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.


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 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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Agile Marketing

Traditional marketing is defined by carefully crafted and strategically planned marketing campaigns, generally developed months ahead using sales data and analysis, supported by media buys and other collateral. However, the growth in social media use has led marketing to become more time sensitive, forcing marketers to identify and adapt quickly to what is happening at the moment, and leading to the rise in what has been coined “agile marketing”.

Agile marketing breaks away from traditional marketing attempts to plan well in advance in more formal and structured processes. Agile marketing strategy is a quick response to real time developments in order for companies to stay relevant and compelling and, most importantly, get people talking. A great example of agile marketing that went viral is the Oreo cookie tweet from Superbowl XLVII. 

When an unexpected blackout occurred during the game, the Oreo marketing team was quick to tweet a picture of an Oreo in the shadows with the tweet reading: “Power out? No Problem. You can still dunk in the dark”. The tweet probably cost little time and effort to produce, but was more discussed afterwards than any of the much anticipated million-dollar commercials that are historically known to create a buzz during the event. The tweet is a great example of a change in direction for marketing practices.

While, “old school” marketing still has its place in overall marketing strategy, smart marketers know that, in order to stay relevant in the fast-paced digital world, you have to be quick on your feet to respond to changes in the marketplace.

Agile marketing requires you to pay attention to what’s going on around you, whether it be breaking news, celebrity drama, or just new developments in your company or market. While marketers generally pay close attention to trends and shifts in their own target market, looking beyond this scope to breaking news, tech innovation, or even celebrity drama can help influence agile marketing.

But don’t try to force an agile marketing campaign. The best agile marketing seems almost a natural response – funny, creative, and thoughtful.  Arby’s came through with a fantastic off-the-cuff response to the infamous Pharrell hat at the Grammys by tweeting, “Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs”, referencing the similarity between the style of the hat to Arby’s logo.

Quick reactions to an event can sometimes backfire, so it’s important to avoid controversy and stay positive. While thinking on your feet is an important part of agile marketing, you also need to consider the response you may receive in return, so don’t think too quickly! Agile marketing is definitely less successful if you have to backpedal or apologize.

Marketing has always been a very creative and forward thinking field. It is an industry that is constantly adapting to changes, and agile marketing is an important part of the development of marketing strategy. By keeping your ear to the ground and paying attention to what’s happening around you, agile marketing can be easily and effectively incorporated into your traditional marketing campaigns.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Shrinking Your Environmental Footprint

We’ve all heard or read about the serious threat to our way of life posed by environmental
degradation, including the acidification of the oceans, the warming of the global climate system, and the loss of biodiversity. In recent years, warnings issued by organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have grown increasingly dire. The consensus among experts, and a growing number of world leaders, is that we need to get our collective act together if we intend to leave a decent, livable planet to our grandchildren.

There is no one, single “magic bullet” that can address all of those problems simultaneously. In order to answer the challenge, we will need to combine our skills of cooperation with our capacity for prudent, individual decision-making. And the workplace happens to be a venue where personal initiative and collaborative effort both come to the fore.

If you’re concerned about your business’s impact on the environment, but worry about the cost or difficulty of implementing more eco-friendly alternatives, fear not: there are some simple, inexpensive techniques you can try that can make a positive difference.

Invest in new lightbulbs and energy-efficient appliances.

Replace your old, incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs, and make sure the office refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher are all certified energy-efficient and built to last. Another advantage of the pursuit of energy efficiency (besides the environmental dimension) is the money you stand to save on your electricity bill.

Conduct regular checks of your office’s heating system to ensure that air is able to flow freely through the vents.

Turn out those lights!

Instruct the last person to leave the office in the evening to turn out the lights, and make sure all of the office computers are switched off. The same advice applies to rooms not currently in use, and chargers for cell phones and other gadgets that continue to sip electricity even when the device is fully charged. Unplug these when they’re not needed.

If possible, try scheduling “work from home” days.

One of the primary sources of vehicular pollution in our society is the daily commute to-and-from work—cars, trucks, and buses idling at stoplights and sitting in traffic. Instead, encourage your team to work from home if they can. With the communications technology available today, there is often no need for professionals to congregate in a single location in order to keep in contact with each other and get work done.

Reuse, recycle, and compost.

Many municipalities have citywide recycling programs, and some (like Vancouver, B.C.) have municipal composting programs. By separating recyclable items and organic materials from garbage, you’ll save space in your waste receptacles, conserve energy and, ultimately, contribute to the diminution of landfills and refuse processed at incinerators.

If you have a lot of old documents with text on only one side, conserve paper by writing on the other side. Set aside a trove of defunct, one-sided documents for this purpose.

Order paper products made from recycled material.

A wide variety of paper products made from recycled materials—including plates, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, and document sheets—are available for purchase in stationery stores and through wholesale distributors. Whenever possible, try to order such products, particularly if they are compostable.

If your work is finished early, go home.

Many businesses operate on the basis of set hours, like the stereotypical “9 to 5”. But unless there’s a good reason for you to remain at work throughout the allotted time period, you’re better off shutting down your computer, cutting the lights, and heading home. You may even profit from the opportunity to beat the evening rush, which will save you fuel (better for both the environment and your bank account), and spare you frustration.

Spend some of your free time enjoying the natural world you’ve helped to preserve!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Easy Options for E-commerce Websites

The great thing about the internet is that it levels the playing field for small businesses to compete with big companies in the same market. Now anyone can set up a professional looking website without a team of graphic designers and coding professionals. Online e-commerce platforms are abundant, so which platform suits your needs best? If you’re looking to make money selling products and services online, here’s an outline of some options that might work for you.

Shopify is one of the easiest and most popular online e-commerce builders. Incorporating over 100
professional and sleek design templates, both free and paid, the builder has many add-on apps that can separate your website from the thousands of others online. But, more importantly, these apps help automate the processes on your site so that order submission and payment handling are fluid. Finally, 24/7 support services mean that any questions you may have along the way will be answered quickly and efficiently.

SquareSpace is a drag and drop builder with impressive design templates that are responsive and very customizable. With SquareSpace you can build a regular website or integrate an e-commerce platform in the website with lots of options for customization, including order emails and coupons. However, in comparison to other e-commerce builders, the SquareSpace platform may not be for beginners and can take some time to understand how to properly use the tools provided. But once you get the hang of it, the outcome is certainly worth the effort. Another downside to SquareSpace is there is no option for a free builder. You can sign up for a free trial, but you will have to pay in order to continue using the service.

Etsy focuses on handmade, vintage and unique items, allowing the user to sell their original products straight to customers.  It is a huge and growing online marketplace, enabling individuals to grow their brand from scratch and integrating social media straight into the platform for networking. Etsy is different from other e-commerce builders as there are limited customizing options. As well, Etsy takes a percentage of the sale price for each listing, though creating an account and page itself is free. Etsy is great for those who are not interested in creating their own website, and who are looking to sell products that fit within Etsy’s target marget.

While Weebly is lesser known than the builders previously mentioned, the platform has gotten rave reviews from users for its ease-of-use. The site planner tool takes you through the basic steps needed to ensure that the goals for your e-commerce store are met depending on what focus your website will have. Weebly has also introduced an iPad app, allowing you to add products on the go, and even enables you to download your site as a zip file if you decide to move your site to a standard hosted domain outside of the platform. 

Each of these e-commerce website platforms have great aspects that make them attractive to first time sellers, looking to build a website without hiring professionals. Depending on what you’re looking for, one platform might be more suitable than the next, so take advantage of free trials to test out the each system to make sure you pick the one that works for you. Happy selling!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Keys to Effective Internal Communication

Take a moment to browse online job postings, and you will see the same item listed recurrently under “Qualifications”: namely, effective communication skills. As important as this capacity is for
prospective employees, it is even more vital for businesses of every size. This obtains both for interactions with external stakeholders, and within an organization. No team, regardless of the talent and expertise of its personnel, can expect to achieve its potential unless information transfers seamlessly and comprehensibly among its members.

Although many of the requirements of functional internal communication are common sense, you may find the following guidelines useful:

  Invoke the KISS principle.
When you initiate communication, take a moment to consider whether the information you intend to convey is presented in the simplest, most concise, most unambiguous form possible. Is there any room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation? “Keep it simple and specific” is a useful guideline here. Concision is also advantageous in most situations.

  Accuracy is indispensable.

Double-check e-mails and other documents before you distribute them. If you have doubts about any aspect of the material, seek confirmation either by doing research on your own, or by consulting a colleague. Accuracy is paramount for effectiveness in communication, for two reasons: first, because inaccuracy can compound into missteps and delays that cost time and money; and second, because repeated errors on your part may erode the trust that others place in you. It is generally worthwhile to take a bit of time to ensure accuracy now, rather than spend a lot of time trying to correct mistakes (and repair any damage to your reputation) later.

  Maintain records of important instructions and agreements. Communicate in both verbal and written form.

Even if you’re confident that you understand what you’ve been told, or believe you’ve made yourself perfectly clear, it is important to make use of documentation rather than simply rely on memory. If, as an employer, you have to convey complex instructions to an employee that involve multiple steps, write them down in clear, succinct language. (Recall the “KISS” principle.) The same advice applies to employees who need to communicate information up the chain of command.

  Keep communications relevant to the recipient.

The human brain has a remarkable capacity to “zone out”, discounting intelligence it deems irrelevant. This is an adaptive evolutionary trait; for our distant ancestors, the ability to identify crucial facts, and save mental energy by omitting unimportant or superfluous ones, was a prerequisite for survival. However, in our modern civilization, this immanent skill can occasionally backfire; by skimming a lengthy document in order to save time, for instance, we risk overlooking information that is relevant to us.

One of the ways for managers to avoid this pitfall is by tailoring communications to each recipient, with specific details or instructions. This practice also sends a tacit signal that employers acknowledge and appreciate the unique contribution of every individual.

  Who reports to whom?

All staff should know exactly to whom they are accountable, and for whom they are responsible. As the scale of a company or organization increases, this factor becomes all the more necessary. It is axiomatic that communication should occur through the proper channels, but what are the proper channels? Aim to ensure that everyone who works in your business can answer that question without a moment’s doubt or hesitation.

  Details matter. But never lose sight of the big picture.

Every business should have a mission statement, which is not only clear and accessible, but understood by all staff at the organization. Once every member of a team buys into a common goal, you will have laid the groundwork for collective success.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Simple Cyber-security Practices

Cyber-security has been a topical issue of late in the wake of headline-grabbing incidents, like the Sony hack, the theft of compromising photos of celebrities from an online cloud (“celebgate”), and the revelation of a security vulnerability dubbed “heartbleed”. Unfortunately, as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, so do the techniques used by tech-savvy miscreants to infiltrate computer systems. Further, in this era of Big Data, the amount of sensitive information potentially vulnerable to criminal activity is vaster than ever before.

Few (if any) computer systems can claim to be the digital equivalent of Fort Knox. But there are some simple steps you can and should take to help improve the safety of your data.

  Keep software up to date, including anti-virus applications.

Out-of-date web browsers are susceptible to cyber-infiltration, malware, and viruses, as are machines that don’t have the latest anti-virus software installed. Do a bit of research, and invest in security software from a reputable company with a solid track record.

  Create backup copies of everything that’s important.

Even ostensibly reliable computers can sometimes crash or malfunction, causing you to lose access to information stored on the hard drive. Pay particular attention to financial and human resources documents (including credit card information and social security numbers), records of transactions and accounts receivable/payable, databases and spreadsheets, and any other files you feel might cause a major headache if it ever went missing. Store these essentials either in a secure cloud, or offsite.

  Set up an internet firewall.

Many computer operating systems have a firewall pre-installed, and you’ll simply need to enable it; alternatively, free firewall software can be downloaded from the internet. Again, make sure the software you use comes from a reputable source.

  Control physical access to computers.

 Set up passwords for each machine, and request that each employee create a unique user name and entry code. Aim to change passwords every few months and in the event of employee turnover. Safely stow and lock up laptops that aren’t being used.

  Secure your wi-fi network.

Your wireless network should have a unique password that’s at least 10 to 15 digits in length, containing upper-case and lower-case letters and numbers. Try to make it not only exceedingly difficult for a person to guess, but inordinately time-consuming for a password-cracking program to break.

  Use extra caution with payment-processing.

When setting up a payment-processing arrangement with a bank or financial institution, ask about the latest security and anti-fraud measures and best practices. Try to isolate your payment system, and avoid using the same computer to handle financial transactions and browse the internet.

  Leave software installation to people you trust, or do it yourself.

Many computer operating systems are outfitted to require password authorization  from a system administrator in order to install new software. Make sure this feature is enabled, so that employees (and unauthorized computer users!) cannot install software without your approval.

  Read up on cyber-security.

With the pace of technological advancement occurring in our world today, experts occasionally stumble upon previously undiscovered vulnerabilities, and new programs that can thwart even the most sophisticated network security systems. Although not everyone can or should aspire to become a cyber-security connoisseur, it is in your interest to keep reasonably abreast of the latest developments in that area.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a page dedicated to cyber security for small businesses, including advice and resources. More useful information is available here, via a campaign called Stop.Think.Connect.