Build Your Professional Networking Skills: How to Be More Than a Contact – Be a Conduit

Dear CFO,
I attend a lot of networking events on behalf of our small business. I always feel like I struggle to build useful connections. Either I end up cornered in an endless conversation with one person, or I collect a bunch of cards without really clicking with the people at the event. I never know what I should say or do at conferences and other networking opportunities. What advice do you have for me on building professional networking skills so I maximize my results at these events?
At a Net Loss for Networking in New Jersey

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m BIG on networking. I’ve found maximizing my connections and engaging with people comes easily for me, and the results are worth it (even at those times when I don’t feel like engaging). Building my professional networking skills, meeting people, and cultivating new and existing relationships has brought me a breadth of opportunities and experiences I might have otherwise missed. The more you hear from others, “Wow, small world!”, the more you know you’re doing it right.

But meeting new people and amassing a collection of business cards isn’t what it’s all about, either. Real relationship building requires an investment on your part. You can’t simply hand out cards and hope for the best. It’s really the lasting, genuine relationships resulting from professional networking and the opportunities they present that are your eventual (and great) rewards.

Realize It’s Not Just Who You Know

Professional networking skill isn't about who you know, its about how you use your connections

A few years ago, I attended a Tommy Spaulding seminar and read his insightful book, It’s Not Just Who You Know – Transform Your Life (and Your Organization) by Turning Colleagues and Contacts into Lasting, Genuine Relationships. Both Spaulding’s seminar and his book focus on various stories illustrating the difference between what he coins as “First Floor” relationships, “Fifth Floor” (or “Penthouse”) relationships, and all of the transitions that occur to move between floors.

Throughout his recommended professional networking tips and tactics, Spaulding works to move beyond Dale Carnegie‘s How to Win Friends & Influence People (a very influential gift he received from his father as a teenager). He moves readers towards establishing and encouraging truly caring, genuine relationships that are mutually beneficial over time. It’s not that the professional networking advice from Carnegie is wrong, per se. It’s helpful, but the face of networking in today’s professional world has evolved. Gone are the days when people (mostly men) belonged to exclusive professional networking clubs. The world has become more open and global, which means every relationship and activity offers a chance to build connections.

Spaulding doesn’t shy away from the personal anecdotes in his book or his seminar. He described his story of learning to love his wife’s ex-husband and father of his stepson and adds another profoundly personal account of forgiving his long-missing and thoughtless father. I thought of my family relationships that are at times quite difficult, and the patience required to build those relationships that have deep roots and result in true forgiveness and genuine acceptance. Extending those concepts into your business life means integrating a pay-it-forward attitude and developing a real understanding of the needs and desires of any business relationship in an altruistic, genuine way.

Practice the “Let Me Help Me Help You” Approach

Using your professional networking skills to help those around you makes a strong leaderKeep in mind, the focus here is on developing your professional network and business relationships, so it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all about getting extremely personal. When you get cornered by someone sharing their life story at a professional event, it immediately feels uncomfortable. It’s not about forcing a connection.

I try to develop relationships based on helping the other person meet their needs. To do this, you need to understand who they are, and where he or she is coming from. Here’s the thing: in the course of learning what the other person might need, you’re likely to develop the personal side of the relationship as well. We all want to be seen and heard. When we meet someone good at listening and who shows a genuine interest in us, we naturally gravitate toward them.

So, merely by being good at listening and by showing how you’re interested in others, you’ll build more professional connections. Those great, beneficial relationships aren’t going to happen with everyone you meet; it’s pretty challenging to maintain contact with hundreds of relationships, and frankly, you won’t click with everyone you meet. But by building those professional networking skills and examining the needs of others, there is still a possibility for a semi-large circle of people in your business network.

Great networkers know always to keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to help a connection achieve their goals. Don’t feel afraid to introduce people who you perceive could mutually benefit from knowing each other (even if it doesn’t benefit you directly at the moment). If you can’t solve the problem, help connect them to someone who will. I often run across an article or podcast that I think might be useful and will pass it on, simply with a quick note “Thought you might find this useful.”

I relate to this on a personal level due to my past experiences job hunting. When I was among the unemployed, many people extended resources, time, and guidance to assist me in my job search, and I was extremely grateful for the help. In turn, I now extend similar support to those who are currently out there looking for a job, but I also respect my contact list and attempt to give a synergistic list to people who approach me for this type of help. We all know it’s a challenge to find great job candidates.

Remember It’s the Little Things, Too!

Stay open to the new possibilities networking skills provide you Spaulding describes the First Floor relationships as transactional. These relationships include all those people you interact with during your day—like checking out at the grocery store, getting coffee, or getting your oil changed. In these day-to-day situations, you’re a unit, so when you’re finished, there’s really no lasting impact.

But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay open to the possibilities presented by each interaction. You never know when a connection could build into part of your professional network. There are always occasions or opportunities to take your relationship to the next level (or Floor) by adding a bit of extra care into the transaction. Take time to say thank you, ask them about their day, or strike up a conversation while you’re waiting together in the elevator.

Take my recent experience: I went to co-sign on a car for my daughter. The woman helping with finance paperwork had pictures of dogs all over her office, including a photo of her own. As you probably already guessed, we started talking about dogs, eventually talking about our rescue dog—and guess what? She gave us a dog biscuit to take home with us.

What could have very well been an in-and-out transaction turned into a memorable, more positive experience due to an added extra bit of caring—and it makes an impression. I left feeling good about the car dealership (a rarity) and the interaction. Should I meet anyone in the future looking for the particular breed of dog associated with her rescue, I’m ready to point them in a helpful direction!

Be a Conduit for Those Around You

It’s important to understand this process is not about being liked or building a best friendship with everyone you meet. Instead, it’s about serving as a conduit for those around you; connecting people to information, people, and resources that benefit them the most. The good news is this will likely result in being liked anyway, which is a nice side effect.

I like this piece of professional networking advice from marketing and sales expert, Randy Meriwether:

“The ‘people buy from people they like’ nonsense perpetuates itself like an unwelcome in-law who just doesn’t know when to pack up and leave. So instead of wasting your time trying to get someone to like you, why don’t you INVEST your time in understanding the prospective customer’s business.”

So the next time you attend a networking event, approach it as an opportunity to learn about and understand another person. Rather than trying to click with everyone or collect as many cards as possible, set up a goal to learn about at least one business problem at your next networking event. Then, set to work on how you can help the person find a solution. You’ll become a professional networking expert in no time!

How can you reach out to someone today to help? Will you make a call? Share a post? Build a connection?

How to Develop Your Team’s Problem Solving and Decision Making Skills

When your team faces a problem, do they come together to resolve it or does indecision paralyze them? Do they pass the buck and wait for you to give them direction (adding even more to your already-full plate)? Are you empowering a team with problem-solving skills—a cohesive team that works together?

If your answer is shaky, you may need to work on building your team’s problem-solving skills. Not only is your team’s inability to problem-solve together creating more work for you, but it can become detrimental to the health and well-being of your entire operation. After all, there should  come a day when you’re not there to lead the way. If your team becomes paralyzed by indecision and feels lost without you, the company won’t function.

Building your team’s problem-solving skills is a two-fold job. You need to lead them through the right approach to decision-making. If you shudder to think of what your team would do without your guidance, you may also need to work on your effective delegation skills. For today, let’s look at the 6 steps you can take to empower your employees and boost your team’s problem-solving skills.

1. Recognize that Problems are Part of Everyday Life

No business is perfect, and life often throws us curve balls. Even if you think you’ve anticipated every possible scenario, something will come out of the left field and surprise you. So let go of the idea that you can plan for every situation—realize there will be times when you and your team need to problem solve on their feet.

Whether your team faces small day-to-day problems or significant problems that require a group effort, training your team on problem-solving and decision-making is essential. They need to tackle problems head-on. Great leaders empower their organizations. Provide a framework and ensure the policies and procedures are in place, so team members can troubleshoot any unexpected scenario, by working together.

As a leader, you must possess the vision to identify most major roadblocks in the future. Speedbumps, on the other hand, are smaller issues currently slowing down a process or causing additional work for individual team members. Unbalanced workloads and inefficient processes lead to unhappy stakeholders (including customers, owners, and vendors). Some of these situations you can (and should) see coming, but it’s also important to recognize that you don’t have a crystal ball. Anticipate and envision what you can, and then foster the skills in your team to problem-solve the rest.

Remember that problem solving skills should also include risk assessment. Not every problem is a four-alarm fire (and not every problem necessitates a robust response). Help your team learn to triage and empower them to assess risk on their own. For a low-risk problem, a coworker or supervisor might provide guidance. For a higher risk issue, a higher-level review is often required. The ability to ascertain the risk and importance of an issue is crucial to moving items off your very full plate.

2. Recognize and Celebrate Adaptable Players

Does your team come together to problem-solve? Everyone should reach a consensus.

You should stay aware of your company’s weak spots and problem areas where issues arise, of course, but you can’t be everywhere at once. Empower your team by assigning who identifies, prioritizes, and tracks the day-to-day issues that will inevitably come up.

Running a business is all about making sure you put the right people on the bus—the right employees in the right positions. If your team is struggling with the choices they face, take a step back and assess the group as a whole.

Your challenge is to identify those individuals who strengthen your team and add value to your established processes. Employees who think independently in unexpected situations yield the most benefit, as they help achieve the Company’s goals with minimal nudging from you.

Building a strong team is like solving a puzzle. Though you may feel tempted to seek out cookie-cutter answers, the formation of a team is an improvisational skill, developed over time with experience. Leaders play a crucial role in the health of the team and the culture of the company. Remember to examine your behavior as the group faces challenges—your influence may be greater than you think.

An agile team can work together within their roles, but also can step outside of assigned tasks and take on other responsibilities; for example, in the case of illness, emergency, or growth. When faced with challenges, a strong team addresses the obstacle or demand with fluidity and confidence without cracking or breaking.

A capable team has members who:

  • Don’t require handholding.
  • Are properly cross-trained.
  • Want to contribute.
  • Are accountable to themselves and other team members.
  • Are capable of completing their tasks.
  • Are resilient in responding to circumstances.

You may want to use personality assessment tools like DiSC. These types of tests allow you to understand how to communicate better with different personality types, and you can set the expectation of appropriate interaction so no one team member feels constantly steamrolled or frustrated by another team member’s personality or actions.

Build a strong team with competent people who can adapt their talents and skills to changing situations. Your organization must be diverse in abilities and personalities; they shouldn’t be clones of each other or the leader. Unfortunately, diverse personalities sometimes clash, requiring careful maneuvering. If conflict on your team is an issue, these types of personality assessments are helpful in resolution.

3. Set Your Team Up with the Right Procedures

As this chalkboard says, there are a lot of pieces that go into problem-solving and creating a plan, including communication, teamwork, planning, and development.

No matter how flexible and adept your team at problem-solving on their own, teams still require policies and procedures to ensure success. Let’s face it, provide too much pliancy, and even the best teams devolve into chaos, creating the need for you to swoop in and resolve the problem. Instead, empower your team with the right procedures and guidelines.

Policies name and guide the range of responsibilities any individual has in the company. For example, you may set a policy allowing a team member to clear out 80% of the finance charges up to $500. Beyond the set level, they need the guidance of a supervisor. This firm policy provides guidelines and ensures employees have room to work with customers to create solutions.

Often, though, businesses require a supervisor to confirm or approve each task. This micro-management disrupts the flow of business and undermines employee judgment and trust. For small companies, this also leaves way too much on the plates of upper management (you)! When every project or task requires handholding, you’re looking at a lot of day-to-day operational bottlenecks and significant frustration for all those involved.

While establishing the right policy and procedure guidelines may feel time-consuming and may even feel like you’re relinquishing control, they’re critical to developing the scope of your business from “what” to “how?” When you establish policies and procedures for your employees, you create room to work on your business rather than running around working in your business. You create the opportunity for your business to mature. You empower your team to problem-solve on their own!

4. Teach Your Team to Identify and Breakdown Problems

Problems within a business run the gamut. Identifying issues directly and quickly makes solving them easier and more effective.

For example, if you learn your customer satisfaction has decreased, you might ask your team, “What indicators do we see that customer satisfaction has decreased?” (The WHAT and the WHY.) And then ask, “How will we ensure our customers are happier?” (The HOW and the WHEN.) If you listen carefully and you’ve encouraged clear communication, your team will feel comfortable identifying and solving problems.

The key to any problem solving or decision making is to ensure you’ve correctly identified the real problem. Don’t get bogged-down pointing fingers at the symptoms; focus on figuring out the root and right approach to the cure. Identifying the root is key and requires multiple iterations of asking “what” and “why”. Make sure that you have the right players involved in the conversation. Efficient problem-solving strategies include categorizing the problem. Where does the issue fall: sales, customer service, billing, company policies, somewhere else? Identifying the primary impact helps define who will drive problem-solving, leading your team to a better understanding of the dimensions of the problem.

After getting to the root, the next natural step is to determine how to solve the problem. Bring the problem to your team, encouraging everyone to look at the problem from multiple angles—assess the 360-degree impact. If your problem-solving efforts require you to hold a team meeting, don’t forget productive meetings need the discipline to produce results. It’s not to “beat a dead horse,” as the saying goes, but instead to focus on a proactive solution.

To perform at a high level, individuals must understand their objectives and how their role fits into the whole to achieve larger company goals. You should also hold each team member accountable for their work. Creating this structure, uniting your team, and setting clear expectations all fall upon you, as the leader.

Team members should take ownership of their portion of the process. When you get buy-in from the team, you’ll find greater productivity and higher morale. Responsibility boosts buy-in and reminds your employees that everyone has a stake in the success of the business.

5. Empower Your Team to Identify and Test the Solution

Empower your team’s problem-solving skills by having them identify the Who, How, What, When, Where, and Why of the problem.

Once your team has identified the proper problem—the WHAT, WHY it happens, and WHO is involved in creating the solution, then the resolution should become evident. If your team is still struggling to find the answer, encourage them to go back and breakdown the problem again. Maybe there was more to the problem than they initially identified. If the details of the problem are clear, your team will present solutions and create an implementation plan to ensure those problems are and remain solved.

When looking for a solution, your team must work together to find an answer that covers all bases and makes sense. You’ve built your team for success, so set them up to continue the same track.

Test the solution by asking:

  • Does my team have the necessary tools to implement the solution?
  • Is the team in agreement that this is the best solution?

If you answered NO to any of these questions, encourage your team to take advice from one another; they’re all knowledgeable and they all care about solving the problem. If everyone on your team sees the benefits, they’ll feel motivated to work together.

Determine if you need to make further adjustments before the final solution by asking:

  • Does the solution rely too heavily on one person or department?
  • Or does it create more work for someone else?

If the answers here are “yes,” consider further adjustments to the solution. After your team has discovered an effective solution for the problem, follow up on and guide the implementation at a high level. If their hard work resulted in a successful resolution, provide recognition for a job well done.

For less successful solutions, encourage your team to learn from the outcome. (Always circle back through the process to identify the fork in the road that brought them to this attempt.) Perform a post-mortem on every project to learn how your team works now and how they can work better in the future.

6. Reward and Acknowledge Your Team’s Problem-Solving Skills

Is it time for everyone to come together for a group cheer? Reward your team’s effective problem-solving skills.

With high expectations comes a responsibility to recognize, reward, and provide a break. Give your team members something to look forward to; for example, birthday and holiday celebrations, a surprise picnic lunch day on the company, and other fun activities like team-building exercises. Mix it up a little to add flair to the doldrums of day-to-day work.

Encourage employees to break up the day a bit and to build and strengthen relationships. Productivity requires think time and downtime. Good management will also recognize that life issues sometimes interfere with work. Offer a helping hand and provide flexibility (when and where appropriate), and you’ll create a truly committed team.

A well-balanced team is hired with diversity in mind, empowered with the tools they need to feel confident about problem-solving, provided with clear expectations, and offered opportunities to celebrate team achievements.

These principles allow your day-to-day business to flourish and progress while you focus on big-picture business development. Wouldn’t you rather not feel like you’re drowning and rushing to solve problems that your team members are perfectly capable of solving? If your day-to-day is leaving your innovation drained, it’s time for a change!

Every problem in the workplace is unique and requires different solutions. It’s my experience that the best solutions often come from the boots on the ground—those closest to the problem. Lead a team confident in their abilities and equipped to face and handle issues. Providing leadership in problem-solving will empower your team and push your business to greater success.


Featured image and post images licensed for use via Pixabay.

Find Your WHY: How to Write a Mission Statement that Reflects Your Values

You’re ambitious. You’re driven. You’re independent, focused, and you appreciate a challenge. After all, you’re running your own business. So, why worry about value definitions and writing a mission statement? Can’t you simply do what you need to do?

Well, yes and no. To build a successful business (or continue to lead a company forward), you need to know who you are. A vague notion of you-ness isn’t good enough either. This self-exploration goes for both your company’s identity and you, as a business leader.

First Define Your REAL Values

spend time thinking about the values that make you a good leaderNow there’s a tendency to immediately pull in your team, especially if you have a transparent “all hands on deck” company culture. While this is often a good move, it’s essential to explore these questions on your own, as well.

Before you get your employees involved, spend time thinking about who YOU are as a leader. Not who you think you are or who you want others to perceive you as, but who you really are! In my experience separating who you are from how you want others to perceive you is one of the hardest steps. That doesn’t mean giving up on change, it just means accept who you are now. It’s time to sit down and ask yourself important questions like (you guessed it) Who Am I? – and – What are my core values? – and, most importantly – Is the way I run my business consistent with my core values?

From there, you’ll take yet another step back from your business and find your WHY. WHY do you do it? Why do you strive toward success?

Your gut reaction answer may be something like, “Because I need to feed my family,” or “Because I want my community to view me as an influential person.” But what’s your actual WHY? Why do you do it at all? Why does your team do it? Why did you start a particular type of business? What is compelling about your industry? What WHY drives your team to perform their best work?

The answers to these questions aren’t simple, but once you’ve articulated and defined them, writing a mission statement (the summation of your WHY) will become much easier. So, roll up your sleeves. It’s time to start talking values.

Next, List Ten Characteristics That Define You

Start each characteristic with “I value…” rather than “I am…” Yes, this challenge is surprisingly a lot tougher than it first sounds, but it’s essential. Writing a list will force you to examine the consistency of your values.

The values you think you have (or hope you have) need to align with your actual values. For example, if I recognize integrity as one of my core personal values, yet I don’t correct the cashier for giving me too much change, then I am in denial, and I don’t act on the values I tout. Or let’s say you follow an open-door policy, allowing your team members to come into your office and address their concerns. Yet every time an employee has an idea, you shut it down. Eventually, people stop coming to your office, yet you pretend you have no idea why. The answer is, you aren’t as “open” as you may perceive yourself. Be honest with yourself on these inconsistencies and then decide if they really represent your values or are they the values you want to be perceived as having.  You can always strive to make that perception your reality.

So, think about your real values and how they align with the way you run your business. Circle the values you’re still working on. For each circled value, list three ways you will better adhere to it in the future. You won’t be a master at many of the values, and that’s okay! The best leaders are those who recognize they’re a work in progress.

Once you’ve written down your list, evaluate your values. Will your team members find it relatable? For example, “I value my yacht.” Not exactly a relatable statement to inspire your team to value your leadership! Is that really the driver or are you interested in the security money provides to allow you time for leisure.  Might it really be  “I value the drive to earn money to support my leisure activities,” and that is also more relatable.

When it comes to small business, if you’re running the show in many respects, you ARE the company, and your employees see you that way, too. How do you expect your employees to align with the company values if your values aren’t aligned?

After You’ve Defined Your Values, Take it to Your Team

Once you've defined your company values, it's time to solicit feedback from your team members.Now you’ve got your values defined, and it’s time to solicit feedback from your team members. Only when you’re clear on your values can you ask the same questions about your company values. Now’s the time to get your employees involved.

One way to do this is to make a game of defining your company values. You could jot down ideas on post-its and cover a whiteboard. You could drop them in a hat. You could throw a ball around a circle (to encourage participation by everyone). Each time a person catches the ball, they share a word that represents a company value. Make it fun and offer everyone a chance to participate.

You’ll likely come up with a huge list to start. Words like truth, integrity, joy, learning, respect, diversity of people and ideas, professional, competitive, and catalyze. Keep brainstorming until you’ve got an extensive list down.

Once you’ve tapped out everyone’s ideas, it’s time to evaluate the list and eliminate redundant terms. Narrow down the list to the values you genuinely feel are driving your business. You may narrow it down to 15-20 words or so.

From there, group the words into categories like:

Integrity, Excellence, Excitement – or – Relationships, Service, and Achievement.

You’ll likely find many of the ideas will easily fall into one of the categories. This is a great indication you’ve started to nail down those values.  Once you feel you’ve pinned down 3-4 values, truly drive your organization, craft the words into a value statement. For example:

“We strive to be an industry leader, with exceptional customer service, and a joyful work environment. We will do this by:

  • Employing integrity and knowledge in our product development
  • Listening to the concerns of customers
  • Respecting and supporting our team members
  • Engaging in professional development and growth opportunities
  • Interfacing with clients across all channels
  • Defining our processes and cross-training for every role.”

Obviously, this is only a sample. Your business may write a very different value statement. What’s important is exploring and discovering who your company is. You will improve your business operations by adhering to your values. As Ayn Rand said, “Happiness is the state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”

When we’re aligned with our values, we’re working toward precisely what is important to us. We’re discovering our bigger reasons why, which brings us to the next question.

Explore and Define: What is a WHY?

Your WHY must be a statement everyone in your company relates to and a statement that sets your company’s direction.At risk of sounding like the Cheshire Cat, I’ll first let you in on what I mean by what is a why? After you discover who you really are (your REAL values), it’s time to ask yourself WHY you do it at all.

Your WHY must be a statement everyone in your company relates to and a statement that sets your company’s direction. So, your WHY statement can’t be selfish or self-focused, as it will alienate your team.

Again, “I want to own the fanciest yacht in Yachting Magazine,” is a nice personal goal. Still, it’s not a WHY statement that will resonate with your employees, inspiring them to achieve company goals—and it definitely won’t motivate your team to go above and beyond for the company.

Your WHY may be…

  • Altruistic

“We want to sell enough shoes so that we can donate a pair for every person in a third world country.”

  • Self-directed (but not selfish)

“I want to grow the company, so I exceed the philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates.”

  • Customer-directed

“Our product quality and availability will make life easier for every customer.”

  • General

“We want to be the best automotive service provider in the state.”

  • Very specific

“We want to have $10 million in total country-wide badminton net sales in 2020.”

Think about your WHY. Now write it down. Like writing down your values, it’s important to put these exercises on paper, as a way of establishing and solidifying your personal and business commitments and goals. This process requires deep thought and concentration, I would suggest a short 2 – 3 day retreat where you can avoid interruption, yet be relaxed enough to really let your deep thoughts percolate –my favorite – sitting in my cabin looking out onto the lake. I’ve also rented a hotel room for a couple of days and “locked” myself in the office and taken to a bench in a park. Now evaluate your WHY statement. Does your WHY add cohesiveness to your team’s values statement and provide a shared purpose everyone can aspire to?

(Stumped? Try this Corporate Mission Statement Generator! KIDDING!)

Why ask WHY? Your WHY statement will help you with writing a mission statement. When you’ve combined it with the company values, all that’s left is to examine and smooth it out. Does your WHY not only inspire your team, but does it also inspire others to want to work with you, and to trust your company?

Finally, Start Writing a Mission Statement

Writing your mission statement is a process. Typically, you develop this statement after determining your values, your WHY statement, and considering your company from all angles. You may want to run a SWOT analysis. Some companies find an evaluation of customer needs through surveys and testimonials to be helpful. How are you going to ultimately help your stakeholders (customers, employees, investors, YOU) succeed?

Once you’ve collected these pieces, start writing your mission statement out. Your mission statement should be concise. It should be well-written and inspirational. Avoid the tendency to wax on or over-explain. Your statement should be memorable, so it resonates with your staff. If you’ve written down your values and your why statement, your mission statement should become clear.

Once your mission statement is down on paper, you need to commit to running your business to the standard.  Can you do it successfully and realistically? (If the answer is no, you may need to adjust.)

“When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand. It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it.” -W. Clement Stone

As the company leader, it’s your responsibility to back your motivating purpose. Keep your mission statement visible to your team and repeat, repeat, repeat. Revisit your mission in team meetings regularly. Discuss your mission before you set your goals for the upcoming quarter.

If you haven’t started already, I urge you to start writing a mission statement today! How will you run your company, driven by your mission statement? Do you know your “why”?

Visionary Thinking: Creating a Vision for the Future Success of Any Business or Organization

Dear CFO,
I’m the Marketing Director for a nonprofit organization. I work closely with our President and Board regularly. In our last meeting, I was asked to work on our organization’s vision. We often take cues from the for-profit world, and having a background in that sector myself, I thought I’d explore your perspective. What advice can you give leadership on visionary thinking when deciding on the direction for their company (or organization)?
Visionary Newbie in New Brunswick, NJ

What a great and interesting question. It seems every business leadership article, book, and TED Talk is about the importance of creating your “vision.” Still, for many people, the concept of a vision is relatively nebulous. Have you figured out your future targets, set some goals for your organization, and started to sketch out what you’d like to look like in the near (and distant future)?

These are big questions, I realize, but they’re essential concepts to explore if you really want to set yourself up for success. While I don’t have as much experience in the nonprofit world, I do know that, like a business, you have to run lean and keep an eye to your bottom line. It’s important to consider all your revenue (or funding) sources as well as your client base.

So the big question becomes: Where exactly do you want to be in the next 3-5 years?

The even tougher question is: HOW do you define where you want to be in the next 3-5 years?

Finding the Right Approach to Your Big Future Questions

Business men and women planning business vision and strategy on a clear boardYou mention looking to the business world for inspiration and ideas on visionary thinking. I think that’s a great idea because there are undoubtedly many resources out there. Business books abound, and almost any you pick up will encourage you to engage in long-term strategic planning and goal setting.

Regardless of your business book of choice, the vast majority of business book authors will offer up some serious questions. Many of which will pertain to finding your “why.” For many organizations, answering this question immediately helps you shape your direction.

Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations, suggests answering questions such as:

  • Why are we here?
  • What is our ideal relationship with one another?
  • What is our ideal relationship with our customers?
  • What contribution do we make to the global community?

…and other tough, big-picture questions, some of which may actually be easier in the not-for-profit world.

Author Bernie Liebowitz asks similar broad-reaching questions:

  • How do our customers see our business, our products, our services? -and-
  • How do we see ourselves and our business environment?
  • How do we see the future?

In his book, Leadership: Thinking, Being Doing, Lee Thayer proposes the idea that “leaders create reality out of their vision.” This is a compelling statement. Without a vision, what will your reality become? Without a clear view of your future, will your organization cease to have one? Regardless, wouldn’t you prefer to have a hand in shaping the outcome into precisely what you want?

Creating a Vision of Your Ideal Future

Visionary thinking involves picturing the future in detail. Don’t be humble. Think big. This is a guideline that’s hard for many of us, especially if you’re in a helping profession or service-based organization. Avoid the tendency to shrug off your value. You are providing a fantastic service. Be proud, and go for the gold.

The trick is to be careful not to destroy your vision with doubt and criticism before you get started. Avoid judging your ideas before they are fully developed. Don’t allow stereotypes or even logistics to limit your thinking. Be sure that stakeholders and leaders are not too content with the current state of your organization to seek new ideas.

Don’t fall back on the we-tried-that-once or the that’s-not-how-we-operate mentality. Instead, reexamine each idea, approach, and path compared to experience to determine what’s different now. Both the business and the nonprofit world are changing rapidly in the face of new technology and growth. What worked for you before (or what didn’t work for you before) might change right before your eyes.

Don’t be afraid to think long-term either. Remember, none of these goals need to be achieved tomorrow. Shoot for the stars and then figure out the incremental steps to get there. Once you have your big stretch goal set, you can set your trajectory (and adjust your target as needed down the road).

Engage Your Entire Team When Possible

Business team holding puzzle piecesTo successfully invest in your vision, your team must be fully engaged in the visioning and planning process. Your team’s engagement encourages commitment to ownership of your outcomes; it creates “buy-in.” Plus, the creation of the vision will provide focus, define direction, generate solutions, and improve effectiveness and efficiency. Not bad for a few days’ work!

You never know where the most significant ideas will come from. Don’t dismiss anyone in the process. Listen, share, and keep the conversation open and creative.

How do you start that visioning process?

Here’s a method of visioning that’s worked for my businesses in the past…

Start the process by establishing a collective mindset. Imagine it’s five years from today. Our organization is extremely successful. Now we need to define what that success looks like, as a team. To accomplish our vision, let’s address and discuss the following questions to first define and build our vision, and to identify issues and objectives that lead to long-term success. As always, for best results, I suggest you write down your answers. The success of these exercises depends on the open flow of communication and ideas. Often times an outside facilitator is best to establish the right framework and group dynamic to keep the ideas flowing and bring the process to a conclusion.

Again, pretend you’re in the future, looking back over the past five years of your business successes:

  • Perform a SWOT AnalysisA SWOT analysis is an excellent practice for any entity, business, or organization. Look back as though you’ve achieved your goal. Ask what weaknesses did we overcome? What strengths and opportunities did we capitalize on? What new threats materialized?
  • Identify Drivers — What drives our organization? How does that driver affect us or our clientele? How does it affect our other stakeholders?

Some potential areas of impact might include general economic conditions, technology, demographics, changing tastes or sophistication of the client, and changes in distribution channels (or in the case of a nonprofit, changes in your funding sources, grantmakers, and service areas).

  • Mission — Do we need to change anything to be consistent with our values and our mission? Most organizations are quite mission-driven, but it’s incredible how any entity can quickly spiral away from its original values and path. It’s a good practice to revisit your values and mission regularly.
  • Operations — Is our internal operational structure working optimally? Why? Have we improved efficiency? How have we overcome recent and past obstacles? What additional skills do we need to achieve this vision? What will our system requirements be? Are there areas that need to be shored or tightened up?

Be sure to cover all aspects of your operations. In the business world, this would include collections, credit, process, accounting, IT, customer service, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution, etc. In your world, it could consist of grants in process, salaries, promised funds, initiatives, events, fundraising expenditures, and client services.

  • Think broadly – How has performance improved? How are operations running? Think internally, externally, and about other agents, new distributors or distribution methods, etc.
  • Products or Services — Do we offer any new services? Are our products and services still meeting the needs of our population? Who are our competitors, and what are they doing better? Do our programs still meet the needs as we identified in our mission? Who else is competing with us for funding with similar services and would it make sense to consolidate?
  • Clientele — Who is our target audience? Did we seek out or align better with a specific type of client? Why? How has our target market changed? Did we expand into new territories? Who might we work with next?

In the business world, we would also look at:

  • Marketing, Sales & Promotion — Is our sales (or funding) department working optimally? Why? Is marketing providing the necessary support? What new marketing strategies did we introduce? How many development people are needed to achieve our goals?
  • Production — How do we meet the needs of our customers? Did we change any of our delivery systems? Did we restructure any processes? Should we reassess our facilities? Can we move to cellular manufacturing?
  • Sandbox — Are we in the same markets? Are we in new markets where we hold the # 1 or # 2 spot? Should we abandon any markets?
  • Brand Promise — Is our brand promise still ____________? (Do you really do what you say you do?) Is there a more descriptive tagline now that we’ve made some changes?
  • Community — How does our company (or our employees) serve our community? Did our success enhance the success of others? This area is probably one where the business world could take a cue from nonprofits. More and more, customers prefer companies who give back and serve the greater good. We could all take a lesson from nonprofit organizations on community service.

Answering the questions in this exercise will help you and your team to develop the details of that optimal future.

In the end, you’ll be looking at your personalized picture of your future success—and you’ll understand the events, changes, and components that allowed you to achieve that vision. Now that’s visionary thinking!

But there’s still more. How will you know you’ve achieved those goals? How will you measure your ideal business success?

It’s essential to define those success outcomes as well, so you know when you actually achieve your milestone. Remember the importance of setting goals and creating a measurable, achievable vision. “Saving the world” sounds noble, but how will you know when the world has actually been saved?

The future can seem uncertain, and it’s always hard to say what will happen tomorrow, but by creating a strong vision, you’ll have a clear roadmap and path to continue to forge ahead. I’ll leave you with a favorite quote by Alan Kay: “The best way to predict your future is to invent it.” Best of luck in inventing your future of success!


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Building a Successful Business: Setting Targets & Long-Term Objectives

Goals, stretch-goals, five-year-plans, targets, and long-term objectives—there are a lot of terms surrounding the future of your business. But how do you keep your eye on the future so you experience realistic (and successful) outcomes?

In business, we define the term targets as our long-term objectives (usually looking five years into the future), and goals as shorter-term objectives (often projecting out about a year). Now, of course, the two terms get used interchangeably, and it’s okay to set big goals stretching well into the future and, at the same time, aim for quarterly targets with shorter-term objectives.

For the sake of clarity in this discussion, though, we’ll define targets as long-term objectives and goals as the shorter-term benchmarks. Today we’re going to talk about targets, as opposed to goals. As you work toward building a successful business, you’re going to need to break down both your goals and your targets into measurable steps toward success.

A great target is essentially a SMART goal but on a big-picture scale. Once you define a big target, you can outline an actionable plan of smaller, more manageable steps, benchmarks, or goals to help you hit those significant target achievements.

Setting Actionable Long-Term Objectives

Ready to start looking to the future?

two business women and one business man setting goals for their business using post-it notes in a meetingYour targets need to be measurable and should create long-term benefits in the areas in which your business needs improvement. Again, how will you define success? What numbers do you need to hit? Do you have a revenue target and cash flow target? (…and I do recommend setting cash flow objectives.) Think about it this way: what measures of success are typical in your industry? Is it sales per employee, return on assets, liquidity?

Most companies set a sales goal. For example, many years ago, a large brewery I was working with stated their target was $2 billion in sales in the next five years—a goal created to surpass a major competitor. For their company, the goal was big but realistic. It took into consideration their competition and market and had a clear timeframe for the long-term objectives.

Don’t worry if your targets aren’t quite as lofty. If you think $2 million is a slam-dunk, then set the goal at $2.5 million—not out of reach, but enough of a stretch to create a real challenge.

Your long-term goals must be ambitious but attainable. As Victor Lipman pointed out in Forbes, “Don’t set goals that are unattainable as they’ll likely just demoralize people. ‘Stretch’ goals are one thing, as you can presumably get to them with a good stretch. ‘Ambitious but attainable’ is language I like for these.”

Remember: the driving force behind each of your targets is always the wants and needs of your target market and your current customer base. When it comes right down to it, everything you do in your business is customer-driven, so set targets that reflect your best efforts to keep and expand your customer base.

Aim High with Your Targets

When choosing your targets, keep your team members and company culture in mind. Set company-wide targets for small businesses, but larger corporations should set department-wide or smaller targets. Each of your team members must see their role in achieving the target, so present each target in a relatable fashion. Transparency and team-buy-in are critical to reaching long-term objectives.

When your team invests in your success, you’ll move forward much more smoothly and quickly. If you don’t have the internal resources required to analyze and implement your targets, consider enlisting outside help. (A sharp accountant will typically provide reliable feedback within a couple of hours.)

When it’s time to pick your targets, stay clear and strategic. Each target should include a finite number indicative of success—no fuzzy math allowed. Pick no more than five targets. More targets become unmanageable and unrealistic.

What are your targets?

At the highest level, your targets typically look like revenue, profit, and cash flow. Present your team members with clear, visible, and understandable milestones to ensure your targets are relatable and seen as achievable.

Business man writing goals and objectives on a board during a meetingRevenue is generally an excellent place to start. How big do you want to be? Or do you want to define this in terms of annual growth? 3M, for example, states 20% of revenue must come from new products, so their revenue goals are defined in terms of product development.

So, to translate this to your team, state your revenue goals in terms of production: “Five years from now, we will have shipped five million units of Product X.”

Profitability is important. All the revenue in the world isn’t worth much if you don’t earn a profit on it. One of your targets will likely define profitability, either in terms of dollars or a percentage of revenue and cost reduction.

If manufacturing costs are 80% of your revenue, your team may need to hear: “We will be exploring production layouts to reduce scrap rates and lower production times.”

Cash Flow is often more important than profitability, especially if you want to grow. Don’t forget—it takes money to make money. Cash flow is often ignored, but it’s a significant component to your long-term objectives and business success, and frequently one of the constraints to growth.

Remember, you collect money from the customer later on in the sales process (perhaps 30 days or 60 days later). Do you have enough money to purchase and pay for the goods you will sell to your customers? There are additional costs associated with the assets required to run your business (such as a particular piece of equipment you need to manufacture your products or those shelving units you use to display your products), so consider all factors.

Other Measures. These measures might be industry-specific (revenue/full-time equivalent, profit margin, table turns, number of customers), or they might be bank requirements (net worth, % borrowed against assets, the total amount of debt), etc.

This might also include risk reduction goals; for example, “No single customer at more than 20% of sales” – or – “We will have at least two vendors for each product.”

This could also refer to cost reduction goals; for example, “Reduce damaged pieces from 1/1,000 to 1/100,000.”

Additional measures might include expanding your company’s marketing channels through new online campaigns, then measuring the ROI by analyzing the increase in website hits and new purchases made through your website.

Build Off Your Targets in the Future

Business woman looking at a spreadsheet of data on her laptop with coffee in one handYour targets aren’t a “set it and forget it” situation. It’s vital that you continuously revisit your targets, track your progress, and ensure you’re on track. Once you’ve set the long-term objectives, break them down into annual, quarterly, and even monthly steps. This will help you ensure you continue to move toward your targets.

There are several ways to build targets. Make targets both achievable and appropriately challenging. You should integrate targets into day-to-day business operations. You can’t grow 50% without investment, so keep your cash flow and revenue projections in sync. Other items impacted by growth are harder to estimate, such as the number of new employees you’ll need, or how much you’ll end up spending on equipment investment. Maybe you’ll need more space, more cars, more desks, more computers—the list goes on. All of these factors impact cash flow, sometimes dramatically, so you must consider these big changes you might need to make or you’ll quickly notice you’ve impeded your quest to achieve your targets.

A quick sidebar for companies in dire financial straits—don’t ignore the elephant in the room. As you’re thinking of long-term objectives, you may realize your short-term situation is precarious. Address the financial issues in all aspects of your overall business plan and strategy with a high sense of urgency. It will NOT get better or go away. DO IT NOW! Ignoring these issues or deluding yourself into believing everything will fix itself? Not going to happen—so don’t bank on it! (Like straightforward tips? Check out my Eight Tips for Great Leadership post.)

Consider each target and the extended timeframe. While five years may seem like PLENTY of time to reach your big eventual goal, you’ll next need to break it down into actionable steps. You must stay clear on what needs to get done NOW, and every step to reach that target in your timeframe.

With careful planning, realistic expectations, and an eye on your long-term objectives, you’ll hit your targets successfully!


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5 Goal Setting Tips: How NOT to Set Goals for Your Team

Dear CFO,
As the Financial Director of a small manufacturing business, I’ve been working with our sales team to set goals for next year…which has led me to wonder if I really understand goalsetting. I’m good at the “big picture” part, but I struggle to help them prioritize when we narrow it down. What are your best goal setting tips for actionable (realistic) goals?
Leveling-Up Goals in LaGrange, IL

I’ve read so much on goal setting, and a lot of it feels somewhat esoteric. Trust me, I’m the queen of high-level thinking, so I know as well as anyone how difficult it is to break down those high-level values, mission, vision, and targets into real, workable, actionable steps. For many managers and leaders, the breakdown is the hardest part.

I’ll tell you, there are great goal setting tips out there, but it’s hard to wade through all the peripheral noise. Here are five of the best goal setting tips I’ve found and what works for me.

The Five Best Goal Setting Tips

Tip #1: Commit to Starting Your Goals NOW!

I find many leaders get bogged down in what I like to call a “plague of maybes.”

  • Maybe you’re still a bit on edge about establishing a solid commitment to achieve your goals.
  • Maybe it’s hard to commit because you think your team won’t get on board if you’re stretching them a little thinner with extra workloads.
  • Maybe it’s compounded because you’re not sure whether your team will buy-in or even be capable of the performance you expect.
  • Maybe the day-to-day workload is too much.
  • Maybe you’re in a mid-level role and you’re waiting for word from the top (before soliciting buy-in from the bottom).
  • Maybe you feel committing is a waste of time because you never know what will happen, or you haven’t been successful in the past.
  • Maybe, maybe, MAYBE.

Enough Maybes!

The list of obstacles preventing you from starting to set your goals is endless. Running through the maybes is a masterclass in procrastination. I propose, even if ALL of the maybes listed above are 100% true, your department will be more successful, and perhaps even perform better when you commit to setting goals. Take one step today, right now!

Tip #2: Don’t Dismiss SMART Goal Setting

Your plan is what keeps your goal achievable and grounded in reality. Consider your plan the road mapBy now we’ve all heard so much about SMART goals, we can recite the criteria in our sleep: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. But if we all know the SMART concept like the back of our hands, why do we still skip a letter (or two) when we set goals?

First the “S”—I’ve seen so many people flounder with their goal setting because they aren’t specific enough about what they want to achieve. (Hint: if you’re stuck, start by listing out what you want to AVOID instead. Sometimes that’s an easier approach.) Either they aren’t sure, or they get stuck on the “big picture” thinking again.

People also get stuck when they avoid the “A” and “R” in SMART. While I encourage setting big stretch goals, your goals must be achievable and realistic. Realistic doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for the stars, but set a plan to obtain a rocket ship first. “A goal without a plan is just a wish,” in the words of author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Your plan is what keeps your goal achievable and grounded in reality. Consider your plan the road map.

People miss the “M” and “T” as well. They aren’t sure when a goal is complete because they’re nebulous with the parameters. Is the outcome measurable? Will you KNOW you’ve achieved your target? Is the goal time-bound? Will you know WHEN you get there? So many goals end up floating out there in space because they aren’t tethered by time and measurability.

I read a great article a while back in Forbes called Seven Mistakes Leaders Make in Setting Goals—a fantastic list addressing goal setting and implementation issues. The insights in the article are timeless when it comes to goal setting. (Much thanks to author Ron Ashkenas for his ideas.) From the article, I gleaned three additional goal setting tips.

Tip #3: Don’t Engage in Charades

you need to know what your team is capable of and whether or not they’re going to sandbag the idea right from the startAshkenas defines engaging in charades as, “you and your people know from the beginning that the goal is just an exercise to convey the appearance of progress, but there’s no hope of achieving it.”

My take is you need to know what your team is capable of and whether or not they’re going to sandbag the idea right from the start. While you know you’re the team leader—and, yes, your team needs to follow your lead here—above all, stay realistic. Get buy-in from upper management to ensure you have the right people on the bus. Do you trust your current team?

Are your team members comfortable with communication? Are they willing to let you know the goal is more than a stretch? Can you break it down into smaller pieces? Can you quantify the resources it will take to accomplish this? Do you have internal and external resources to hit your target? Can you afford to make it happen?

The bottom line is this game can occur at every level in the organization, from the strategic plan to individual performance goals. Be honest with your team and yourself.

Tip #4 Don’t Set Vague or Distant Goals

It comes back to the S in SMART. Are your goals specific? Look at the T as well to ensure, as Asheknas says, “The time frame is not explicitly defined or set too far into the future, so no one takes it seriously.”

You define your targets and long term objectives with milestones that stretch out 3-5 years. But how do you break it down to “eat the elephant one bite at a time?”

When it comes to these long-term, high-level objectives, pick THE date, perhaps hang it up in the office, so the target is always present, relevant, and meaningful. Again, get a feel for the steps, people, and time involved before defining the date. People want to feel successful. As expressed in Break Through: A Leader’s Greatest Lesson by Paul Homoly, CSP, your job is to make it easier for your people to succeed.

If there’s no hope of meeting the end date, your team will know it isn’t real, and they won’t take it seriously (or they’ll feel instantly defeated. Your goal must be doable, or they’re doomed from the start.

Tip #5: Set Only One or Two Goals at a Time!

Prioritize your goals and only go after 1 or 2 at a time - don't overwhelm yourself!Overachievers raise your hands! One of the biggest goal-setting mistakes is setting too many goals! Asheknas says, “By assigning an overabundance of objectives, you allow subordinates to pick and choose the goals they either want to do or find easiest to do—but not necessarily the ones that are most important.”

The truth is, this is the goal-setting tip I struggle with the most. I want it all achieved NOW. So, instead of setting realistic goals, it becomes a long, LONG (overwhelming) to-do list. If you’re like me (and there are many out there) put someone on your team to tell you when there’s too much on your plate.

Sometimes priorities need to get rearranged and reassigned. Priorities make everyone’s job easier; it’s still possible to achieve much of what you want to do, and when those items are ranked, a rhythm develops to accomplish each step.

Decide what’s most important. Help your team prioritize and decide which goals to tackle when. Don’t merely throw goals at your team and expect them to come up with the priority. When this happens, someone will get overloaded, and your most important goals will get ignored, not accomplished.

Using these goal setting tips will help you and your team tackle those goals and you’ll be on your way toward your targets! Remember to start with the right, SMART goal setting strategies, prioritize, and work toward your goals step by step. Before you know it, you’ll feel amazed at all your team has achieved.


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Creating a Project Plan: Project Planning in Motion

Ready to bring your business plans to life? Here’s what you need to know about creating a project plan and leading your team to success.

Building a successful business takes significant time, effort, planning, and implementation to produce the desired results.

The more thoughtful you are in strategically planning your quarterly goals and action plans, setting firm project plan ground rules, and considering other roadblocks or opportunities, the better your chances are for improving your business overall. It all begins with creating a project plan.

So, once you’ve found a great initiative, vetted it with your team, identified the parameters—it’s time to put the pedal to the metal and actually start working on those project plans!

Project plans identify the steps necessary to achieve your key initiatives, thereby achieving a company goal. Key initiatives are the individual ways in which employees will be able to contribute to the achievement of that goal.  

Foundations: Creating Your Project Plan

Once you’ve identified your goals and the key initiatives to achieve them, the project plan comes nextFirst of all, you’re going to want to go digital. Paper planning is no longer the most efficient method for project planning. There are plenty of software options out there like Wrike, Basecamp, and Asana. Most of these products are extremely user-friendly, scalable, and affordable. At the minimum, using a shared Google doc will keep your project plans in one place.

Once you’ve identified your goals and the key initiatives to achieve them, the project plan comes next. Project plans take each key initiative and put individual small steps in place to help employees work toward completing those initiatives. In addition, project plans assign responsibility and deadlines for each individual step. Develop these at multiple levels throughout the organization based on your goals for the business and your overall strategic plan. Project plans can range from a few simple steps to hundreds in the case of a system implementation or other large initiative.

Remember, every company is different. Project plan development may look completely different for one business versus another. In this case, for example, we’ll focus on what creating a project plan might look like for a smaller company.

What’s the main difference between a small business and a large corporation? The long-term objectives may be the same (grow the business and make a better profit, for example) but typically, smaller companies are more resource-constrained, meaning the implementation of strategic plans may be more difficult to achieve.

Notice we said difficult—NOT impossible! Nothing is impossible as long as you plan carefully, lead with confidence, and don’t give up.

Small Business Project Planning

The majority of small companies will implement a project very informally, and with little accountability as to who is responsible for ensuring the project is completed. I, myself, have been guilty of this more often than I care to admit. Well, I’m human and we all make mistakes! The temptation of sliding back into that informality is still there for me, but the difference is now, I know better.

Creating a project plan sets you and your company up for successCreating a project plan sets you and your company up for success. At the end of the day, it all comes down to setting priorities (for a great example, review Stephen Covey’s Big Rocks Exercise) and managing expectations.

Without a formal project plan, there is no accountability from your team because you failed to supply your team with appropriate expectations. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude won’t get you very far, especially if your comprehensive goal is to be a high-functioning organization.

Think about it. Most people tend to work better when under a firm deadline. Don’t you?

For purposes of implementing a new project plan process in a small business, we’re going to keep it relatively simple. The first question to ask in developing your project plan is “What does “done” look like?” and define it clearly in terms of how it meets identified requirements (technical, functional, satisfaction of and fit with strategic objectives) as well as any deliverables. Then ask yourself, “What steps do I need to develop in the project plan to achieve “done”?

Turning Key Initiatives into Project Plans

Here’s an example of an initiative and how we would turn it into an actionable project plan.

Strategic Objective: Improve sales by 20% in the next year.

Let’s select the first initiative and develop a simple project plan by identifying what steps we will need to take to accomplish the strategic objective.

  • Increase Quarter 1 close rate to 40%
  • Project Leader: Lee
  • Project Subject Matter Expert: Jake

There are a few things you should notice immediately about the plan. First off, each step is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Sensitive). Second, there are itemized steps in the plan that can be tied in with other initiatives under the overall strategic objective. Talk about killing two birds with one stone! Often there is a sequence and/or interdependency to the steps and therefore any problems can cascade through a plan.

Note that some of the listed steps might seem to conflict with another initiative. At this point, you would be best fit to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it more important to build my pipeline to 50, or increase my close rate from 30% to 40%?
  • Are these initiatives truly in conflict? Would the pipeline increase be in pursuit of higher quality sales with a higher probability of close?
  • Can we combine seeking 5 new customers into the pipeline build?

The most important thing to remember is that it’s your job as the leader, president, or owner of the business to make it easier for your team to succeed. The original initiatives were developed together with your team, and everyone came to an agreement on the plan and perceived the overall goals as achievable.

Now, it’s your job to make sure that actually happens.

Pitfalls of Project Planning: What to Watch Out For

The best thing you can do to help your business succeed overall is to come prepared with a project planBefore you continue to implement a given project plan for a selected initiative, think to yourself, “How could this plan negatively affect the company?” I’m not saying that you should think negatively about your plan, per se. Rather, you should prepare yourself for anything (and hope for the best). The best thing you can do to help your business succeed overall is to come prepared.

Yes, your project plan looks clear and positive. It even sounds like a great plan when you explain it to your team. But inevitably, issues may arise that you didn’t see coming when you developed your strategic plan.

Here are some examples from the project plan above of issues that may arise or result in unintended consequences.

  • What could be wrong with increasing the close ratio?
  • What if I close on more risky credits? Do we have the controls in place to assure that this doesn’t happen?

At the time you developed the initiative from which your project plan stems, it may have been safe to assume that someone from your financial team would have raised a question if the issue had been a true risk. However, you can’t always assume that. Despite everyone’s best effort, sometimes issues slip through the cracks.

Here, the argument for using cross-functional teams comes back into play and you can see the benefit that having more than one point of view can really bring.

Whatever you do, don’t over-complicate things for your team. You should be thorough, strategic, detailed, and motivated, but keep it as simple as you can while still actively pursuing success. Make a list of goals and key initiatives to measure and pursue those goals, assign responsibility, prioritize each goal and initiative, and make a project plan with a list of all the steps necessary to complete each initiative assigning responsibility and due dates

Don’t be afraid to get things done, and don’t be intimidated. NOW is the time to start!

Pick up a piece of paper and a pen, flip open your laptop, or turn on your tablet. Don’t wait around for the idea to hit you—JUST GET STARTED! Remember the words of prolific artist, Pablo Picasso: “Action is the foundational key to all success.” The rule when creating a project plan is to do your due diligence, then jump in and go for it!


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4 Steps for Setting Up Quarterly Goals and Action Plans

Wondering how to set realistic (but ambitious) quarterly goals and action plans? Here are the steps to action-planning success!
Dear CFO,
I’m hoping to really ramp up our online sales in our marketing department. As the department head, it’s my job to set our benchmarks and figure out our quarterly goals and action plans. I know breaking it down into bite-sized pieces is key. Could you advise me on the best way to set and track realistic (but challenging) quarterly goals?
Goal-Getter in Gainesville, FL

Success in any business planning requires setting goals and establishing long-term targets. I’m assuming you’ve explored your long-term plans (5-year objectives) and your big “stretch goals”? These BIG ideas are achievable when you take it one day at a time.

I would suggest reviewing SMART goal setting strategies and the basics of project planning. It sounds like you’ve had experience in those areas already, but it never hurts to brush up. From there, breaking down your goals and action plans into quarterly targets is a great idea for success. 

So, as you dive into quarterly goals and action plans, my best advice is to remember many factors are beyond your control. You can’t predict the future (market, economy, innovations), so simply focus on the pieces you CAN control. One of these pieces is your goals.

Once those SMART goals and long-term targets are set, it’s time to convert them into specific actionable steps. This list of the actionable steps required to achieve your goal will translate into your action plan.

Every division and department in your company will have individual goals that align with the larger goals and long-term targets of the company as a whole. Now, since you’re focused on your department (marketing), it’s important to look at the areas of overlap. Make sure none of your goals interfere with the goals of other departments. Your success shouldn’t make someone else’s job harder. Align the long-term strategies across the entire company for the greatest impact and outcomes

Step 1: Schedule Time to Take Action

putting off your quarterly goals and action plan will only create more chaos in the company down the roadNow chances are, like everyone in the business world, your department is extremely busy. It’s often tempting to forgo the pro-active approach of solid project planning and development, and instead, react to whatever the winds blow your way.

But putting off your quarterly goals and action plan will only create more chaos in the company down the road. It will inevitably lead you and your department farther away from achieving your quarterly (and annual) goals. If you’ve broken the actions down into smaller pieces, then the time to act is NOW.

Establish a quarterly priority and schedule for your department to meet and develop your action plan. This plan should establish exactly what you need to do to meet the specified goals and priorities.

Remember, prioritizing is one of the most difficult yet important steps when you’re developing an action plan. It’s hard to narrow down which steps are the most important. It’s also tempting to want to tackle every item at once. Break it down into the MOST critical goal, then the next. Which steps will help you reach those goals within your given time frame (in this case, a quarter)?

I suggest reviewing Stephen Covey’s unique “Big Rocks” exercise for a nice visual representation of why priority setting is so crucial to business success.

An action plan should consist of key initiatives that will allow you and your team to actually accomplish priorities once they’ve been set. What your key initiatives look like will depend on a number of factors. Remember, determining the key initiatives is very hard. Avoid the “I want everything yesterday” mentality.

One of the factors that will determine the look of your initiatives is your budget. If you know what your budget is for a given action plan, share the information with your team so they know where the boundaries lie. If you don’t know what your budget is, you may end up looping back to your plan.

After you’ve efficiently prioritized and identified your top priority, focus on it! Make sure you relate the top priority to your department in a way they can visualize it, along with an actionable way to measure the outcome.

Step 2: “Theme Me Up, Scotty!” (Establish Your Theme)

establish a theme for your quarterly goals and action planNow that you’ve developed your action plan and you’re ready to take action, you must find an appropriate way to express the action plan to others on your team. Every individual learns differently, so it’s wise to choose a ‘theme’ or expression many can relate to.

For example: Are you the industry underdog fighting the market leader? Perhaps a “Rocky” theme would motivate your team, using sales growth as the key initiative to measure outcome. A “300” theme could help you rally your company together, using customer fulfillment as a key indicator to measure success. It’s totally okay to have a bit of fun with your theme!

In reality, it doesn’t fall on you alone to pick a theme for your action plan. It doesn’t need to be flashy or chic, either. It only needs to work to drive real action among your department!

If you’re hard-pressed to come up with a theme yourself, encourage your team to share their ideas. This also fosters buy-in and helps boost your team culture. There are innumerable ways to express action plans with themes, and they should all include a form of measurement and cohesive idea.

One of the most common themes of expression for an action plan (that I’ve seen) comes in the form of a one-page summary for each individual goal, with the team developing the key initiatives necessary to achieve the goals.

Step 3: Identify Key Initiatives & Key Performance Indicators

If you find yourself wondering what a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) is, relax! I’m here to show you exactly where they fall in your action plan. KPIs are an important tool in your quarterly goal and action plan arsenal.

Once you’ve stated your quarterly goals, you should use KPIs as a statement of measurement for achieving the outcome of each goal, in addition to identifying who in your department is responsible for measuring the outcome.

This type of action plan measurement will translate into a project plan, which might look like this:

  • Goal: Increase customer satisfaction to reduce turnover and increase referrals.
  • Key Performance Indicator: Monitor customer satisfaction with a checkout rating or single question survey.
  • Key Initiatives: Customer service and marketing
  • #1: Design a single question micro-survey for customers upon checkout, “would you recommend us to a friend?”
  • #2: Decrease customer response time from 48 hours, to 24 hours.
  • #3: Offer customers an incentive for referrals (5% discount for referrals).
  • #4: Cross-promote via social media, web, and customer channels (internal and external).

Another example could be formal with more finite targets broken down for the quarter and built upon to achieve the annual objective:

Improve sales by 20% in the next year.

Step 4: Track Performance on Your KPI Dashboard

You will track your KPIs on what’s called a KPI dashboard. This dashboard offers a visual representation of your goals and progress. You can align the dashboard to your theme for added impact. As I shared in my post, How to Set Up a KPI Dashboard:

In the sales department, you may choose racehorses staggered with the “closest to goal” salesperson in the lead (whether the salesperson is closest to achieving the percent of the goal or the actual dollars). The achievement of the accounts receivable aging goal (reduce 90-day accounts to < 5% of total receivables) might show a trend line in green if it’s heading in the right direction or simply highlight the percent in red if going the wrong direction.

Some departments in your company may need more fun and competition to motivate them. Others may find success by staying focused on day-to-day performance. Keep the company culture and culture of the individual departments in mind as you plan your KPI dashboards.

It’s all about figuring out what will motivate your team and give them a visual idea of where they stand. Seeing a goal progress is very motivating (this is why fundraisers often use a visual representation of donations, as they work toward their goal).

As you work on your quarterly goals and action plans, don’t forget—the SMART goal concept and the need for team contribution is key in every part of your goal-setting and action plan development. For the most success, you’ll need 100% team buy-in.

So, use a KPI Dashboard and SMART goal setting strategies to keep your team on track. It will be so satisfying when you look back at the end of the quarter and see all your department has achieved!


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Business Lessons in Sports: What Can We Learn from the Fosbury Flop and the Underhand Free Throw?

There are many business lessons in sports history. What do the underhand free throw and the Fosbury flop teach us about running a successful company?

Throughout sports history, there are many great pieces of wisdom. Anyone who’s read Harvey Penick’s golf-based philosophies or Vince Lombardi’s insights on teamwork knows there are plenty of business lessons in sports.

Today, there are two sports where you can learn powerful lessons about the way you think of your business: high jumping and basketball. Are you wondering what on earth you could learn from these two athletic events? Plenty!

Business Lessons in Innovation from The Fosbury Flop (a.k.a. the Brill Bend)

track and field runner high jumping over a poleLet’s talk briefly about the art of high jumping. Before the 1968 Olympics, all high jumpers used the scissors or straddle kick to clear the bar. This method involves running at the bar and turning to clear it; taking off on one foot and landing in a standing position on the other side of the bar. This method had been in use since the beginning of record-keeping in 1912.

While the style of jump is somewhat dependent on height (or so I thought when I did high jump), this classic scissors method led to a world record jump of 7’ 8 ¼” in 1978. That was the last time the scissors method was used to break a world record.

In 1968, Dick Fosbury became famous for inventing a “new” style of high jumping. He found he couldn’t compete with the scissors method and developed his own technique to beat the competition. What made the difference was Dick Fosbury was willing to seem weird. He wasn’t concerned about looking good—just getting over the bar.

As one journalist described it, Fosbury looked “like a guy who was falling off a truck.” His method featured a midair rotation whereby the jumper arched their back, kicking their legs out, and landing on their back on the other side of the bar. The move allows the jumper to run with more speed, arching their back to keep the center of gravity at or below the bar.

(As a side note here, Canadian athlete Debbie Brill developed a similar technique known as the Brill Bend. She used it to become the first North American woman to clear 6 ft in the high jump.)

All records since the introduction of the Fosbury Flop, including the standing (1993) high jump record at 8’ ½” held by Cuban athlete Javier Sotomayor, used the flop method. Athletes realized it was worth looking a little funny to perfect their technique.

So, what business lesson do we learn from the sport of high jumping? Are you making the same moves over and over, but not making progress? Sometimes we work very hard at improving our scissors kick when we should instead invent the next Fosbury Flop. Are you the innovator in your industry or doing the same old thing?

A few business innovation questions to ask yourself:

When is the last time you tried something new in your markets? 

  • Are you on the right distribution channels?
  • Have you explored new markets or means of penetrating existing markets?
  • What was the latest product enhancement you introduced?

When was the last time you improved your production capabilities?

  • Does your staffing assure the best quality and quantity delivery of your product?
  • Are your machines capable of meeting the specifications of your customers?
  • Is the production flow as efficient as it can be?
  • Have you identified waste and downtime and set up a plan to reduce them?

Have your personnel policies and procedures kept up with the times (legal and generational)?

  • Have you adapted to the needs of a multi-generational workforce?
  • Have your benefits kept up with the demands of the incoming workforce?

Do you have performance measures (what is the height of the bar you plan to jump)?

Have you looked at your competitors recently? (Are they all doing the “flop” and you are still using the scissors kick?)

  • Do you have a recent SWOT analysis?
  • What is the status of your market? Are you a mature industry where costs rule or an innovative sector, needing to move quickly into new frontiers?

The point here isn’t to do all these items, but rather to develop a business mindset that keeps a focus on:

  • What am I currently doing?
  • Who is doing it better?
  • How can I do it better?

Figuring out innovative answers is hard to do when you spend your days “in” your business. That’s why you must step back and take the time to work “on” your business. Never underestimate the importance of think time, especially as a company leader.

Don’t get me wrong, answering these questions may require more money or resources than you have right now. Other questions are there to generate ideas to help you run your business more effectively. Optimize your resources (get yourself over the bar) and think creatively about addressing the obstacles (invent your own “flop”).

The Other Crucial Business Lesson We Can Learn from The High Jump

track and field runner jumping a high jump over a poleSo, once the Fosbury Flop (or Brill Bend) was introduced, that was it, right? Game-changer? Well, yes and no. While the Fosbury Flop is almost universally used now in elite competition, it’s important to realize high jumping is often initially taught using the scissors kick.

It’s tempting to ask why this would be? Why teach kids how to do the sport in a less-efficient manner?

As young athletes learn the high jump, the scissors kick isn’t only safer, but a better way to solidify the fundamentals, proper form, and technique. Scissors is safer because athletes stay upright. It’s less intimidating and helps young high jumpers build up their confidence.

From this business lesson in sports, we realize one of the biggest takeaways: before you innovate, you need to learn the fundamentals!

So often as business owners, we get ahead of ourselves. We chase the next squirrel or follow the next big idea. This is especially true for entrepreneurs used to forging ahead on their own path. Innovation is essential, but make sure you aren’t reinventing the wheel!

There are plenty of best practices and business fundamentals to help you answer many of your most significant queries. Most problems have been faced before. Before you implement new business plans or take a step forward, examine your current state.

If you answer yes to each of these questions, then you might be ready to move up to the Fosbury Flop! But don’t forget you need fundamentals covered FIRST.

Don’t Fear the Underhand Throw

basketball player jumping to dunk the basketball in the netNow, moving from the world of track and field to the world of basketball. We’ve all seen players stand at the free-throw line, shooting baskets. Typically, players assume a free throw stance, eyes on the basket. They shoot the ball overhand, and “swish” in it goes…or not.

How many of us get frustrated as we watch our favorite team miss free throw after free throw? It must be challenging to hit those baskets, right?

In one scientific study, the researcher evaluated the use of both the overhand and underhand shot using participants who hadn’t shot free throws in the past. While this study was limited, and participants who shot well overhand were also successful at underhand, the researchers found one style no more prone to success than the other. The researcher concluded free-throw shooting success “may be more dependent on repetition than style.” However, in real-life applications, anecdotal evidence shows underhand throws are often just as successful, if not even more useful for some players.

Basketball fans know the importance of a player’s skill at free throws. Often, the opposing team will foul a bad free-throw shooter to force a turnover in the game. In fact, coaches bench good players near the end of a game to avoid this possibility. To stay in the game, several players increased their free throw percentages using the underhand methodology.

  • Rick Barry, 12-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, is synonymous with the throw. He made 89.3% of all his career attempts (the record at his retirement in 1980). The 2018-19 season saw an average of approximately 76%.
  • George Johnson moved his free throw stats from 41.2% in his rookie year to 69.4% for his career adopting the underhand throw.
  • Wilt Chamberlain, 13-time All-Star, 7-time scoring champ, and Hall of Famer increased his stats 11% to a career-high in 1961-62 of 61.3%, including a record of 28 points from the line. BUT switching back to overhand his career record stands at 51.1%.

So, why switch back? If underhand throws are working, why wouldn’t everyone train to use them? They aren’t an illegal play. Why are there very few examples of the underhand free throw in modern basketball?

  • Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography reflects on his decision, “I felt silly, like a sissy…I know I was wrong…I just couldn’t do it.”
  • Perhaps Shaquille O’Neal (15-time All-Star, 2-time scoring champ, and Hall of Famer), who was horrid at the line, summed it up for modern times, “I’d rather shoot zero percent. Too cool for that.”
  • Even when Rick Barry tutored a poor shooter to achieve “80 to 90 in practice …he never had the guts to do it when he went back to the team.”

So, what business lesson do we learn from underhand shooting? (I must say, for starters, if they stopped calling it the “Granny Shot,” it might gain more acceptance. Perception is reality.)

Are you overlooking methods to improve your business, because they seem beneath you? What is your underhand shot in your business that has proven successful? It’s essential to remember that it doesn’t matter if your success is based on the shot itself or the repetition to perfect it. Either way, if it works, it works! So, how will you improve your stats using that shot?

  • Did you have recurring revenue you abandoned in pursuit of a bright and shiny new customer because you were “too cool for that,” like Shaq?
  • Do you have customer concentrations that could harm your business and you know it is “wrong” yet choose to ignore it?
  • Are you afraid to “look like a sissy” in your industry, circle of associates, or others and fail to bring a new insight or product to fruition in your “stats”?
  • Do you have the “guts” to pursue a new venture regardless of the perception of others?

Each person sees the world through filters built over a lifetime, and therefore, perception is reality. I need to forge ahead despite my lack of “guts” sometimes, or my fear of how others might perceive me in their reality. I can’t control their reality nor my place in it, and here I should take my own advice.

Besides being incredibly entertaining and engaging, sports teach us many powerful lessons in the business world, as in life. How will you apply these lessons to your company today?


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How to Start Setting Up a Project Plan

Wondering how to build a project plan? Here's how to get started setting up a project plan for your next big task.
Dear CFO,
My boss approached me about coming up with a project plan as our accounting department transitions to new software early next year. This is a new challenge for me, but one I’m ready to tackle. What advice do you have for me about setting up a project plan? 
Ready to Plan in Raleigh, NC

Setting up a project plan? That’s terrific! I’m sure you’ll find it an exciting and interesting challenge. Since you seem new to the ground rules of project plans, I thought I’d start with the basics. Every great project plan begins with a solid foundation and works up from there.

Setting up a project plan means starting with goals. If you’ve studied basic goal setting, you probably know the crucial difference between how to set goals and how NOT to set goals. Once you’ve set those SMART goals and long-term targets, further break them down into quarterly goals and action plans. These bite-sized steps help you and your team set up a firm pathway to follow on your project plan.

Successful action plans require REAL action. The action happens mainly by developing lists of actionable items, identifying top priorities, coming up with a unique theme to drive engagement. To gauge success, you must determine how to measure the achievement of each goal through key performance indicators.

But the breakdown doesn’t stop there. You’ve got to keep moving forward, and the key to moving forward at this point in the game is to create a solid project plan. Identify the ground rules and drive your department toward successful implementation. Let’s start with the basics of setting up a project plan.

Ground Level: What IS a Project Plan?

To accomplish ANY project efficiently, you’ll need to use a project planIf we break down the anatomy of a project, we see it has a defined beginning and completion time. Most projects entail a specific scope of work or activity within the parameters of budget and time constraints. Usually, there is a defined outcome or goal.

To accomplish ANY project efficiently, you’ll need to use a project plan. Now, a project plan isn’t necessarily a specialized or clearly defined document or outline. Project plans entail identifying key initiatives (itemized goals you’ve set for your company) and implementing ordered steps to help you achieve them.  A project plan is created by making a list, putting together a procedure document, using project planning software, or working through brainstorming sessions with your team.

Also, project plans should outline the assignment of responsibility for the completion of a given project and a realistic due date. When referring to the project plan, your team should know who must do what to achieve the goal.

Last but not least, the project plan will identify the context of the budget for the specific project. Keep in mind, the budget may be rigid or flexible, and in the form of both time and money.

The Rules of the Road for Setting Up a Project Plan

Before you start developing real project plans, it’s helpful to review the ground rules of project planning.

Here are the basic rules of successful project planning:

  1. Avoid too many cooks in the kitchen. The number of employees assigned responsibility for a project may vary from 1 to 7, depending on the size of your company. Anything larger and you should consider breaking up the initiatives into smaller pieces.
  2. Assign and rely on project managers. If you don’t have people to help your team by serving as project managers, you may need to add another strategic objective. Hire people to fill the role (remember it’s all about having the right people on the bus).
  3. Cross-train and promote cross-functionality. Teams, and even team members themselves, should learn to become cross-functional whenever possible. Everyone who is impacted by the project should be involved. Enlist the help of SMEs. Get your IT team on board. Ask for input from your sales teams.
  4. Remember, outside perspectives are valuable. Involve those on the periphery, even if there is no direct impact. You gain insight from boots on the ground. For example, marketing might see a PR opportunity in IT development for customer service. Finance might find a way to gather data more effectively. Customer Service may share customer feedback to direct sales response for communications.
  5. Communicate roadblocks throughout the company. When you reach a barrier or stuck point, it’s time to ask EVERYONE for input. Offer people an opportunity to contribute and ask for feedback. The ideas you’ll hear will amaze you—many of which may have never crossed your mind! Maybe everyone won’t offer the right answer, but it will get the wheels turning on an alternative solution.
  6. Think of the outcomes for the whole company. Remember, your objective is to improve the business overall—not just your group or department. A great idea in Sales may look like a nightmare to Finance, and vice versa. We’ve all had the experience where someone comes up with a “great idea” that frustrates everyone else.

As a leader, I’ve always followed the rule, “You can’t make your job easier if it makes someone else’s job harder.” This rule helps people think more critically about the potential changes necessary and how to accomplish project objectives in different ways. Thinking outside the box is terrific, as long as you’re not putting someone else in a bind.

Plan with the Big Picture in Mind

When you create your project plan and enlist the feedback of your team, reiterate to everyone to keep the guideline in mind.A project manager needs to remember that you don’t want just to move work around; you want to streamline it throughout the organization. When you create your project plan and enlist the feedback of your team, reiterate to everyone to keep the guideline in mind.

Focus on the broader outcomes and long-term business goals for your company. How will these results look in two years? Five years? Ten years? How will this change affect customers and other key stakeholders? Will it impact other departments (like IT)? It’s important not to become too single-minded on your objective and miss the whole story.

Integrate project plans to support your goals. An individual plan shouldn’t conflict with another company-wide objective. Set consistent initiatives. For example, if the initiative includes the aim of closing more sales, it shouldn’t raise a credit risk the company isn’t willing to assume. However, it’s perfectly logical to say closing more sales means we need to adjust our risk evaluation and change pricing to accommodate it.

Setting the criteria for an acceptable sale—however profitable or risky—should be independent of the initiative to close more sales.

Project planning is a big responsibility, but it sounds like you’re up for the challenge. If you want to make changes in your department, you must implement a plan, before leaping. Remember, as Harvey Mackay said, “A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.”

Best of luck to you with setting up a project plan for your team!


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