February, 2010

Taking Care of Business

I’ve been in business for 15 years – started in January 1995 about five minutes after the Social Development Commission made a disasterous pick for executive director, a woman who resigned two years later amid allegations of misappropriation of funds, lying about her credentials, a ton of stuff that confirmed my decision to boogie when I did.  I resigned my job as Planning Director – a job that I loved and was very good at.  It broke my heart to leave.

Because I had been in business before, I knew I could rev up the engine and get going again.  I likened myself to Rockford, the private detective living in a Malibu trailer who printed up business cards in his car on his way to con someone into giving up some valuable info.  I could do it all – planning, grantwriting, research, community involvement, all the things I loved doing.  Yep.  I could do it all and fry it up in a pan.   And that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

So because I’ve been around a while, I get a lot of calls from people who’ve decided to become consultants.  Usually, they’ve just been down-sized, are in a state of shock, and on the rebound, so to speak. They’re looking for a quick way to make it look like they chose to leave their job.  If I know them or know the person who told them to call me, we’ll have coffee so they can “pick my brain,” one of my least favorite terms but people always seem to think it’s a nice thing to say.  So I get asked lots of questions — usually the first is, “How much do you charge?”  Followed by “How do you get business?”  And, my favorite, “How hard do you have to work?”

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, ever likes my answers.  Sometimes they start telling me what they would do different.  And I think, ok, as if. Nine times out of ten, I never hear from or about these folks again.  Why?  They find a job.  Essentially they weren’t interested in the heavy lifting and unglamorous parts of running a business – the fact that while you might be master of your own ship, you’re likely to be the only person on the boat. They liked the idea of being on their own – the freedom, self-determination, and the huge fees they felt entitled to.

It’s kind of like getting married. There’s the idea of getting married and then there’s the day to day.  Having a successful business, like having a successful marriage, is about playing the long game.  It’s about being totally invested (not secretly considering options), optimistic, confident, and cheerful.  In marriage, as in business, it helps to have a short memory and start over every day.  In both marriage and business, you have to learn to quickly recover from failure and disappointment because the weight of those things can drown you.  Deciding this is IT – that you are totally committed to a course of action, whether it’s marriage or business, frees you up to do wonderful things.  For real.  I can prove it with 15 years of a great business and 26 years of a really great marriage.  Lucky to have both — but neither dropped from the sky.  As my father would say, “successful people make their own luck.”

The Art of the Apology in Professional Life

There’s a lot written about the art of the apology.  In family life, if you don’t know how to apologize, you’re really in for a lot of heartache.  But the art of apology is just as important in professional life.  Here’s where a lot of people’s fear of taking responsibility overwhelms them.  So instead of apologizing in a timely, sincere, and meaningful way, they argue, obfuscate, blame others and make excuses.

My apology teacher was a former priest – my boss at the Social Development Commission.  Although sometimes overly responsible (apologizing for every bad thing that happened in the building), he knew how to apologize quickly and turn the discussion to making amends.  In other words, it was all about the product — not his ego.

This is what I learned from that:  People will judge you on your overall competence – not on a single event.  If you’ve made a mistake — even if it’s a huge one — it’s how you handle the clean-up that is the critical factor.

Make sure you understand what mistake you actually made before you start apologizing.  And don’t do that stupid  “Gee, I’m sorry you’re upset” thing that they teach all the customer service people.

Apologize in the same venue where the problem arose.  By this, I mean if you made a mistake involving one person in a large group setting — in my opinion, you have to apologize in the large group.

Apologize, explain specifically what you think the offense/mistake was, and ask how to make amends.  “I’m sorry. I didn’t get this survey instrument approved before I started doing interviews.  How can I make this right?”

Don’t blame colleagues, subordinates, your children, the weather, your failing health, or anything else for the mistake.  Practice this in the shower:  “I’m sorry.  There’s really no excuse for this. I take full responsibility.”

Force yourself to make affirmative apologies.  By this I mean that once you realize that you did something – even if the event has passed – you should go back and correct it.  This can be really tough.  I’ve done it.  But you’ll feel better and your group will respect you.

Remember there’s a difference between being accountable and being a doormat.  I’ll apologize when I’m wrong but I won’t tolerate piling up or my own colleagues running for the hills when they were part of the mess.

Life being what it is — complicated, messy, busy — there are always plenty of opportunities to practice apologizing.  Why, I was able to do a little practicing just this past week!  Did my apology fix everything?  I don’t know.  But life’s a long game – every mistake is about doing better next time – that’s what I think.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T Get It? Don’t Forget It.

“I want a job and a way to get there.  And I want people to treat me with respect. That’s all.  Don’t look down on me or talk down to me. It’s not my fault that I’m homeless.”  This from a homeless guy in his mid-fifties (he told me, I’m not guessing) who wasted no time telling me what was what in a focus group we conducted at a homeless shelter last week.

Let me back up.  I decided to do a series of group surveys/focus groups because I needed to include a consumer-prioritized list of service needs in a major grant I was putting together.  So it was time to get off my arse and go ask — it had been a couple of years -and I really felt like it was time to show the funding source that we were in touch with consumers. I’d already done a provider survey — a neat, tidy little online survey accomplished without moving from my office or talking to a single human being.

A big snow storm was predicted the day of our first group.  Looking at a 10-inch accumulation and blowing winds, I felt like an idiot going out to ask homeless people to rank their service needs.  But it’s what I do.  I put my survey instrument together,  packed my bag with chocolate bars, and headed out in my jeans and boots to do my job.  We needed consumer input.  My job was to get it.

At one shelter, we talked with a group of fourteen men.  My role as facilitator was to ask questions and listen.  See the guy who seems to want to talk and get him to talk.  Absorb it.  Move things along.  Maneuver the group around the interpersonal conflicts that seemed right below the surface.  And assure them that no repercussions would result from their complaints about various programs and, even, individual staff.

“Respect me.  Respect us.  Don’t treat us like crap.”  When I asked the group of homeless guys what message they wanted to send to providers, this was their answer.

I try to do this on a personal level.  When I meet a person who appears to be homeless on the street — or someone who asks me for money – I look them in the eye.  Sometimes I give them money.  Sometimes I ask if they’ve gone to XYZ agency or tried the ABC program.  I don’t ignore people when I meet them.  I look them in the eye.  I believe it’s the right thing to do.  I would want someone to acknowledge me if I was homeless and talking to them – to see that I am a person worth talking to.

But professionally, maybe it’s a different story.  I was so sure that I knew what homeless people wanted and needed that it seemed inconsiderate and redundant to go ask them.  After all, wouldn’t anyone know what homeless people would say they wanted on a snowy night with single digit wind chills?


How many meetings have I sat through talking about homeless people, kids in the juvenile justice system, families in child welfare, without having any consumers in the room?  How many times have I helped decide what goals to pursue and where to allocate funding without the people affected being present?  How often have I assumed, and let others assume, that I know what people want and need.

It hit me last week.  My arrogance.  And so I’ll say here what I said in a Facebook post:  Slap me the next time I think I know what people want or need without asking them. 

People need to be asked and heard – not once every couple of years – but in an ongoing way.  A good lesson relearned.

Holy Crap! You Want It When?

Deadlines rule your life?  Feel like someone is always chasing you?    Having dreams about getting to the airport just as your plane is leaving? 

Oh, I hear you.  Do I ever.  My whole life is about deadlines – so I’ve learned something about how to manage complex projects in a short time frame.  Some of this you’re not going to like hearing, but here goes…

My first tip is this:   Control your project.  The temptation to farm out pieces of a project to other people is huge.  Susie Q is a researcher – hey, she should be able to write the evaluation section.  So Susie Q tries, struggles, and then gives you a draft the day before the due date.  And it’s junk.  Then what?  You end up re-writing someone’s junk which, believe me, is far worse than writing it from scratch yourself.  My advice is meet with Susie Q early, get everything out of her brain you can, and write the section yourself.  In other words, control your project!

Second tip:  Keep the decision-makers in the loop. On a big project, you need to meet with the key people at the beginning of the project, when you have an initial draft/findings and then at the end.  In between, you want to keep good email/phone communication to make sure they are comfortable with the strategic decisions you are making.  Don’t go to them with the ticky stuff – then they will (rightly) think you are over your head.  Critical thing is to manage the people who will need to sign off/accept/endorse your product.  If you don’t, they’ll jam you at the end and you will have big deadline issues.

Third suggestion:  Manage yourself.  First thing to remember is that “panic is the enemy.”  Panic generates hysteria which generates junk.  Do what you need to do to keep your wits about you – deep breathing, a walk, commiseration with colleagues – but do it quickly.  Don’t spend hours calming yourself that you ought to be spending on your project!  Another thing to remember is to force yourself to focus on what’s most important.  Keep asking yourself — what really matters here?  What will make this product successful and useful?

I have a bunch of other little tricks:

  • Starting work at 4:00 a.m.  You can get more done by adding a 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift than working in the evening.
  • Keeping information for a project in folders — a proposal might have 8-10 different folders.  This keeps me from shifting into an hysteria-producing top of my desk search mode.
  • Not responding to tickiness.  I don’t like getting whipsawed by different people sending me comments.  So I figure out who’s a) the smartest reviewer; and b) the reviewer in charge and just listen to them.
  • Physically laying out a project on a table top.  It is so easy to get lost in a document when you’re only reading it on the computer screen.  Print it, lay it out page by page on a big table, and walk around the table and read it.  Assess how it looks, how much attention you’ve paid to various topics, how it hangs together.  This exercise will tell you where to focus your limited time.
  • Pretzels and Diet Coke.  Need I say more?

The Great Rondini

Amazing and often intimidating his audiences, The Great Rondini escapes from his chains and straitjacket night after night at the Key West Mallory Square Sunset Celebration.

If you go to Key West, you have to see The Great Rondini.  A magician, escape artist, and extremely caustic comic, Rondini specializes in zeroing in on people and making them squirm to the delight of the crowd….he remarked to my husband how nice it must be to get off the tractor for a while.  He told me if I didn’t move 3 steps closer, he would tell more race jokes.  I backed up 3 steps.

This year, though, we saw right through Rondini.  Listen, this guy’s prep is a thing of beauty.  Selected ‘audience members’ (all so authentic) buckle him up in his straitjacket, wrap him in chains, snap on locks, and mop his brow.  In past years, he would then be hoisted up by his ankles to start his escape hanging upside down.  Not so this year – maybe age has caught up with him.

So we watch – as intent as ever.  But because he’s not hanging upside down, it’s easier to figure out how he escapes.  He basically makes himself large when all the gear is strapped on, and shrinks to escape, going through all manner of gyrations to boost the crowd’s appreciation of his terrible predicament.

The writhing and cursing, struggling and bending, the exhortations to the crowd to be more enthusiastic and louder, and the studied pauses to tell more race/gay/Key West/tourist/hick jokes — it makes for a mesmerizing package.

First, he shrugs off the chains, then twists his arms inside the straitjacket until he can stand on his head and shrug it off as well.  He’s free!  The Great Rondini.    Even though I could see clearly how it was done, I still appreciated his showmanship, his wicked humor, and, maybe, his thumbing his nose at the world longevity.

Anyway, so what would this possibly have to do with planning or grantwriting?  Oh, you know I would have to find little lessons in this.  Well, here they are:

  1. We give the Rondinis of the world too much credit because we get so caught up in their theater we don’t get the trick.
  2. Almost everything about planning, research, grantwriting, group facilitation is about making the complex simple.
  3. There is something to the notion of blue smoke and mirrors and it ain’t just for street performers.  It’s both a tool and a weapon.  But you have to be really good at it either way.

I really like The Great Rondini.  He’s a piece of work.  I admire that.