Herds Are For Animals

Posted on February 22, 2015 by Josh Linkner

“Our company offers great service and affordable pricing.” 

“We really care about our customers.”

“One call does it all!”

Perhaps platitudes that lack specificity and depth worked 20 years ago.  But in our fist-fighting competitive arena, these flimsy claims say nothing at all.  Your customers and prospects want to know, need to know: What truly makes you different? In a world full of options, unless you can answer this question with precision, you may soon be in the very difficult position of systematically losing to your competition.

I ask the “what makes you different?” question constantly to people in a wide array of organizations – from financial planners to speaker bureaus, from personal trainers to universities.  Remarkably, I rarely hear a solid response. The most common reply is “Great question! We really need to come up with something better to say.”  The second most common is some characteristic that is just the ante to play such as great service, attention to detail, or high integrity.  Those qualities are important, but a competitive differentiator they are not.  Instead, I want to hear a sentence that starts with, “We’re the ONLY company that….”

With fickle consumers, dwindling loyalty, and over-the-top marketing, you can’t afford to blend in.  And being 3% different doesn’t cut it either.  You need to be able to clearly articulate why you are a one-of-a-kind, truly differentiated organization to win and keep customers.  Focus more on what makes you different instead of the things that are the industry norms.  Customers crave – and will pay handsomely for – originality, not conformity.

The super-smart folks at The Gartner Group came up with a simple diagnostic tool: the Competitive Swap Test.  Simply swap out your name for a competitor’s name while making a claim.  If the phrase still holds true, you haven’t said enough to stand out.  If you boast great response times, but could swap in three competitors’ names that also have similar responsiveness, you fail the test.  You need to find deeper, stronger points of differentiation to win the hearts and minds of your customers.

Think of your favorite brands or organizations, and you’ll likely see they stand apart from the pack in your mind, easily beating the Competitive Swap Test with their brand promise, features, and benefits.  To drive your own business – or even your career – start crafting the story of what makes you different.  When your answer is powerful, and you can deliver against the promise, you become unstoppable.

Herds are for animals.  Break away, and run free.

15 Powerful Ideas

Posted on February 15, 2015 by Josh Linkner

“You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction.”
~ Edward deBono

“Out there is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it. You’ve got only one option – to shoot first.”
~ Gary Hamel

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
~ Arthur Schopenhauer

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
~ Charles Mingus

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
~ John Steinbeck

“What would have drawn a “wow” fifteen years ago won’t draw a yawn today.”
~ Steve Wynn

“If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”
~ Ross Perot

“The mind is like a garden, plant flowers, you get flowers. Plant weeds, you get weeds. Plant nothing, you get weeds.”
~ Unknown

“Man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.”
~ Chinese Proverb

“One can never truly savor success until first tasting adversity.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 “Only the humble improve.”
~ Wynton Marsalis

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
~ General Erick Shinseki

“Children are happy because they don’t have a file in their minds called ‘All the Things That Could Go Wrong.’”
~ Marianne Williamson

“Don’t stumble over something behind you.”
~ Seneca

“Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn’t hear the music.”
~ Unknown

Think Like a Beginner

Posted on February 8, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Imagine taking up a new hobby such as playing the guitar or learning tennis.

You’d begin this process lacking any previous knowledge, so you’d be completely open to learn. With no preconceived notions, you are bound by no tradition and thus fully able to embrace the possibilities.

In contrast, getting an “expert” to take a fresh approach is about as difficult as getting someone to change his or her position on politics or religion.

Achieving success in a profession or craft yields many benefits, but also is accompanied by the downside of believing you’ve figured it all out.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you may rationalize. “Don’t rock the apple cart” is a torrid phrase that has seduced many smart people into a false sense of security.

The truth is, mastery is a temporary state that happens in the context of many external factors. So high achievement, therefore, is a not a permanent condition but rather a moment in time onto which success can either be built or depleted.

In Eastern philosophy, Zen masters strive to have an “empty cup.” An empty cup has plenty of room to accept a fresh pour of tea, but a cup that is already full has no room left for anything new.

On the path toward self-mastery, monks meditate and work toward the state of having a completely empty and open mind so they have plenty of room to accept new ideas. This empty cup philosophy is known as a “beginner’s mind” — fully open to embrace the new.

In your career, you may have hit a limit, which ironically was created by your own success. Once you get good at something, human nature is to keep doing it the same way.

The problem is, like the teacup, when you think you’ve got it all figured you, you leave no room for fresh approaches. This fullness leads to complacency, which in turn often yields to crushing defeat at the hands of innovative competitors who possess the beginner’s mind.

To break free from the shackles of the past and to take your game to the next level, approach your challenges with the newness of a beginner. Let go of what you’ve done in the past, and choose your strategy based on merit rather than tradition.

Upon his death, the founder of the Judo, Jigoro Kano, insisted that he be buried in his white belt instead of his advanced and highly-decorated black belt. In the ultimate act of humility, the most advanced master in the field wanted to spend eternity with a beginner’s mind, open to learning rather than being defined by his previous accomplishments.

Embrace the beginner’s mind in your career, company and community, and you will discover new paths to better outcomes. Judo-flip your approach from the expert to the beginner, and new possibilities will appear.

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The Secret to Beat the ‘Big Decision Trap’

Posted on February 1, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Making decisions can be downright scary. What if you make the wrong call? What if the new initiative turns out to hurt more than help (remember the launch of New Coke?)

“I’d better be careful not to screw things up,” you tell yourself. “Don’t push the envelope. Just keep it safe.”

Think how much effort it takes to pass a new law. Months of sub-committee meetings, political back channeling, public hearings, voter polling. The result? A system that sorely lacks innovation and agility.

As we make decisions in our own lives — ranging from big moves in business to smaller, personal choices — we tend to put the weight of the world on our shoulders. The nagging impulse to avoid mistakes, get it right, and not lose ground can paralyze our ability to try new things. Accordingly, many businesses and individuals remain stuck in the quicksand of the status quo.

To crack through this barrier, try this fresh approach: rather than viewing a decision as a written-in-stone, life-or-death morass, reframe it as an experiment. Put on your imaginary lab jacket, and picture yourself as a scientist doing research in a lab.

Breakthrough innovations such as curing disease with a new drug therapy come from a series of experiments, not a single idea that is instantly hatched in a perfect state. In fact, most major innovations are the result of a series of experiments, which encounter setbacks, mistakes, and roadblocks. The act of progress, therefore, is a process of discovery, not a single lightning bolt of inspiration.

Many of us have fresh ideas for change, but view the situation as binary: Either fully embrace the new idea and risk everything, or don’t pursue it at all. I suggest you forgo this all-or-nothing trap in favor of experimentation. Break the idea down into one or more experiments, where you can test your new vision without betting the farm. If you’re trying to effectuate change at your company, bosses are often reluctant to ratify permanent changes but have a healthy appetite for experiments.

The same logic applies personally. Even small decisions such as your route to work, Thursday’s dinner menu, or which friend to invite to the game can be enhanced by viewing them as experiments. Inject more experiments into your weekly routine, and you’ll uncover fresh possibilities.

In the words of American poet and musician Tuli Kupferberg, “When patterns are broken, new worlds can emerge.”

Don’t wait for an act of Congress to embrace new ideas. Minimize the pressure of making permanent decisions through regular and systematic experimentation. Give that whacky idea a shot — not by instituting a new policy, but by conducting an experiment. When the pressure is off, your creativity will soar.

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Tough + Love = Great Leadership

Posted on January 25, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Teachings of the Far East explain the concept of yin/yang. In order to achieve balance, and ultimately success, we need to have oppositional forces present and equal. This is obvious in our relationships, as oftentimes opposites attract – personalities, talent areas, skill sets, hobbies, etc. This differentiation between partners is what keeps things interesting and dynamic. Functionally, the same thing happens as you build a team – it doesn’t make sense to have people who all can do the same thing; instead, gather those who work differently from one another to maximize the group’s success. While the yin/yang dynamic is perhaps most obvious with multiple people, the concept works well for our own internal balancing act, too.

As a leader, it’s never been more important to focus on the combination of “tough” and “love” when dealing with your team members. If there’s too much of one or too much of another, the leader becomes an ineffective manager. Think about it – if you’re all tough, you’ve been deemed a jerk boss. The byproduct of this is that you end up with poorly performing employees who are over-stressed and constantly live in fear of whatever you’ll do next. On the other hand, if you’re all love, you have no accountability, which means no results – good campfire songs don’t pay the bills… revenue does.

However, when you combine these two oppositional traits and lead with tough + love, you’re on a path toward success. If people know you have their best interest in mind, they won’t question your motives when you make a suggestion or provide direct feedback. Similarly, if your team members feel like you believe in them, they won’t begrudge the accountability measures you put in place. Those targets (and tracking mechanisms) simply become a way for them to write down all the goals they’ve met, rather than feeling as if they fell short. When it’s clear that you truly want to help them improve, they’ll be willing to stretch themselves and take on a demanding workload, in the name of their own personal growth.

So how can you achieve this yin/yang as a leader?

Set high standards, but with good reason. Make sure your employees know that expectations are high and that their output will be judged at a gold standard. However, also give yourself a sanity check. Don’t assign more work simply for the sake of having done so. Make sure you understand, and have fully explained, the logic behind a task, so that all team members involved have a buy-in to its importance. If they don’t, it will never be completed to the level you’d desire.

Get to know each team member directly.  Make sure that you sit down with every single employee one-on-one regularly for a meeting with just that person as the agenda item. What are his personal career goals in the short term? What does she hope to learn? Where does he need to grow? How much more would she like to take on? How’s life at home? By taking a true interest into each person’s standing (both personally and within the company), your employees will feel more inclined to work toward the goals they laid out, rather than a project you outlined in a team huddle.

Live up to your word. When things don’t happen the way they should have, enact that accountability you had introduced. Likewise, when you’ve promised something for a goal achieved, stand by that. When your team can trust you when you say anything (for better or for worse), they’ll be more willing to stake their career goals on your promises.

Effective leadership involves the artful combination of these seemingly conflicting approaches. It’s not easy to master this delicate balance, but if it’s done right, it can be the driving force of your own progress.

Avoiding Almost

Posted on January 18, 2015 by Josh Linkner

He almost closed the deal.  She almost got that big promotion.  They almost won the championship.  Almost.

Near misses can be especially frustrating, since you did almost enough work to make it happen.  When a pro football team carries the ball 90 yards down the field, that progress was the sum of great strategy, precision, agility, and powerful execution.  But when they fumble on the two yard-line and fail to put points on the board, all that effort fell short of driving any results.  We live in a binary world, where almost is the often the same as nothing at all.

To make it to almost, you must have done a lot of things right.  When you almost won that $10 million contract, you had to have a great presentation, solid pricing, a quality product, and a professional team.  If you were incompetent, you’d never even get close to almost.  Getting to almost probably required focus, creativity, hard work, endless hours, sacrifice, and investment.

Almost is quite a wrenched state, since it required nearly as much effort as winning yet yielded zero results.  If you were going to miss the brass ring altogether, you could have made it home for dinner or had time to exercise.  With nearly all the work without a lick of payback, almost sucks.

So how do we avoid almost?  The best of the best build their plans to over-deliver against the goal to accommodate for the inevitable.  If hitting an annual sales target requires six sales people, the best leaders make sure to hire eight.  If one quits unexpectedly, the leader with contingency still makes the grade while the one who barely planned to win suffers though a bewildered state of almost.

If you’re fighting for something big, what are the steps you can take to ensure victory?  What moves will put you over the top and separate you from the competitive pack?  In these challenging times, photo-finish victories are won or lost in the margins.  The little extras, the over-delivers, the bursts of extraordinary.  If your game plan is built to deliver 30% past your target, your much more likely to avoid the almost and reach your goal.  The extra effort between winning and being an also-ran is minute compared to the exertion it took to barely miss.

When you’re pursuing life’s biggest goals, an extra dose of effort is often the difference maker.  If you have the energy to make it to almost, you can muster the resolve to break through it.  The next time someone tells you to pause since you’ve already done enough to win, put your shoulder into an extra burst of work and simply tell them… “almost.”

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The Brilliance of Brevity

Posted on January 11, 2015 by Josh Linkner

In a smoky bar while drinking heavily, Hemingway made a bet with fellow authors that he could tell a story in only six words.  Once everyone at the table agreed to participate, Hemingway wrote his story on the back of a napkin, passed it around the group, and gleefully collected his winnings. The story read, “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”

Historians include this brief, vivid story as one of Hemingway’s best works. The brilliance was his ability to communicate with stunning efficiency. Nearly 100 years later, the six-word story tradition continues, with dozens of websites showcasing these tiny and compelling pieces.  A quick Google search yielded gems such as “I awoke to the sirens again”, “No, I’m single, said my wife”,  “Wet, cold, tired – and smiling. Success”, and “Blonde parents. Dark daughter. Genetics undiscussed.”

With only 140 characters allowed, Twitter has made a profound impact in global communications, from helping to topple dictatorships and defend human rights, to launching new movies and trash-talking athletic rivalries. If tweets had no size limit, the potency would be greatly diminished and the Twitter sensation would likely never taken off.

Today, we have no shortage of blank paper, no limit to the number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation. It’s easy for us to blather on, caring little about brevity. Yet with information overload, messages are getting lost and communication quality is spiraling downward. Sales pitches, investor memos, print ads, offer letters, emails, newscasts, and nearly every other form of communication have become bloated and ineffective with each unneeded superfluous word.  And then we wonder why it’s become so hard to get our messages across; our voices heard.

In the sea of brand messages and big data, fewer words can yield a bigger impact. Refine your communications to the most compelling and efficient format, and your results will dramatically improve. Saying more with less isn’t always easy, but the extra effort will skyrocket your return-per-word. Simply put, brevity wins.

In the words of Mark Twain, “I wanted to write you a short letter. I didn’t have time, so I wrote you a long one.”

The Times, They Are a Changin’

Posted on January 4, 2015 by Josh Linkner

Diplomacy with Cuba.  More mobile devices than people on the planet.  Cyber-attacks, not bombs, are the biggest threat to national security.  Retailers such as Amazon delivering merchandise via drones.  TV networks advertising when they actually have a scripted show.

Who woulda’ thunk it?

Back in early January of 1964, legendary songwriter Bob Dylan prophesied, “The times they are a changing.”  He was certainly correct back then, on the verge of major changes such as the civil rights movement, the space race, Vietnam, the summer of love, and the cold war.  Of course, the times were also a chagin’ in the 70’s.  And 80’s.  And 90’s.  And 2000’s.

Today, the world is changing at a rate like none other in history.  Advances in technology, geo-political turmoil, shifts in consumer behavior, currency instabilities.  You name it, it’s a changin’.

The real question becomes: how fast are you changing?

Fluctuations create opportunity for those that seize them, while delivering turbulent misery for those that cling to the past.  History shows us again and again that standing still is riskiest move of all.  Today more than ever, living in a constant state of reinvention is mission-critical to your success in your company, career, and community.  Bob Dylan nailed it with these poetic lyrics:

Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’

As you begin the New Year, commit to being an agent of change rather than a purveyor of the past.  Every morning when you wake up, the world has changed overnight.  How you adapt to those shifts will define your success in 2015 and beyond.  Change is inevitable; the sooner you embrace it, the more benefit you’ll derive.

The upcoming year can be your blank canvas of creative expression.  A blank sheet of music, onto which you can create your masterpiece.  Fluidity and adaptability will become your primary building blocks as you leverage the rapidly changing world to enable your best year yet.

Dylan’s words are as relevant today as they were 51 years ago.  Yes, the times they are a changin’.  Are you?

Your Real Job Goes Far Beyond Your Role

Posted on December 21, 2014 by Josh Linkner

It’s not my job.

Four of the most poisonous words when strung together. As a customer, how many times have you heard this stinging phrase when seeking help? Think how utterly frustrated you become when the person at the pharmacy, cable company, doctor’s office, or government office absolves themselves of any responsibility to serve by hiding behind their job description. Your blood boils as the full force of their apathy hits you in the face like a billowing wind on a frigid day.

On the other hand, remember how delighted you felt the last time someone went above and beyond for you. When your waiter suggested a better table, offering you a more stunning view. Or the time your flight attendant noticed you looked chilly and rushed you over a warm blanket. You were likely overwhelmed with gratitude, and your opinion of the company that these caring people represent just gained some serious loyalty.

Unfortunately, leaders too often pigeonhole team members into thinking about their jobs with a myopic lens. Sure, we all have tasks on our to-do lists. But there’s also a greater mission at hand — to help fulfill the purpose of the organization. Hospitals heal the sick, not just process intake forms. Cruise lines provide memorable experiences for guests, not just open and close the buffet on time. If every team member merely completes tasks, long-term success becomes elusive. However, driving the importance of the bigger picture enables the team members to use their creativity and judgment to make a far bigger impact.

Back when I was building my company, ePrize, a junior software developer acted on a hunch. She was working on a big project and all her own tasks were on track. But, she could feel in her bones that something was off. Without a fancy leadership title, she rallied the 12-person project team to have daily stand-up meetings where they reviewed code, compared notes and ensured overall progress. The project, which would have been doomed without her valiant efforts, launched on-time, without a hitch. Success came because she realized that her actual job was to create a win for her client and our company, not to hide behind her task list.

As you lead — in your company, community or profession — make sure those around you know what the real job is. If you’re not in a leadership role yet, the more often you make things your job by taking ownership of a larger mission, the faster you will advance.


Paying It Forward

Posted on December 14, 2014 by Josh Linkner

Motorists recently enjoyed a friendly turn of fate in Lowell, Michigan. As drivers were pulled over by the police for small infractions (such as having tinted windows that were too dark), officers began a pleasant chat instead of grumpily issuing a citation.

In conversation, the officers also asked what the drivers and their kids wanted for Christmas.

The unsuspecting drivers had no idea that the officers were on a live radio, which was being broadcast to a team of shoppers ready to sprint through stores and rush over surprise purchases. Stunned drivers were overjoyed as officers handed over holiday gifts instead of speeding tickets.

Gifts included TVs, an Xbox, Legos, and other exciting items that brought tears of joy to some of the recipients.

Rather than having a negative experience with the police, this act of kindness created a positive interaction and paved the way for strong police-citizen relations in the Lowell community. A TV station that filmed the joyful surprises paid for the gifts, so not a cent of taxpayer money was consumed. The result: a creative, pay-it-forward approach to leaving a positive impact.

Police Paying It Forward

Paying it forward is not a new concept. My wife recently bought a coffee for the woman behind her in line at Starbucks, simply to create a smile and improve someone’s day. Small acts of kindness and generosity, often issued at random, can brighten even the cloudiest days.

This concept can be extended far beyond a small gift, and in turn, the results become amplified. Paying it forward by mentoring an up-and-comer in your field, for example, not only creates a new friend but also elevates your profession. Contributing your time to help disadvantaged kids learn to read, picking up slack for a colleague, or going the distance for a customer are all examples of injecting positive energy into the world.

It turns out, there is a big return-on-investment, especially when you’re not seeking one. In my experience, the more you give, the more you get. The payoff may come back to you in unexpected ways when you least expect it. Worst case, the feelings of helping others is itself a powerful reward.

Think what would happen in our organizations and community, if each of us paid it forward once a week. Little acts of unrequested generosity would begin to build on each other, creating a large and meaningful impact.

Let’s use the holiday season as a time to drive progress by helping others. Ironically, you’ll likely enjoy strong, direct benefits as a result. The next time you feel annoyed, try issuing kindness instead of a reprimand. You’ll feel much better, and you’ll be making the good folks in the town of Lowell proud.

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