Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Posts Tagged ‘Attitudes’

Inspiration

Posted by debrahelwig on May 17, 2013

GoneFishin“Take a damn vacation”.

I stared at the prescription paper in my hand. It was an official Rx pad, doctor’s name at the top, my date of birth, his signature its usual illegible scrawl. And that was all it said.  No pills, no creams, no shots, no treatment.

William O. Snell, D.O. Marietta, Georgia. Best doctor you’ll ever want to meet. I adored him. But that day I thought he’d taken leave of his senses.

“Very funny,” I wheezed.

“I’m serious, Deb,” he said. “All this” – he gestured generally toward my upper body and its autoimmune disease-laden, serially offending lungs and sinuses – “is getting worse because of stress. You have to break the cycle. Get out of here. Go away. Take a damn vacation. Let your body heal itself. Give your brain a chance to rest and set everything else in order.”

And you know what? He was right. He did prescribe some meds, but the thing that really, completely, totally got me well was not the antibiotic and the steroids (which I’d taken again and again and again, only for the infections to return). The real cure came after a week on Daytona Beach, alone with my husband and the sound of the ocean.

The thing I loved about Dr. Snell was his utter pragmatism and his way of treating the whole person that a lot of clinicians miss. He gave you shots when you needed ‘em and dosed you up with antibiotics when it was required, sure – but he also had a big sign in his office that said “For good health: pray daily and take two weeks of vacation every year.” Here’s what I learned from him:

Just like muscles need rest after exercise, and your tummy needs time to digest after eating a big meal, your brain needs space to rest. A person’s ability to manage stress and heal their body is impaired if they run from thing to thing to thing and never take a break.  Even if it can’t be a full vacation, some time away (a day, an hour, a breath) from routine and pressing work can make an enormous difference in attitude, in productivity, and in inspiration.

As professional services folks, we instinctively know this.  It’s what all the end-of-year Tax parties are about, and it’s why U.S. public accounting firms are ghost towns from April 16 to April 30 pretty much every year (and in Canada, from May 1 to May 15). To be productive, to be happy, to THINK, we have to break away.  But it needs to be more often than the blowout “we survived tax season” extravaganza!  Big breaks. Little breaks. Deep breaths. Making spaces, intentional and full of energy, to give us the inspiration that will carry us, healthy and focused, through the next thing we want or need to do.

Lookie here:

Inspiration – breathing in. Taking a breath. Taking a break. Getting ideas. Coming up with something new and exciting. Becoming energized.

Expiration – breathing out. Pushing through. Breaking down. Falling apart. Ending. Death.

I think I’d rather inspire than expire, wouldn’t you?

 

** To that end, I’m off on my annual vacation and will be back here on the blog in a couple of weeks. See you at the end of the month!

 Photo by atomicjeepLicense.

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Busy Season | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Star You Are (A Salute to Supercat)

Posted by debrahelwig on May 8, 2013

Such excitement at C2013-05-08_17-04-32_357 (1)asa Helwig!! Today is Graduation Day!

Pre-K graduation, that is.

The ceremony this morning was an exercise in bottled cuteness from start to finish – 45 tiny children flying one at a time onto a stage to be handed certificates as “most helpful,” “most musical,” “most curious,” and so on, all giving huge hugs to the teacher and big smiles to mommy and daddy out in the audience. One little boy was wearing a seersucker suit, complete with bow tie. Every little girl was wearing her Sunday best dress and pretty shoes – except, of course, MINE, who had insisted on wearing her pink cat costume (complete with pink-eared hoodie, pastel pink jeans, and tennis shoes). Since she refers to herself most often as “Supercat”, at first blush it had seemed like SUCH a good idea. Watching all the kids on stage, though, I found myself fighting a giant “mommy fail” feeling because she didn’t look like anyone else.

My child was fine. Deliriously ecstatic, in fact. She loved being a cat! She was extremely proud of being named “Most Cheerful” and loved every second of the attention from the teacher and the audience.

So why on earth did *I* have an uncontrollable urge to apologize for not dressing her in Sunday-go-to-meeting gear?  I actually did it, too.  I cornered the teacher before the ceremony, confessing, “I feel rotten for not getting with the program and dressing her up today.”

Fortunately, our teacher is a very smart lady. Her response was dead on: “She will have a lot more fun memories of being a cat today than she would of being trussed up in a dress she doesn’t particularly like.” SO TRUE!

So Supercat received her graduation certificate, and all was well.  Hurrah for Supercat!

But this feeling was still bugging me. Why did I have an urge to apologize? I sifted it down to this:  EXPECTATIONS.

There are certain cultural norms that come with a graduation. A cat suit is NOT among them. So when it was obvious that we were the ONLY ones in the class who did not meet that norm, I became fearful of standing out in a negative way. I got worried, EVEN THOUGH the outfit my child chose totally reflected her interests and her personality. Deep down, I was much more interested in “fitting in” than “letting her be herself”. My reaction was protective. Born of love and parental concern.

And completely unnecessary, unhelpful, and misguided.

Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote a piece this week applying this very idea to business, called “Remind You of Anything? Simple Typography for Non-professionals.” He was talking specifically about typography, but his thoughts apply to companies and entrepreneurs in general:

Norms exist. People have expectations about how people and businesses behave and look. If you divert from those norms and are different, you will stand out. Choose carefully where you amplify those “differences” so that they work for you instead of against you.

What does this have to do with work? A LOT, actually. Every single marketing director and business developer in professional services can learn something from Seth and my little Supercat (and my outsized reaction). The lesson comes when we assess where we fall on the EXPECTATIONS scale – when we know:

  • The general norms in our marketplace about how firms like ours should behave
  • What our firm’s culture really is (how do we interact with each other and our clients? What matters to us as a company? How do we show that to the world?)
  • How the key individuals that represent the firm behave when they’re out in public
  • Where the gaps lie between those cultural norms and how we really operate

If our reaction as marketers is to be protective – to serve as the guardian of a reputation based in cultural norms (where the firm is “a valued partner” and “high quality”, etc. etc.), without pointing out places where we are unique, we are playing it safe. Dangerously safe. If we’re focused on being “the best accounting firm” or “the best law firm” instead of “the best ‘us’, who happens to do great accounting or law”, the truth we tell will be culturally appropriate – AND BORING. If we work hard to make sure our firm fits with the “accepted notion” of the industry by using the same language and concepts to describe ourselves, we will at the very best look like A GOOD VERSION OF EVERYONE ELSE. Not compelling.

Yes, highlighting differences may turn off some potential clients. But telling the truth about the firm and its culture will also attract people who will be much more likely to stay, because they are a good fit.

Expectations are just a starting point, so we can see where we are different than the norm. Everything comes together (in family, in business – heck, in LIFE) when we allow our differences from the expected to shine.  That’s the only way anyone will ever know just how much of a star we are.

Go Supercat go!

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Painful Lessons

Posted by debrahelwig on May 2, 2013

pain“Where does it hurt?”

When there’s pain, that’s always the first question, isn’t it?  It’s what I’m asked by my doctor when I present myself with weird Lupus symptom of the week; it’s what I ask my Pre-K child when she falls down and starts crying.  It’s what my boss asks when something goes wrong in the office.  Where is the pain?

And then, we treat the place where it hurts.

It’s a normal response to a very basic cry: “HELP me. Fix what’s wrong. Make the pain stop.” After all, it’s human nature to want things to be better – and as quickly as possible, thankyouverymuch. It’s awful to be in pain, to see someone in pain, to be part of an organization in pain. So we cut to the chase.  We deal with what hurts, RIGHT NOW. The doctor prescribes a medicine. I spray my daughter’s knee with Numbz-it. My boss throws out the software (or the person, or the process) that was causing the trouble. We treat what’s wrong, and it gets better.

Only, sometimes, it doesn’t.

I ran squarely into this problem just a couple of weeks ago, when I began a macabre dance with a series of raging, screaming, agonizing headaches. I’d wake up feeling bad and go to bed feeling worse. Just taking a deep breath sent my left temple into a series of angry neural expletives. My reaction? “Where does it hurt?  My head!”  So treat the headache and it will go away! But 10 days of ibuprophen, yoga, massage, hydration….none of it helped.  I was desperately sick with the pain. I thought about seeing a neurologist – maybe it’s Lupus related? I mused about brain tumors and all sorts of wacky stuff.

Then I got a happenstance call from my brilliant friend Brantley Moate. Brantley is a certified massage therapist, trained in Asia. He understands pain better than just about anybody I know. And he was just, by chance, calling to tell me about a fascinating book he’d been reading by a neuroscientist called Lorimer Moseley called Painful Yarns.  You can get the gist of Moseley’s ideas in this fabulous TEDx talk:

I listened, and I watched. What Moseley said hit my already aching head like a bomb blast:

Pain is an indicator that something is wrong. But pain in a particular part of the body doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong where it hurts; nor does intensity of pain necessarily equate with level of injury. Treating “where it hurts” and “how it hurts” may not fix the problem. You may need to look elsewhere to fix what’s really wrong.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  So I might need to look at something besides my head and its supporting muscles to fix my headache? YES. Yes, indeed.

Turns out, the reason my head was hurting had absolutely nothing to do with muscle fatigue or sitting at the computer too long, or brain tumors, or Lupus, or any of the stuff that had been racing through my head – or any of the stuff I’d been treating. My problem was I NEEDED SLEEP.

For a couple of weeks I’d been working late and getting up early, doing projects for the office and the kids – and as a woman of 44 with Lupus, my body evidently can’t take the “four hours a night and fake it til ya make it” I’ve been putting it through for most of my life.  When I started really thinking about what might have changed in the weeks leading up to the headaches, what might have impacted me and caused my body to say “something is wrong here!” it occurred to me I might need a little more rest.  So I did something very uncharacteristic for me: I changed one of my regular patterns. Instead of throwing medicine at my problem, I changed part of my normal routine.

And it worked. Three days of 8+ hours per night and BAM. Headaches gone. Completely gone like they’d never existed.

Wow.

My now-not-hurting brain started to really spin on this idea. Where else are people I know – especially me – mistreating pain? And the obvious answer came back: AT WORK.

We’ve just spun through another absolutely insane busy season, full of chances for things to go wrong. And, now we’re a couple of weeks past April 15 and done with the “thank God we made it” party, we’re about to sit down in our teams and dissect what went wrong. We’re about to identify our pain. To say “where did it hurt?”

That’s good. Whatever we find, that pain is real. No doubt. And treating it is necessary. Absolutely.

But Lorimer Moseley shows – heck, my headache shows! – that identifying pain is just a starting point, nothing more than an indicator that something is wrong. It doesn’t say what. Or where the problem actually started. Or how many “normal patterns” or people or projects may actually be involved.

Treating the precise pain points we identify will feel productive, because we’re doing something, by cracky!  But unless we’re all very, very careful, dealing with those pain points may actually fix nothing at all. And when the problem (and the pain) crops up again – and again, and again – then we’ll be 1. back where we started (or worse) and 2. demoralized and really in a mess.

So let’s take a vow this year to stop before we start. Take a breath. Recognize pain for what it is – for all it is – a warning to look deeper.

Photo by random_dave: film for sale. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Busy Season, Professional Services, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Planting Seeds

Posted by debrahelwig on April 11, 2013

planting seedsYesterday, I did a “career day” presentation at my kids’ school about working as a Marketing Director – you know, a “stand up and talk with PowerPoint slides and video in the background” kind of deal.

I speak fairly often as part of my job, and my platform skills are pretty darn good, so I wasn’t particularly nervous about it.  Bring some props, show some video, it will be fun.  Right? Right?

Ummmm, well….I gotta tell ya – those fifth graders were the toughest house EVER.

Eye-rolling. Fidgeting. Looking-at-anyone-but-the-speaker. Yawning. And when I asked questions, you could practically see the kids diving under the tables to keep me from calling on them.

The longer I went, the sicker to my tummy I got. “You’re not reaching them,” my cynical brain whispered. “You’re making yourself look stupid. You’re wasting their time. You’re wasting YOUR time!” By the end, I was feeling pretty crumpled – chewed up and spit out in a vortex of pre-teen apathy. I packed my laptop case in a funk, pretty much determined I would never do anything like THAT again.

So, imagine my surprise when the guidance counselor who’d invited me walked up and said, “THAT was GREAT!”

Whaaaaat? How in the Sam Hades could that spectacular display of “I don’t care one bit about what you’re saying” be GOOD?

“They might not have looked like they were listening,” she said. “But they heard more than you think. And for a handful of them, you said some things that will really impact them later on. You wouldn’t know it now – but you planted seeds. It was perfect.”

HUH!

And this morning, when I took my kids to school, that very smart counselor was proved 100% right. A kid stopped me in the hall. One of the ones whose eyes were rolling the WORST during my speech.  Her eyes were bright and she was grinning as she said, “Hey! Thanks for coming yesterday – I thought you were awesome. I didn’t know all that stuff you do was out there. Pretty cool.”

So… Lack of immediate positive reaction does NOT necessarily equal failure?  Wow.

When I got to my office a little while later, I understood exactly why I had felt so bad yesterday – and why the counselor’s version of “success” seemed so strange. That’s because I turned on my computer, and my first actions were:

1.    Check my firm’s Twitter feed to see how many retweets and mentions we’ve had since yesterday
2.    Check Facebook to see who liked and shared my stuff
3.    Check my blog to see how many people have visited and who’s reading
4.    Check email to see who’s responded to notes I sent earlier

ALL of it an exercise in immediate gratification. Who likes me RIGHT NOW? What are they saying TODAY? Now, now, now, now, now!  Show me the return on my investment! This minute!

How utterly short sighted.

And here’s what else I realized: a lot of professional services firms are doing this.

When we come back from a seminar, we don’t wonder how many people might remember us months or even years down the road. We count business cards to see who spoke to us and provided a lead we can follow up on TODAY.

When we post articles, we don’t think about someone stumbling across the piece in a Google search six months from now.  We want to know who read them right away so we can contact them immediately for “warming up” in our leads pipeline.

We don’t think about who might look at a year’s worth of our Facebook feed, or three weeks worth of Twitter, to get a sense of our company culture. We think about who we snared with THIS post, RIGHT NOW.

ROI, ROI, ROI – Google Analytics, multivariate testing, analysis, monitoring – all designed to tell us how our stuff is performing in the moment.  And sure, that’s important.

But maybe we shouldn’t forget that every time we put ourselves out there, every time we share good ideas and information and part of ourselves with the world, there is a strong possibility it will make a difference somewhere down the road (maybe far down the road).  And that’s true even if the reaction is muted or nonexistent at first.

You never know whose mind and heart you will touch – or how, or when.

So as we go to work each day, doing the business of business development, of course we should all keep an eye on the now – but perhaps we need to focus more clearly on taking every opportunity to share what we know, wherever we can, whenever we can.

Because the real work we’re doing is planting seeds – and we don’t control when they bloom.

Photo by London Permaculture. License.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

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.

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

Size ‘Em Up

Posted by debrahelwig on March 25, 2013

platesIn the grand cosmology of chores at Casa Helwig, I am the goddess of dishwasher-emptying.

Luckily, I don’t mind. As far as I’m concerned, putting clean things away is infinitely more fun than scrubbing hours-old peanut butter and jelly off the inside of lunch containers. It’s a simple, mindless task that gives me brain space to develop writing ideas and plan upcoming work.

That is, until I get to THE PLATES.

Not just any plates. Not the good old china ones with the ivy on them, that we got at our wedding so my husband can say he always has something green on his plate. (No lie.)  No, no. Those I love, 20 years’ worth of chips and cracks and all.

You see the bane of my existence pictured here. I took this photo this morning, after they fell out of the cabinet for the FOURTH time.

I bought these lovelies at Disney World a couple of years ago when I was there on a business trip. I needed to bring something back for my kids, and these were cute, practical, and inexpensive.  Plus, they’d fit easily in my suitcase.  Perfection!  And yes, when I got home they made me into the heroine of the day. Lots of pleased giggles and hugs and “let’s use them right now!” Yay!
All was well until I had to figure out how to put them away.

Turns out the shapes that looked so cute on the store shelves DO. NOT. STACK.  No matter how I put them in the cabinet, they slide out. They cause things put on top of them to fall.

THEY DRIVE ME CRAZY.

And of course, because the kids ADORE them, they aren’t going anywhere.  I’m 100% stuck, probably until the youngest goes to college. 13 years from now.

The funny thing is, when they fell this morning and hit me in the head (yes, literally) – it jarred an idea loose. There’s a connection between my plate problem and professional services. And it’s this:

Choosing who your new clients will be is a more delicate proposition than you might realize.

As firms become more aggressive in pursuing niche development, it’s easy to get in a mindset of “let’s go after any lead we can, because we need a significant number of companies in that space to show how well we manage that specialty.”  Under that way of thinking, if your niche is construction, any company with ‘contractor’ in its name suddenly becomes a viable target; if it’s healthcare, the word “hospital” sets your heart going pitter-pat. And on and on.

This is dangerous.

Because if you don’t size potential clients up properly – and by that, I mean in ways besides financial solvency and revenue – you may find once you get them on board that they’re a very, very bad match.

If you’re not considering the more-difficult-to-measure aspects of a potential client – things like their employee satisfaction and turnover, their company culture and how it matches with your firm’s philosophy of doing business, how they prefer to communicate and how you do – you may find that once they’re on board, they’re a huge revenue source for the firm (yay) but that they also TOTALLY DRIVE YOU CRAZY.

Just like my plates – on the one hand, a raging success; on the other, the bane of your existence.

I bought my plates thinking they were practical. You know, plates, just like the other plates in my cabinet. I never, ever once considered that not all plates are alike – and they don’t all fit together. And they certainly don’t all fit me and the way I do my (dishwashery-goddess-type) work.

Your clients are just the same.

Trust me. Take the extra time to size ‘em up right, or you may be stuck with them – painfully – for a long, long time to come.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Professional Services, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

In Praise of Showing Up

Posted by debrahelwig on March 22, 2013

MailvEmail

A few days ago, this Internet cartoon drifted through my Facebook feed.

My reaction? Oh my God, YES.

So I shared it. And my friends and colleagues reacted the same way.

What is it about this that makes everybody I know react so strongly? I sat down to blog, and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it.  What is it that makes this idea important?

The answer struck like lightning at my kids’ PTA meeting last night.

Our school has a high overall level of parent involvement. The event was skillfully planned. Robust agenda. Thoroughly publicized. Food and childcare included. All this should be a recipe for a well-attended, highly successful meeting, right?

Exactly five parents showed up.

The result? Huge disappointment for the folks who worked so hard to make it happen. Big hard feelings of “does anybody really care anymore?” (This EVEN THOUGH the Facebook page for the PTA is quite active, and there were a ton of “So sorry I couldn’t make it, go PTA!” messages posted there.)

That crushing disappointment is the place where the meeting and the cartoon connect.

Because through technology, we’ve created a culture of convenience.   And, all over the place, our cyber-induced complacency is short-circuiting relationships that matter.

It’s true that sometimes for real reasons (the economy forcing people to work two jobs) and more often for fake reasons (spending time sucked into Facebook or online games or email), we seem to have less time than ever before.  It’s easy to connect with people via email and Facebook, in our own time, at our own schedule. It’s convenient and quick and we can do a lot more of it and feel very productive.  Look at all the connections I have!  Look at who I contacted today!

But at their heart, the very effortlessness of these connections devalues them.

In our deepest selves, we appreciate effort. It matters when we show up. When we connect in a physical way.

A virtual hug, however appreciated, can never hold the same value as feeling sheltered in the arms of a person who cares.

An email, however lovely, cannot substitute for the time and effort that goes into a card that is hand-chosen, handwritten, hand-stamped, hand-sent.

Online support and donations are valuable for a charity or service club or PTA. But they cannot replace the nurturing that comes from being present with people who need us.

In professional services, no amount of email, or newsletters, or excellent technical work, can substitute for face-to-face time with a client. Looking them in the eye. Hearing their concerns. Saying “You matter to me” in ways much louder than words.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Interwebs ever so slightly. Facebook, Twitter, email, and all the rest need to be a tool to augment personal interaction, not replace it. Don’t stop emailing or Facebooking. God no.

But sometimes, you just gotta show up.

In our hearts, we know this. It’s why this cartoon has been shared and shared and shared. Why we rejoice over cards in the mail and make a big deal when there’s a great turnout for the Food Bank workday.

If we want to make a lasting difference to the people around us – clients or friends or family – we must find a way to be physically, tangibly present when they need us.  We can’t wait for other folks to do this work. It’s up to us. Even when it’s inconvenient.

Maybe especially when it’s inconvenient.

Cartoon by Victor at http://www.poofytoo.com.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Marketing, Networking, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

End the Name Blame Game: Be a Hero

Posted by debrahelwig on March 19, 2013

SuperheroOver the years, I’ve wished over and over for a very specific superpower. And if it comes with spandex tights, mask, and cape, so be it.

It’s not flight. Not super strength. Not plasti-girl flexibility.

I want the superpower to remember people’s names.

I live a public life. I see people all the time at networking events, at conferences, at my kids’ school, at church. I know who they are. I know who they’re connected with. I know something about them.

But their names?  Far too often, they’ve blown away like smoke on a windy day.

Sometimes, the problem is contextual, like seeing an always-elegant work contact in their sweats and sneakers at the grocery. That sort of missed connection makes sense. But what I’m talking about here is more blatant. My best client’s business partner. The person who sat in the front row at two of my recent conferences and asked good questions. The mom of my kids’ classmate, who I see every weekday when I walk the kids to school. The person I see and speak to at church EVERY WEEK.

Faces I know. Names I should know.

Here’s a great example: I was volunteering at a church workday this past Saturday, polishing brass, and two other women came into my workspace to help. I know both of them.  I’ve been attending this church for SEVEN YEARS. I see them every Sunday.

Names?  Dang it, I couldn’t recall either of them.

Over the years, the primary tool I’ve used in covering this weakness has been my status as a woman of the American South.  Because I am a girl from Georgia, with an accent to match, people assume that it’s just normal for me to use “Honey,” “Sweetie,” “Sugar,” or “Darlin,” instead of a name.  I cover my lapses with whichever pleasantry comes to mind first.  But this day, I knew it wouldn’t work, not on two at once – especially since both were Southern women themselves. They’d know in a heartbeat what I was up to. There was nothing to do but suck up the embarrassment and admit my fault.

But it turns out that the way I did it sparked a whole new way of thinking about my name-centered memory lapses – one that benefited both me AND them – and that might benefit you too.

I did something far different than simply plead amnesia.  I prefaced my confession by telling them what I did remember.

To Gal One, I said, “I know you’re a dental hygienist, and you always wear the most beautiful jewel tones, but for the life of me I cannot remember your name.”

Her reaction? “Oh my gosh, it’s so sweet of you to remember all that about me! I’m Kathy.”

Wow.  I did not dissolve into a puddle of embarrassment.  The world did not explode.

I kept going to Gal Two: “And you sit in the front pew every week, and you always have a big smile for me.”

She said, “I’m Kenny, Debra. I’m glad you remember my smile.”

Holy Moley. It worked. No angst. No pain.  And in reflecting on it later, I figured out why it worked then and (more important!) why it will work in the future.

Saying what I do know makes all the difference. You see, one of the biggest perceived slights in forgetting a name is the feeling that You Forgot Me. ALL of me. By saying what I do remember, it honors the person and says, “I remember you, and you’re important; my brain just doesn’t work well on names.”

That’s a very different communication. One that speaks of value and caring. One that opens the door to a much more rich and interesting dialogue. A dialogue that builds a relationship.

In that case, a lost name isn’t a reason to beat ourselves up and feel bad.  Instead, it’s an opportunity to build someone else up.  A real, honest-to-goodness chance, if only for a moment, to allow them to see themselves as we see them.  To remind them of things that stand out, positively, from their encounters with us, even if the name didn’t stick.

Because the superpower isn’t remembering the names. The superpower is connecting with the people behind the names.

I had my superpower all along. Fellow name amnesiacs out there, you do too.  All we have to do is use it.

No cape required.

Photo by Kaptain Kobold. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Networking, Relationship Building, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 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 »

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 »

 
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