We’re well into the new year, and by now you certainly have some sense of what you want to accomplish in 2023. I know, because it seems like everyone has been forced to identify some goal, direction, or thought for the year. But setting up a goal, or “strategic objective,” is not the same thing as executing one. And none of this is a vision—which is where the North Star reference comes in. We are not taking on the vision monster today.
This season, I’ve been intrigued to watch how people approach goal setting and, more honestly, how many people do it poorly, myself included.
Recently I was engaged to work with a business on a large-scale strategic plan, something on a scale that the business had not attempted in living memory. It was a good, engaged group of people who had a lot of thoughts and were happy to contribute. Everyone worked hard on it, but when we finally sat back to look at what we’d accomplished, I was surprised to see that the overwhelming majority of what they came up with were tactics, not strategies. Things to do, not reasons to do them.
If you already know the distinction between these concepts, then bear with me as I re-explain them. Put simply, your strategy is your defined, large-scale goal: “I want to accomplish X by doing Y for the reason Z.”
Tactics, on the other hand, are the smaller steps of how you accomplish your strategy. If your strategy is where you want to be, then your tactics are the steps that get you there.
(Other consultants, please suppress the urge to send me hate mail. This is a working definition, not an in-depth analysis.)
As you look at your list of things that you want to accomplish this year, consider your objectives through this lens. Because what I often find is that when I sit down with people to discuss what they want to get done, the conversation becomes very tactical very quickly. And this isn’t just something that happens to people who don’t know any better—anyone can easily make this mistake.
Not too long ago I was in a session that was attended by a company principal, their leadership team, and an outside marketing firm. The goal of this meeting was to discuss the organization’s needs for the upcoming year.
Early on, the principal asked, “How do we do X?”, and, him being the principal, figuring out how to accomplish X immediately became the focus of the session. This tactical, granular discussion went on for about half an hour before a junior marketing individual spoke up.
“We’re here to talk about strategic goals for the year, right?”
Everyone agreed that yes, that was the objective of the session.
“So why did we spend the last 30 minutes talking about how to accomplish something that we haven’t established as a goal? Shouldn’t we be deciding if we want to do this, and if so, what we want to get done with it?”
The principal said, “Huh. Look at that. Yeah, we just went down a rabbit hole.” Thank goodness the junior marketer said something, because nobody else was going to tell the emperor that instead of setting his sights on the stars, he was just digging a ditch.
(Full disclosure: Yes, I was the hapless principal, yes, I should have known better, and yes, I’m very grateful that the junior marketing member spoke up.)
The North Star has become a popular metaphor for one guiding thing that you’re following (e.g., world domination, destroying competition, wiping out the last of House Stark, whatever floats your boat). But how can you avoid my mistake and make sure that you’re not confusing your North Star for a strategy?
I find that performing a gap analysis is helpful in this venture. Put simply, in a gap analysis you identify your current state (things as they are now) and your desired state (things as you’d like them to be in the future).
When making your current state list, you could record something like, “I spend six hours a week working on this task that has very little return.” Then on your desired state list, you could write down, “I want to spend an hour a week on this task for the same return.”
That’s it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t be afraid to go as small- or as large-scale as you want. Once you have both of your lists complete, pick one item for which you can identify a few ways to get from your current state to your desired state. That becomes your strategy, and those ways that you move from current state to desired state are your tactics.
Try this lens of analysis for yourself, and see if your North Star is just a dressed-up tactic. If all of your plans are hyper-granular without a guiding strategy, you’re only treading water and iterating, not growing. And who doesn’t want to grow in the new year?
I’m going to give you some business advice that you probably don’t get a lot: Stop. Stop already! Your business is trying to do too much at once—you’re trying to do too much.
It’s December as I write this, and it’s a mystical time when contracts end, leases expire, and there’s a strong wind of change blowing us into the freshness of a hopeful new year. To see how the people around me are making changes, I’ve been sampling owners and managers in the business world around me.
One of my contacts has wisely identified that their pet project needs to be put down. This was a trial concept that they desperately wanted to work, and as far as I can tell, they did everything right. They gave it a lot of time, support, resources—everything it takes to make a new venture a success.
But after a couple of years of putting in the work and barely scraping by, they came to the realization that this project was never going to be what they wanted it to be. And rather than keep pouring their time and effort into the bottomless hole that this venture would become, they had the foresight and the fortitude to finally pull the plug and move on.
Did it hurt to give up on a project that they cared about and really believed in? Of course it did. But spending another year wasting their time and energy wouldn’t have spared them any pain, and at least now they can look for another project to invest all of those resources into.
Most often, people learn this lesson the hard way. Like someone I know in sales, who spent two months working around the edges on a concept to push into a new sector. He spent hours putting materials together and generally solidifying the foundation for this new material.
I say generally solidifying because he did forget one important step. Early on, I suggested that he take a breath and talk with his market to make sure that there was an interest in this new material, but he insisted that he knew what he was doing and didn’t want to break his momentum.
Unfortunately, the tricky thing about momentum is that it can send you speeding along the road to success just as easily as it can run you straight into a brick wall. That’s why every now and then, it’s a good idea to pump the brakes.
You can probably guess where this is going—he took his new product to market, and every single person he talked to had not a drop of interest in it.
Stopping is often viewed as a failure or, at the very least, a lack of success. But “not winning right this second” and “losing” are very different things. My friend lost two months of work because he could only see his imminent win. And if you don’t want to find yourself in a similar situation, then I’m challenging you to find something to stop working on.
One of my clients was making his plan for 2023, and he saw some dark clouds on the horizon in his business plan. In peeling things back and re-examining his product lines, we discovered a couple of areas that brought in great top lines, but once we factored in the opportunity cost and shared resource allocations, they were clearly losers.
These were beloved products, things that he and the team liked and had done for years, but it was obvious on paper that they weren’t worth what got put into them. And once they realized that they were dragging down the bottom line, my client cut them.
My bet is that you have similar areas that take up a lot of time without bringing in as much revenue as they should. Whether you’re a thousand-person enterprise or a one-person band, there’s probably something that you take to market that isn’t worth what you’re investing into it.
But how do you tell what’s worth your time? In most cases, it’s pretty simple. Look at what you put into the venture and compare that with what comes back. If this is something that you work on personally, look at how much time you put into it, how much you charge for the product or service, and then compare what each aspect costs relative to the whole.
For those who are risk averse and want to experiment a bit before stopping entirely, that’s fine, start by identifying a project that takes a lot of your time and only generates so-so results. Then increase the price or pause delivery. If the market decides it still wants what you offer,it will let you know. If not, then you know it’s time to stop and reinvest that time somewhere else.
Of course, this begs the question, to where do you reallocate that time? I’m so glad you hypothetically asked—that’ll be my topic of conversation next time!
Are you a Hilton person or a Marriott person? I ask because this distinction recently came up while my wife and I were at a family event out of town, and the organizer had booked it at a DoubleTree hotel.
Upon learning this, I did what a rational, sane person does, and pulled out my phone, did a quick search, and dutifully informed my wife that there was a Marriott Courtyard up the road. To her perplexed “What’s your point?” I replied that I only stayed at Marriotts. I could get points, upgrades, special pillows—I’m a Marriott guy!
Anyone in a committed relationship will know that I spent the weekend at the DoubleTree, and it was fine—although I didn’t get an upgrade or free wifi, just saying.
But upon reflecting on it, I know that this neurosis is not unique to me, despite what my wife’s exasperation would imply. I talk to plenty of people who travel regularly, and we all have our own particular loyalties and affinities for different hotel brands.
Curiously, though, none of my contacts have that similar kind of “Google the nearest Marriott location” sort of loyalty for airline brands; we all just take the best deal that’s in front of us while paying nominal attention to the airline.
This begs the question: What are hotel chains doing that airlines aren’t, and why does it engender such affinity?
Looking at airlines, it’s possible to get small rewards—maybe an extra inch or two of overhead space, or the promise not to be squished against a bulkhead in the back of the plane by the bathrooms. But at the end of the day, the promise is thin, and there’s not a clear, consistent way to get those rewards except at the very highest levels..
Not so with the big hotel brands. Their promise is that if you get serious about them, in return you’ll get nicer pillows, a free cookie, free internet, and upgrades you can bank on. They deliver on that loyalty every single time you visit them, so you always have a compelling reason to book with them for your next stay. Not a lot of programs deliver that kind of consistent reward for loyalty, but they do and it serves them well.
If you’re running a business, in all likelihood you don’t have the opportunity to give out big rewards like free suite upgrades or first class seating. But there are probably steps you can take to attract repeat customers and establish some brand loyalty.
Side note: If you’re running a business where you only have one opportunity to sell to a customer ever, then this column isn’t for you, sorry, please come back next month.
But for anyone who has the potential for repeat business, large or small, what benefit does being your repeat customer get people? Your business certainly has some potential, even if it’s not in an industry you’d typically associate with loyalty rewards programs.
A great example is my local fitness center. At first I dismissed their perks program, but then I started getting simple emails showing my points and how to spend these with them. I signed up for some classes and did other things that they liked, and I got a free workout towel—not a cheap piece of terry cloth, but a high quality product that has actually made me go back and purchase other things from them.
They also reward my behaviors that are favorable to them. They’re in an urban area where parking is at a premium, so I can earn a handful of extra points if I walk or bike to their location. This isn’t making or breaking my experience with them, but the small rewards are tangible and nudge me to consider choices that are better for their business as well.
Similarly, you want any type of return business program you offer to feel like a win for both you and your customer. And if a rewards program doesn’t make sense for your business, what about referrals?
I own a transactional business in the leisure industry, and a lot of our business is from people who live in another state or country, so the opportunity for repeat business is slim. But we have rewards for referrals, which gets us great word of mouth business, and we have plenty of customers who come to us at roughly the same time every year when they’re in the area so we have an offer out to them for a special discount at that time. This nudge helps bring back customers who could easily choose a different provider.
Ask yourself what you can do to give someone that little extra reason to come back. And let me know what you figure out, because all I have is my own little laboratory to try out new offerings, and I’m always curious to hear what people are doing to retain business and engender affinity with their customers.
Just a couple months ago, everyone was talking about the Great Resignation or the Big Quit—I even talked about it on this platform. This mass migration of professionals changing jobs (or even industries) for greener pastures fundamentally changed the look of the job market.
Whatever industry you were in, whether you were hiring a barista or a senior sales executive, suddenly everyone was desperate and hiring much more generously. Better salaries, better benefits, better everything. And hopefully you got yourself into a stable position, because we’re entering a new era on the job market: the Big Regret.
If you’re a team leader or any sort of manager, then there’s a real chance that you lost some people in the Big Quit. And given how difficult it’s been to hire for essential positions, you might not have replaced them yet. But there may be a way to get the perfect candidate into these key positions—people who already trained for the job, in fact.
There’s new evidence that a plurality of people who changed jobs during the Great Resignation are rethinking their choice. There could be any number of causes—fears of an oncoming recession could make new employees nervous for their futures, some individuals who made a change for the sake of making a change, or they might just have good old fashioned buyer’s remorse. Whatever the cause, a lot of people are reporting that they’d happily go back to the jobs that they left just a few months ago.
So if your star employee left to chase something bigger, there’s a real chance that they’re regretting that decision. And I know it can be difficult to invite someone back after they left, but you have to consider the reasons that they made a change.
Was it because they were performing poorly and causing trouble on the team? Did they send off a rude email on their last day? Then sure, you have my blessing, consider that bridge burned.
But if they, like a lot of people who left their old positions, just wanted to improve themself and advance their career, then you need to get over your ego and see how their new engagement is working out. In fact, I’d posit that you should look at this as an opportunity for improvement as well: improvement by organizing your team in such a way that you have the best people operating at the highest levels to work toward your collective success.
So, do you have a position that still needs to be filled? If so, consider whether or not this is a position that you can see withstanding the recession. Because while the jury is still out on what the specifics of the recession will be, there’s already clear movement in the market that something is going to happen. And you’re much more likely to attract savvy talent if you’re offering a recession-resistant position.
I know, the last thing that any of us wants to hear right now is to hire a new person. I certainly haven’t had fun hiring to fill vacancies, and in all likelihood, I’m still not done hiring in 2022. But I’m going to grin and bear it, because I know that I’m going to need qualified people on my team when the recession is brought to bear.
And I hope that this messaging hasn’t been lost on you as an individual. Because while some people are undeniably regretting their career moves, it’s also true that most people aren’t.
Maybe you were part of the Big Quit. How do you feel about where you’ve landed? Are you happy in this role? Do you feel stable and ready to weather the storm? If not, you haven’t missed your chance. There’s still a lot of movement in the job marketplace, and while some people are regretting their career moves, that doesn’t mean that every job has suddenly been filled.
There’s still a lot of opportunity on the market to be had, but you should know that the window is closing. Reevaluate your position and confirm that you’re where you want to be for the foreseeable future, or make a choice to find a position that can provide more security for what’s coming.
If you play it right, you’ll be able to catch the tail end of the Big Quit without accidentally taking part in the Big Regret.
Early in my management career, I worked at a company where the mantra was, “Everyone needs to be personally productive.” That meant that no matter your location or position in the organizational structure, you were responsible for regularly producing something of concrete value—no one just “managed.”
This was at a newspaper company, so being “personally productive” could mean anything from providing customer service to hopping on a sales call to helping with the printing process.
And for the most part, this system worked really well. This kept the bosses honest about what it really took in time and effort to get a project done, which led to more reasonable deadlines and better understanding between management and employees.
That isn’t to say that every manager loved this approach, however. Leaders in the organization would sometimes get frustrated because it was a lot to ask a full-time manager to also find time for regular production. Of course, since this was integral to the organization’s ethos, there wasn’t an option to simply not comply.
In the long term, this generally meant that aspiring leaders followed one of two paths in the organization. If you were good at finding the balance and could thrive in that structure, then you tended to do well, and you had a lot of opportunity to grow with the organization and have a great experience.
And if you couldn’t make that system work, you often failed and left the organization before too long. I don’t think this result was necessarily representative of a character flaw, so much as it was an indication this was the wrong culture for you to advance.
For that reason, it’s important for managers to take stock of what percentage of their time they spend leading vs doing. By leading, I mean managerial tasks like project management and enabling your team to do the work. By doing, I mean completing the vital tasks that keep revenue flowing.
At that same company, early on, I found myself doing entirely too much work for the people working under me instead of setting clear expectations and letting them deliver. I would do deep dives into their work, structuring and organizing it and making sure it was up to my standards. And while that may have ensured that the work was of a certain quality, it also left me with very little time to do any managing.
And in retrospect, I can see that that wasn’t helpful for the people I was managing, either. It stifled their ability to directly contribute to the business, because instead of enabling them to do their jobs, I was making them perform how I would have, not necessarily to make their own contributions.
I thought that I’d mastered my impulse to do rather than lead, until a recent situation at a non-profit I volunteer with. Not long ago I took a leadership role in the organization, where I quickly found myself falling into my old habit of doing instead of leading.
As I was getting organized in this new role, I started writing scripts for people defining what each individual role should do and be. I also made notes for every role and committee detailing how these roles should relate to each other, how they should be executing their duties, etc.
In short, I was doing instead of leading. Again.
This was a great reminder that as a leader, my responsibility was to focus time on enabling and empowering others rather than instructing them on the minutiae of their day-to-day tasks.
Because ultimately, a talented do-er may not perform a task in exactly the way that their manager would. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is that work gets done and done well.
Of course, good leaders do need to make sure that the work gets done. But rather than micromanaging or breathing down your team’s necks, that should look like explaining to struggling team members how their work relates to the broader organizational goals. From there, you can highlight where their work is or isn’t working toward those goals and allow them to self-correct from there.
This doesn’t work all the time, of course, whether the individual just isn’t right for the organization or they just don’t have the right leader. But regardless, giving individuals this opportunity to self-correct is the most valuable use of your and their time.
Because for leaders, the focus needs to be on giving your team the freedom and opportunity to be personally productive. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t help out and get your hands dirty from time to time. But at the end of the day, you have to make sure that the bulk of your time is spent managing effectively.
Years ago, I took over command of a company that was in rocky shape. And on my first day in this new role, I found something interesting in the top drawer of my new desk: reports. Three detailed, extensive reports from experts who had been contracted to assess areas of improvement for the business.
My predecessor had been forced to bring in these experts by his superiors, and then he chose to stuff those reports in the drawer, close it, pay the bill, and call it a day. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t astonished that his desk was now my desk.
That was my first glimpse into a fairly standard practice in the business world: the timeless pursuit of contracting experts to give new insights. And whether it’s a consultant or a subject matter expert or anyone else, it’s important in these situations to think of the reason that you brought someone in to look at the situation and give their assessment.
Maybe your boss said that you needed to contract a consultant, or maybe you’re a go-getter and really wanted fresh eyes on the situation. Or, if we’re being honest, maybe you just wanted to pay someone to tell you that you’re doing everything right and that nothing else needs to be done.
Judging by where my predecessor left his reports, it seems safe to say that his motivations were a combination of pressure from above and wanting someone to tell him he was doing a great job. The motivation doesn’t matter much unless you are willing to actually listen to what they say.
That’s why I decided to read over the reports and call the author of the one I that intrigued me the most. It had been awhile since they’d come in to audit the place, so I asked them to come back in to see what, if anything, had changed since their last visit.
Gentle reader, you will be shocked to know that not one single thing had changed since they gave my predecessor that 40-page report. Eager to make positive changes, but less eager to read a novella at work, I asked the consultant to boil down for me what I really needed to know out of that 40 pages of information. And after some back and forth, we ground that down to 15 clear-cut, actionable items.
When I took those 15 items to my team, we talked about why they didn’t want to do certain items, which ones they’d already tried in the past, etc. So we went through to see which items would do the most for our organization, then ranked them that way. Then we ranked them by what they’d cost us to implement.
We started doing that on a weekly basis, and every week we’d discuss how each item was advancing. And after a few months, sure, some of the ideas hadn’t worked out, but on the whole those 15 items made a big difference on our operation: our revenues were up, and our margins along with them.
We didn’t end up executing all 15 items, let alone all 40 pages, but the items we did accomplish made large, sweeping changes for the better throughout our organization. And while that was the beginning of my love affair with the outside expert, it was far from my only encounter.
In fact, I exist on both sides of this relationship now that I’m contracted as a managing consultant for businesses and also bring people in to share their insights on my own organizations. From living through both sides of this experience, I can safely say: I get it.
It’s not always fun to have someone come in and tell you what you’re doing wrong. It’s easy to get your hackles up and say that you know what you’re doing. But none of us know what we’re doing 100% of the time; for the best of us, the 51% of what we do that we understand is enough to carry us through the 49% that we’re just guessing on.
My advice is not to blindly trust anyone claiming to be an expert. Vet them, check their history, do whatever it takes for you to find someone whose advice you can trust in. I recommend finding someone who doesn’t just tell you what you need to do—anyone can tell a business “you need to sell more” or “you need better advertising.” Go with someone who will tell you how to get there, not just where to go.
But once you have someone that you’re confident can help you, you have to listen to them. Don’t just shove the reports in a drawer, or you may quickly find someone else sitting at your desk.
Recently, I was working with a GM of one of my owned companies, and we were conducting a routine review of our results against our first quarter plan. I’ve been doing these types of reviews for years, and I know that there’s often a lot of dead weight in these financial reports.
For instance, on a jam-packed page, why was I including a $100 expense budget? Both my time and my GM’s is valuable, and it’s not as if the $100 was a material item worthy of our undivided attention. So before the meeting, I decided to save us both some time and on this 47-line sheet, I highlighted the items that would actually matter to my GM, leaving about half of the page out of the discussion.
And yet, during our review, I still found myself saying a lot of “Well ignore that, you can’t help that” and “Don’t worry about this one, it has nothing to do with you.” When I took a closer look at my highlights, I realized that all of them mattered, but maybe half of them had anything to do with areas that the GM could affect with his work.
For example, our liability insurance is a considerable expense. But our GM has no control over that; it’s negotiated with an insurance company every couple of years. The same is true for our health insurances and a lot of other provided services that make a big impact on our margin, but exist solidly outside the purview of a GM.
If you’re a small enterprise, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve run into this issue as well. And the solution to it starts with isolating the things that are high-impact, material items for you.
I’ve worked on financial statements for hundreds of companies, and this is an issue I see all the time. Why do I have this entry? Is this material? Does it matter? Long ago I decided to take the step of reorganizing financial statements by operating units, where I grouped them by a hierarchy, from most important to least important.
That meant putting the big-impact items at the top—things like staffing expenses, overtime, benefits, items that are within your control to impact and manage. Items toward the bottom of the financial statement should be things like telephone charges or office supplies. Yes, these items matter and affect the bottom line, but how much time are you willing to personally invest in managing your post-it inventory?
But clearly, I keep forgetting the lesson. So what actions do I take from here?
Well, I’m going to start with stripping down our financial statements. Instead of printing out a 47-line sheet to review with my GM, I’m going to export a new routine update with three items that he has the most control over on the revenue side and four items that he has the most control over on the expense side.
Everything else is going to get lumped into “other stuff.” That doesn’t mean that those items are just going to be ignored—that’s just asking for an item to sneak up on you. I’ll still keep the complete, detailed report. But unless there’s something specific that we need to discuss or my GM has a question, including those extraneous items should not be the expectation going into our review meetings.
That’s the take-home message here: Review everything, but don’t give people more information than is helpful to performing their jobs. And hey, maybe I’ll be writing here in six months about how we lost control of X item or Y amount of revenue stopped coming in because we weren’t focused on it.
But I doubt it. More likely, things should run smoother for the operators who have clear, direct information on what they need to take care of. And in the meantime, I’ll still be looking at the big picture and accounting for the high-budget items that don’t move much, then filtering relevant information to the people who need to know. That means shorter meetings and clearer expectations, and from where I’m standing, that can only be a step in the right direction.
When I was taking the first big step in my media career, I found myself in the enviable position of leading a newspaper group as we were coming out of a recession.
The local factories needed people desperately, and those help wanted ads made us so much money that we started aggressively going out and looking for more. During such a precarious time for everyone, but especially those of us in print media, local help wanted ads generated more per-space revenue than anything else in that paper.
The driving force behind the success of selling those help wanted ads was the fact that the entire recruitment advertising marketplace was only accessible through newspapers. This wasn’t new—it was just the first time I’d seen it from the newspaper’s side.
When I was first starting out in life, I’d go out on Saturday evenings, pick up a copy of The Chicago Tribune, and pore over the third of the paper that was just help wanted ads. And now that I’m a bit older, I can appreciate how sleek that business model was.
Businesses paid newspapers obscene amounts of money to run help wanted ads, then job seekers paid for access to where the employers were. The employers would get resumes over the next week, sift through them, then make their hires. In this way, you had newspapers as the middleman between employers and workers, selling access to the job market to both sides.
But monopolies rarely last forever, and like with every other facet of life, the internet came in and disrupted the traditional dynamic.
Nowadays, that monopoly has disintegrated. Sites like Monster and Indeed became the go-to spot for job seekers, and the way that people access the job market has shifted. The growth of digital media with virtually no barrier to entry on either side has skyrocketed the volume of transactions.
I don’t mean to paint this as a wholly negative change; undeniably, there are benefits to this new job marketplace. Once upon a time, if I saw a job that I wanted to apply for, I had to print out my resume, break out my typewriter to draft a cover letter, then mail the whole package off to my prospective employer. That was my investment in reaching out to an employer—I had to put some amount of skin in the game just to get my name out there.
But now, that friction has been drastically lowered, at least on the side of the workers. Employees can apply to any job in which they have even a passing interest, and it’s often as easy as clicking “apply now.” And that’s not wholly a bad thing, but it’s got some clear drawbacks.
For employers, a listing that used to get them 20-40 applicants could now easily get them several hundred or even thousands. And while a wider talent pool isn’t a problem, exactly, there are logistical realities to going through that many applications, especially when half or more of them aren’t even truly interested in or qualified for the position.
Solving this new problem required new services and other players, so now automated systems recommend jobs to potential candidates and job seekers to employers (for a surcharge, of course). And this “solution” seems to please exactly nobody.
For businesses, you have to set ridiculous standards for each job listing just to avoid being flooded with unqualified applicants. And job seekers have to keyword stuff their resumes and exaggerate experiences just to get their names in front of a hiring manager for a position that they’re more than capable of filling.
And frankly, these workarounds don’t begin to solve the core issue. Applicants still have to over-apply to have any chance at getting seen, let alone hired, and businesses still get so many candidates that they can’t read every application in detail.
In this constant, droning noise, there isn’t really time to do more than glance at a job listing or an applicant before deciding to, to use what my children assure me is the parlance of the day, swipe right or left.
So, what’s the solution to dating app culture becoming the way we hire people? No, really, I’m asking. Because nice as it is for me to fantasize, I can’t quite see newspapers coming back to replace ZipRecruiter or LinkedIn.
Maybe a more realistic solution will come in the form of a highly curated platform to stop this never-ending hiring arms race. Guard rails to put serious applicants in front of employers (and vice versa) could be what it takes to afford everyone the space to take real, serious looks at their hiring decisions.
It’s a hard situation, and I’d love to hear your solutions. Is it going to take another monopoly to straighten this out? Or are we all stuck being ghosted and ignored until the next big disruptor comes along?
Sales can get a bad rap, but there are fundamental elements of selling that can be useful at any level in an organization. In fact, I’d argue that many of the core tenets of sales are really just good management skills. And the higher up the corporate ladder you are, the more important sales skills could be for you.
A long time ago, when I was running a basic sales route, I came into it with virtually no sales-related skills. I had to learn fast, and thankfully I had people around me who were generous enough to impart some much-needed sales wisdom upon me. But of all the things I learned, the one that I got the most mileage out of (and still use to this day) was the importance of getting people to a “no.”
Obviously, that’s counterintuitive, especially from a sales perspective. But the answer isn’t always a no—the important thing is to always direct someone toward a clear, final answer. Instead of trying to sell someone, you should think of yourself as facilitating their final decision by providing them with clear, pertinent information. Otherwise, you’re leaving someone with a “maybe,” and that’s not in your best interest or theirs.
From the perspective of the person you’re selling to, a maybe is a waste of time. It’s time spent reflecting, reading reviews, consulting with a spouse—and it can still end in a no. And if you’re the salesperson, you have to circle back around to get a final answer and go through your spiel an extra time.
The real value of getting someone to a “no” is in the time you save. And I know you want every conversation to end with a sale, but no matter how much you believe in your product, it just isn’t going to be for everyone. And the more time you waste trying to convince someone who doesn’t want to buy, the less time you’ll have to give information to a customer or client who could actually make a purchase.
So, what does this have to do with management?
Following the rules above, a good salesperson is someone who can size up what information a person needs to make a decision and then delivers it. Coincidentally, management is largely the same—making sure that people have the right information to make good decisions. And in a corporate environment, being able to help people make informed, quick choices can save you and your organization a lot of time that could be spent working toward your goals.
With that in mind, I’ve got some sales tips that also make for good management practices. Some of them sound a little goofy, but if it’s on this list, it’s because I still use it regularly all these years later.
One common sales tactic is to ask, “This or that?” Instead of asking if they want to buy, you ask if they want the red one or the blue one. “Do you want to buy” means a hard choice, but choosing between red or blue is much simpler.
But offering an easier choice isn’t just applicable in sales—I use this all of the time to set up meetings. Instead of asking “What time works for you,” I’ll ask “Does X time or Y time work best for you?” Just like getting a potential customer to a no, this is the fastest way to get a clear, final answer from someone in your organization.
Another useful skill that I learned during my time in sales was asking the little question instead of the big one. If you’re trying to get a signature on a big contract or get your boss’ final approval on something, don’t keep reminding them that you’re waiting on a decision. Instead, ask a smaller question that’s easier to answer.
For example, instead of asking for final approval on a project, ask “This thing in paragraph three, does that look okay to you? Is there anything else that’s an issue?” If they say no, then congratulations, you just got the answer you’ve been waiting for—hand it over for their signature.
Another strategy to get a decision is to ask what the decision-maker would change. Instead of asking for a final decision, by asking for their thoughts, you make it their responsibility instead of yours. If they make a change, that’s an intellectual investment, and you can consider them sold.
Some of these might sound sneaky or dishonest, but they’re just skills. And they can help you distill key information, make sure it's understood, and get a decision as quickly as possible. Life, sales, and business are all about making decisions, and the quicker you can get someone to make a choice, the more effective and efficient you’ll be.
If you’re like me, the first few days of the new year start with a lot of powering through food comas, picking up project threads from December, and thinking, “How am I going to make an impact this year?” And then you start reading the advice blogs. And what you find often aren’t the game-changing revelations that they promise to be, but clickbait that’s all but devoid of substance.
In general, my skeptical lens has grown thicker and thicker each year as I see the same advice and concepts regurgitated. The success of a few Stephen Coveys inspired countless others to try dispersing business advice, most often without his business acumen or savvy. So, if you’ll forgive my own shameless clickbait title, I’d like to deliver something a bit more substantial.
Last month, I wrote about picking one thing to focus on above all others. And while I stand by that for organizational leaders, it’s not necessarily the best advice for personal development. For that, I’ve got a few ideas on what you can do to work on yourself and, by extension, your organization in 2022.
If you want to make a change this year, try taking an active interest in someone who doesn’t directly report to you. And if you already do that, maybe consider if there’s a better way to do it.
When I attempted to mentor individuals, I won’t mix words—I sucked at it. I was too focused on organizational goals and our sales metrics to focus on the individuals around me long enough to give them a leg up.
So, to get better at giving back some of that support I received, I thought about what I needed to change in my mentoring practice, and I think this advice could help anyone.
The biggest change that you need to make is this: Work on developing your mentee without any regard for the returns it’ll have for you. If you’re too focused on an organizational sales goal, you’ll miss the opportunity to meaningfully mentor a developing professional.
Your investment doesn’t need to be huge; some lunches, coffees, or even phone calls are all more than acceptable. What matters is that you’re taking an interest in another person’s success and doing what you can to help them develop in their career. You don’t need to be an executive, either—if you’re reading this, you’ve probably achieved something in your career, and that means that you have some amount of skill or know-how to give back.
Want to learn more about your business this year? Pick a platform that your business uses that’s a little opaque to you right now, then work on that (just a bit every day) until you have a solid, workable understanding of it.
Back when websites were new, our company was launching a new site. To better understand the new platform that we were using, I started taking deep dives into Google Analytics, back before that platform became nearly as all-encompassing and ubiquitous as we know it today.
Every morning, I would spend 15 minutes poking around in it, getting comfortable with the interface and learning what it was tracking and why. And at least twice a week I’d end up emailing our web director asking about the things I couldn’t figure out myself, until eventually, finally, I understood it. He hated me for this, but it was good for me and our organization.
Some business platforms may be more complicated today than they were then, but the decision to learn about something you don’t know is exactly the same. Most of these platforms have free training programs, so there’s no reason that you shouldn’t have a functional understanding of Mailchimp, SEMRush, or whatever the new, vexing program is at your company.
I, like many of you, have piles of business books espousing the same core concepts: do more with less, get maximum return on your time, all successful leaders do X—you’ve read them, you get it.
And while these books are certainly not without value, the most that I find myself getting out of them is usually a reminder to do something that I learned a long time ago. But that’s not as valuable as finding something that really challenges the way that I think about managing or operating an organization.
In 2022, try to find books that don’t just tell you what you already know. Look for new ideas, especially ones that go against what you already know about running a business. That’s going to look different for everyone, but a good place to start is 4000 Hours by Oliver Burkeman, which flipped on its head my thinking about organizational productivity.
Last year I said to pick one thing to change to improve your organization. Now I’m saying pick three to develop yourself. I know it may not be quite as grabby as a top 15 list, but it’s my hope and belief that making these changes can enrich your life, enhance your business acumen, make you a better leader, and do all the other things that the pundits keep promising.