Friday, May 25, 2018

6 Relationship Strategies That Propel Your Business

Kathy_Ireland,_Warren_Buffett_and_Bill_GatesUnfortunately, people who are great at inventing things, and have high creativity, often don’t have strong interpersonal skills or interests. As a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I see a high level of frustration from people in this category who have personally developed great solutions, but can’t make them into a business. They don’t realize that running a business requires relationships.

I strongly believe the talent to effectively build relationships can be learned, just like any other skill, even if you are an introvert like me. It does take effort and focus, just like learning other skills that you need to achieve objectives you have set. In business, you need to build relationships with a wide range of people, including investors, peers, employees, and of course customers.

As part of my own efforts to maximize my relationship efforts, I found some concise business-oriented guidance in a new book, “Born to Build,” by Jim Clifton and Sangeeta Badal, Ph.D. These executives from Gallup bring together their best data from business professionals around the world, to offer the following strategies for stepping our relationship results up a notch:

  1. Build new relationships by diversifying your networks. Force yourself to go beyond people in your immediate circle, and those you know well, to contact and nurture a real relationship with at least one supplier, a customer, and a competitor. The next step is to seek out relevant people from unrelated organizations, such as media and government.

  2. Give as much as you expect to get from every relationship. Effective relationships in business require reciprocity – not a one-way half-hearted effort. Offer and deliver help, connect people with each other, or share industry or nonprofit-sector information. Only then will you feel satisfaction and find others willing to respond when you need help.

  3. Selectively spend quality time on key relationships. Spend time with your most important customers, your most productive employees, and leaders who can make the most difference to your organization. These relationships will generate returns in the immediate future and in the long run. Avoid the trap of idle discussions and ego building.

  4. Keep your focus on the local social and business landscape. Pay attention to bonds, loyalties, and networks that characterize your community. Recognize the norms, values and preferences that shape the behavior of the people you need. This will help you form a durable and effective network that you can maximize for your business interests.

  5. Apply your time, brand, and resources to key social issues. Build a constituency of relationships with people who have shared beliefs, interests, and ambitions. Collaborating with them on solving shared social problems will turn them into engaged advocates of your business and make them your most powerful allies in building other relationships.

  6. Prune, renew, and reshape your networks frequently. Nurture people relationships critical to your organization carefully and often. Push contacts whose usefulness has diminished over time into your inactive network. Regularly identify new relationships that are vital to the future of your business, and define strategies to build these connections.

I do offer some points of caution in all relationship building efforts:

  • More relationships are not always better. Highly successful business leaders don’t necessarily have larger networks. Be selective about the associations you form, listen carefully for situations where you can add value and derive value, and prune the rest.

  • Overinvestment in relationships can take precious time away from focusing on the technical elements of your business. Invest your time wisely in balancing the demands of market awareness, new technologies, and future organizational strategy.

  • Sometimes strong relationship networks can shut out new people and new thinking, insulating you from fresh input from the “outside.” Introducing new elements into your network will generate new perspectives, new experiences, and positive change.

Overall, the breadth and depth of your relationship networks is more critical to your business success than your ability to define and build the perfect solution. These relationships empower you to confidently and aggressively take risks, continually innovate, and recover from losses and setbacks along the way. Your business is a community, not an island. You can’t run it alone.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 05/10/2018 ***



Monday, May 21, 2018

7 Accelerants For Team Learning And Business Growth

growth-team-learningWe all want opportunities to learn, experiment, and grow in our jobs, but most bosses and businesses tend to seek out and reward team members who already know how to do the job, and can repeat the task without fail as the business scales. I believe this is the conundrum that leads sadly to less than 30 percent of people being fully engaged at work, and low morale all around.

As a former manager in big businesses, as well as the founder of my own small startup, I found that leading team members on their own learning curve, and designing their job to maximize learning and engagement, is a win-win situation for the business as well as the employee. The best part is that everyone is poised for today’s rapid market changes, rather than fighting them.

I was pleased to see this approach highlighted in a new book, “Build an A-Team,” by Whitney Johnson, an award-winning Wall Street analyst, writer, and keynote speaker on business and career innovation and growth. I fully support her outline of seven accelerants of learning and growth in business, which I believe every manager and entrepreneur should practice:

  1. Become a talent developer, by taking some risks with people. This starts by finding new hires that have to stretch to fit the role, and mentoring them as they learn. Every team member should be rewarded for taking market risks to grow themselves and the business. Actively create and share a plan to move them to new roles as they mature.

  2. Pinpoint individual distinctive strengths and utilize them. To perform at the highest level, and get the greatest satisfaction, each member of the team must operate from a position of personal strength in job assignments. Because we all have a tough time spotting our own strengths, your job is to help people find and deliver in their best roles.

  3. Impose thoughtful constraints on time and budget for focus. We all want unbounded freedom to do a job, but we also realize that tasks tend to expand to fit the time and budget allotted. Reasonable constraints force team members to be resourceful, creative, and learn from taking risks. The result is personal and business growth and innovation.

  4. Battle against entitlement, yet celebrate even small successes. Fearing an increased sense of entitlement, manager sometimes dial back on praise. Smart managers learn to reward progress without entitling team members. Disruptive innovation thrives in an environment of gratitude and continuous learning, rather than one of entitlement.

  5. Position stepping backward as a way to move forward. Many of the best companies support taking a leave of absence for additional education or training. This step back from current responsibilities can be a slingshot to greater long-term growth. The same can be said for side assignments of other countries, or broadening roles in other organizations.

  6. Give failure its due, and push employees to new challenges. Learning from failure is not always instinctive, but you can help it be constructive rather than destructive. In the same way, a good manager is a bit like a parent, pushing charges into uncomfortable situations and helping them grow and learn. Good employees love stretch assignments.

  7. Encourage individualized discovery-driven growth. This is called planning to learn, rather than learning to plan. You need to have a destination in mind, but let your team members tell you the best way to get there. Pit them against the real challenges, and innovation will follow. Be quick to shift team members as their skills and talents evolve.

If you follow these initiatives, I assure you that you will drive higher performance and higher morale in the organization, as well as become the boss people love. People need continuous learning and fresh challenges to stay engaged, and your business needs it to thrive, no matter what the economy and your industry throws at you.

In my advisory role, I often see the alternatives, and they are not so positive. You will lose your high potentials, and even if they do stay, they won’t innovate and your business will become less competitive. You will be beaten by faster-adapting competitors because you won’t be prepared for the future. Remember that the single biggest impediment to innovation could be you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 05/07/2018 ***



Friday, May 18, 2018

8 Early Indications Of Trouble Ahead For Your Venture

graph-business-in-troubleAs a company executive, or a business advisor, we have to always be on the alert for indications that your business, while looking calm on the surface, has strong undercurrents starting that can lead to disaster. You don’t want to be in one of those high-flying companies, like Webvan,, and eToys, that almost made it to the big time, before fading or crashing into oblivion.

You can’t always believe what you hear after the fact from company executives, or even industry analysts. Popular rationales include attempting to grow too fast, product quality problems, and missing the market, but the realities often go much deeper. Here are some early signals I see too often, which are recoverable if recognized and acted on sooner rather than later:

  1. Competing or toxic cultures start to build momentum. Everyone on the team must share the same purpose, values, and goals. Unhappy employees usually indicates that multiple agendas exist, such as some people driven by customers, and others by technology. The founder or top executives must set one culture by words and actions.

  2. Company leaders don’t maintain trust and transparency. When I do due diligence for investors, and I find team members hesitant or openly negative when talking about the leadership team, there is likely a trust issue, or at least a failure to communicate. Leaders need to “say what they mean and mean what they say” all the time and every time.

  3. More passion is being applied to a product that is not ready. If your solution doesn’t work, or can’t be delivered in the marketplace, no amount of determination or passion will save you. For high technology solutions, almost working is failing. Business leaders need to be realists, to understand when to pivot and when to fall back in recovery mode.

  4. Poor cash flow management is leading to bad decisions. Vendors and most people on your team need to be getting paid on a predictable basis, or their loyalty quickly turns to retribution. Soliciting timely and adequate funding is more critical than development. Too much money can have the same negative effect on focus and decision making.

  5. Uncontrolled team conflict is killing productivity and motivation. The best business teams don’t shy away from some healthy friction and heated debates between team members and leaders, to recognize innovative insights and make change happen. Yet we all know that there is a fine line here, beyond which heated debates generate so much emotion and drama that the entire team becomes dysfunctional, stalling progress.

  6. Great technology is touted as the long-term business savior. No matter how amazing your technology, a successful business requires marketing, solution delivery, and customers with a problem and the right amount of money to spend. Even if early-adopters are quick to jump, make sure the mass market appreciates your solution.

  7. Plans and priorities are changing at an accelerating rate. In these times of rapid market evolution, it’s good to see plan change agility. Yet, this change ability must be managed, and not allowed to degenerate into chaos, with less and less communication from the top. If you don’t know where you are going, you probably won’t get there.

  8. Putting more focus on blame than resolution and prevention. Every business makes mistakes when taking risks for growth and innovation. Companies in trouble tend to assume a victim mentality and blame factors outside their control, rather than learn from experience. Team members need to be rewarded for taking risks, rather than punished.

These signals are usually accompanied by a variety of others, including key leaders jumping ship, overall reduction in morale, rapid organizational changes, and micromanagement. If you see these symptoms in your own company, there still may be time for recovery, or it may be time to join the exit before disaster strikes.

The best antidote I know for heading off all these problems is building an advisory team early, consisting of no more than five external advisors, who have individual expertise and experience in similar business domains, and then actively listening to their perspective and recommendations. Don’t let the waves of change become a tsunami that you don’t see coming until it is too late.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 05/02/2018 ***



Friday, May 11, 2018

5 Leadership Practices That Violate Natural Instincts

counter-intuitive-leadershipEven though we all know that success in business means taking risks on new and unproven innovations, we are still creatures of habit, programmed by evolution to favor the safe and familiar. Thus following your natural instincts and intuition in growing your business is often the worst thing you can do. Yet training yourself and your team to practice unsafe thinking is scary.

For example, every entrepreneur selling online and struggling with growth, seems to come asking for money to expand into retail (safe and known territory). As an investor, I see retailers failing and downsizing all around me, so I’m looking for founders with new and innovative business models that I’ve never seen before, like the shared-economy models of Airbnb and Uber.

Since none of us can see the next business breakthrough, we can only emulate the people who have brought real innovation to market, and challenge the team around us to think counter-intuitively, in hopes of changing habits. I found some real insights along these lines in a new book, “Unsafe Thinking,” by Jonah Sachs, who is one of the influential social innovators I know.

He outlines a set of straightforward practices that both he and I believe we can all use to create counter-intuitive breakthroughs ourselves. We don’t need to wait for lightning to strike, if we proactively improve our ability to accept more seemingly outlandish solutions and ideas:

  1. Focus on the inconvenient truths of your industry or company. Perhaps your known world doesn’t always work in the ways you intuitively expect. What’s the grain of truth hidden in the feedback from persistent critics or unhappy customers? Look for these as starting points for productive cognitive dissonance rather than anomalies to ignore.

  2. Reformulate existing problems to ones that open new doors. Some problems seem to have no solution that offers you growth. For example, if your customers don’t like your home security solution price, perhaps you should be selling it to insurance companies. They have more money, and can offer it free to customers due to reduced claim risks.

  3. Bring in an outsider’s mindset, or simply an outsider. Sometimes we are all too close to see the real problem, or the solution. What seems counter-intuitive to you may be more evident to an outsider. In business, it pays to ask for insights from smart but less connected advisors, or challenge the creative thinking of new members on your team.

  4. Listen to your intuition, but test it critically before rollout. Jumping to conclusions based on intuition still leaves room for creative thinking to validate the result. I still see too many business owners who are quick to lower their prices, only to find themselves in a deeper commodity hole. Counter-intuitively, you may need to raise prices for exclusivity.

  5. Present ideas as minimally unsafe, to maintain credibility. Counter-intuitive concepts, when they break too many expectations and arouse too much dissonance, are often arbitrarily dismissed. People tend to listen and talk about ideas that don’t shock all norms. Once people engage, the team more readily pushes the limits, and experiences buy-in.

Often you will find the best opportunity for a breakthrough is a problem that seems intractable and that you wish to quickly resolve with a simple solution, like giving your customer his money back. If you stick with these problems longer than is comfortable, and find an innovative solution, you could end up with a delighted customer who brings in many new customers via social media.

For your team, you also must remember that they respond to what you reward. Incenting the most creative and non-intuitive ideas has been shown to fuel many breakthroughs. On the other hand, paying people for how fast they close problems will have the opposite effect. Instill a sense in your team that it is safe to suggest crazy ideas, ask big questions, and step into the unknown.

Experience in business is a great teacher, but it can also leave your performance and your company in a rut. Now is the time to rethink how safely you work, look for those blind spots, and build a healthier and more thriving company by embracing intelligent risk and some counter-intuitive ideas.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 04/28/2018 ***



Monday, May 7, 2018

8 Tips To Improve Your Work Results and Satisfaction

man-multi-taskingIn my role as business advisor, I rarely find owners and founders who aren’t working hard, but I often find dedicated people who can’t seem to stay focused. That means they may be killing themselves by working twenty hours a day, multi-tasking between email, their smartphone, and the crisis of the moment, but find themselves unable to focus on strategic issues and hiring.

For example, I tried desperately to channel the boundless energy and enthusiasm of a new business owner a few years ago, but she insisted on being a part of every activity, until she aggravated some previous health limitations, became bedridden, and the business floundered. We are all human, so it pays to recognize our limitations, and spend our energies wisely.

Over the years, I have developed some basic rules that work for me, and I believe can really help any business professional manage their focus and awareness in all work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, as well as an improved overall sense of well-being. For business owners, these rules can mean the difference between success and failure.

Many fast-growing companies, including Google and Starbucks, have active coaching programs to highlight these mental strategies and habits that lead to focus, and increase overall productivity:

  1. Give full attention to individuals, objects, and ideas around you. Start by making a conscious decision to intentionally be totally present and focus on each team member, client, meeting, and family member. Don’t let your mind wander or give in to distractions around you, such as phones ringing, social media notifications, or report deliveries.

  2. Focus on previously-seen problems from a fresh perspective. In this fast-moving word, today’s reality is different from the past, but it’s easy and often not productive to apply old perceptions, rather than utilize your more satisfying curiosity. Mindlessly applying the “way things have always been done” will not enhance your career.

  3. Balance your efforts between satisfying tasks versus difficult. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your ability to focus and complete all tasks. Many business professionals give priority to easy tasks, such as email and texting, and practice long-term avoidance of more challenging work, thus lowering overall productivity.

  4. Accept that you need not solve every problem personally. Extended fighting with a specific problem leads to anger and frustration, but rarely solves it. Focus until you have exhausted your own reasonable efforts, and then seek help. In business, the most productive people are ones who can work effectively with all the resources around them.

  5. Regularly purge frustrations and negative thoughts from your mind. Clearing your mind is a simple powerful mental strategy to reset your perspective and refocus your thoughts to the task at hand. Eliminate negative distractions and toxic relationships. Spend some time on positive outside activities, including sporting events and music.

  6. Find an occasion to smile and laugh every day. The key to cultivating happiness and joy is to focus on at least one activity that you enjoy daily. The best leaders look for positives to celebrate, rather than always being critical. Sometimes joy is just reserving a specific time for quiet contemplation and appreciation of all the good you see around you.

  7. Incorporate kindness in every interaction with people. When you treat people with respect, understanding, and focus, they will do the same for you, making both of you more productive and happier as well. Handling constant interruptions is frustrating at best, leading to emotional and insensitive reactions, rather than constructive feedback.

  8. Practice patience and listening before impulsively responding. Get in the habit of taking a few breaths to calm down before focusing on the next crisis request. Sometimes I find this means counting to ten or a bit of discomfort before tackling the next challenging situation. Other times it means softly saying “not now” or “get on my calendar.”

Without these initiatives, most people will find their productivity at work declining. We all face the same information overload, increased pressure to move fast, and often distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, leading to fewer results. Have you noticed an impact on your perspective, health, and happiness? Now may be the time to increase your focus.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 04/21/2018 ***