Thursday, June 25, 2015

Can Meditation Help You Leave Stress Behind?

At some point in your life, you may have asked yourself the question “Should I take up meditation?” There really is no right or wrong answer. For many people, meditation is an effective stress reliever and aid to productivity, concentration, and personal contentment. Others, having attempted meditation, still fail to see what all the hype is about. The only way to find out which camp you fall into is to give it a try.

Meditation is a skill.

Like all skills, it can be acquired, cultivated, and eventually more-or-less mastered. But you won’t become an expert overnight. Finally, as with all other skills, consistency and discipline are key: your progress is more likely to be noticeable and beneficial if you practice diligently.

The goal is to release tension, and quiet your mind.

If you’ve seen the second film in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, you will recall the Millennium Falcon’s perilous voyage through an asteroid field, with Imperial fighters hot on its tail. Commander Han Solo and his passengers manage to evade their pursuers and navigate a slew of hurtling boulders suspended in the vacuum of space, only to find themselves engulfed inside a giant carnivorous worm disguised as a cave.

The asteroid field is analogous to an overloaded mind, deluged with thoughts, distractions, and stressors, and generally unable to function at its full capacity. Busy people are often haunted by the spectre of opportunity costs—the notion that they could or should be doing something more productive at this very moment, and the irritation of knowing that, try as they might, they simply can’t perform five complex tasks at once. If you’ve experienced these feelings, you know how challenging it can be to escape the mental asteroid field, and regain your focus and composure. An effective round of meditation can help to quiet your mind by redirecting your attention toward a single objective.

Start with a simple breathing meditation.

Begin by finding a relatively quiet space, and seat yourself comfortably in a balanced position, with your back straight but not rigid. A straight spine, with your chin facing forward rather than drooping down, is important in order to avoiding lethargy or sluggishness during and after a meditation session.

Next, close your eyes. Search out tense areas of your body with your mind, and give them permission to relax. Direct your focus toward your breathing. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale fully, imagining all the while that the air entering your respiratory tract is cool, pure, relaxing fuel, while the air that exits your body is hot, tension-filled exhaust. I find it helpful to pretend that oxygen is filling my body all the way up to the peak of my forehead. I then release 100% of the breath stored within me, all the way down to the pit of my stomach.

 Feel the sensation in your nostrils as air flows in and out. Concentrate on this as you relax, and gradually settle into a natural, comfortable respiratory pattern. An array of thoughts will probably enter your mind at this stage; this is perfectly normal. Gently direct your attention back toward your lungs and nostrils, and resist the temptation of allowing your mind to wander far off course. Continue this exercise for about 10 minutes, or until your focus settles singularly on your breathing, your brain quietens, and you feel ready to resume your day.

Potential benefits.

Meditation yields different results for different people. If you commit to a 10- to 15-minute session daily, you may find that your overall stress level declines, your concentration improves, and your relations with others become smoother and more amicable. Over the long term, diminished stress and strife and greater personal contentment can promote improved physical health and career longevity too. In any event, there is no harm in trying.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What is Growth Hacking, and Could it Work For You?

Growth hacking is a term that originated in the tech industry—coined by entrepreneurs Sean Ellis, Hiten Shah, and Patrick Vlaskovits in 2010—and remains popular in Silicon Valley. In effect, it describes a non-traditional approach to marketing, wherein expansion of the business is the primary focus. Many growth hackers (some of whom have even adopted that title) would describe themselves as more-or-less analogous to the VP of Marketing at a conventional firm. Historically, growth hackers have tended to work with small- and medium-sized enterprises rather than major established companies—although there are indications that growth hacking is now making inroads into the corporate mainstream.

You needn’t be an IT wizard—or even a self-identified growth hacker—to take advantage of growth-hacking techniques.

A common perception of growth hackers is that they are mostly associated with the dot com sector, and as such, possess extraordinary technical knowledge and skill, including the ability to code at an advanced level. While this is undeniably true of many in the field, technical expertise is not necessarily a precondition for growth hacking. Marketing and expansion techniques familiar to growth hackers can be adopted by traditional marketers, entrepreneurs, managers—in fact, just about anyone in the business world. And now that website design templates are widely available, non-techies have ample opportunity to establish a profitable online gateway.

Growth hackers’ approach to marketing resembles more conventional marketing strategies in some respects, but principally revolves around the online medium. Like traditional companies, firms that adopt growth-hacking principles aim to attract customers, facilitate sign-ups, and retain clients over the long term, in part, by offering innovative products and services. But under a growth-hacking framework, the effectiveness of the website (and online pathways thereto) take precedence.

A simple, elegant website, with an easy sign-up process

Modern society is characterized by short attention spans, and a rule of thumb for business website design is that there is roughly a ten-second window in which to attract a prospective customer’s attention and pique h/er interest. In your initial user interface, aim for short but clear descriptions, understandable options, and visible (but not gaudy) links and portals. Allow visitors to navigate to some areas of your site without registering, and give them the option of signing up for additional services.

Another vital consideration is the process of registration itself: You’ll want to collect relevant data from your prospective clients, but it’s also important to ensure that they know exactly what they’re signing up for, and don’t feel daunted by the duration and/or arduousness of the endeavour. Many would-be customers will simply give up and move on rather than endure even a few seconds of unnecessary inconvenience.
 
Tools of the trade

Among the devices in the growth hacker’s tool kit are search engine optimization (SEO), data analytics, viral video, guest blogging, mailing lists, and a wide range of specialized survey and marketing software. A fairly extensive list of utilities for marketing and metrics is available here.

Some common objectives growth hackers emphasize in the development of a new product or business are virality, effective distribution, and ease of access and use of the business’s website (from the customer’s perspective). The purpose of metrics, surveys, and other data is to provide feedback as to the success of those efforts.

Start with your networks to drive traffic. Use “calls to action” to generate sign-ups.

Online advertising can get expensive, and virality can be a difficult and time-consuming ambition. For start-ups with low cash flow, the cost and challenge of driving traffic to a website can be especially prohibitive. One of the ways around this problem is to start with your social network. Let your friends on Facebook know about your business, send e-mails to your contacts, call up friends to gauge their level of interest.

Create a landing page separate from the website’s home page, and direct visitors toward it. Once they arrive, the next goal is to promote registration. An approach that many businesses find effective is the Call to Action—usually in the form of a prominent icon that visitors can click on in order to “learn more”, “get started”, etc. This is where registration kicks in, which you can then measure, analyze, and, in turn, identify ways to improve.

Of course, there is no shortcut to a robust level of growth. But a growth hacker’s mindset can help to propel your business toward that goal.

A wealth of additional information is available online. Check out QUICKSPROUT’s Definitive Guide to Growth Hacking, GrowthHackers, growth-hacker.com, and the personal blogs of growth-hacking specialists Aaron Ginn and Andrew Chen.     

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reflections on Celebrity Endorsements

Many people automatically associate celebrity endorsements with large, established firms, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Evan Morgenstein, president and CEO of CelebExperts—a U.S. outfit that matches businesses with celebrities keen to offer endorsements—says that more than half of the client enterprises his company serves are small- or medium-sized firms and non-industry leaders.

“The misconception by most is that only the P&Gs, Johnson & Johnsons and Gatorades of the world can afford a celebrity spokesperson, but that isn’t supported by our experience,” Morgenstein told Forbes contributor Susan Gunelius in 2013. Furthermore, just as businesses vary widely in scale and market capitalization, the category of “celebrity” is also broad, encompassing not only A-list actors, musicians, and professional athletes, but also television chefs, local news anchors, authors, and game-show contestants—to list just a few sub-sets.

If you plan to retain the services of a celebrity endorser, the process is not unlike that of hiring a new employee. You need to find the right person for the job—someone who is not only recognizable amongst your target demographic, but whose reputation is also consistent with the brand image you hope to cultivate. Finally, rather than seeking out the most famous individual who will agree to work with you, your overarching priority should be value for money.

Look for genuine enthusiasm (especially if your celebrity is not a professional actor).

It is always better to seek the endorsement of a celebrity who genuinely appreciates what your business has to offer, rather than one who is primarily motivated by the money or a desire for self-promotion. This is important for many reasons, but in particular, celebrities often have large numbers of followers on social media and make frequent public appearances. If your endorser ends up fielding an offhand question about your company, a positive, enthusiastic response would sure beat an indecisive one.

If you’re torn between hiring a highly renowned celebrity who knows little about your business, versus a less distinguished celebrity who loves and is conversant with your company, favour the latter.

Your endorser will be associated with your brand for years to come.

Celebrity endorsement is always a risk-reward proposition. In many well-known cases, celebrity endorsers have become the de facto “face” of particular companies and brands—for instance, consider actress Catherine Zeta-Jones’s relationship with telecom provider T-Mobile, or NASCAR driver Danica Patrick’s association with web domain name purveyor GoDaddy.com.

But business deals of this sort have also gone awry due to celebrity endorsers’ personal or professional struggles. Anheuser Busch (the parent corporation of Michelob Ultra) probably never anticipated that Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France titles would be rescinded because of the cyclist’s doping. Likewise, Nike invested much reputational capital in one of the world’s most gifted athletes, Tiger Woods, producing a memorable and emotionally evocative series of print and television advertisements. Little did Nike’s executives suspect at the time that Woods’s objectionable activities off the golf course had the potential to tarnish their brand image.

Of course, you can’t know everything about the celebrity you hope will endorse your business, but as always, due diligence is important. Has your prospective celebrity endorser ever been credibly accused of wrongdoing? If so, you’ll need to consider how this reflects on your brand before deciding whether to proceed.

Look for potential freebies and “barter” exchanges.

A productive celebrity endorsement can be a huge marketing boon for a business with modest cash flow and little public exposure. But this begs the question of how such a company can possibly afford to remunerate a prospective celebrity endorser.

There are a couple of ways around that obstacle. In some instances, you may have the opportunity to strike a barter deal, like a celebrity endorsement in exchange for a discount or free merchandise. Otherwise, if a celebrity happens to pay you a visit, you can follow up and encourage h/er to share positive testimonials about your business with friends and associates.

To return to the theme with which this post began: Don’t make the mistake of assuming, just because you run a small firm with an unextravagant marketing budget, that the prospect of a celebrity endorsement is entirely out of reach.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Tactful Self-promotion

In most facets of life, it is wiser to err on the side of moderation than to indulge in excess. The same
is true of the way we portray ourselves to others: confidence and self-assuredness, especially when grounded in a realistic appraisal of one’s own abilities and expertise, are admirable traits; on the other hand, cockiness, false modesty, and “humblebragging” tend to elicit disdain.

So, how can you project an air of confidence and proficiency without seeming arrogant? What is tactful self-promotion, and how does it differ from boastfulness?

Authenticity is key.

Human beings are by nature social animals, and consequently, our desire to engender a positive first impression profoundly influences our interactions. In situations where we have a significant stake in the outcome—like an investment funding pitch, or a first date with a person in whom we have a romantic interest—the motive to put our best foot forward is even stronger.

However, according to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, our intuitions about the strategies most likely to impress the target of our self-promotional efforts are often misguided—namely, we tend to underestimate the value that others place on perceived authenticity. Studies conducted by Gino and her colleagues Ovul Sezer and Mike Norton suggest that humblebragging (for example, claiming in a job interview that your greatest weakness is a tendency to work too hard) is likely to instill an unsympathetic impression in others: the opposite of the desired outcome. Revealingly, their research found that the interviewers’ opinion of seemingly insincere humblebraggers was even less favourable than the same interviewers’ perception of chronic complainers.

Build relationships.

No one likes to feel used. Accordingly, it is important to approach other people as potential friends, allies, partners, and associates, and not merely as means to an end or targets of an impromptu sales pitch.

Introduce yourself by describing your profession and/or significant interests in about three seconds. (See “Perfecting Your Three-second Statement”.) In conversation with individuals to whom you hope to appeal, make use of open-ended questions (beginning with who, what, when, why, how) and listen attentively to their responses. Concentrate on ascertaining their wants, needs, and objectives. Then consider how you can contribute to the fulfillment thereof.

Add value.

You know what you do well, but your interlocutor may not. Specifically, prospective employers, investors, clients, or even potential romantic partners will be interested to know what you have to offer, and how they would benefit from becoming more acquainted with you.

If you feel you have a good understanding of the wants and needs of the individual to whom you hope to promote yourself, you are about halfway to your goal. At this point, rather than simply claiming to excel at X or Y (which can rub people the wrong way), an alternative technique is to recount an experience where your skills in a particular area served you well, or enabled you to overcome a challenge. A common saying in journalism circles is “show, don’t tell”, and for good reason: the facts often speak for themselves.

Rely on talking points rather than a fixed pitch.

This point should not be construed as denying the importance of a sound elevator pitch, but in real life, the context in which a conversation occurs informs its tone and content—and a rigid, memorized pitch may seem out-of-place. Therefore, it is worthwhile to have talking points in mind: pieces of knowledge or insight you can invoke that will offer people a better sense of who you are, your areas of skill, passion, and knowledge, and what you aim to accomplish. Stay abreast of news headlines too, especially items that are relevant to your areas of expertise, and be prepared to discuss at least two current events at social gatherings.


The ability to communicate those points effectively, while showing genuine interest in the people you meet, is the key to promoting yourself without sounding like a braggart or tawdry careerist.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

On Equity Crowdfunding

In the environment of tight credit that characterizes the global economy’s tepid recovery from the Great Recession, many entrepreneurs are turning to unconventional sources of startup financing. Equity crowdfunding, mediated through registered online funding portals, is one of the available alternatives.

In order to ascertain whether EC would be right for you, there is some basic information you need to know.
 
What is equity crowdfunding, and how does it differ from standard crowdfunding?

Unlike standard crowdfunding, EC involves more than simply donating money to a cause in exchange for rewards, perks, or goodwill—instead, equity crowdfunders acquire an ownership stake in the company-to-be.

EC differs from traditional equity financing in its potential to attract numerous prospective investors offering modest quantities of capital. Conventional equity financing, by contrast, often involves a small number of deep-pocketed investors capable of advancing large sums.

Advantages

   Democratization (sort of): EC can foster investment opportunities for people of comparatively modest means. However, the rules governing EC (including accredited-investors-only restrictions) vary by jurisdiction, along with the required documentation. The situation is fluid, as governments learn more about a relatively novel investment tool and modify their regulatory frameworks accordingly. It’s a good idea for businesses and entrepreneurs uninitiated in EC to seek legal counsel, so as to ensure compliance with local securities regulations.

   Breadth of investment pool: Not only can EC enable entrepreneurs and business owners to benefit from a broader pool of potential investors than might otherwise be available; the relationship is a two-way street. As EC expands and develops, small- and medium-scale investors will also have the opportunity to dedicate a portion of their savings to a vast array of endeavours that might otherwise have received little exposure.

   You set the fundraising commitment. When businesses attempt to raise early funds through venture capital firms, they receive whatever those organizations are prepared to give—usually a small sum, unless you already run a thriving business with a steady revenue stream. EC, by contrast, offers entrepreneurs relative freedom to establish and adjust their own targets.

   Your funders have a vested interest in the success of your startup. After all, the more profitable your venture, the more lucrative the returns for them. If you encourage equity funders to promote your business idea on social media and within their friend circle, they will likely be keen to oblige.

Drawbacks

   Legal complexities: As noted above, the rules governing EC vary by jurisdiction. A lot of entrepreneurs just starting out in the business world may not be familiar with financial disclosure rules, licensing, comprehensive business plans, and other requirements, and will need to undertake a lot of advance research and due diligence.

   Small- and medium-scale investors may lack business and investment experience. Sometimes it helps to be able to defer to the advice of an experienced angel investor, venture capitalist, or business professional, especially when it comes to dealing with adversity and managing the expectations of your funders. In particular, new investors may not fully appreciate the risks associated with online and startup investments.

   Some of your funders may be people you’ve never met. Obviously, this entails issues of trust and fraud prevention, and there is a risk that disgruntled investors may try to litigate against you in an effort to recoup a portion of their losses if your business doesn’t pan out. This is another reason why seeking legal advice is a good idea.

To equity crowdfund, or not to equity crowdfund?

EC may not be suitable for startups that lack a strong social media following, or that don’t offer a product or service that is marketable and compelling. For example, many of your Facebook friends may be interested in funding a bicycle store or a pet daycare; relatively few will be keen to support a more esoteric or specialized venture, like a business that designs refrigerator door hinges.

If you’re still interested in EC, I recommend this article in the Globe and Mail, by SeedsUp.ca founder Sandi Gilbert, as a basic guide to help you get started.

Equity crowdfunding portals, and useful links:

SeedsUp.ca—one of the first EC portals in Canada.

ncfacanada.org/equity-crowdfunding—a page devoted to EC, from the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada.

CloudFund.ca—another Canadian EC portal, in development at the time of this writing.

Alixe Cormick is a securities and small-business lawyer with expertise in Canadian EC regulations. She has penned an informative blog post on the subject, available here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Building Blocks of a Top-notch Presentation

At least as important as a general knack for public speaking, is the ability to deliver a persuasive presentation. Business leaders are regularly called upon to inform and enlighten (among others) employees, clients, and prospective investors, and the ability to convey one’s ideas successfully to a wide variety of stakeholders is a hallmark of exemplary leadership.

The most important guiding principle is to know your stuff; if you have done your research in advance and know the topic you’ll be discussing inside-out, you’ll be able to both cover the essentials, and readily respond to questions and comments from the audience. That said, it sure helps to know what sort of people you’ll be addressing.

Familiarize yourself with the audience.

The best presentations take shape well in advance of a speaker’s scheduled appearance. Ideally, not only should a presenter be physically ready (i.e. well rested, nourished, and properly equipped); s/he should also have conducted a reasonable amount of advance research into the audience. What are the wants and needs of the people who will be listening to you? What are their priorities? What are they optimistic/anxious about? What information will they be most interested to hear? If you’re a presenter who likes to sprinkle in the odd joke, what sort of humour do you think will elicit a favourable response from this crowd?

Start strong.

Some presenters like to begin with a short anecdote; others prefer a punchy opening statement, rhetorical question, or a description of a commonly held belief that, to channel 19th-century wordsmith Mark Twain, “just ain’t so.” (You could even open by laying out the aspects of the misconception, asking “How often have you all heard this story?”, and then explain why it is erroneous.)

Your immediate priority should be to grab your audience’s attention. If necessary, introduce yourself and establish your qualifications. But keep this preliminary step brief (one or two sentences), and then get right to the point.

Punctuate your presentation.

Once you have captured the attention of the audience, your next challenge is to maintain it until you’ve finished. Inexperienced presenters often make the mistake of bombarding viewers with information in large tranches, rather than breaking it down into digestible fragments that leave listeners a moment to process what they’re hearing, and try to reconcile it with their pre-existing views.

A strategy that works fairly well is to partition major concepts with quotes, either from inspirational figures, or from experts in a field of knowledge that is relevant to the content of the presentation. Quotes can also be used as evidence or testimony that reinforces the message you hope to convey.

Encourage participation.

The question is a valuable item in the toolkit of an effective presenter. Questions can be open-ended, require a yes-or-no response, or take the form of a multiple-choice poll. (“Raise your hand if you believe X? What about Y? What about Z?”)

However, not all questions are useful. Avoid loaded questions unless they contain a misconception you aim to dispel; for example, “How many of you think sports cars are fun to drive?” already suggests a reply. Queries with obvious answers will also tend to nullify the participatory effect, since few members of the audience will need to actually pause and reflect before responding.

Tell a story.

Cherokee novelist Thomas King wrote “The truth about stories, is that that’s all we are.” Indeed, human civilization is built on them. The bulk of the collective knowledge we have at our disposal—from scientific theories to news, history, literature, and the arts—take the form of stories, conveyed through a vast array of media and languages, that have evolved and been modified over time.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that one of the most effective ways to engage an audience is through narrative. Financial advisor Suze Orman, a denizen of the cable networks, likes to recount her personal rags-to-riches journey during her speeches, which has the added benefit of establishing her credibility as a surmounter of major financial obstacles. Alternatively, your story could offer a description of an experience you had, an account of a significant historical event, or the anticipated result of a policy change you advocate. In any case, choose a narrative that is relevant to the topic at hand, and that is likely to resonate with your audience.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Expanding Beyond Your Core Business Model

History is laden with examples of businesses that have broadened their repertoire of products and services, yielding both remarkable successes and monumental failures. On the other hand, there is really no such thing as “playing it safe.” Just as many companies have foundered by deviating too far, too fast from their traditional business model, others have lost their edge by hewing too closely to convention, like old dogs that failed to learn new tricks. A famous example of the latter is Smith-Corona, which by the 1980s had firmly established itself as the world’s premier manufacturer of typewriters, only to watch its signal technology fade into obsolescence due to the advancement of the personal computer.

Of course, the prospect of expanding a business model is daunting, and the temptation of risk-aversion is strong. But the choice to “stick with the core” entails its own risks. There are no guarantees. But there are strategies companies can employ that will enhance the probability of a successful transition or expansion.

Assess your current capabilities. Where does your business excel? What can you do better?

If you’re running a profitable business already, it’s a sign that your clientele values what you have to offer. Take the time to realistically determine your strengths and weaknesses as an organization, and where they stack up against your major competitors. Equally important, stay abreast of any new techniques, technologies, and business opportunities that your competitors may be exploring.

In his influential book Understanding Media, cultural analyst Marshall McLuhan advanced the thesis that technology—including tools, vehicles, and furniture (which he broadly defines as “media”)—are effective extensions of the human body and mind, geared toward a particular purpose. Using this concept as a framework for analysis, we can infer that a successful transition from one medium to another requires organizations to first recognize a distinction between what they provide, and the means (media) by which they provide it.

For example, the best restaurants are not exclusively in the business of serving food; they afford customers a social, environmental, and gastronomic experience. The technology corporation IBM is not merely a manufacturer of computers and software; its primary purpose is to facilitate the storage and transfer of vast amounts of information. Computers are a medium which serves that end.

Think about the primary purpose of your business, and the experience you would like your customers to have. Are there easier, more efficient, or more cost-effective ways to achieve that goal? What are the tools, or media, at your disposal?

Seek out windows of opportunity.

Once you have a clear idea of the raison d’ĂȘtre of your business, you can think about broadening the range of products and services on offer. Amazon, which began as an online book retailer, now distributes DVDs, music, and even fashion accessories. Netflix, once a mail-order DVD rental service that came close to bankruptcy, is now a highly profitable video-on-demand website with an increasingly global customer base. Both companies recognized that they were in the business not only of moving product, but of catering to the lifestyles of busy professionals by providing easy, convenient gateways for shopping and entertainment.

Do your research first.
 
Occasionally, the opportunity to open up a niche or neglected market presents itself, if you are fortunate or imaginative enough to find prospective customers who are underserved, or to devise a technique that hasn’t been tried yet. But in most transitions or expansions to new markets, you’ll find an established group of firms with a strong foothold. Invariably, those competitors will tenaciously resist your attempts to siphon away their clientele, and will have the advantages of experience, skill, infrastructure, existing relationships, and inside knowledge on their side.

This is why advance research is so important. Before you embark upon a new endeavour, survey the terrain. Get to know your prospective customers and their needs and habits. Identify and examine the most prominent incumbents in the industry, and understand why they are successful.

If you’ve done your homework, feel confident that you can offer a better deal than what’s already on the table in your target market, have a viable business plan, and have secured the capital and cash flow you need, then you’re ready to make a move.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Are Women Better Managers Than Men?

According to a Gallup survey published late last year, women in management positions in the U.S. tend to outscore men when it comes to employee engagement—which is a key predictor of productivity, job satisfaction, and employee loyalty. The polling organization concluded that American firms would benefit from promoting more women to positions of authority. This result suggests that not only is the advancement of women important from a social justice perspective; it is also a prudent business decision.
 
Of course, some qualification is necessary here. The world is home to excellent, mediocre, and lacklustre managers of both sexes, and the survey’s findings indicate a trend rather than a universal absolute. The average levels of employee engagement detected by Gallup are also disconcertingly low overall—from 25 to 35 percent. Nonetheless, the scores for female managers are superior across the board.

At least two questions spring to mind in response to the study: why do female managers tend to engage their employees more effectively than male managers? And what are some of the common traits that make female managers more successful, on average, than their male counterparts?

Gallup’s elements of great managing.

Gallup’s evaluation of employee engagement, and the questions it posed in its survey, are based on 12 elements of managing, all of which reflect aspects of employee engagement and productivity. Engaged employees are likelier to feel that they have a clear mission and the resources they need to do their job well; that managers take their opinions and ideas into consideration; that they have opportunities for career development and advancement within the organization; that their colleagues and superiors care about them and are invested in their success; and that they receive regular feedback and encouragement. Less-engaged employees may believe their work is not especially important or not valued by the organization; that they have no real avenue to growth and progress (i.e. that they are in a dead-end job); or that their managers and co-workers don’t care about them, either personally or professionally.

The survey indicates that female managers check in more often on the individual members of their team, provide greater feedback and positive reinforcement, and are likelier than male managers to praise good work.

The downside of manliness.

 The gender binary—that contrived line of demarcation that distinguishes “male” qualities from “female” qualities—informs the individual identity of most people in our culture, along with our social interactions, and our perceptions of each other. In childhood and adolescence, a lot of boys and young men are encouraged to adopt personality traits traditionally associated with masculinity: toughness, strength, dispassion, tolerance for pain and discomfort, independence, and an aversion to betraying any sign of vulnerability. (This is why so many men are reluctant to ask for directions when we are lost: because it would require us to acknowledge that we have a problem we can’t solve on our own.)

These stereotypically “manly” traits are not always useful in a modern office environment. To engage employees requires emotional tact and intelligence, and excellent communication and social skills. On average, women tend to have the upper hand in those departments.

Improving engagement.

Nearly all managers can bring about improvements in employee morale by attending to the core areas of engagement and job satisfaction. The advantages of better engagement include enhanced productivity, and improved chances of retaining highly skilled and desirable workers. The Gallup survey’s implications are clear: if employee engagement is one of your organizational priorities, you’ll improve your chances of achieving it by promoting more women to management positions.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Conquering Stage Fright


Public speaking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an important skill for leaders in the business world to cultivate. Whether you have to deliver a presentation before the members of a corporate board, a group of employees in your organization, a charity, a high school, or the Canadian parliament, you’ll make a stronger impression and communicate your message more powerfully if you are a competent and effective speaker. (For more on this topic, see this post from the Corporation Centre blog archives.)

One of the primary causes of discomfort around public speaking is performance anxiety—otherwise known as stage fright. Like other forms of fear, performance anxiety leads to the release of adrenalin into your bloodstream, and produces two kinds of psychosomatic responses: one is a desire to resist or defy the agent of your intimidation (“fight”); the other is the impulse to flee or escape (“flight”). In the context of public speaking, these responses can manifest themselves in distinctly unhelpful ways: a trembling voice, blushing, loss of memory or an inability to maintain focus (“flight”), and muscle tension or tightness (“fight”). An accelerated heart rate and breathing rate, producing speech that is excessively rapid or high-pitched, is also a common problem for inexperienced or nervous public speakers.

Fortunately, the “fight or flight” response is an ill that you can (partly) alleviate by focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause.

Practice in advance.

Speak in front of a mirror, or deliver a rehearsal to a friend or loved one. Time yourself, and in successive attempts, try to maintain a consistent time.

Commit your words—or at least the gist of the speech—to memory.

It’s fine to have notes in front of you and consult them once in a while. But when a speaker is reading from a sheet of paper for an extended period, many people react by tuning out. Nervous speakers frequently resort to reading without even glancing up at the audience, but that’s rarely an effective way to forge an interpersonal connection.

Stay hydrated. Drink water before and during your remarks.

As a consequence of the “fight or flight” response, many people experience a dry throat, or worse, a frog in their throat that inhibits their ability to speak. Although water can’t eliminate the source of the fear in this situation (unless it arrives in the form of a fire sprinkler that forces everyone in the room to evacuate), it can mitigate dryness in the mouth and throat caused by performance anxiety.

Deep breaths and cadence.

Again, the goal here is to partially counteract the “fight or flight” response. A quick surge of adrenalin in your bloodstream can produce short, shallow breathing and accelerated speech. If you know this tends to happen to you, concentrate on taking deep, deliberate breaths, and enunciate your words carefully.

Clear your mind by minding your heart.

The “fight or flight” response entails the redirection of blood away from your brain and toward your major muscles—enabling you to brace for a physical struggle, or run faster in order to successfully escape. However, neither of these abilities is particularly useful if you need to deliver a speech. As I noted earlier, as your brain loses blood flow, you will tend to forget important details and lose concentration.

You may find that the following brief ritual will help you clear your mind and regain poise.

First, focus your attention on the organ responsible for circulating blood through your system—your heart. Next, breathe in and out, imagining that the air that enters you is a purifying elixir, and that your exhalation is exhaust—a mixture of waste products to be discarded. Finally, go to your happy place—i.e. think of a person, place, or thing that warms your heart and brings you comfort.

For a video tutorial, see this presentation by public speaking coach Dave Smith.

Exercise.

Regular exercise is important for maintaining your health and energy level in general. And if the opportunity of a brief walk presents itself right before you’re due to speak, go for it; even low-intensity exertion can increase blood flow to your brain and improve your focus and composure.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Confronting Workplace Bullies

Bullying in professional settings is a problem most managers would rather not have to face. Sadly, however, it is quite prevalent. At some point in your career, you will almost certainly come across a workplace bully, a subordinate who claims to have been harried by an employer or supervisor, or a person who is either directly or indirectly affected by workplace bullying.

Tormentors of all ages tend to share some common characteristics. One is a propensity to target individuals whom the bully considers weaker or less fortunate than h/erself. Another is the compensatory impulse: compulsive browbeaters often suffer from insecurity and a lack of self-esteem, which they try to repress by taking out their frustrations on others—especially those not in a position to defend themselves.

Recently, a team manager told me that a worker at her institution had complained to her about bullying by a superior. While the manager said she believed the allegations were true, she also worried that the problem would be challenging to resolve. Confronting someone over the kind of misbehaviour that most people associate with grade school can be awkward, and requires considerable courage on the part of an organizational leader.

While there are no magic-bullet fixes, the following pointers may help:

Trust your intuition.

Adults who have been targeted by bullies are generally reluctant to admit to themselves that bullying has truly taken place. This is partly because the line between innocent teasing and bullying is ambiguous—and from an employee’s point of view, there are strong disincentives against reporting undesirable behaviour by superiors or co-workers. What if your boss sides with the bully? What if it’s your word against h/ers? In particular, young employees are usually loath to upset the apple cart, lest they risk compromising their budding careers.

The first prerequisite for solving any problem is to acknowledge that it exists. This holds true both for people subjected to bullying, and managers of business environments in which bullying happens. If you suspect that bullying is a problem in your workplace...it probably is.

Leaders: stop malicious rumours.

Bullying among adults tends to be more subtle and insidious than bullying among children or teens, since many adult bullies aim to maintain plausible deniability. One of the common forms that adult bullying takes is the malicious rumour. As a leader, you have both a responsibility and a great deal of power when it comes to stopping mean-spirited gossip in your organization. Make it plain to everyone that there is no place for behind-the-back innuendo in the professional atmosphere you hope to foster.

Keep records.

If you are a target of bullying, take note of the micro-aggressions. These may include untoward e-mails, social media comments, memos, or text messages. Carry a notepad and pen at all times (discreetly), or record information on your smartphone. If you find yourself in a situation in which another individual or group tries to belittle you, take a moment to write down the name of the perpetrator(s), the nature of the maltreatment, and any witnesses. Written records and witness testimony will prove beneficial if the need to file an official complaint arises.

Establish an anti-bullying policy for your organization.

First, all members of your organization must have a basic understanding of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. This may require you to set some ground rules.

A well formulated anti-bullying policy should outline a coherent process for dealing with the issue. In particular, there must be a clear and consistent definition of bullying—including abusive language, shouting, unfair or unwarranted criticism, and deliberate ostracism of an individual. Further, employees and other potential targets of bullies must know how and where to submit complaints, and feel confident that they will face no recriminations for doing so in good faith. This may require anonymity.

Finally, there must be consequences for perpetrators, including disciplinary action and, in serious or repeat-offender cases, suspension or dismissal. If those who have been bullied believe their tormentor will face no real repercussions, or that their complaint won’t be taken seriously, they may abstain from the process, or even resign from their position.

Although it may be a challenge to confront workplace bullying, it is crucial to do so promptly, professionally, and effectively.