price of a coffee or lunch, and after I get your advice I will have no idea how to implement it, and will likely go back to the same thinking as before.”
Hmm, let me check my calendar and see if I can fit you in.
Let me be clear, I love going out for lunch, coffee, or drinks—and talking about what challenges friends and colleagues are facing at work. Love it, when the relationship is one of mutual respect.
Encounters like this remind me of the saying: “your actions are so loud, I can’t hear what you’re saying.” On the one hand you are saying you value my time and coaching, but your actions show that you don’t really care about creating meaningful change.
Imagine if I called a professional sales rep and said, “Hey can you sell for me, and instead of a salary or commission, I’ll buy you lunch?” I’d be (rightly) laughed off the phone.
The brutal truth is that for many years I allowed this. I take full responsibility for creating this monster. But no more.
I am proud to call myself a business coach, and a pretty damn good one. I love working with my clients and they love the results and experience they get working with me.
Coaching is a profession I have worked really hard at. I have invested a tremendous amount of money hiring my own coaches, and I would not be where I am today without their amazing guidance, expertise, and support.
Look at any successful athlete or business leader, and you can guess they have had—and continue to have—coaches. Check out any professional team and look at how many coaches they have.
The problem with getting free lunch coaching is: it doesn’t get results.
We want the ideas for free, and for someone to help us out in the moment of crisis, but not to actually follow through. Contacts reach out to me at the moment they have a problem, but without a plan to follow through, they abandon new thinking the moment the problem loses its urgency. When you invest in something, you’re going to be a lot more likely to follow through.
A business leader I deeply respect once ended a presentation with this story:
“Imagine the traditional American breakfast served at a diner, it’s usually bacon and eggs.” He showed a picture on the screen and said, “the chicken is interested but the pig is invested.”
Are you invested in creating lasting change in your organization, or simply kind of of interested? If you want meaningful change, you need to invest a meaningful ways.
Now, before I agree to meet with someone, I ask them to spend some time answering the following questions:
- Why did you reach out to me?
- Do you have a clearly defined outcome for you and/or your team?
- What are you stuck on?
- Are you the chicken or the pig (are you interested, or invested)?
- What, if anything, have you tried so far?
- Think of a time in your life when you successfully solved a problem. What steps did you take?
- Have you invested in reading books, looking for resources, etc. on the topic?
- Do you really want change?
- How do you define meaningful change?
Getting clear on the answers to these questions reveals how committed a contact is to change. The answer to question five is particularly telling: if the response is “nothing,” or “reaching out to you for advice,” I know that they probably aren’t truly invested.
If you’re serious about making a change, for your organization, your team, or yourself, make an investment of your time and your energy (and yes, of your cash) to make it happen.
Here are three ways to get started:
1) Return to A Beginner’s Mind
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” -Shunryu Suzuki
Very often when people encounter a roadblock, they seek the input of the people closest to them. Have you ever been in a “brainstorming” session at your office? How did it go? Granted there is some value in these sessions, but putting a group of “experts” together rarely brings any breakthrough ideas. The main reason is that everyone is looking through the same lens.
Can you think of a time when you saw a product or service and thought to yourself “It’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that?”
Dollar Shave Club, Airbnb, Amazon, and Netflix are just a few examples of hugely successful companies that created a new model by returning to a beginner’s mind.
The easy way to get started is to clearly define your challenge, and ask people outside of your industry for advice—make it a game for them.
2) Ask Better Questions
In my spare time I run a program for fourth graders that have never played hockey before (believe it or not 9 out of 10 Canadians do not play hockey). When I work with the children there is never a shortage of great questions. Kids love asking questions and are naturally curious. Adults, on the other hand, unfortunately don’t ask nearly enough questions, and the questions we avoid are the biggest ones.
There is a great book called A More Beautiful Question. I highly suggest reading it.
Some of the great questions listed in the book for businesses to ask are:
- What if our company didn’t exist?
- What if we became a cause and not just a company?
- How might we create a culture of inquiry?
- Should mission statements be mission questions?
- Why do smart business people screw up?
Take time with your team to answer these questions. And keep them handy—they’re great networking conversation starters as well.
3) Identify the Gap
Where are you now and where are you stuck? Where do you want to go (or, what is the ideal outcome)? What is the gap between the answers to these two questions? What resources or people can you enlist to assist in bridging the gap? Call them immediately.
I have a coaching client that is a Senior Executive for a company in the US. On a coaching call she said “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I will never have you come here and work with my team. They love the new me, full of creativity and new action, and they love the results. Why mess with that?”
I loved that comment, as she had clearly identified the gap between where she was and where she wanted to go—and I felt fortunate to help her bridge that gap.
Free Doesn’t Work
Over the years I have been asked by a number of friends if I can coach them. I said yes to everyone, free of charge of course, that’s what friends are for.
Although they all experienced some progress, it was nowhere near the results that my paid clients achieved.
We value what we invest in.
If you are invested in making serious change, show me, I’m all ears.
I’m a behavior change expert. But I didn’t always know how to describe myself.
I often find myself in new situations, meeting new people. Whether it’s with a new client I am working with, at a conference, or at a cocktail party, I love meeting new people. But for years I have struggled with the first question many people ask, the dreaded “so what do you do for a living?”
I guess it’s a North American thing. I much prefer questions like: “what are you excited about right now?” What do you love doing on the weekends?” “What topic can you talk about endlessly?”
I guess the reason why I didn’t like the first question was I never knew how to answer it. I was always jealous of the people who could clearly answer the question in one word: I’m a banker, lawyer, teacher, nurse.
I usually tried to be witty and say something like “depends on the day.” One day I am a keynote speaker, another day a coach or advocate.
Recently, I was at a retreat for business owners, the 2nd Annual Actionable Partner Summit. In one of the sessions we were asked to define our superpowers, or put another way, to answer the question, why do clients hire you?
Fantastic question that really got me thinking. After writing down a few words like trust, problem solving, getting results—it came to me. The core of everything I do is: changing people’s behavior to get them (and their team) measurable results.
Damn it, I am a behavior change expert and I never even shared that with others.
It really is at the core of everything I do, whether it’s coaching a client and moving them into action, changing the thinking and actions of a corporate team, or working with the children’s hockey program I run.
With that in mind here are three ways to kickstart behavior change for you and your team:
1) Ask Yourself Big Questions to Get Clarity
I strongly believe that the answers we get in life are only as good as the questions we ask. We all want to be heard and understood, yet a cardinal rule that is often broken in sales conversations is “listen more, talk less.” That can be challenging for someone like me that speaks for a living.
I have experimented with asking a variety of questions to clients, and an all time favorite comes from Dan Sullivan. The question is:
“If we were meeting here 3 years from today and you were to look back over that time, what has to have happened during that period, both personally and professionally, for you to feel happy about your progress?”
Asking someone this question is a gift to them. Most often the immediate response I get is “that is a great question.” This question provides the person an opportunity to really focus on what they want in the future, and gives them a brief vacation from the now. Immediately they can get a sense of if they are on the right track, or need to recalculate.
Clarity is what we want for ourselves and our organizations, and it is the critical first step in behavior change. Resistance to change is often the result of unclear goals.
2) New Environments = New Results
If you have read my previous posts you have heard me rave about the importance of changing your environments to change your results. No different here.
One of the world’s leading authorities on behavior change and one of the top corporate coaches in the world is Marshall Goldsmith, author of Triggers.
Goldsmith suggests looking at our environment as if it was a person. Can you think of a co-worker, past or present that just seemed to rub you the wrong way? I know I can. If I was going to be in a meeting with this person in the morning, I noticed how I was reacting long before the meeting started. In the car on the way there I was already getting defensive, upset and thinking of what to say to them. This is far from me at my best. The problem was not the person, but my reactions to them. When prompted by a good friend to think about that person through a different lens—the things I respected about them, how they made our team better, etc.—my response immediately changed and so did the relationship.
Remember, everything from our thoughts, beliefs, people we hang out with, and the physical places we inhabit, are environments. Think back to the last time you were travelling to a city for the first time. Did you see things with a fresh pair of eyes? Did you get curious and start asking questions? Or how about the last time you were talking to people outside your industry? I bet you came up with new ideas and perspectives.
Being intentional about changing your environments is key to changing your behavior.
3) Learn Less, Apply More
For many years I have been an avid reader of business books. I love learning new ways to do business from leaders from around the world. I could sound “smart” at a cocktail party, showing off how much I knew.
Problem was for many years I “knew” a lot, but didn’t follow through with behavior change from the lessons I learned. Knowing and doing are two very different things. We don’t have a knowledge problem, we have a taking action problem.
My advice: read less, apply more. When I learn something new of interest, I immediately ask “how can I can apply this?”
Two years ago a good friend of mine told me: “I love going to events you host, and meeting such interesting people. I always walk away inspired and with new ideas, I just wish you hosted more events”
Interesting. So I asked her a few more questions and found out that she loved sharing and learning from people in other industries. She liked that she was talking to people who had a relationship with me, as she felt an immediate trust and bond.
So what did I do? I invited 10 cool people to my first ever group leadership program. The first steps were scary as hell—but 18 months later my clients love it and get results.
It’s funny, the clarity I got about answering the question “what do you do for a living?” came as a direct result of these three takeaways (and I didn’t even realize it). The group leader of the superpowers exercise started by asking us great questions like: “why do clients hire you?” “what is the outcome you produce?” “how do they feel about working with you?”
My answers came as a direct result of those questions, not to mention that I was in new environment, at a super cool conference centre meeting new business leaders. And finally, if they gave us a book on defining our superpowers and asked us to read it, I can honestly say I would not have gotten the same result. Learning more was not the issue, the action was where the result was waiting for me.
So next time you see me at a reception, please come over and ask me what I do for a living. I’m ready for you.
One of my favorite ways to start a presentation to a team of employees, whether it’s sales, marketing, customer service, or just about any team seeking new ways to inspire innovative thinking, is with the following exercise:
I ask everyone to write down the name of a company or product that they absolutely love, and are loyal customers to that brand. It should be a product or company that they spread the word about even though they are not on the payroll.
Go ahead and play along! Take a second to write down the name of a company that you absolutely love.
In seconds, you see people smile as they jot down their answer. Immediately, they are in a better mood.
One of my favorite companies is Porter Airlines based here in Toronto. It’s a little regional airline that just gets it. Yes you read that correctly: an airline gets it.
In an industry known for poor customer service, Porter treats everyone like a first class customer. From the little things like having employees that actually smile, to the free newspapers, coffee, cookies, wifi and much more in their private lounges. And to top it all off, they serve free alcohol on their flights.
Compare that experience to how you usually feel about a trip to the airport.
OK, back to the group of employees I am presenting to. We go around the room, and people can’t wait to share their answer, and to tell the group why they are raving fans of their favorite companies.
I record their answers on flip chart paper:
- Outstanding customer service
- They make me feel special
- Exceptional quality
- They are always innovating
- They go above and beyond
- They get me
- They are quirky
- They take care of my problems quickly
And the list goes on. What all these companies have in common is that they are creative, innovative, and are always evolving to create a unique and memorable experience for their customers.
I then step back and look at the long list, and ask “how many of these thing do you do here at Company XYZ?”
Silence. Awkward silence, where everyone suddenly gets very interested in looking at their shoes, and definitely not interested in making eye contact with me.
People recognize great companies when they see them, but often get stuck when it comes to nurturing those qualities in their own business. Furthermore, with the rapid pace of constant change, they get bogged down in keeping up with daily operations, and lack the time and bandwidth to find innovative ways to create exceptional customer experiences, or inspire innovative thinking in their teams.
Here are my top tips to help you inspire innovation, and get better results:
Borrow Ideas from Other Industries
Often we hang out mostly with people from our own industry. The problem is we see the world through a very similar lens. Bankers think like bankers, lawyers think like lawyers, you get the idea.
To get started, simply copy the exercise that I shared in the introduction. Think through the answers in relation to a challenge you are currently facing. If you’re suffering from slow customer response times, look to businesses in other fields that excel in that area. A high customer churn rate? Figure out which businesses inspire loyalty, and look for inspiration in their services. Do some research and ask around. Make a list of your team’s five favorite companies (bonus points if they aren’t in your space), and brainstorm how you think they would handle your current challenges.
Start in a Small Way
There is a great book called The Spirit of Kaizen by Jakob Browning, that discusses the anxieties and challenges that often accompany change.
Often when we hear the words “innovation,” or “creativity,” our minds draw a blank. Maybe you think back to high school art class and think “I’ve never been creative,” or you just don’t know how to start the process of being innovative. I love how this is explained in the book:
“When you need to make a change, there are two basic strategies you can use: innovation and kaizen. Innovation calls for a radical, immediate rethink of the status quo. Kaizen, on the other hand, asks for nothing other than small, doable steps toward improvement.”
Sounds good, but how do we start with small steps? For example, in your next meeting, ask the group questions like: “What is one thing we can do today to make our customers feel special?” Or, “what is one bottleneck or roadblock that we can remove?”
“For reasons that nobody truly understands, the brain cannot reject small questions. Any small question, especially one you ask repeatedly, prompts your brain to begin its own Google search.”
One client I work with asked this question to his team: “What one thing we could eliminate today that would make your day?” Each of the six people on the team wrote down their answer on an index card. Five out of the six had a version of the same answer: “fewer meetings that require the entire team to be present.”
The team leader was surprised that nobody had ever mentioned this before. It opened up a real conversation with the team, and they started coming up with solutions. In a matter of ten minutes, they made a small change and piloted a program that only had one team member on each call. Six months later, the pilot is the new way of doing business for their team and everyone is loving it—and getting better results.
Only when we start asking the “small” questions can we experience BIG change.
Rethink the Lunch and Learn
Don’t get me wrong, two things I love are food and learning. Don’t ditch the concept, just rethink your approach. There are plenty of ways to combine eating and learning that don’t include listening to someone drone on from the front of the room. Here are a few ways to upgrade your next learning event.
1) Host a TED Party
I am a big fan of TED talks, and talk about a library of choices. I just went on the site and found 215 talks on innovation! Best of all the talks are free to view, and are each less than 20 minutes.
Pick a talk, create an event (serving food helps), watch and have discussion questions ready for after the talk. Super easy, fun, and productive.
2) Take a Field Trip
Remember back in school how excited you were about taking a field trip? You got to leave behind your school and routines for a day. Changing your environments changes your thinking and opens you up to new possibilities.
Where you go is entirely up to you. I once worked with a team in NYC and suggested the idea of going to the American Girl Store on 5th Avenue, and brought some guiding questions like:
- What was your first impression?
- What do they do well?
- What is one thing we could learn and apply immediately?
Even a short trip can inspire innovative thinking, and help you make connections that aren’t evident from your usual workspace.
3) Talk to Me About Having Better Conversations at Work
In just over an hour a month, I can help your team develop a learning culture that is embedded in the context of your daily operations, provides micro learning when you need it most, and results in sustainable behavior change. Sound too good to be true? Give me a call and I’ll tell you how.
We all want our organizations to succeed and thrive, and to inspire the kind of loyalty and enthusiasm that I see when I run my exercise discussing the companies that people love.
As the business landscape continues to undergo rapid and constant shifts, we can no longer rely on stability in the market (if we ever could), and need to be thinking creatively and strategically to stay ahead of the shifts.
Use these approaches to inspire innovative thinking with your team. What other creative tactics do you have for approaching problems with an innovative mindset?
I’ve learned that the lunch invitations I receive are often in direct correlation to the challenges my clients are immediately facing. An urgent, challenging issue for my client, usually means an urgent lunch invitation for me.
Six months ago I received one of those “can we meet for lunch in the next few days” requests, followed almost immediately by “I will meet you wherever and whenever it works for you.” I sensed this must be a BIG urgent need.
Two days later we met, and my client shared that her team of eight people were feeling stuck, frustrated, and having a hard time meeting their numbers. The heat was on from their funder, and if they didn’t meet their numbers their pilot project was in danger of not getting renewed.
Nothing moves people into immediate action quite like necessity. When the danger of NOT doing anything is strong, people are willing to try anything.
As I asked questions and listened, I thought there was great cause for hope. Her team was talented, they were just in a rut and feeling stuck.
My client was open and ready for change.
I developed a customized program to address their particular needs, get them excited again, and move them into immediate action.
In a few short sessions that focused on team communication and problem solving, they felt renewed hope, developed new ideas, followed up, and implemented several new initiatives. Within three months their numbers dramatically increased, their energy and enthusiasm returned, and yes, their funding got renewed.
This is the power of taking immediate action.
I recently read a fantastic book my Mel Robbins called The 5 Second Rule. I love the clarity and simplicity of her powerful message. In her words the 5 second rule is simply:
“The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal you must 5-4-3-2-1 and physically move or your brain will stop you.”
The book is based on extensive research, and includes lots of successful examples for why moving into immediate action is powerful. In my experience working with individual clients or corporate teams I’ve learned that nothing destroys goals and results like inaction. I feel so strongly that the tagline on my website (and even on my pens) is: “Talk is Good, Action Is Better.”
Yes, it is easier and more comfortable to not take action and keep doing what you have always done. And the biggest excuse—and by “excuse” I mean lie—is “it’s not a good time.”
It’s never a good time. Remember it’s your goal, and if you are not willing to take immediate action then I call BS.
Here are three tactics to help move you into immediate action:
Be Honest With Yourself
As Dan Sullivan famously says, “all progress begins with telling the truth.”
What is the real reason you are not taking action? If it’s fear, I totally get it—fear freezes most people. Be honest with yourself—is your goal something that you really want, or is it something you just like to say you want?
Is employee retention important to your company? How about developing a learning culture? Then it’s time to make a commitment to both. Show me it’s important, don’t tell me it’s important. Star employees leave when they feel there is no growth. Make a plan of action, identify the first step and take it.
In my experience, the only thing that scares people more than the prospect of failure is the prospect of success. Be 100% honest with yourself.
Take Immediate Action
That means right now, like stop reading this and take the first step. I will wait. Stop thinking about it and just do it.
Many years ago I was in an all day sales seminar with about 200 other people. Just before lunch, our instructor asked us if the group was up to a challenge. Most hands went up. He then said the challenge was to get at least 10 business cards from strangers on the street over the course of our lunch hour (and we weren’t allowed to get the cards of the people attending the seminar). He asked if everyone was clear on the challenge, then said…..off you go.
I made my way out of the room, having no idea how I was going to accomplish the task. I took a seat on a bench and spent 2 minutes to plot out a strategy. My strategy was:
- Don’t approach anyone who is alone (reducing the creep factor).
- Be honest and tell them why I was doing this.
- Ask for what I wanted, in this case their business card.
I got up and headed out of the conference center onto a busy downtown street. Lucky for me, it was lunch hour and there were lots of people out. Immediately, I spotted a group of four professional women on their lunch break, waiting to cross the street. Feeling a little nervous and unsure, I reminded myself that I only had 47 minutes left to complete the task (I so did not want to be the only one who didn’t succeed).
So I approached, was honest, and asked for their cards. Immediately two of the four started to reach into their purses, while the third mentioned that I should take a short walk with them to the restaurant, where they would be meeting thirty colleagues to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday.
Jackpot. I ended up getting 23 cards and had enough time to grab my own lunch.
If I had been given three days to accomplish the task, I would have retreated into “thinking” mode and missed a golden opportunity.
Define the Cost of Doing Nothing
If your goal is personal or professional, you have already made a decision that it is important to you. You likely already thought about the benefits of accomplishing your goal, but have you identified the cost of not taking action?
What are the risks of doing nothing? List them. For organizations and team leaders, the risks can be staggering—if you’re not adapting to shifts in the business landscape, you can be certain that your competitors will happily scoop up your market share.
One company I am very familiar with would host a semi-annual, week long meeting for their sales team. The agenda for each meeting was almost always the same, you know the drill: President’s Update, followed by reviews from each area of the country, followed by marketing updates, you get the idea. Having the same people give the same presentations yielded—yes, you guessed it—the same results (or declining results).
And this would go on for five days! Innovation, creativity, new strategies and follow up were dearly missing. Most meetings ended with everyone nursing new hangovers—what’s the ROI on that?
In the last six months this company has lost numerous key staff members and are struggling to fill the vacancies, while profits are declining and morale is at an all time low. It’s a steep price to pay for doing nothing new.
Far too often, I hear from clients and colleagues that they feel stuck—and yet without concrete steps to change their circumstances, they are certain to remain in their current state. If you’re feeling the effects of inaction, I challenge you to use the 5 second rule—in the moment that inspiration strikes, get up and take the first step toward achieving your goal.
One of my favorite quotes is by the great #99, Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
What are you holding back? It’s time to take your shot.
Far too often, I work with clients who love the idea of building a learning culture, but who aren’t taking any steps to create one. They’ve seen the dismal reports on levels of employee engagement, accepted the prevailing wisdom that learning and development opportunities are key drivers of engagement and retention, and then… they get stuck.
Before starting a relationship with a client I always arrange a discovery session, basically it’s a chance for me to ask questions, listen, and see if we are a good fit for each other.
It’s kind of like the business version of match making. I strongly believe it’s the best way to start a potential relationship. The questions I ask usually include:
- What does your reality currently look like?
- Where would you like to go? What does success look like?
- What challenges are getting in the way of your vision?
- What are the strengths of your team?
Very quickly I get a clear sense of their vision and challenges, and if there is a potential connection. If I feel that the client is a good fit for me, one of my follow up questions is:
“On a scale of one to ten, how important is it to your company to build a learning culture?”
I usually get answers ranging from seven all the way up to ten—well above average. Interesting. I follow up with something along the lines of: “That’s amazing. What are you doing to get that score?”
Awkward silence. I try to ride this out, and wait until they start speaking. Often, it’s some version of: “Well, we had a speaker at our annual sales meeting, bought everyone a copy of the book… that pretty much blew our budget and available time… so…” They clearly know that their efforts aren’t capable of making a meaningful change in their culture.
Sound familiar? While just about every executive I know agrees that learning is an important element of a strong culture, very few of them are taking actual concrete steps to ensure that continuous learning is happening within their organizations.
Here are my top three tips to start to build a learning culture, right now. Don’t wait for your next annual all-staff meeting, or for that big industry conference. Start today, and the results will roll in sooner than you think.
1) Begin With the End in Mind
Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was one of the first business books I read, and it’s status as a classic is well-earned—the advice holds up almost 30 years later.
Get clear on what success looks like for you and your team at the end of the year or quarter. What does your team need to do to meet their targets? Are there any gaps in their skills or expertise that need to be addressed? Think about “soft skills” in addition to technical requirements—does your team need to improve their ability to collaborate, or increase their agility when responding to challenges? Do you think investing time on innovative thinking, communication or teamwork is important? Define what success looks like, and reverse engineer your goal, starting with the end in mind.
I use this principle when I have a potential client. I ask them to imagine we are meeting again a year from now, after we’ve achieved an unequivocal success, and resolved the issue they brought me in to address. What does that meeting look like? What has happened to make them feel that we’ve been successful? Their answer provides me with valuable information I can use to reverse engineer a learning and development program.
2) Define Your First Step
Ever been to a “brainstorming” meeting where a challenge is given to the group and everyone comes up with a list of ideas? What happens next? Usually nothing. Take that same meeting, add 10 minutes, and ask the team lead to select one item on the list. Assign a first step toward implementing your one item. Now you’re cooking.
Too often, people try to tackle big issues that are tricky to define. They want to improve employee engagement, or increase innovation, or become more agile. Those are excellent goals, but they are too big and too nebulous to really get started. Start with a small pilot to address a particular need your team faces. If your goal is to build a learning culture, your first step might be scheduling 15 minute 1:1 meetings with each member of your team to discuss their learning and development goals. It might be to circulate one article that is relevant to the team, and scheduling a time to bring everyone together for a discussion. Clearly define what the first step will be.
3) Make Learning a Regular Part of Your Schedule
One of the challenges of starting something new is making it a regular part of your schedule. Remember in January you said you were going to get up thirty minutes early to exercise every day? Are you still doing it?
Change is challenging, so make it as easy as possible. If you have a regularly scheduled weekly or monthly meeting, attach a learning component to it. Put it in your calendar and on the agenda. Too often, I see organizations rely on one-off training sessions to provide all of their learning for teams. But learning doesn’t happen that way. We learn best in small doses that can be immediately applied to our lives. Focus on incremental, consistent changes, and you’ll start to see lasting results.
You don’t need to be a learning and development expert to see positive impact—tap into the expertise of the team and encourage them to teach each other. Find out what people are reading, watching, and listening to, and use that content to spark a discussion that applies to the work your team does. Begin with a clear vision of what success looks like, clearly define your first steps, and put your calendar to work for you.
Last but certainly not least: model the behavior you want to see. How are you learning and growing as a leader? What steps are you taking in your own professional development? Share those actions with your team! You will signal that learning is a priority within your organization, and your team will follow suit.
Too often, leaders love the idea of improving their culture, but fall short of taking the required actions. It’s time to get unstuck, to take control of the changes we want in our organizations, and to build a learning culture that teams will need to keep pace with the rapid shifts in the business landscape.
We don’t have a knowledge problem, we have a follow through problem.
I just got an email inviting me to a one day marketing conference, and the lineup of speakers in super impressive. In fact three of my favorite authors will be presenting.
So I am going? Not a chance.
Although I enjoy conferences, national meetings for companies, and other training focused events, the truth is they don’t have a lasting impact.
Let’s say you are the head of marketing for a company. It seems like an easy win—invest the day and send the team to hear a fantastic group of speakers. Maybe they will get inspired, learn something new, and apply it when they return to work. It sounds great, and those are fine intentions.
In reality, people go to the event, jot down a copious amount of notes, have a few moments of inspiration, and then head out for drinks to recap and decompress after a fantastic day.
When they return to work, and all those notes immediately get buried under a pile of other papers. They might remember one or two new ideas, but in the hustle to catch up on the time away—missed messages, clearing out email, and recovering momentum in day-to-day tasks—figuring out the next steps to implement their ideas seems overwhelming, and is quickly forgotten.
They were inspired, yes, but without action, nothing changes, and your investment doesn’t yield any impact. Sound familiar?
So what can a time and budget starved manager do to inspire their team and get results, instead of sending them off-site? Here are my top three tips:
1) Have More Real Conversations (Or Ask More Questions)
Focus on the one, yes just one, change you would like your team to commit to. Put it into your calendar and make it a habit.
One company I work with starts every Monday morning meeting with the question: “what’s one cool thing that has caught your attention in the last week?”
Sure, sometimes it’s a funny video or article, but the laughter brings the team together. More often, it’s an inspired thought the team can apply to their daily work.
2) To Maximize Impact, Keep it Simple
When there are ten action items, how many get done?
Focus on one thing at a time: too much leads to overwhelm and inaction. What is the one thing that each member of the team will apply to get them closer to your desired result?
Read just one short piece of content—a book summary, article, infographic, etc. (videos or podcasts work too!), and have a conversation with the team about your one key takeaway.
Committing to the one action leads to change, and often triggers or sets in motion other changes that have impact on the team as well. As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan say in their book The ONE Thing: “When one thing, the right thing, is set in motion, it can topple many things.”
3) Shared Experiences Have More Impact
Every company has their legendary stories from the founders, company parties, sales meetings, etc., of the shared experiences that brought the team together.
Simply put, when we experience things together as a team, they stick. If we all share our one thing it becomes part of our daily conversations, and leads to opportunities for team members to support each other. You don’t need to send the team off-site to create a group experience—creating collaborative cultures where people are empowered to share their experiences in the moment will have a much more profound impact on the group.
I used to pride myself on reading three or four business books a month—I “knew” lot of stuff, but the problem was, I didn’t apply most of it. I picked up a few facts, but didn’t put any of them into action. Sure I could sound “smart” at a cocktail party, by saying things like “Did you read (fill in the latest business hit), it was fascinating because (insert a clever point).” But sounding smart and getting results are two very different things. I started getting results when I committed to reading less, applying more, and sharing with my friends.
Making that shift led to more fun, and better results. Talk about a win-win.
On a weekly basis, with a variety of people, I have a version of this conversation:
I ask: How are you?
They respond: Crazy busy right now! It’s…
- the end of the quarter, and…
- almost time for our big launch, and…
- already less than a month before our national sales meeting, and…
- hectic with all the travel I have to do, and…
- a slight variation of any of the above, and…
If I could just get through these next few weeks, I’ll be much better.
The problem with this conversation is that it happens over and over, often with the same people. One busy season is quickly replaced with another. My clients may “get through” the end of the quarter, but they are inevitably bombarded with new demands for the next quarter. They might wrap up a few weeks of extensive travel, and assume that returning to the office will be more restful, only to find that they are overwhelmed with follow-up calls and emails.
Many executives and their teams never escape the “I’m busy” phase. What’s worse is that they start to wear their busyness as a badge of honor. They seem to say, “I’m busy because my job is very important.”
Startup culture reveres the image of the perpetually busy entrepreneur. We love stories about people who sacrificed everything for the success of their business—the sleep deprived, no time for a personal life, running on coffee and a dream-type of people who work 90 hours a week for years to start their business.
However, there is a very high cost to living in this constant state of busyness:
- Stressed out and tired employees
- Lack of creativity and new ideas
- High turnover among burned out staff/people who realize there are better ways to work
The habit of treating busyness as a virtue is deeply ingrained in many work cultures. Take a look around your office: are people expected to read and respond to emails at all hours of the day? Are teammates powering through an illness at their desks, instead of taking time to rest and recover? Does your team routinely stay late/come in early aside from efforts to meet occasional deadlines? Is taking vacation time viewed as a luxury for people with less important work? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, your team is suffering from a busyness problem.
Now that you’ve diagnosed the problem, here are three steps you can take to shift your culture, from valuing busyness, to valuing productivity.
1) Define The Desired Outcome
The answers we get are only as good as the questions we ask. Shifting workplace culture starts with asking ourselves and our teams some tough questions:
- What outcome are we really looking for?
- What metrics can we use to track that outcome?
- Is the work we do every day aligned to those outcomes?
It could be a 10% increase in sales, faster turnaround on customer service, an increase in website traffic, or whatever goal you choose to focus on. Figure out what specific metrics will help you best measure your progress, and implement a strategy for tracking them. Be as specific as you can with your desired outcomes.
2) Identify Where You and Your Team Spend Time
One of my favorite exercises with teams is to give everyone two minutes to write down the ten things they do at work every day (you can try it now! I’ll wait). When the list is finished, I follow up with the question: “what is your real goal?” People often spend their time doing busywork that doesn’t contribute directly to the goals of the team or organization.
With that in mind, go back to the ten things you just wrote down and pick the two things that will have the biggest impact on your goals, and focus your energy on those tasks.
This exercise uses the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, to identify high value tasks and projects.
3) Clear the Rest
What about the other 8 things on the list? Take a hard look at them and decide what can be eliminated, delegated, or executed quickly. Learn to spend less time on tasks that don’t directly contribute to your goals.
I recently ran a one hour session with a very busy, high performing sales team where we did this exercise. A pattern quickly emerged in their responses: they were all participating in the same conference calls, and getting cc’d on emails that they didn’t need, wasting valuable time and energy.
I applaud them and their manager because they committed to making real changes right on the spot. They eased back on the schedule for conference calls, and started only cc’ing relevant team members for each project.
One month later, I walked back into the office, and was enthusiastically greeted by one of the sales reps. She couldn’t wait to thank me for leading a conversation that reduced her stress, eased her constant “busyness,” and allowed her to focus on achieving (and exceeding!) her monthly goals. Her success was the result of a mindset shift, away from thinking of busyness as a virtue, and towards focusing on the work that matters, that paved the way for better ways of working.
In order to change in meaningful ways, we need examine our attitudes for destructive beliefs, get clear on what matters most, and engage our teams in regular, meaningful conversations.
That is, if you’re not too busy to take the first step.