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Archive for the ‘“soft skills”’ Category

When faced with a problem or issue, ask yourself, “Do I need to solve it?” This question is important because you don’t need to solve every problem. I have a tendency to want to solve any problem I come across: mine or anyone else’s. Over time I have trained myself not to try and solve every problem. Some problems don’t need solving. Or at least, not every problem needs me.

I was explaining this idea yesterday to a co-worker. We ran into an issue building a server. As you might guess with information technology, the majority of the build process is automated. We’re not consuming up actual resources like wood and metal because we’re talking about information technology. The biggest consumable resource here is time.

He had already spent a good chunk of time trying to solve an issue with what he was building and the typical solutions weren’t working. Troubleshooting the problem further was likely going to take hours. More hours than it would take to simply blow away what he was working on and start over. This raised the question, “Do we need to solve why we’re encountering an issue?” The short answer is, “No.

Think Like a Freak book cover

Think Like a Freak book cover

In Think Like a Freak, the authors talk about knowing when to quit. Basically, does it make sense continuing to try and solve the problem at hand based on the cost? They cite Winston Churchill, famous for his “Never Give In” speech, who was a serial quitter when it came to things like politics. However, there was good reason for quitting each time.

In the case of my co-worker, it didn’t make sense to continue trying to find out what went wrong. There’s a whole host of reasons why we could have experienced the issues. Going down the path of each one was going to take time. The server was in the process of being built, meaning it hadn’t been delivered yet. It was time to quit. The “reward” or “earnings” for solving the problem was more than the effort to solve the issue. This was not a problem that needed solving.

When you are facing a problem, ask yourself that question. Some things have an intangible cost and/or benefit. You can still ask the question. It’s just the consequences or benefits don’t factor down to a money amount. Know what’s valuable to you in those intangible areas. Know what’s important.

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A friend of mine recently received feedback anonymously. The feedback raised some questions my friend wanted to ask. The problem with anonymous feedback is that when you receive it, you don’t know the perspective of the person who gave it. You don’t know what factors influence that feedback. And you can’t ask questions to understand specifically what caused that person to give that sort of feedback. This is true whether the feedback is positive or negative.

When you choose to give feedback, it’s best if you can give it in person. If nothing else, attach your name and contact information. If you care enough to give feedback, care enough to be willing to be engaged in a conversation about it. For those of us who seek to improve, having that conversation is crucial, and details often matter. Looking at it from the other side, I have found that those conversations can be more informative for me than for the person I offered a comment to. It’s an opportunity for both people to grow.

However, if you leave the comment anonymously, that conversation never has a chance to happen. Neither side can grow from it. Therefore, if you choose to leave feedback, do so prepared for that conversation and attach your name.

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Note: I listened to the book in audiobook format. More on this shortly.

Delivering_HappinessDelivering Happiness is an intriguing title. I thought so the first time I saw it, but because it was about how Tony Hsieh and crew built Zappos, I continued to put it aside in my audio book library. I don’t find news about shoes appealing. In hindsight, my assumption about the subject matter was incorrect and I should have listened/read this book far sooner.

Why? 

First, Tony doesn’t cover what they did right, he also covers some of the things they did wrong. This isn’t just true of Zappos, but also of LinkExchange, the first company Tony built. I despise books that just cover what folks did right. Often times the best lessons come from analyzing the mistakes that were made. Delivering Happiness has this. There were some things Tony did at Zappos that were to avoid issues that had developed at LinkExchange. There were also actions taken by Tony and crew at Zappos later on in the company’s existence from mistakes they had made early on. One of the biggest is the focus on culture. Any interview I’ve heard with Tony Hsieh talks about company culture. LinkExchange’s culture was allowed to deteriorate to the point where the founders didn’t want to show up to work any longer. That mistake wasn’t repeated at Zappos.

Second, the book covers quite a bit about Tony, his mindset, and what his priorities were. I said were because over the course of the book you see how some of those priorities changed drastically. From wanting to be the best worm farmer around (as a kid – to make a ton of money) to valuing relationships and seeing the limits of money, you see growth. Tony’s also not shy of admitting why priorities changed and how he was wrong.

Third, Tony Hsieh included important lessons honed in practice about customer support and about brand. One important lesson is that both come out of company culture. The better you get your company culture, the better you’re going to see both customer support and brand. In the past you could fake brand with enough marketing dollars. Customer support was easier to fake, too, because it was harder to get the word out about poor customer service. Nowadays, with social media being what it is, one viral story sinks you. So if you try to fake customer service or brand, if they don’t come out of your culture, you fail.

Finally, a lot of the lessons don’t just apply to a company. Tony hits this in the epilogue. As an individual we can make a lot of the same choices he recommends for a company. Many of these choices are for the better.

What about the premise of the title?

I think it’s a bold statement to say one “delivers happiness.” There’s an interview on the audiobook that I listened to where Tony gets asked what happiness is to him. When you start listening to his explanation, I don’t think it agrees with what he puts forth in the book. I know for some receiving some set of goods, like shoes or a handbag, may result in a momentary feeling of happiness. However, it’s not long term. Therefore, I think the title fails, though it is catchy.

Do I recommend the book?

Yes, I do, because it’s another “make you think” type of work. I’d be surprised if anyone agreed with everything Tony wrote about. I certainly didn’t. However, Tony gave the reasons for why he did particular things, why Zappos made particular decisions, etc. In looking at those scenarios, it’s an opportunity to analyze and grow. From that perspective, I think anyone can get value out of this book.

So what about the audiobook?

There’s more content, including an interview with Dr. Warren Bennis that’s well worth the listen. I don’t believe it’s in the print book and even if it were, certainly something would be lost in translation.

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As a young lieutenant in the US Air Force, I was taught a valuable lesson by a staff sergeant whom I had asked to mentor me. Why I asked is for a different post, but this staff sergeant looked out for me and gave me the benefit of his years of service in the military. Because of him, I avoided several missteps in my early career and was set up for some big successes. Of all the things he told me, I think the one that I found most valuable was this:

“When you’re leading people, you can never communicate enough to them.”

The military creates a separation between the enlisted and officer ranks. Because of this separation, there’s sometimes (often) suspicion about what’s going on among the leadership. This is natural. That staff sergeant was giving me the best tool to overcome that suspicion: keeping the troops informed. When you have the opportunity, communicate the why’s and how’s for decisions. When procedures and processes change, make sure those are clearly communicated and give the opportunity for questions and feedback.

Also, don’t be afraid to communicate the status of your particular piece of the organization. If nothing has changed, that’s fine to report, especially if that’s expected. If there are issues, don’t be afraid to bring them up unless there is a specific business/mission reason you can’t. People can’t address issues they don’t know about.

It is very easy to under-communicate one-on-one. This is especially true when the person is waiting on you. Some of the things the staff sergeant pointed out could go through the person’s head:

  • You’re blowing the person off because he or she doesn’t matter to you.
  • You have prioritized other things over that person because he or she doesn’t matter to you.
  • You don’t have a good answer and you don’t have the courage to face the person.
  • You are so disorganized that you’ve forgotten.

None of those four are good. If you don’t have an answer yet, there’s nothing wrong with telling the person that you’re still working the issue. What’s better is if you can give a date when you expect an answer. If it’s well in the future, periodic emails to the person help reassure him or her that you’ve not forgotten. With all the task tracking systems and reminder apps we have nowadays, this just isn’t that hard. And it can mean a world of difference to that person who you lead.

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In music, you can see a legacy. You can see how artists of a previous generation/decade influences those who follow. Perhaps it’s even that they open the doors for that kind of act or type of music to be popular. What started this conversation was this group:

The “boy bands” of the last decade or so are a continuation of groups like Boyz II Men. The style of the music isn’t the same, necessarily, but you can see the connection. Furthermore, you can trace the legacy of male harmony groups back through the decades. That’s the exercise my wife and I went through with our children one night last week, talking about how folks pave the way for others.

None of us get to where we are completely by ourselves. People help out all along the way. We help out other people as they navigate their paths. One of the key things to do is to remember who paved the way. Having a sense of gratitude, a humility to remember we didn’t do it on our own, helps us appreciate the progress we have made. It also prepares us to seek out help so that we can continue moving forward towards accomplishing our goals.

Remember who paved the way in your life. You might even drop off a thank you note or two. Then think about who can help you move forward. Ultimately, it is only with the help of others that we’ll achieve our biggest goals in life.

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Recently, a friend of mine was sharing more about his neighborhood’s resident crime lord. The person in question had been arrested again, but this time wasn’t out on bail. Based on what had been previously shared, I wasn’t surprised. He fit the bill as a repeat offender. He had stayed out of jail because he was able to make bail, even after being arrested with pending cases. This last time, though, bail had been denied. If you’re like me, you aren’t thinking very highly of the “repeat offender.”

Then my friend made an interesting comment, “I think he wants to be in jail.” I’ve heard of those who have spent a lot of time in jail wanting to be back in jail because they no longer understood the outside world and wanted to be back in a familiar place. That wasn’t true of this guy. He had no previous convictions. The only time he had spent in jail was waiting to see if he would get out on bail. Naturally, those of us listening to the story inquired further. That’s when my friend said, “You know, he didn’t used to be this way. Everything changed when he lost his wife and daughter in a car accident where they were T-boned. Then he lost another child right after that; I think to suicide. I believe that’s when he got into drugs and then everything started rolling downhill.”

Did you just take a punch to the gut? I did. The problem with the initial reaction to hearing about this guy is we lacked perspective. It’s just like the well known story of the man on the subway with unruly children. The truth of the matter is we lack perspective on a lot of the folks we meet and interact with. It’s easy to come to a quick judgment on someone. Sometimes we don’t have more time and we have to go with that first reaction. When we aren’t forced into a snap decision on someone, we would benefit greatly if we gave others the benefit of the doubt. We should spend the time to formulate a better perspective. Take the time in your interactions. You’ll see the people around you differently as a result. And you will benefit from it.

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Here is where I had a lunch time meeting today:

20140709-140307-50587957.jpg

It’s another private spot in downtown Columbia, another place to get away. Today’s lunch meeting consisted of an alumni board meeting for my high school alma mater. It was a conference call and it was my first as part of the board. As a result, I wanted to:

  • find a place of privacy.
  • find a place of serenity and quiet.
  • get some sun.
  • steer clear of the office.

The fountain in this location is more prominent and the flowing water is soothing. This particular spot, while in downtown, is located on side streets where there isn’t a lot of traffic. As a result, I was able to focus on the conference call and make good use of the time.

Even when you find private spots, consider what is good and and bad about each one. I could have gone to the spot yesterday, but the amount of background noise would have been in competition with the voices on the phone, even with a headset. This particular spot is slightly less private (more people know about it) but always much quieter, even with people present. That’s why today’s spot was the best place for me to attend my meeting.

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