What’s your secret?

Has anyone ever asked you what your secret is? It’s kind of like being asked about your superpower. It goes something like this: “Wow. That’s really something. I could never do that. (pause while they work up to asking….) What’s your secret?” 

I’m guessing this happens to you right after you’ve done something that you’ve done so many times and for so long that you could do it seconds after I woke you from a deep sleep at two in the morning (after you yell at me for waking you, of course).

Why do they want your secret?

While they don’t realize it, asking this question is usually about them looking for a shortcut. Sometimes “I could never do that” translates to “that isn’t important enough for me to practice for years (like you have) so that they can be as good as you.” Mostly it’s wishful thinking that there’s a secret to your skill and expertise. 

Can you imagine the answer you’d get if you asked your favorite musician about the secret to being an unbelievable musician? 

I’m guessing they’d tell you that they’ve played their instrument since the seventh grade, if not longer. They might even tell you that they hated it at first and perhaps even hated it a little later. Those days are gone now. They know that it’s become a part of them and that they’ll do it as long as they can – even if no one listens to them anymore. Possibly the worst thing you could do to them these days would be to take their instrument away for the rest of their life.

Shortcuts exist, but …

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help or seeking a shortcut, but expertise isn’t developed through shortcuts. It might help you get there, but developing expertise is about one thing. Practice. It might not be hard work, but you need the experience to gain the expertise. 

You can show someone a shortcut, but you can’t give them expertise. Expertise is learned.

Shortcuts can accelerate your learning process. They’ll probably help you avoid a few mistakes or skip a few things in the learning process – but they can’t make you the expert. Only doing the thing creates that level of skill. You can watch YouTube videos of Bob the curly haired guy painting happy little trees for weeks, but until you pick up a brush and start painting, you’re not getting anywhere. 

Taking shortcuts is useful when learning, but are seldom useful when it comes to developing a valuable skill that people will pay “your price” for, and without complaining.  

Do the thing. Over and over.

Do you know how to become a better hiker? By hiking. Does it help if you eat better, workout, etc? Those things will help you become healthier, stronger and better able to hike more, but they don’t make you a better hiker. Hiking does that.

The same goes for playing an instrument, drawing cartoons (something I’ve been thrashing away at for the almost a year), marketing, ice climbing, kayaking, cutting down trees, working metal, building web sites, or making a perfect sous vide steak.

Doing the thing that you want to become an expert at doing. Doing it again. Even when you’re horrible.

Educate yourself, practice the thing, repeat the process. Do the thing. Keep doing it until people start asking you what your secret is. Then keep doing it.

The other secret

There’s one more thing that grows your expertise: Teaching.

Teaching others what you know is a powerful way to refine your expertise and see it in a whole new way. Some say that you really don’t know a subject until you’ve taught it. Perhaps.

If nothing else, teaching the skill or subject that you’re an expert in will certainly remind you of the baseline skills you’ve taken for granted for years. Questions from those new to your expertise (ie: newbies, or “noobs”) will often shake you a bit. They tend to make you rethink that which you know so well. They’ll ask, horror of horrors, “Why do you do it that way?

Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the answer to that question is the shortcut they never knew they were looking for. Sometimes, reflecting on and changing how someone looks at a problem or a challenge is the best shortcut of all.

The forgotten 25% – will they be your customers?

The “Merging Method” of Agricultural Genetic Modification – (MMAGM)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane

On average, 25% of US students drop out of high school.

I have little tolerance for “being average”, mostly because little changes have a way of propelling you well above average.

It isn’t that average is bad, but remember that average is like scoring 50th percentile on a test – half of the people are below average.

On any one test, maybe that’s not a big deal – unless the test is your life.

It’s “just how it is”

While the overall U.S. dropout rate is 25%, 50% of American Indian students drop out.

Regardless of lineage, some say that’s just how it is because “most dropouts are disconnected and unmotivated”, or they’re “intellectually under-performing” – meaning they’d never be able to graduate because they aren’t smart enough to complete the work required to graduate.

Whether those things are true or not, it doesn’t seem ideal for a community’s future to have 25% of students stumble out of school with little or no life, work or business skills any more than than it would to return to the days when two million kids aged seven to 12 worked 70 hour weeks in factories and coal mines. Never mind that it took Congress over 100 years to outlaw child labor, and even then, did so only to allow depression-era adults to get work.

Some of the 25% will struggle, suffer and become the people we look away from, some will manage thanks to skills gained from their family, and some will figure it out.

What can we do?

So what can a community do to improve the chances of a good outcome?

I wonder if some life skills (like budgeting and goal setting), some technical skills (like welding, heavy equipment operation or diesel repair) and/or some business skills (such how to plan and start a new business on a shoestring budget) might give these kids the foundation they need to become “a normal part of society” (you can decide what that means).

For this, we may need to know about the portion of the 25% who got past their slow start.

It’s likely that there’s research showing what improves the likelihood of helping these kids get started on the road to a successful life where they can find rewarding work, save some money for a rainy day, have a family if they wish and prepare themselves financially for old age. We may need to know the turning points that kept them out of prison, “soup kitchens” and shelters.

25 percent is acceptable

25% may seem pretty bad, yet as our day goes on, many of us manage to accept it. Either we think we can’t do anything about it, or we’re doing all we can just to keep our own stuff together.

Here’s how 25% feels in other parts of our lives:

  • Three eggs of every dozen would be rotten.
  • Three beers in every twelve pack are flat.
  • When you put a dollar into a change machine, you always get three quarters back.
  • One tire on your car is always flat.
  • Two pieces of every pizza have no sauce, cheese or toppings.
  • 7500 U.S. commercial flights crash every day.

If these things happened daily, there would be plenty of uproar, Congressional hearings and so on.

Yet one in four dropping out is what we seem to accept as a society, as long as our kid or adorable little grandchild isn’t dropping out – kind of like how 25% of Veterans living on the street is somehow OK (?), as long as it isn’t our family’s Veteran.

Look, I’m not saying big brother should swoop in and (s)mother these kids. What I’m saying is that we should recognize and attempt to improve how we address the real and societal costs that result from dropping out and as a result, how these kids deal with the life they’ve chosen, the life they appear to have chosen, and/or the hand they’ve been dealt.

The exception cases, like the 1.2% of dropouts who start multi-million dollar companies, shouldn’t be an escape clause. It should instead suggest how we identify patterns of success. What was different about those dropouts and could that affect more of them?

What does this have to do with business?

These people are potential customers, potential employees and/or their family members. They’re part of the community where you and your staff work, play and live. Isn’t that enough to make it matter?

On Change and Becoming a Leader

calculator
Creative Commons License photo credit: ansik

Not often do I post two guest posts in the same day, but this one can’t wait.

The education-related portion of Steps Toward Becoming a Technology Leader: Advice to School Administrators is what originally caught my eye, but the root of the discussion has applications in every business, if not every life.

Good stuff from J. Robinson, the 21st Century Principal.

Maker, Taker, Patriot.

Wall Street Journal senior economist Stephen Moore recently wrote a column about “takers and makers“, revealing that “More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined.

Twice as many people (22.5 million) work in government than in manufacturing (11.5 milion).

Upon hearing this, many will launch into their political persuasion’s talking points (regardless of leanings). But it isn’t that simple.

It’s not the 60s anymore

In 1960, about 8.7 million people were government employees. In 51 years, that number has almost tripled. I don’t have a breakdown of the increase in front of me, but a 300% increase is large no matter how you look at it.

Moore derisively calls these 22.5 million “bureaucrats”, which to me coveys the image of the corrupt Daley regime in Chicago or an uncaring, inefficient Department of Motor Vehicles (not what you get in Kalispell’s blue building).

Based on the comments I hear, most don’t view rank and file firefighters, police officers, teachers, train conductors, military personnel and the like as bureaucrats.

In one example, Moore mentions the doubled public school employment between 1970 and 2005, referencing a University of Washington study, as an example of government inefficiency given that standardized test scores haven’t doubled in that time.

Electric shock and cages

In the 1960s, students with Down’s Syndrome, mental deficiencies, autism or physical challenges were treated as second class citizens. Today, they learn as a part of mainstream student populations, just as employers do. Doing this requires increased staff. Some kids have a single staff member dedicated to them. Today we teach topics in school that didn’t exist in 1960, like computers, robotics and computer-aided design (CAD).

I don’t think anyone, with the possible exception of the current Montana Legislature, would wish for a return to the 1960s. Yes, that was sarcasm. Mostly.

If you look at the manufacturing and industrial changes since the 60s, it’s hard not to see the migration of the steel, textile and heavy industries overseas as having a significant impact on employment numbers.

While government numbers have gone up markedly, Moore didn’t address the disappearance of manufacturing and industrial jobs during that same period.

The falloff of employment in those industries didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Blame the third world

The industrial revolution in the U.S. transformed business: Steam, electricity, internal combustion.

In the last 20-30 years, it happened again; fueled by computers, industrial automation and the rise of the third world.

While these changes were decimating U.S. presence in industries like heavy equipment, steel and textiles manufacturing, we retain a reticence to pay anything above 1960s prices for commodities like steel, lumber and textiles.

We kept prices down and competed with cheap overseas labor through industrial automation and computers, but that cost jobs. When someone is laid off from a foundry job, where do they go?

If someone laid off after two decades in one of these industries has an opportunity to share their skills with young people looking to learn a trade, and in doing so, keeps their family off of taxpayer-funded public assistance – are they a maker, a taker or a bureaucrat?

If in that 20 years they didn’t take the initiative (on their personal time) to remain employable by learning a new skill (welding, software, repairing industrial robots, etc), who’s responsible?

Meanwhile…

Industrial automation is replacing cheap third world labor with labor that’s even cheaper. China supplants India, who “stole” the work from US workers. Advances in automation allow us to keep prices low and allow our businesses to avoid paying modern wages for dangerous work now done by machines, but they also eliminate third-world jobs here in the states.

Are those jobs we want? That laid off industrial worker who now teaches…do we *want* them teaching a 1960s or 1970s skill in a 2011 economy?

Businesses of all sizes outsource work because it’s not efficient to keep people on staff to do that work. Business is then more flexible and the jobs we keep are usually more secure, but low-value employment is hammered by it. Is that good or bad?

Nothing is as simple as the politicos and power hungry want you to think.

Want to be patriotic? Invest in yourself, make something that people want/need, and create your own future.

Goldman does something right

Today’s guest post is from the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Goldman’s gotten a lot of bad press over the last few years, and deservedly so.

This time, they’ve done some good for small businesses. Check it out.

Are you measuring the future or the past?

This was the story of Hurricane
Creative Commons License photo credit: cyberuly

Recently, I’ve found myself involved in a multitude of conversations about community benefit organizations and education.

Something Hildy said reminded me that I need to discuss running those two entities “like a business”.

One of the first things that you hear from business people after a story in the news about a failing school or wacko teacher is that schools need to run like a business.

Listen to the news about today’s natural disaster response (or some such) and you’ll hear the same about community benefit organizations (sometimes called non-profit or non-governmental organizations).

“Run them like a business and it’ll solve all your problems”, they say…in so many words.

Backlash

Of course, the next thing out of the mouths of some of the folks involved in education and community benefit (you might call them non-profit – a poorly chosen name) organizations is something like this:

“Oh, you mean like Enron, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers?” (or the currently top-of-mind business cretin of the moment)

Why yes, of course. That’s exactly what those silly business folks meant.

They have studied your troubles at length and have decided that it’s best to run your school district or your food bank like some sort of corrupt dictator, complete with automatic weapons, fast cigarette boats, and under the table money.

With that behind us, let’s get real.

Reality strikes

Seriously though, what does someone mean when they say they want to run your school or non-profit  “like a business”?

In the case of schools, let’s gloss over the likelihood that it probably means they don’t really get how complex a school district budget is, noting that it’s a recursive budget of budgets consisting minimally of bond funds, Fed and state monies and that oh-by-the-way annual operating budget.

Those oddball budgets are then scrambled a bit more by the goofy manner we’ve chosen to fund education: Head count, which produces oddball economies of scale of the type that few in business have to deal with.

In the case of the community org, the common mistake is assuming that all (or most) activities have to have a hard dollar return on investment – and that if it one can’t be found, they are failing somewhere, perhaps everywhere.

What they really mean about schools

I think much of this comes from a sense of low/no accountability, something that makes business owners nuts (oh just wait, we’ll come back to that).

Much of this comes from the news media. You see stuff about the teacher in Florida who slept with her 15 year old student, or stories of rooms full of bad teachers in NYC who are paid not to teach because they can’t be fired, or the litany of schools failing based on No Child Left Behind Act criteria and it isn’t long before it’s easy to stick em all in one bucket of non-accountability.

The obvious place for business people to start is “Why are you spending $ on that?” and “Why can’t you fire that bad teacher?” (contracts, legalities and the 17 conflicting definitions of “bad teacher” notwithstanding)

What they really mean about orgs

In the case of a non-profit (I had to use the term at least once), it often relates to the blank stare you often get when asking for standard business metrics, such as marketing leads, “sales” and return on investment.

The organization that measures their success on things that are hard-to-quantify financially is going to take some heat from people used to using standard metrics to gauge success. Even the ones I’m involved in often have a difficult time producing that info.

Questions of a future past

The big questions in all of this are:

  • What’s getting measured – and are those the right things to measure?
  • What are you doing with that information?
  • What does any of that have to do with what you’re REALLY trying to accomplish over the long haul?

Think about it… we measure teachers based on their students’ grades and test scores. Like tax returns, they indicate historical performance.

What do we do to measure future performance?

I’d like to be able to see trend info showing how various learner types do in each teacher’s class and how each type of student’s learning, problem solving and creativity advances as they experience each teacher type.

For example: Who is the most effective math teacher for 6th grade kids who learn visual/spatially and are reading 2 years below grade level? Why is that teacher so effective for that group? Why does that teacher fail to reach non-spatial/non-visual learners as well as other teachers? Why is he so effective with Asperger’s kids? Do these success trends change when they are teaching science or history? Why?

Do these patterns of success (or not) change based on race, income, family situation and other factors we can’t control? What controllable factors are impactful, if any – for this learner type? Have you tried addressing them? What happened?

Answer: They have no idea. But it isn’t entirely their fault. They’re forced to answer the wrong questions in order to find a way to balance their budget.

Is there a line of questions like that – about your business – that would transform your thinking from past performance (letter grades) to future performance? (matching learner types with teachers who are the most effective at teaching each type of learner)

The punch line: Considering that last question, are you truly running your *business* like a business?

iPads for business? Yes. Start now.

Trust me on this. Your business needs an iPad.

I know what you’re thinking. It goes something like this:

Why does this Apple fanboy think I need this thing? It’s just like a dinky little laptop with no keyboard. I can’t even plug my USB thumb drive into it. There’s no camera.

I hear you, but I ask that you think forward a bit. The iPad available today will seem like a lukewarm joke in 5 years. Your kids won’t even touch it.

If you wait 5 years until “the space is ready”, you’re gonna be 5 years behind – maybe more.

Maybe the winner in 5 years will be an Android-based GooglePad. Maybe it’ll be a Windows-based GatesPad. Maybe it’ll be one of the tablets from the folks at CES this summer. But…

IT. DOESNT. MATTER.

What matters is that you shift your thinking.

This stuff is going to impact your business and your life (and the lives of your clients) – and I can say that not knowing what you do for a living.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

First off, don’t worry about what it won’t do. Focus on what it *can* do for you instead.

There are at least five areas that need some strategic thought on your part:

  • How your staff will use the iPad
  • How your customers will use the iPad (and iPhone/iTouch)
  • How a phone-enabled, GPS-enabled tablet (generally speaking) will change your work, your clients’ work, your clients’ personal lives and so on.
  • How this “intelligent”, connected form factor will change how people consume information – which includes information that brings them to your business.

Note: The same things will apply to the HP Slate and other touch devices already in the pipeline.

Portable, connected – and finally, capable – touch-based interface devices are here to stay. You can either take advantage of them or watch someone else and then whine about the competition.

Answer this 27 part question

The iPad gives you a way to show your clients and prospects touch-navigable information that is *already available* but often poorly presented. That info is rarely displayed in context with anything else.

That’s gonna change.

Here’s an example:

“Show me a map with the locations of the three best italian restaurants on the way to the bed and breakfast we’re staying at tonight (it’s just outside Glacier Park). Include an overall rating from previous reviews, an option to read those reviews, directions to each restaurant, menu items with photos of the food, prices and eliminate the ones that don’t have a table for six at 7:00pm. Oh and a photo of the front of the place so we don’t drive past it.”

27 phone calls or visits to websites later, you *might* have a decent answer. That’s one of the simple, easy to understand examples. There are a TON more. If you’re a client, ask me how you can take advantage of it.

The difference with the pad isn’t just the always-on internet and the GPS/location-enabled functionality. Those are huge, sure.

What changes things is that you get a touch interface that a 5 year old can operate. Don’t discount the impact that has. Most people don’t truly understand it until they use it – I had the same gap in experience with the iPhone/iTouch, despite being a geeky, computer-toolhead kinda guy. This time, I know better.

I have so many ideas about this thing, my head is spinning (some might say it did that before the iPad).

If yours isn’t, think a little harder.


China, India, Microsoft and Apple: What they do isn’t FAIR!

Yesterday, we talked about fierce competition from other places and other businesses, as well as doing your homework.

At the end of the day, all things pointed to a single bottom line: What has happened to our business(es) and thus to our communities is JUST NOT FAIR.

If Pittsburgh’s businesses have better internet or manufacturing facilities than your town: That’s not fair.

If businesses in Mumbai only have to pay their workers $10 an hour while you have to pay $42 an hour: That’s not fair.

You get the idea. In fact, I’m sure you could reel off other examples that are meaningful to your business, but ultimately, we’ve gotta find someone to BLAME. So let’s get to it.

Assigning blame

Let’s call the union bosses and blame them for not protecting our jobs. Let’s call the politicians and blame them for raising taxes. Let’s blame engineers, programmers and their employers for creating the technology and automation that’s stealing work from us.

And let’s most definitely blame those danged “foreigners” because they don’t want another generation of their kids living in a disgusting slum and drinking from a stream that 4000 of their neighbors pee into.

They have a lot of nerve, don’t they? We deserve that work.

Let’s blame Microsoft for changing their software too quickly (or too slowly). Let’s blame Apple for putting out a “phone” that made everyone rethink what mobile could really do for us.

Wait, I’ve got it… we’ll say these companies are “ANTI-COMPETITIVE”.

We can get our politicians to put them out of business, or at least make things fair. Maybe we can get the Feds to hobble them somehow.

But let’s not spend any time or money investing in ourselves and improving our business, our people, and our products and services. Let’s not totally rethink the market we serve and how we serve it.

That’s what those other people do.

We’ll continue the discussion tomorrow. I think you see where we’re headed.

In the meantime, I’m curious: What does “anti-competitive” mean to you?

PS: The girl in the photo has a lot of nerve helping her brother and sister with their homework using a small chalkboard while sitting on a piece of slate on the dirt floor or her parents’ shack, don’t you think? It just isn’t fair that her parents aren’t paying school taxes or private school tuition. In fact, she probably isn’t even following the approved government-mandated curriculum. If that’s not anti-competitive…

Why are you leaving money on the table?

If you’ve ever coached a kid’s little league baseball team, you know that you might spend a lot of time at first reminding players to take the bat off of their shoulder.

When you stand up to bat, you just won’t be ready unless you’ve got the bat back and ready to take your cut.

Leaving it on your shoulder simply requires too much adjustment too fast if you are to hit a ball coming toward you.

Most young, inexperienced players can’t make it happen.

Not asking the right questions when in a sales situation is the same sort of thing.

Can you really afford to leave money on the table today?

I don’t mean be a hard sell pain in the butt.

Instead, be helpful. Inquisitive. Thorough.

If you really want to stretch… Pretend to be the least bit interested how the client is using your product / service, ask what they need, talk about what they really get out of your product / service, how they use it and so on.

Part of selling is helping the client figure out exactly what they want (and need).

I leave a hole and it goes unfilled.

Speaking of, I received a sales call last week.

The salesperson almost seemed embarrassed to call and sell their product. Maybe it was a rough day, I dunno.

The thing is, I’m already a customer and the next big thing is now available so I’m clearly vested in what they sell.

It’s not like I’m a cold prospect with no idea what they do/sell. They just need to figure out what my objections might be – if any – and close the sale of the big new thing.

Instead, they just ask for the sale as if they really don’t care one way or the other.

In response, I say something along the lines of “I’m not quite ready” (which is the truth). I pause and leave the opening, hoping they’ll step in.

The opportunity sits there and languishes on the bone. End of discussion, call over.

What should have happened?

  • “I’m sorry to hear that, but if you don’t mind, could I ask a few questions?”

Me: Yeah, sure.

  • “How are you using the products / services?”
  • “How can we help you get more out of our products / services?”
  • “Is there a problem with our products or services?”
  • “Is cash flow tight? A lot of folks are stretched a little thin right now, so we’re doing what we can to get our product / service into their hands so they can use it to make more. Perhaps our payment plan would help. Would you like to hear about it?”
  • “Is there some other reason why you prefer to wait? It’s OK if there is, I’d just like to know if we aren’t where you need us to be.”

Me: Yeah, blah, blah, blah.

  • “So if I fixed that situation, would you be ready to buy?”

Me: “Forced” to either say yes, giving them the opportunity to fix whatever that is, or reveal the real objection (or state another one, which starts the cycle over again).

All the while, the vendor is learning what drives my purchases with them and how they can help me get to where I want to be as it relates to their product. But it never happens.

I’m almost left wondering if my business matters to the vendor.

Put yourself in this vendor’s place.

Can you really afford to leave money on the table right now? I’m guessing most can’t.

Are you training your staff to ask the right questions? Are they being inquisitive? Caring? Curious?

Selling the unsellable

loaded for bear
Creative Commons License photo credit: striatic

Adelaide, a Charlotte ticket agent with Delta Airlines, had undoubtedly heard similar passenger comments hundreds if not thousands of times.

“$15 a bag and $40 for two? What’s with that?”

She handled it well, including laughing at the ( joking) speculation by other passengers that all the luggage fees go to her personally. Still, it was clear that she was handling it off the cuff.

But was she trained by Delta to discuss it in a way that would defuse the passenger’s annoyance and/or anger?

Did her employer offer training for handling the situation so that she would not to simply repeat the corporate mantra (whatever that might be), but actually engage in a meaningful conversation with her customer as they check in and deal with their bags?

It wasn’t clear that Delta had trained their staff – including Adelaide – to deal with that question and do so disarmingly.

Obviously, it’s an unpleasant position to place your public-facing staff, so why not arm them with the perfect response that disarms most clients?

Why not prepare them to handle the situation in a way that doesn’t leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouth?

Sometimes, even the things you don’t sell need to be sold.