Category Archives: Business – Opinion

No Hugging Zone

Bill Clinton, George HW Bush, Donald Trump, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin. That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list of powerful and influential men accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior (like pinching butts during photo ops). Sadly, the list of men who have abused their positions of power in this way would be pages long if I were to do the research, and it will undoubtedly keep growing because men in power will continue to behave this way.

What is changing, hopefully, is that their victims are refusing to stay silent. If that causes men to pause and worry about their every interaction with the people over whom they have some power or influence, then so be it.
For as long as I can remember the places I’ve worked have had a no-closed-door policy for one-on-one meetings between members of the opposite sex unless there’s a large window that allows others to see into the room. The reasons for that are easy enough to understand, and most people I’ve met who manage other people follow that rule pretty closely.
There is, however, one custom that is not ubiquitous but is widespread enough, that I think we need to address it in the context of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior: hugging in a business environment. While hugging is not my preferred mode of greeting anyone to whom I’m not related or very good (personal) friends with, I’m often confronted with offered hugs at business meetings. It could be at a conference, or a lunch meeting, or even a regular meeting: there’s often someone who wants to hug and I’m put in the no-win position of offending them if I refuse to hug, or giving a hug that makes me feel awkward.
Now, this is nothing new for me. I didn’t grow up in a huggy family, so when I went to college and suddenly had girls I barely new offering up hugs I wasn’t sure what to do about it. That feeling has continued throughout my career, and now I’ve come to believe that some people sense it because they shake hands with me while hugging the person standing next to me, which I’m totally good with. So, not hugging is actually my default preference.
There are, however, plenty of people who insist on the hug and I’m becoming firmer in my belief that hugging has no place in a business setting for the same reason that I don’t think it’s a good idea to have closed-door, one-on-one meetings with a member of the opposite sex. Simply put, if I give 100 hugs there’s a very high likelihood that all would be okay, but there’s also the small chance that someone will find it inappropriate. What if the hug was held for what that person felt was just a little too long? What if they think I’m sniffing their hair for some odd reason? What if they feel the hug was a little too tight? What if they feel like my hands were in the wrong place? Hell, what if in the course of the hug my hand accidentally brushes somewhere inappropriate?
I’m sure this sounds like nitpicking, or maybe even like a guy going to extremes in reaction to stories in the news, but I’m okay with that. You see, I prefer an environment where everyone involved is in a position to be comfortable doing their jobs. One of the reasons we have social norms is to help people understand what is appropriate behavior in a variety of situations. While shaking hands has its own downside, whether it’s the person trying to break your knuckles or the person with a cold trying to infect you, there is almost zero risk of it being taken as inappropriate touching.
So here’s my plea: let’s add hugging to the list of things that are better not done at work, along with talking about religion and politics. It might seem stiff and formal, but in today’s reality, it’s better for everyone involved.

Eating Someone Else’s Cooking to Improve Your Own

When you finish your work day or work week what do you do with your free time? Do you spend it doing for free something you get paid for at work? Probably not, so you might wonder why someone whose full time job is working for a nonprofit organization would spend any of his precious personal time volunteering for other nonprofits. Well, in my case there are multiple reasons, like what purpose that nonprofit serves or what constituency it is helping, but one of the more selfish reasons is that it helps me identify areas in which I can improve at the day job.

A perfect example of what I’m talking about is a role I’m filling this year for a national trade association with which my organization is affiliated. I knew going in that it would be time consuming, but now that I’m halfway through the year I can tell you that I didn’t realize the half of it. There have been far more conference calls, emails, webinars and face-to-face meetings than I dreamed were possible. There have been unanticipated issues that have required extra meetings and consultations. And, of course, there have been “people being people” issues that have required a lot of attention and more than a little finessing. In other words, your average volunteer role in a trade association.

So how is this helping with my day-job performance? It’s reminding me what our volunteer leaders go through with our organization, and it’s making apparent the things I can do to make their lives easier. Here’s just a small sample:

  1. Communicate early and often, but not too often.
  2. Remember that they have day jobs and family lives, so they may not be able to respond to requests immediately and they might not remember something they’ve committed to doing, and thus you need to remind them. That’s why the first part of point #1 is so important.
  3. Make sure you save “urgent” messages for when you really need them. If everything is urgent, then they begin to believe that nothing is really urgent OR you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why the second part of point #1 is so important.
  4. Be aware that at some point volunteers are going to feel unappreciated. Maybe not by you or your staff, but by other volunteers and the complainers in particular. The other volunteers don’t see all the time you’re putting into your role – the phone calls to discuss agenda items, the debates and decisions regarding organizational policies, the preparation for meetings, the follow up to meetings, the meetings to plan meetings, etc. After a while it grinds you down, and at some point the complaint or offhand comment from another volunteer threatens to push you over the edge. It’s amazing how a simple “thank you” or “you’re doing a great job” from someone, ANYONE, helps get you past that “f*&^ it” moment and makes all the work seem justified. It might be a good idea to have someone make that call to your leaders (of course you can do it yourself, but it’s better coming from a peer).

Much like a chef benefits from sampling other chefs’ cooking, those of us who work for volunteer led organizations can learn a lot by volunteering for other organizations. I’ve truly benefited from being the volunteer who works with staff and observing how they do things, taking notes on things they do that I don’t – and should – and noting things I wish they would do, or not do.

Here’s an interesting learning point: I’m hesitant to share with them the things I wish they would do, or not do, because I don’t want to seem like I’m telling them how to do their jobs. Yet, I’d very much appreciate my own volunteers giving me that same feedback and now I worry that they won’t/don’t for the very same reason. Thus, probably my biggest takeaway is that I need to actively solicit their feedback.

As for my fellow volunteers/members I can say without hesitation what my most significant takeaway is: no matter what I do, or how I do it, someone is going to disagree with me or dislike what I’m doing. That feedback loop is a constant and it can wear you out, so it behooves me to remember that my volunteer leaders are experiencing the exact same thing.

Note to self: increase my budget for “counseling” sessions at local watering holes.

Getting Back Up

Fred Wilson has a post at AVC that isn’t mind blowing, but it is oh so right:

I recently had breakfast with a friend who is an entrepreneur. He had a really rough start to 2015. His business had a tough year in 2014 and he realized at the start of 2015 that if he didn’t make some big changes to the team and operating structure and costs he was going to hit the wall. He sort of did hit the wall to be honest.

He cut out a layer of management, he cut costs across his entire operation, he got back involved in his product and operations, he worked harder and longer than he has ever worked, including when he started the company…

After he told me all of this, I told him that I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who didn’t get knocked down in the ring at least once or twice. I told him that you can read all you want and get all the advice and coaching that is available and you still will not learn the hard lessons that one has to learn to become best in class at what you do. I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to learn some things the hard way to really learn them well.

Back in the 90s I started a small b-to-b newsletter publishing company. For the first couple of years things went well, and then they didn’t. Before long the business was running on fumes and my personal life was in a shambles. In retrospect the traits that allowed me to start the business in the first place – being young, dumb and brash enough to think I could do it – ended up being my greatest weakness when the business struggled. I didn’t know how, or who, to ask for help. I thought I could figure it out on my own and I couldn’t.

In the end I shut the business down because I didn’t have the energy to save it and my marriage/family life. I moved on to another publishing company and actually got to do some pretty cool things for them that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. My marriage and family stayed intact and became stronger as a result. Eventually I went back out on my own as a consultant and had a great run before taking the job that I’ve enjoyed for six years (and counting).

The lessons learned from that “failure” included:

  • Family first. Always, and forever.
  • Know the value of humility. You can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all and you should surround yourself with people who can do the things you can’t.
  • People actually like being asked to help, and if you do ask almost everyone will do what they can to help you.
  • Never stop learning and trying to grow. This applies both professionally and personally, and as Fred points out in his post, your failures are actually great opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Small example: I didn’t use a payroll company because I didn’t want to spend the $100/month for their service. Let’s just say the mistakes I made ended up costing far more than that. One of the first things I did at my current job? Got us set up with a payroll company.

Are these common sense bromides that you can find in any small business/entrepreneurial website, book, blog or magazine? Yep. So why am I sharing? Because I read all those things and the lessons still didn’t sink in until I lived through them. I’m hoping at least one of you will be spared the pain if you hear it from one more source.

I also believe in paying it forward, so if you ever find yourself in a bind and think there’s no way out I’m more than willing to listen and hopefully find a way to help. If nothing else I can offer a sympathetic ear.

There’s no shame in failing but it’s a huge mistake to not get back up and push on. Another well worn sentiment that you’ve probably heard a thousand times, but it’s worth saying again because it’s true. Believe me, I learned the hard way.

Questions from Every Q&A You’ve Ever Suffered Through

Like many of you I’ve had to sit through an astounding number of presentations followed by Q&a sessions. That’s why I find this list of the questions asked at every Q&A ever to be so funny, and kind of depressing. Here’s a nice selection you should all recognize:

1. “I’d like you to know that I’m particularly smart. Here are some subjects I consider myself to be very smart about. There is no question.”

2. “Can you explain why I didn’t understand this presentation?”

10. “I used to like your work, but I don’t now. Have you considered doing the things I like again?”

14. “Someone else already asked my question. Make them give it back.”

18. “I drifted in and out during the middle of whatever it was you were talking about. Could you please revisit that entire topic? I will not be more specific, thank you for your time.”

“Professional” Education

For my day job I work for a local trade association and one of our core services is to provide professional education for our members’ employees. We spend a great deal of time trying to make sure we provide the best training and continuing education possible. We have a staff member who, along with a committee of volunteers from the industry, spends a tremendous amount of time recruiting instructors for the various classes and seminars we provide, staying on top of emerging trends in the industry, organizing instructor training and anything else necessary to make sure we have a top-shelf education program. In other words, it’s something we pay a lot of attention to.

Perhaps that explains why I was irked when a friend shared a link to a calendar item on a chamber of commerce’s website. It’s a free seminar on social media that the chamber and a small business center are hosting, which on the face of it sounds pretty straight forward. The problem comes when you do a search on the instructor, which my friend did, and find out that the instructor’s Facebook page only has a few dozen “likes”, the instructor has fewer than a handful of Twitter followers and has a website that can best be described as looking like the campaign page of a kid running for junior class president in 1998.

As I said to my friend I have nothing against the person trying to build a social media business (I think that’s what’s happening), but I have a huge problem with a chamber or other business association not doing its job well by providing quality professional education opportunities. Normally I’d dismiss it as a one-off mistake, but I’ve suffered through some of this particular chamber’s educational offerings in the past and I can tell you this is not the first time it’s happened.

You might argue that it’s unfair to judge the course, or the instructor, without sitting through the seminar. My reply would be that in the world of social media you can’t simply teach theory out of a book – experience matters – and there are SO many people in this area who do have that experience and could teach this course that there’s no reason to recruit someone who clearly hasn’t walked the walk.

Doing a seminar just to say you did it, or because someone raised their hand and said, “I can do this for free” is a terrible idea. You end up diminishing your value to your members, and before long they start running away. Obviously a chamber is more than just education, and this chamber in particular has long seemed to see their small business members as a necessary evil, but if you’re going to do something you might as well do it right or not do it at all.

Should You Treat the New Customer Better?

At the day job I work for a trade association that represents the local apartment industry. The way we’re set up is pretty typical for a trade association, but it can be pretty difficult to explain to people who aren’t familiar with how these types of organizations work. So here are the basics:

  • We have two types of members which is association speak for customers. Our primary members are owners and managers of apartment communities. Our other class of members are “affiliate” members who are basically vendors who sell products and services to our primary members.
  • Our primary function is to provide education and advocacy services, plus networking opportunities for apartment owners and management companies. Our affiliate members are most interested in those networking opportunities because that’s where they can interact with the primary members and hopefully do some serious selling.

One of the questions we get all the time comes from companies that are interested in becoming affiliate members and it’s this: “When I join will I get a chance to speak in front of the members at the next event?” A lot of them are surprised when we say no and of course they want to know why. Here’s our answer:

We don’t allow new members to stand up and give their sales pitch because we have members who have been with us for years, decades even, who don’t get that opportunity at every meeting. We also have sponsors who pay extra to be recognized at our events. Why would we treat a new member better than a member who’s been with us and supported the industry for years on end, or give a new member the same exposure as sponsors who have paid for the privilege? What we can promise you is that when you become a member we’ll do everything we can to make sure you’re treated as well as every other member, that you have equal opportunity to build relationships with the primary members and that you have access to all the sponsorship and selling opportunities that every other affiliate member has.

There are many associations that disagree with this approach and do allow new members to get up and speak at their meetings. I’m sure it works for some folks, but at our place we just feel like it sends a terrible message to our long-time affiliate members who have supported the industry with their time and treasure if we treat the new kid on the block, who might be their competitor, better than we treat them. The analogy I use is this: how do you feel when you see that your cable company is offering a special deal to new subscribers, but when you call to see if you can get in on the action they tell you that you aren’t eligible? Pretty crappy I’ll bet, and the last thing I want is for our members to think of us like the cable company.

The Memo

I’ve worked for quite a few organizations over my career and while they were all unique they all had two things in common – the Personal Usage Memo and the Hygiene Memo. I’m fairly confident everyone has seen these, but if you haven’t here’s the overview of each:

Personal Usage Memo
This memo is sent by the boss to the entire company/department/team to remind them that company property (phones, computers, mobile devices, etc.) are not to be used for personal business. The memo almost always starts with, “It has been brought to may attention that…” and it’s sent to the entire group even if only one person is violating the policy, purportedly to remind everyone of the policy but realistically because the boss doesn’t have the balls to confront the violator one-on-one.

Hygiene Memo
This is my favorite, mainly because it is almost always necessary and it also almost always overwrought. Basically it comes down to this: people are slobs and they’re lazy. They don’t clean up after themselves and, like in most of our households, one or two people end up cleaning up after the rest. There’s also the matter of cluttered desks, which is less a problem for co-workers but can be an issue for companies that might have policies related to security, privacy, etc. So this particular memo is necessary, but when it’s written the boss almost always gets too specific and then defensive about the remedies being sought. It should be as simple as, “Dear everyone, we’re all adults here and as adults you should know our company’s policies related to how your work space is to be kept. In all of our common areas like the kitchen you should know to clean up after yourselves so that you don’t gross out everyone else. Please act like the adult you are.”

Unfortunately offended bosses can’t help themselves and go into excruciating detail about what they perceive as the problem and what they’d like done about it. Those are the memos that tend to make their way into the public realm and open the authors up to some pretty good teasing. Best example of late is this memo from Wired’s editor to his staff and the dramatic reading of it in the video below. Enjoy.