Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Run a Good Race

Posted by debrahelwig on April 4, 2013

runner downSpring has sprung!  Easter is past, warm weather is on its way, the flowers are beautiful…

…and for my friends in public accounting, the April 15 deadline is looming like a BIG LOOMING THING.

Every industry has something like this – the project deadline that can’t be moved, that comes with a workload so crushing it hurts just to breathe. Everyone is focused on URGENT and MOVE IT THROUGH and GET ‘ER DONE.

When the churn comes around, you’ll run into people who get hyperfocused on the work on their desks – and ignore everything (and everyone) else around them. If it doesn’t directly affect their projects, they don’t care. They can’t. They’re too busy. And God help you if you have a situation that affects your handoff to them! Watch them go from pleasant to surly to snarly in about 2 seconds flat.

It’s a constant litany of MY work. MY deadline. MY performance review. ME oh MY oh ME ME ME ME ME…it’s all about MEEEEE!

(Sounds pretty awful when you read it that way, doesn’t it?)

But it’s just that tendency which makes stories like these resonate so strongly when we read them:

Ivan Fernandez Anaya, Spanish Runner, Intentionally Loses Race So Opponent Can Win – a true story! Kenyan athlete Abel Mutai thought the finish line of a race was sooner than it actually was, so he stopped running. Anaya, who was a clear 2nd place, chose not to sprint to the finish and instead slowed down so Mutai could win.

Contestants in a Special Olympics Race Link Arms and Finish Together – a strong exaggeration of a true story, this tale of 9 Special Olympics race contestants who stop to help up a fallen companion and finish the race together is powerful, even if it’s not especially accurate.

‘Cause here’s the truth: as deadlines approach, work is like a race. Getting to the end as efficiently and effectively as possible is important. But paying attention to the people we’re running with, and helping where we can, has a much greater positive impact than just getting to deadline day with finished stacks of work on our desks.

I experienced this truth first-hand last Fall. And it changed my life.

Last September, we were in the critical stages of launching one of our association’s most important meetings, and I dropped the ball. Big time. Just as I should have been building and launching a complex marketing campaign, my father became critically ill.

I didn’t do the campaign. I couldn’t do it. My father died. I planned a funeral.

And my fabulous, awesome, amazing colleagues? They did my work for me and never said a cross word. They put in extra hours. They did things that aren’t in their comfort zone. In that race, they picked me up and carried me across the finish line.

And I will be grateful and loyal to them, and to my company, forever after.

Offices are full of people. Folks with lives that have nothing to do with work – folks with sick kids and sick parents and broken down cars and bills and snow to shovel and God knows what else. Sometimes those non-work commitments mess with deadlines. Sometimes they destroy those deadlines.

It’s up to us to pay attention. To see when our colleagues are struggling and help them across the finish line.

In my Twitter feed yesterday, leadership guru Ken Blanchard said “Life, leadership, and business are all about giving people opportunities to be the best they can be.” Sometimes that means stepping outside of ourselves to carry our friends and colleagues when they can’t manage on their own.

Especially when the deadlines are looming.

Photo by chucka_nc. License.
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Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Busy Season, Leadership, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Go, Make Something!

Posted by debrahelwig on March 14, 2013

MakeSomethingThis week, the stomach flu landed at my house.  On me.

Two days of evilness, followed by the sickest feeling I’ve ever had in my life: coming back to work to a list of 35 urgent “to do” items and an inbox with 150 actionable messages in it. It’s Busy Season in the accounting world and I was already crazy with work. Now…God help me.

And I had thought I was queasy before…

My immediate reaction was one of overwhelming inadequacy and stupidity.  Especially taking into account that there isn’t just WORK stuff. At home I have kids on spring break who are screaming “I’m bored!”; a house that hasn’t been cleaned, with puppy tumbleweeds flying across the den like we’re the last outpost on the lone prairie; bills to pay; a gratitude journal to write; a thank you note I haven’t sent; and OH MY GOD Easter is coming and I haven’t thought about cookies or egg hunts or any of that stuff….

It’s enough to send a person back to bed in a crumpled heap, never to emerge again.

It’s my guess that most of us have been in this place at some point – crushed by the feeling that “the world is falling on my head and I’ll never get out from under.” Frankly, considering it’s Busy Season, I’ll pretty much guarantee I’m not the only one feeling at least a little like this at the moment.

But, in the middle of all these feelings of “Oh My God, I will never be able to do all this,” and “I am suuuuuuch a miserable faaaaaailure!”, two independent pieces of wisdom floated into my inbox yesterday and combined in a way that stopped me in my tracks.

First, there was this post by Mike Figuolio called Quit Being a Critic and Go Create Something. Mike makes great points for anyone in a leadership role, saying:

What you must understand is your criticism carries weight.  It impacts the performance reviews of your people.  It determines whether a supplier wins a contract or gets booted.  It shapes the perspective on whether someone gets promoted or not.  You get the picture – your words change lives. I invite you to go a step beyond the simple criticism.  Help build something beyond your words. … change your mindset from one of critic to one of creator.  Instead of looking at your job responsibilities as only setting direction and judging the work of others, spend time with your team creating new ideas. 

From that came my first BIG THOUGHT:

I am the leader of Team Debra. And I am spending all my time criticizing me, instead of creating great work. I am a professional critic – of myself – and boy, am I a mean one!

Hmmmm.

Then, from my friend Michelle Golden, I received a link to a brilliant TED Talk from Elizabeth Gilbert called Your Elusive Creative Genius.

In this presentation, Gilbert presents the idea that we are not solely responsible for our own creativity. She explains that in ancient cultures, they believed there was an external source for creativity (called the Daemon, or the Genius) that helped the process along. That, in that context, our only responsibility is to show up and do the work, and the creative spark will come. That it’s not on us, as radically frail and freaky creatures, to be the source of making good stuff happen.

Double hmmmmm…

SO – this was my internal conversation that pulled all these thoughts together:

I am a tremendously horrible critic – mostly of myself. When my workload gets too deep, I immediately go to that place of “I’m a horrible failure and it will never get better.”

          This is not helpful. Instead of being a critic, what if you become a creator?  Create, don’t berate.

But I’m too BUSY to create anything! There’s this awful to-do list of mechanical stuff that just Has. To. Be Done. And it’s not creative work! It’s spreadsheets and database files and uploads and….

          Who says that stuff can’t be creative? You’re making something.

Um…

          Even if you have some stuff that isn’t “creative”, so what? Not everything has to be. Just make something every day and you’ll feel more energized for other stuff you have to do.
Maybe just make ONE thing. Make dinner. Write a blog post. Clean up something (make a clean space!). Tell the kids a story.

But I’m soooo tiiiiiired and overwhelllllllmeeeeeddd, I can’t be creative!

          Oooh, but if Elizabeth Gilbert is right, YOU don’t have to be creative. That external THING has to be creative (call it what you will, the genius, the divine, God) – but YOU
don’t have to do it. You just have to show up.

And then I do stuff?

          Right.

And work gets done? I make things?

          Right.

And I feel good about it?

          YES.

But there will still be this huge list of stuff that I didn’t do!

          But it won’t feel the same, if you’re paying attention to what you ARE doing and what you made today. Things will move faster and feel better.

In so many ways, this internal shift doesn’t change a thing. My to-do list is still a morass of electronic insanity. I’m still eating toast and bananas and wishing I felt good enough for a cup of coffee.

But this morning, thanks to Mike and Elizabeth, I’m deciding that the place where I begin my day is not with the idea that “I can’t do all this” and “I am the worst employee ever”.

Instead of being scared of my list, now I’m curious. I can’t wait to find out what my Genius (the Divine, God, the Muse) is going to bring – and what I’m going to get done.

Anticipation, not fear.

Today, I am going to make something great. I wonder what it will be?


Photo by jessica wilson {jek in the box}. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Busy Season, Leadership, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Looking for Spring

Posted by debrahelwig on March 11, 2013

tulips_in_snowBack last summer, I finally got around to picking up the red-hot series by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire – a set of books most popularly known by the name used in its HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones.

Martin is a brilliant writer. For a person like me, who loves words and a rich character tapestry, the first books in the series were almost narcotic. I had picked the first one up casually, as a beachtime “well, it’s something to do.” Then, just a few chapters in, I became obsessed. It was one of those “read while you brush your teeth, read while you take out the trash, read while you should be cooking dinner” sorts of love affairs. I bought the second and drained it dry in a matter of days. Then the third. SLURP. Gone.

The fourth, I had to slow down. What had started as a bleak sort of story had gotten positively deadly. Everyone was betraying everyone else. Not a shred of hope in sight. My favorite characters, all expired. The hopeful plot threads? Extinguished.  The main character’s family motto – Winter is Coming – well, YEAH. Holy hell. Winter is HERE, dude. Landed on your head.

I bought book five (in hardback, mind you!), because I hate giving up on a good writer. But I had to give it up completely only about 40 pages in. I realized I was sad and exhausted by what I was reading. The reading high I was getting before had turned into nothing but bad smack.

Welcome to dystopia.

Not familiar with the term?  Dystopia is the opposite of utopia – a society characterized by human misery, where everything is as bad as it can be.

And George R. R. Martin isn’t the only guy presenting us with this stuff. Over the past 10 years, pretty much the entire culture of science fiction and fantasy has turned itself away from a positive future to a horrific, dystopic one – and that focus has begun bleeding into popular culture. Besides Game of Thrones, witness the popularity of The Hunger Games. I bet you can think of a dozen more books, shows, or movies you’ve seen in recent times that had a dark beginning and a darker ending, that left you feeling sad or scared or – dirtier – than when you started watching or reading them.

Is this a turn of our cultural psyche, in tandem with the tough period we’ve all been going through with our businesses and our jobs? Maybe. Heck, the guys in Congress can’t even pretend to be friends anymore. It feels like we’re all going to Hell in that metaphoric handbasket, only now we’ve got Game of Thrones and Hunger Games and fights on Reality TV as preview entertainment to show us the way. Whoopee!

What’s even worse – and what I only started realizing the other day – is this dystopic miasma is creeping into our personal and business language as well. It’s changing how we think about and talk to each other. And it’s negatively impacting the way we keep ourselves motivated, our families together, our staffs happy, and our clients satisfied.

When we talk about work, we say words like busy and stressed and overwhelmed. When we get together with our friends and clients, we talk about the disasters on the news (North Korea! Gas prices! Sequester!), the disasters on the sports field (did you SEE that awful NASCAR wreck?), and the disasters in our lives (dead car, dead dog, not enough money, and God knows what other crazy bad thing that happened this week). We Tweet and Facebook with righteous anger about the bad stuff going on all around us and mourn the devolution of our society. Then we go home and pop popcorn and watch the devolution of other fictional societies as if it’s supposed to make us all feel better about the one we’re living in.

This. Is. Not. Working.

Now, you and I are not going to fix the whole social order by refusing to buy into a dystopic worldview. There will still be plenty of people to watch and read and buy whatever the hot new “end of the world” saga may be. Congress is still going to fight, people are still going to do the wrong thing, and gas may be $10 per gallon by the end of the summer. I get it. And I fully admit that being a Pollyanna and pretending stuff ISN’T going wrong won’t work either.

But I CAN make some small changes to my thinking that will directly impact my outlook, and you can too. Maybe even more important, we can make changes that impact our ability to reach and help the people we live and work with every day.

While everyone else is focused on the fact that Winter is Coming, we can be Looking for Spring.

My friend Melinda Guillemette touched on this idea in her recent post The Upside of Self Centeredness. She’s 100% right. If we evaluate the media we’re taking into our psyches, the conversations we’re having, and frame them through the lens of “is this making me better? Is this making my relationships better? Is this elevating the people around me in any way?” we may stop a lot of trash thinking/trash talking before we even start.

There are some other things we can do, too, that I’ve seen work very effectively in recent days. Join me in trying one or all:

  • Write a gratitude journal. Every day, at the end of the day, jot down five things/people/happenings in your life that you are grateful for.
  • Write a gratitude journal at work. Before you shut off that PC for the day, write down five meaningful projects/interactions with clients/interactions with colleagues. Because it’s a narrower slice of our lives, this is harder. But it can also be intensely rewarding.
  • Focus on the positive in conversations, especially with colleagues and clients. Sometimes the most positive you can be is “I hear you. We’re in this together.” But just that little statement in place of commiserating (creating co-misery!) can elevate a situation in surprising ways.
  • Spread cheer. Just once a week, think of someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Send a note or a card (or an email, if it’s all you can manage) telling them they matter to you. In today’s raft of busy-ness, getting a card like that in the mail can be stunningly meaningful.
  • Clean up. Your language, your work space, your car, your house. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and miserable in a messy space. And that includes your head space.

Little changes. Incremental progress. That’s all it takes to change us – and it might be the start of changing the world.

Image by SimonWhitaker. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Leadership, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Beat Perfection Paralysis – Take it to the Happy Line

Posted by debrahelwig on July 26, 2010

To quote the immortal Hannibal Smith from A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

All right, I can’t believe I’m quoting the A-Team. But it’s true. Don’t you love it when your projects are spinning along just right? When your writing zen is on and you author the blog post of your life? When the marketing campaign you dreamed up lands ten times its projected leads? When your well-placed phone call makes the difference between keeping and losing the biggest client on your balance sheet?

Of course you do.  I do too.

When you’re aiming at perfection and actually hitting the mark, work is bliss. As the poem says, God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world.

But there’s a problem in this land of sunshine and glory, and I’m sure you already know what it is.

People. And circumstances. And you. Yes, you, on the days you have a cold, or didn’t get enough sleep, or had way too many jalapeno poppers at dinner the night before, or whatever other circumstance you can imagine. Stuff you can’t predict will always get in the way, darn it. And things get messed up.

Note, mind you, by “messed up” I don’t mean that your project is a train wreck, or even a moderate failure. By messed up, I mean that it doesn’t match up to what your inner perfectionist says it should be.

I’ve lived in this place. It’s not fun.

For the longest time, when things at work didn’t go exactly the way I thought they should (nevermind what anyone else thought), I would feel like a huge loser, because I knew I could do better. I had a vision of the perfect result I should have achieved, and my evil inner perfectionist would whisper, “What makes you think you know anything?” or, “If you keep this up you’re gonna get fired.” Then, I would react in one of two ways:

1. Overwork it. If the project didn’t feel perfect the first time, I’d keep at it. Rewrite for the thirtieth time. Take it back to design again – and again. Set up another focus group. Hold another group of employee meetings. Better to deliver the best possible job than let go something that’s less than perfect.

2. Avoid it. If I was afraid I couldn’t do a perfect job, then I’d push the project down to the bottom of the to-do list until I had the experience/skills/talent/contacts to do better. Or I’d ignore it until the need for it went away and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.

Bad, baaad.  The perfection paralysis became a never-ending, vicious cycle, with my self-esteem as the target.  It took a very wise boss to jerk me out of it.

One afternoon a number of years ago, this boss called me into his office and asked to see the status of a marketing campaign I was working on. I told him I wasn’t happy with it, that there was still work to be done, that I wanted to tweak it for a couple more days.

He looked at my work, tossed it on his desk, and said, “Send it.”

“But wait,” I protested, “It’s not ready.”

“Oh yes it is,” he replied. “You’re at the Happy Line. Get it out the door.”

As I was leaving, he called after me, “Quit trying to make everything so perfect. Get to 80% of perfect and 99% of people will be happy with it. And you’ll get a heck of a lot more done. Take it to the Happy Line.

His advice rocked my world.  And I still live by it today.  Because he’s right.

Sure, there are some professions (tax accounting is one of them) where 100% accuracy is required.  But in marketing and customer service, the truth is that 80% of perfect is always, always better than 100% of unfinished.

By applying the Happy Line principle in my job, I’ve discovered:

1. I get more done – and more quickly – than I ever did before.
2. My creativity opens up and I have fresher ideas.
3. I stop playing it safe and try new things – and those things sometimes turn out to be my most innovative and groundbreaking work.

If you try this, what you do won’t be perfect.  But your work will be finished (on time!) – and maybe even great. Probably even great.

Aim for the Happy Line and see how far it can take you.

At minimum, you won’t be driving yourself crazy anymore.

Photo by • • • annajarske.com (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Leadership, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Your New Busy Season Mantra: Just Take the Darn Call

Posted by debrahelwig on February 2, 2010

Have you met Sparky Firepants?

If not, you should.

Mr. Pants (aka David Billings) is a darn brilliant graphic designer and an equally brilliant wordsmith.  On his blog, he’s got a lot to say about the business of making art.  Which, by chance, happens to say a lot about the business of doing good business. Which, in turn, directly applies to all of us folks toiling away in the accounting and legal sphere.

This week, he’s penned two thoughtful (and very helpful) posts – Why I’ll Never Say I’m Booked, and Why I Said Not to Say “Booked”.  The gist – it’s never a great idea to just hang a sign on your (locked) door that says “Sorry, Can’t Help You Now,” no matter how busy you are.  No matter if tax returns are stacked in mountains threatening to collapse on your head. No matter if your email box passed overflowing two hours ago and your iPhone is starting to smoke.

Just. Take. The. Darn. Call.

I can’t think of a more important message for accounting folks to hear at the beginning of Busy Season. (And all you lawyers out there, you listen up too – sometime your case load will reach tilt-tilt-tilt overload and all of this will apply to you too.)

Here’s a short excerpt:

There’s a big difference between announcing to the world, “I’m booked” and turning down a project after you’ve heard the deadline. Saying, “I’m booked” is locking your door until August. Then what? You open the door, peer out and wonder aloud, “Where did everybody go? I’m ready now. Heeeeyyyyyyyyy!”

What does it cost to listen? How much time does it take to let someone in your shop (figuratively speaking) and ask you for help?

Yep, Mr. Pants nails it, 100%. You should read both posts this minute and take them to heart. Because here’s the bottom line: the thing that kills relationships – especially professional services relationships – is insufficient communication.

When I tweeted Mr. Pants’ post earlier today, I got a great response from Dennis Howlett (@dahowlett), a guy who knows whereof he speaks, with 10 years under his belt as an accounting firm partner and a long IT consulting career after that:

“The biggest source of ‘pissed offness’ is NOT to speak with clients, however busy you are. A 2-5 minute call does wonders.”

Hallelujah! You bet it does. Because it’s about respect. And decency. And the kindness to say, “I hear you, and what you need matters to me.”  Nothing elaborate. Not an hour long “how’s your great-grandmother’s butler-in-law these days?” coffee clatch. Just acknowledgement, and a promise to follow up or a helpful referral. Even if you say, “Sorry, my schedule is full, but here are some other options for you,” you will have acknowledged that client’s need. You’ll have shown that you care.

And “I care” does a heck of a lot more to build and cement relationships than (indifferent) silence.

So take your calls. Return your calls, every day. Especially when you’re busy.  Do it quickly and with all the empathy you can muster.

It’s the best way I can think of to ensure that your post-Busy Season will be, well….busy.

Photo by Mr. ATM (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Busy Season, Law, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Doing Great Work Should Not Equal “Be Boring”

Posted by debrahelwig on November 2, 2009

Different_pencilA few months back, I read a post by Michelle Golden about the fact that a creative and edgy approach to business attracts clients.

She is sooooo right.

With startling regularity, I meet people who do really interesting things for a living. People like my chiropractor, who studied with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (yeah, the Beatles guru guy, that guy), or my neighbor who owns a balloon delivery business and leaves for work in a gorilla suit almost every Saturday. Or the gal who’s making a killing running a full-service day spa for dogs.

No matter what their line of work, these quirky, interesting people have one big thing in common. When I ask them, “Why did you choose THIS job,” almost all of them say, “I just couldn’t imagine doing something boring – like being an accountant, you know, or a lawyer.”

As if a professional services job is the most dull, lifeless, autonomic career in the entire universe.

Huh. I want to shout, “Buddy, you don’t know the accountants and lawyers I know!”

But maybe that’s the point.

Somewhere back in the mists of time, someone decided that accountants and lawyers shouldn’t present themselves to the world as quirky and interesting. I’m not sure who started the conspiracy. But whatever the cause, far too many firms succumbed (and STILL succumb) to the “me too” boring-itis of navy blue logos, bland Web sites, and marketing copy full of generic speak about “quality service”. For now, the professional services firms who choose to take a more personal, more creative approach to business are still the exception rather than the norm.

That shouldn’t be true. It doesn’t have to be true.

Social media gives you a seriously easy path to show a new, more personal way of doing business – one that’s a heck of a lot more fun. If you want to see how it can work, check out the people Michelle mentioned in her post: Valorem Law Group, MoFo, and Choate. And if Michelle’s list wasn’t enough to convince you, try these on for size:

Kelly Phillips Erb (TaxGirl) – Arguably one of the funniest and best tweeters in the legal profession, TaxGirl’s blog is also full of great repartee. Her site says it all: “Why Taxgirl? Because paying taxes is painful… but reading about them shouldn’t be.”

Steven Zelin – Tax accountant Steven Zelin isn’t just your average tax guy – he’s also The Singing CPA.

Jay Shepherd – Author of the top-rated Gruntled Employees blog and a witty tweeter, Jay’s work shows you that his firm definitely isn’t your run of the mill employment law firm.

Scott Heintzelman* – Scott’s Exuberant Accountant blog and his tweets put a face on “Servant Leadership” and provide a great introduction to him and to the values of his firm. Scott’s not zany – just real – and that’s an edge a lot of firms could use.

Paul Neiffer – On his FarmCPAToday blog, Paul talks to his clients in a personal way, in a language they understand. You won’t find a better example of a niche blog anywhere.

Stephen L. Snyder – This guy is a high powered litigator with major wins under his belt – and a massive sense of humor, as evidenced by his “Snyderman” videos. (Hat tip to Legal Blog Watch for introducing me to Snyderman.)

Notice – these are all high-quality professionals doing high quality work. Just like you. But they’re getting loads of attention (and business, by the way) from their commitment to showing the world not just what their firms can do, but who they are, why they are, and why it matters.

Not one of them is doing something you and your firm can’t do.

All it takes is the decision that being a professional services person doesn’t have to be cookie cutter. Or boring. It’s not a sin to show a little personality in your work – even if it does involve spreadsheets or legal briefs.

How can you and your firm show more creative spark?

Photo by Mommyof4Ruggies (license).
*In the interest of disclosure, Scott Heintzelman’s firm, McKonly & Asbury, is a member firm of my employer, IGAF Worldwide.


Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Law, Leadership, Marketing, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Need for Speed

Posted by debrahelwig on September 29, 2009

speed demonWow, what a week this has been – and it’s only Tuesday.

My “Debra blew it” factor over the past few days has been a lot higher than normal.  I’ve missed some important stuff. Doing the octopus eight-arm dance of panic, I dialed in late to a super important conference call. I then followed up that bit of brilliance with a typo in an important email. Ai yi yi.

None of this is like me.  And it feels pretty crummy. But I take a tiny bit of comfort in the fact I’m not alone.  The number of blog posts I’ve seen about “mistakes” and “saying sorry” from super smart folks like Chris Brogan and Dianna Huff and the folks at Twitter has been growing by leaps and bounds.

What the heck is going on here?

It’s insidious. It’s ugly. It’s the need for speed.

The darkest downside of the “always on” Internet/Social Media revolution is that we can do stuff a whole lot faster than ever.  We can communicate in nanoseconds. Who needs a well crafted letter to express pleasure (or ire)?  We can tell people exactly what we think in 140 characters, faster than we can even dial a phone.

And because we CAN, we think we HAVE TO. And because we think we HAVE TO, we DO, and then people EXPECT US TO. It’s a vicious cycle.

What happens when we go too fast?

We do dumb stuff. Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. Yes, they happen. But they happen a lot more when we’re playing whac-a-mole. A recent Stanford University research report showed that using multiple media tools at once resulted in “broad based incompetence…where people are worse at focusing their attention, worse at organizing information, and worse at quickly switching between tasks.” Yikes.

We are inadequately grateful. In the past, good manners taught us to respond to benefactors in a gracious way. No longer. Think about the number of times this week that you responded to the kindness of friends and colleagues with a hasty “gee thanks!” via email or Twitter – or didn’t respond at all, thinking you’d write a longer email when you had the time. The pressure of the clock is dumbing down our interactions; our days seem more fraught with crises and less full of graces.

We spill the beans.
Dianna Huff tells the story of a lawyer who lost a case because she was overheard talking about it on a cell phone in public. A snarky Facebook post or Tweet in the wrong place or at the wrong time can be a shot heard round the world.  If you’re moving too fast and not thinking hard enough about what you’re saying to whom, you can deep-six yourself as fast as you can type.

None of these things are on purpose. But expectations are high, and the economy is tight, and who can afford to say no to anything our clients or colleagues ask us to do?  So we cram our schedules overfull and assume that technology will help us get everything done in the right order.  We add more tools and pop-up reminders and leave messages for ourselves on our cell phones. We make a to do list to control our multiple to-do lists.

And none of it works.

Especially in professional services, where a single mistake can be the kiss of death. Auditors can’t screw up. Ever. Lawyers, blow it and your client lands in jail or a deal goes bad. Marketers, make a mistake in a firm’s brand campaign, and decades of client loyalty unravel.

Often, quicker just isn’t better.

I’ve done some serious thinking and research on this, and I think I’ve found a way to stop the madness. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits calls it single taskinggetting intentional.

This week, I’m going to take a diligent and critical look at who is making demands on my time. Who are the clients or supervisors who constantly send work in crisis mode? What are the triggers that ignite the firestorms in my workplace? How can I re-align people’s expectations? I plan to get real about urgent versus important versus habitual (we ask for it fast because we can, not because we need to), and prioritize accordingly.

I’m going to make space to do my work WELL, not just quickly.

Going against the public grain – shutting down the speed demons (both real and internal) who constantly up the ante – takes a lot of chutzpah. But making a considered effort to get off the fast track, concentrating on one thing at a time, and saying no to unreasonable demands may do more than aid my sanity. It may work wonders on my career. And I bet it could do yours some good as well.

Who wants to join me? What can you do to silence your inner speed demon?

Photo by nahkahousu (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Leadership, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

A Rock Star Ain’t a Rock Star if the Backup Band Stinks

Posted by debrahelwig on August 20, 2009

rockstarLately, I’ve been having some medical issues. Never fun. Ick, in fact.

So you can imagine how tickled I was when I got a referral to one of the top doctors in the US in my needed specialty. Less than an hour’s drive from home, no less! I thought all my problems were solved. Great care from a brilliant physician, conveniently located. All would be well.

Unfortunately, no.

It’s true, Doctor X is fabulous. She’s brilliant. Top of her game. Amazing diagnostic skills, and even more, a compassionate beside manner. I love her, absolutely I do.

When I can get to her, that is. And there’s the problem.

Surrounding Doctor X is a vortex of apathy and bureaucratic red tape masquerading as an office staff.

It’s simple stuff, too. Things that just don’t happen in a well managed office. Things like:

When I go for an appointment, I sit in an exam room for three to four hours after my scheduled time, waiting to be seen. Inquiries are met with the response, “She’s worth the wait.”

An urgent call to request records is met with a flippant, “We don’t fax records. You have to wait until next Friday and we’ll mail them.” When I ask for other options, the clerk tells me, “I’m sorry, there are no other options.”

Emails sent to the doctor’s listed email address are not acknowledged nor is any response given.

Calls to speak with the nurse often result in a hold time of 30 to 45 minutes – before being put into voice mail. With no apology from the receptionist.

So far, I’ve put up with this insanity because the doctor IS a rock star. Genius in heels and a lab coat, with answers to a lot of my issues. But after my most recent (frustrating) visit, I’ve had just about enough and am starting to look for a new provider.

Because a rock star ain’t a rock star if the backup band stinks.

And there’s the lesson for all of us in professional services. Just like my medical practice has its rock star doctor, you’ve got rock stars in your firm. Truly brilliant minds with real answers for client questions and a passion for helping people.

But if your gatekeepers aren’t doing their jobs, you’re headed for trouble. Not as quickly as you would if your brilliant partners and staff weren’t so incredibly good at what they do. But eventually there will be a breaking point, where the pain of getting to the great provider is greater than the benefit derived from their counsel.

The brilliance of a few great minds simply isn’t enough to keep clients for the long haul.

The true differentiator of a great firm – the thing that keeps clients coming back again and again and referring over and over – is the honest care and sweat equity of a brilliant support staff for your geniuses. A great backup band for your rock stars, helping your clients get the information they need day after day.

With that in mind, how long has it been since you did a top-to-bottom diagnostic on your firm’s client support?

If it’s been a while, I strongly recommend you make a thorough evaluation of all the entry points into your firm. See how easy it is (or isn’t) for your clients to access the people they want to reach. Learn firsthand how happy, genuine, and willing your gatekeepers are to open the way for clients to get what they need.

If everyone in the firm performs brilliantly, from top to bottom, the firm can’t help but succeed.

But it’s up to you to make sure. BEFORE you lose clients who love your work, but hate getting the runaround.

Photo by Dude Crush (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Power of Space (or, Time to Stop Playing Whac-a-Mole)

Posted by debrahelwig on July 28, 2009

Wack a Mole photoThis past weekend, I got a great lesson in the power of space. And how space can affect your career (and sanity).

Last weekend was my husband’s 30th highschool reunion. And, since he had the civility to graduate in Daytona Beach, Florida, that meant a weekend at the beach. Without the kids. No pressure. No priorities.

Hooray, right? Sign me up!

Or so you’d think.

Instead, I started finding every excuse in the world not to go. The babysitter can’t handle the kids. The dog threw up. I have too much to do at the office. There are dishes and laundry and emails and OH MY GOD I haven’t blogged in 10 days and what about the Web site project and…

I was too overwhelmed to even consider time away.

I’m not unusual, either. Professional services folks everywhere are overburdened. A survey this summer by the Institute of Management Accountants found that “When asked what they need most to be effective leaders, most accountants [29%] said more time.”

I feel your pain. But here’s a truth for you: busy-ness begets busy-ness. And not all busy-ness is good.

Today, it’s easy for professional services work to become what I call a Cosmic Game of Whac-a-Mole. Remember the 1980s arcade game? You had a big mallet and a board full of holes in front of you. As the moles popped out of the holes, you hit them back down. And the faster you were, the faster they got. Never stopping, just hitting and hitting until the game was over.

Does your project list operate that way? How often do you get to work, sit down at your desk, and immediately get buried in mountains of email? Start with meetings at 8 a.m. and never make it to your desk? Take one client file off the pile only to have 10 more added to it? Is the pressure driving you crazy?

That was me. And if it’s you… survey responses aside, you don’t need more time. Or more staff.

You need space. A reflection zone.

I was lucky. When I started down my list of all the reasons I couldn’t take a weekend away, my husband told me to shut up, turned off my PC, and stuffed me in the car. And guess what? I came back energized – with thoughts about how to handle a crisis at the office, blog post ideas, and plans to kill a few projects, start a new one, and move others down the priority list.

Busy-ness begets busy-ness. Space begets sanity.

Even if you can’t find an entire weekend like I had, taking a few minutes daily to reflect can make a difference in your outlook.

Try this: schedule 10 minutes a day on your calendar as a “meeting”. Shut your door, or if you’re in a cubicle, find a private space. Turn off the PC, the iPhone, the BlackBerry, the cell phone. This is think time. Use these moments to ask yourself basic questions about your work, like:

• What are my most important projects right now? Why are they important? Do I really need to be doing all of them, or can I delegate or reprioritize some of them?
• What am I doing that is urgent but not important? How can I reduce or eliminate that kind of work?
• What are the top three things I want to accomplish today? This week? This month?
• What am I doing to engage other people right now, both for business and personal development? Do I like what I’m doing? Could I try something else?
• What meetings do I have this week? How can I reduce the meeting time? If I am meeting too much, is it my colleagues or is it me? And if it’s me, what am I avoiding?

You may not find answers, at least not at first. But making space to ask the questions every day can be transformative all on its own.

If you stop playing Whac-a-Mole – if you give yourself permission not to be busy every moment of the day – you’ll get more done. And you’ll be a lot saner, more effective, and just plain happier in the process.

Where can you create some space in your day?

Photo by jrubinic (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Leadership, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Swine Flu and Pandemic Panic: A Wake Up Call for Your Business Continuity Plan (And Five Steps to Get You Going)

Posted by debrahelwig on May 4, 2009

swineflu This past week’s outbreak of swine flu (H1N1 virus) has set the world afire. You can’t turn your head, in public or online, without tripping over someone talking about outbreaks and closings and the potential for disaster if this nasty little bug really takes off.

And though (thank goodness) the spread of the illness so far isn’t living up to its media hype, the fact that there’s a panic about it makes sense. Not just because many, many people might get sick, but because a true pandemic could cripple operations for every kind of business imaginable.

Including yours.

Many firms already know this. The tragedy of 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, wildfires in California, SARS and more – all of these events sparked waves of business continuity planning throughout our industry.

BUT (and this is a big but) – it’s been a while since the last awfulness. How up to date is your plan? Does it cover all the new ways you’re doing business? What about your completely remote workforce, who might be put out of commission by storms in their area while all is perfect weatherwise at the headquarters location? What if everything is fine in your company, but the factory you’re set up to audit next week is shut down because half the staff has swine flu?

You might want to dust off that old plan (if you ever had one) and think through these eventualities.

And here’s a twist you might not have considered – what are your top clients‘ business contingency plans? If there’s a pandemic or a disaster, how are they going to continue operating, and how might it affect the way you work with them? That’s a level of detail most firms skip – but if you don’t take the steps to find out, you may find yourself in a world of hurt when crisis hits.

So, with that in mind, here are a few items you should take care of right away. This week. Now.

1. Identify your top 10 clients (could be less or many more, depending on the size of your firm and the relative value of the clients’ activity)
2. Contact those clients and ask them about their business continuity plans. Use the swine flu (H1N1) outbreak as the opportunity to begin dialogue.
3. If their plans are insufficient, direct them to resources to help them consider their position, both relative to you and to their suppliers and clients as well. A few resource options are below to give you a start.
4. Using the client’s plan (or lack of plan) as a guideline, build a strategy for how your firm would continue to provide them with service in the event of a disaster or emergency. Ensure that every member of the client service team, from partner to staff, is aware of the parameters of the plan and prepared to implement if necessary.
5. File the plans in an easily accessible place or place(s) – (not just on a PC – what if there is a power outage with no computer access?) and hope you never have to use them.

If you need help putting together a business continuity plan, check out the following links:

http://www.ready.gov/business/plan/index.html
http://www.ready.gov/business/plan/planning.html
http://www2.agilityrecovery.com/resources/events/2/Webinars
http://www.yourwindow.to/business-continuity/contents.htm
http://www.fema.gov/business/bc.shtm
http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/pdf/nfpa1600.pdf
http://nonprofitrisk.org/tools/business-continuity/intro/1.htm
http://en.bcmpedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

And if you want to track or prepare specifically for swine flu, check out:

http://hbsp.ed10.net/r/GS4D/00YIN/RNJZBB/OHOZ2/D99V5/6C/h

http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/index.htm
http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/04/30/ep.swine.flu.questions.answers/index.html

Even if H1N1 swine flu doesn’t live up to the hype, there will be other emergencies. So get ready.

Being prepared for any eventuality is just smart business.

Photo by Archie McPhee Seattle (license).

Posted in Accounting, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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