Saturday, 24th February 2018

Communication’s Missing Link?

Posted on 13. Feb, 2012 by in Blogs


Last Thursday I participated in a panel discussion about how internal and external communications (when done well) set the stage for business success. I had nothing new to say about communication when I went to bed Wednesday night. And that really bothered me. In fact, it bothered me enough that I awoke with an epiphany at 2:30. The ‘big idea’ made going back to sleep impossible.

During grad school our organizational behavior professor told us the following three elements comprised communication:

  • Word choice = 7%
  • Tone of voice = 38%
  • Body language = 55%

Since then, I’ve discovered the professor presented that information out of context. However, thinking about communication in those terms has helped me learn to read between the lines when it comes to social interactions. Understanding subtext, particularly when you’re debating an issue, is one of the most valuable tools a leader can have on hand. During the wee hours of Thursday morning I realized that at least one important element had not made the list. Chemistry.

We talk about chemistry in the workplace when it comes to ‘fit.’ We don’t talk about chemistry when it comes to communication… and we should. As we feel emotions, humans experience a biochemical reaction, which is then shared through what is called the ‘open loop limbic system.’ I first read about this phenomenon in Primal Leadership by Daniel Coleman, Richard E. Boyatiz, and Annie McKee.

We’ve all seen petty disagreements escalate to full-scale arguments. We’ve also seen anger flash across a conference room like wildfire. That’s because we catch and share feelings through mirroring neurons and the biochemical reaction noted above. Let’s term that unintended sharing the ’empathy quotient.’ What happens, then, when a person chooses not to react negatively to a negative situation? You de-escalate rather than escalate. And by so doing, you’ve used your empathy quotient to moderate other people’s reactions to a more positive outcome.

Call me crazy, but since reading Primal Leadership several years ago, I’ve consciously influenced my teams in this manner. In the past, I thought it was tone of voice and body language that kept things on track. While those elements certainly played a role, I’m convinced the empathy quotient did too. What do you think?

Preparing Local Businesses for Success

Posted on 07. Feb, 2012 by in Blogs

Preparing Local Businesses for Success

Think Local First and Live Green co-sponsor Locals Unplugged!—a monthly gathering of small business owners in the DC metro area. These meetings are designed to foster a sense of community and provide education and other valuable resources to help members become more successful. Topics range from sustainability and greening to the challenges of opening your doors for the very first time.

This month’s topic, “Internal and External Communications: Preparing Your Business for Success,” is very close to my heart. In fact, the sponsors have asked Encore Performance Consulting, a boutique firm that specializes in helping businesses play to their strengths, to moderate the discussion.

While there are a lot of resources designed to teach executives how to improve leadership skills, optimize systems, or write business plans, these resources leave out the single most critical success factor: Your people. Assuming your company fills a market need, the ability to attract, motivate, and retain an unbeatable team is the secret sauce that enables companies of all sizes to develop a passionate customer following and achieve breakthrough results.

Thursday morning’s breakfast at the Dupont Circle Business Incubator is filling up fast. You can register at Locals Unplugged! Please stop by if you’re in the area. I’d love to meet you!

It’s Good to Question the Source

Posted on 24. Jan, 2012 by in Blogs


A couple of weeks ago I met someone who teaches online journalism for Georgetown University at a networking event. He provided fascinating insight about the effect online publishing has had on traditional journalism when combined with generational filters.Today’s college students Google for information and use volume of hits as the litmus test for ‘truth.’ He referenced the news of Steve Job’s death as an example. The overwhelming number of hits validated the news was true for his students, even though those hits could have ultimately originated from the same source. Scary thought.

Although assessing whether or not something we read rings true should be our norm, the Web enables anyone to publish and people often take what they see at face value. People  validate the source when they blog and tweet without assessment. Rather than accept what’s presented as fact, we should challenge those things that don’t quite make sense… even when they come from credible sources.

For example the Business Insider recently published findings from a Harvard Business School working paper. The topic: Success factors for startups, particularly as they relate to venture funding. A couple of points just didn’t hit the target. Specifically, the analysis concludes that if a startup’s founder has experienced previous success, the VC is not all that important as an advisor.

Despite Harvard’s reputation, I think the above qualifies as an academic conclusion. Unless the founder understands why he or she was successful the first time around, that success cannot easily be replicated. That’s a real-world conclusion I’ve drawn after working with startups since the mid-90s.

If you talk to experienced VCs, they’ll tell you many successful ‘been there, done that’ entrepreneurs think they know it all. In fact, these entrepreneurs are only as strong as their leadership skills. The ability to put the right team in place is one of those factors that makes or breaks performance—and that includes advisors. Just read Tony Hseieh’s book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose for an amusing and uplifting dose of startup reality.

It just goes to show that, regardless of news source, one should question the logic when things don’t quite add up.

Small Changes, Huge Implications

Posted on 03. Jan, 2012 by in Blogs

Small Changes, Huge Implications

Woody Allen’s movie Match Point explores how a tiny twist of fate – the final rotation of a twirling gold ring, which will determine if it will disappear forever in the river or settle on land to be discovered later by detectives – can have gargantuan implications down the road.  Literature imitates life:  The outsized implications of small decisions occur all the time in the realm of marketing, determining the ultimate success or failure of products and services.

The George Foreman Grill is one of the great product launches of recent times.  It sold more than 100 million units, and netted Foreman more than $200MM cash – more money than he made in his entire championship boxing career.  He became extraordinarily wealthy selling what is a simple, and quite frankly unremarkable, cooking appliance.

While you’re probably familiar with the product, you likely don’t know that the product absolutely flopped out of the gate.  The original commercials for it started with brief clips of George boxing, seeking to trade on his huge success in that arena.  Consumers didn’t respond, and Foreman and his partners came very close to giving up.

They decided to give it one last try, replacing the boxing clips with scenes of Foreman cooking and enjoying a home life with his large and photogenic family.  Sales instantly took off, and continued soaring for more than a decade.  The difference between bankruptcy and riches?:  A few seconds at the beginning of a commercial.

Your potential customers are busy, they are distracted, and they are hard to convince.  As true as all of that was a decade ago, it is far truer today as new technologies bombard each of us with data and media all day long.  While you can’t win without a strong product or service, equally important are the subtleties of marketing, which if fine-tuned precisely right – but only if fine-tuned precisely right — can allow you to break through the noise, get people to notice, and convince them to open their wallets and give your offering a try.  Further compounding (and confounding) the problem, marketing is three parts art and only one part science:  There is no book in which you will find the right answer.

Are you investing enough in hiring, retaining, and integrating into your company the very (repeat:  very) best marketing people?  Are you investing enough time – of you and others – to study, think, analyze, and refine the very best possible marketing message – and then refine it again, and again, and again, based on feedback from the marketplace?  The work may not be sexy, but like Woody’s Allen twirling ring, it will make all the difference.

You wouldn’t send your product to market without ensuring it the best offering possible.  Are you doing the same with your marketing?

R&D Investments May Not Translate To Innovation

Posted on 28. Oct, 2011 by in Blogs


Booz & Co. just released findings from its 7th annual report on innovation. Guess what? Investments in R&D do not directly correlate to corporate innovation or success. In fact, culture plays a larger role in success than the amount of money a company throws into research and development.

The report describes three innovative strategies:

  • Need Seekers
  • Market Readers
  • Technology Drivers

When it comes to innovation, Need Seekers lead the way. Their inclusionary cultures pull current and potential customers into the market research and product development processes. A superior understanding of end-user needs, including those customers haven’t even recognized, lies at the core of the Need Seeking organization.

The company culture tends to align around the development of superior quality and product performance. Need Seekers’ most important value: “Openness to ideas from external sources.” These companies are often first to market, have clearly differentiated products, and typically outperform other companies from a financial perspective.

Market Readers adhere to the fast follower approach. They interpret driving forces, the competitive landscape, and monitor customer behaviors. When it comes to product development, Market Readers tend to be more risk averse than the Need Seekers… perhaps because they rely on second-hand data. These companies often display a collaborative culture that crosses functional and geographic boundaries.

Technology Drivers strive to develop the coolest stuff they know they can… and later hand off the product to sales and marketing to develop a go-to-market strategy. Their ‘build it and they will come approach’ adheres to an outdated way of thinking. Surprisingly, this strategy is the most frequently used across all industries and geographies. Dare I say that it contributes to corporate mediocrity? Culturally, Technology Drivers value their knowledge and skills. Buyers’ needs are an afterthought.

It comes as no surprise that Apple® tops the list of the 10 most innovative companies. They spent 2.7% of sales on R&D last year. Google® ranks second, but invested 12.8%. (Three of last year’s top 10 innovators invested less than 3% of sales in R&D.) It’s clear that people matter. Do things right and, combined with a Need Seeker philosophy, your culture becomes an unbeatable competitive advantage.

You Can Have Your Reasons…

Posted on 25. Oct, 2011 by in Blogs


Or, you can have your results. Gary Ridley of Smarteam Communications introduced me to that philosophy more than 10 years ago. Today, Chris Brogan published Tommy Walker’s step-by-step instructions on how to walk that walk. The list isn’t a top 10. It’s not even a top 20. Read Chris’ post and you’ll get a whopping 106 ways to avoid self-sabotage.

Three of the most common excuses I hear include:

  • You haven’t done it before
  • You don’t know where to begin
  • Other people are more lucky

Everything we do in our lives has, at some point, been something we haven’t done before. Walking. Reading. Landing your first job. We’re wired to learn through experience. When ‘I’ve never done that before’ pops up as an excuse, what you’re really facing is fear of failure. Yet, you’ve already failed if you choose not to try something you dream of doing. You lose nothing (and have much to gain) by giving something new a shot. The key to getting started: Focus on your potential for success.

If you don’t know where to begin, perhaps you’ve assumed there’s only one way to do something. Seriously, so many people in our culture trap themselves by thinking there’s ‘one right way.’ There’s not. People have unlimited capacity for creative problem solving. Just take the plunge and you will naturally start at your beginning.

And remember, luck has nothing to do with the universe. It has everything to do taking initiative and cultivating opportunity. You also have to be open to recognizing opportunities that may not fit with preconceived notions. A lot of sweat and ingenuity goes into creating your own luck. The first step: Believe that you can do it.

So, did your favorite excuse make the top 106? Please share below!

Why Facebook Can’t Stop

Posted on 26. Sep, 2011 by in Blogs


Have your friends complained about the changes Facebook made last week? Industry experts have begun to weigh in on the pros and cons of the new interface and its “improved” features. TechCrunch and Dave Winer offer some of the best information.

It should come as no surprise that lack of privacy has once again reared its head as a primary concern—especially with the ability to track your off-site behaviors. Concern for privacy and frictionless sharing have ticked off a lot of users. Yet the company is not about to stop introducing these types of invasive changes.

Facebook is not about the user experience. It is about business—big business if they really plan to go public next year. With a subscriber base that tops 800 million, the company has to implement radical changes to attract new user types and keep growing. (How many of those 800 million do you suppose are dupe accounts for people cloaking their identities?)

Part of Facebook’s value comes from public broadcasting, but not in the sense that we think about sharing information with friends, family, and colleagues. Frictionless sharing, for example, appears to offer no value to the user. Its existence annoys us. The blow-by-blow details of who reads this or listens to that trivialize the act of sharing. If users want people to know what they’re doing, they’ll take the time to share because it’s personally relevant.

The value to the network, though, is immeasurable. It gives Facebook another way to gather and analyze user behaviors. They’ll take that information and use it to their advantage. It’s a manipulative practice… and unfortunately a common one. Data collection and behavioral analysis lies at the heart of Google’s business practices too. It’s just that Facebook is better at it than anyone else… at least for now.

By the way, off-site tracking is not a new capability. If you don’t want someone looking over your shoulder then clear your cookies on a regular basis. Try this little test. Clear your cookies and then visit You’ll be astonished at the number of new cookies you picked up from a single, seemingly innocuous site.

The Self Destruction of Startups

Posted on 30. Aug, 2011 by in Blogs


Yesterday TechCrunch published an article about the most significant factor that causes startups to implode: premature scaling. This conclusion, based on research by the founders of a business accelerator named Blackbox, posits that while 90% of startups fail, 70% of them fail because they scale prematurely.

The Startup Genome Report (compiled by Blackbox in conjunction with Stanford and Berkeley) assessed early stage development milestones for 3,200 companies. The project set out to analyze why startups fail. It ended with the development of a Web app, called Compass, designed to keep new companies on track. (In the old days, we used to call what they created a business planning tool.)

Having been around the startup block a time or two, I beg to disagree with the conclusion that scaling is the be-all, end-all startup killer. To start, they apply the term scale to customers, product, team, financials, and business model. That brush stroke covers too much ground to be helpful. Yes, problems in those areas can contribute to failure, but so can founder’s syndrome, poor leadership, and a host of other issues. A definition that broad invites paralysis and inhibits practical problem solving.

And while the scope of the problem defined and resulting conclusion is too broad, the analysis uncovers some interesting facts. As previously reported by TechCrunch:

  • Startups that pivot once (or twice) raise 2.5x more money, have 3.6x better user growth, and are 52% less likely to scale prematurely than startups that pivot more than 2 times or not at all.
  • Startups need 2-3 times longer to validate their market than most founders expect.
  • Most successful founders are driven by impact rather than experience or money.

I’m going to sign up for Compass and take it for a spin—despite the flaws I’ve pointed out above. I’m interested to see what it will tell me about our startup. I expect the app will be a business planning tool that, if used properly, achieves the same results as the old fashioned kind. And that’s a conclusion I can agree with: Planning your business will exponentially increase the likelihood of success.

Microsoft’s Folly

Posted on 26. Aug, 2011 by in Blogs


Microsoft has announced plans to open a store in Tyson’s Corner. The company wants to replicate Apple’s success by using retail outlets as a key driver for sales, customer service, and reinforcing their lifestyle brand. The Virginia location, part of an overall growth strategy, will bring their total store count to 14.

As a Mac user, I don’t understand what the company believes a Microsoft lifestyle represents. Rarely do companies achieve the dedicated fan base Apple has cultivated over the years. Their avid following stems directly from a carefully crafted, visionary approach hyper focused on the user experience. It starts with product and package design and flows through distribution, customer service, and impeccable support. Oh, and trial and error factor into the equation. Apple tries new things and doesn’t get it right every time. But they learn from their mistakes and try again. Over time, they’ve become the powerhouse everyone envies.

And that’s why Microsoft’s retail stores will fall short. You cannot take someone else’s strategy, plop it into your business model, and expect the same results. Values, vision, leadership and culture (the heart and soul of a company) executed through processes and systems determine outcomes. Like every company, Microsoft has all of these elements but none of them come close to mimicking Apple.

In the end, I think Microsoft will simply increase its cost structure and erode the bottom line without gaining mindshare. Joe Wilcox at betanews disagrees with me. What do you think?

Graffiato Revs Up

Posted on 27. Jun, 2011 by in Blogs

Graffiato Revs Up

Top Chef put Mike Isabella on the map. As second runner up to Top Chef All Stars, he received a lot of publicity before doing a soft launch for Graffiato over the weekend. If you’re a fan like I am, you’re probably salivating at the news. Mike Isabella has a rep for making outrageously delicious food… and doing the somewhat outlandish.

The WTOP news clip shows that Graffiato exudes Mike’s Jersey personality… a little larger than life. He put prosecco on tap. A ham bar features ‘local’ meat, from up and down the eastern seaboard. But, what’s most surprising? Mike hasn’t defined a target market. He wants “anybody and everybody” to stop by and enjoy themselves.

As a Top Chef fan from the beginning, I’ve always thought the show taught great business lessons: leadership, teamwork, and communication to name a few. The cheftestants who possess those skills in addition to exceptional cooking talent consistently rise to the top. So it surprises me that the basic principle of defining a target market has escaped Mike.

In this instance, it may not matter. His reputation will likely overcome the oversight. Yet, I can’t help but be disappointed. He’s a role model others will follow. Without the fame and publicity that comes from being on Top Chef, you won’t get crowds of people knocking on your door. In most cases, you’ll just become another company that has come and gone.

What do you think? Can those with fame break the rules and still be successful?