Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Importance of The Rival

Thor and Loki - rivals through and through
Being an entrepreneur the last few years have put me in a season where I am not constantly aware of who my rivals are.

Sure, I have insight into companies who are in the same space as me. And the longer I am in business, the more I hear about who is also doing similar work to mine.

But the dynamic of rivalry is one that I have sorely missed lately and it only took running into one of my fiercest rivals from high school to remind me.

Take a step back with me to the late 1980s in the now defunct SICA East conference in the south suburbs of Chicago - girls tennis. My first two years at Bloom High School found me mostly undefeated in conference and going down at the Sectional tournament narrowly as a freshman and sophomore as a first and second singles player. My coaches and I were sure and certain that my junior and senior years would be my glory years. When I say coaches, I mean both my school and my park district off season coaches. There was a focused team of three adults and myself working toward my tennis glory.   There was really only one girl from Homewood-Flossmoor High School standing in the way in my conference and since I was a year older than her, we felt confident that I could grow my game and even if I never beat her, I could still achieve my goals. She was my rival. All that was well and good until my senior year when her younger more powerful sister entered the conference.

Needless to say, I never won a conference title as a sister from that family (and there were 3 of them) kept me from it.  I cannot even begin to describe all that has been running through my head since I was reconnected with her in a business meeting some 26 years later. She is an amazing woman today. We both are. We ran into each other as we are both at the top of our career game - me, as an up and coming entrepreneur impacting policy to grow small business in Illinois, her as a superstar state legal counsel for Illinois.  Our laughter, hugs and reminiscing reminded me of the importance of a rival.

Rivals humble us. 

Regardless the field of expertise or the sport in question, having a rival  - especially a good one - is a humbling experience. Nothing causes you to check yourself more than a brilliant rival.  Seeing your skills and talents, in all their glory, come up short against those of a rival is great experience in perspective.  Perhaps that is why many people surround themselves with their equals or folks who are less talented to keep them "at the top" in the eyes of those not observing closely. This gross lack of humility inhibits growth. Formidable rivals force you to acknowledge your flaws. Flaws that, once acknowledged, must be dealt with in order to compete with that rival or anyone else. The ability to see, recognize and improve on flaws are critical to great leadership. Often times, it is tough to do without a rival to humble us to start the process.

Rivals drive innovation.

When there are people around you excelling in the same areas as you, you have two choices. You can chase them in that area of focus and do your best to catch up and surpass them. Or, you can get creative and find a new way to compete. Thinking back to my tennis days, I never beat one of those players, ever. And I went to college in the fall of 1989 completely soured on tennis. Instead of forcing myself to play a game that I clearly didn't love anymore, I discovered rugby and loved it. Later, I played soccer and really enjoyed that. Fast forward to my life as an entrepreneur, early in my business I did lots of different projects and could hardly distinguish my work from others in my space. In the fall of 2013, my company underwent a brand reboot and launched my brand promise, Engage, Collaborate, Lead. The very next time I bid on a project or was up against a similar small business for municipal work, the ability to articulate my methodology of work made all the difference. My company drove 300% year over year growth through the first 3 quarters of 2014. Understanding what set me apart from my rivals became the very engine of my business. Today, when I am selling against the leading provider of strategic planning services in the state of Illinois, I know precisely what levers to pull and how to further distinguish Relationships Matter Now and we are quickly catching the leader who has years more experience ahead of us in the game.

Sometimes as an entrepreneur you forget to look for rivals in the hustle of growing your business. You forget the role they play in your growth and trajectory. Take some time to look around you and be more aware of the rivals in what you do. If you allow them, they can drive you to be a better you.

Oh, and I did play tennis again for a small Christian college my final year of college when I was part of the inaugural women's team at our school after playing one 0-8 season on the men's team. It was great to be the captain leading a new program and I owe my tenacity to play with men for one season to my high school tennis rivals.

Thanks Okorafors.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Most Often You Take The High Road, Sometimes...

you stick to your critics, plainly and clearly so they don't mistake your silence for weakness. President Barack Obama had one of those moments with his critics last night in front of the world and being human and all, he did not resist. I cannot blame him. Can you imagine the disrespect this guy must endure privately when consistently he is publicly dissed in forums that had, until his election in 2008, been sacred places of respect for the country's highest public office?

I cannot. But his off the cuff brilliant response to the last night's attempted diss showed me something I've always known was true.

For highly educated, successful Blacks in this country - you are still never enough for the establishment. The diss was not merely a disagreement with his politics. Yawn. Spare me. Clearly and consistently the establishment and power players of our country have intended to undermine President Obama and the legitimacy of his ascent to the highest office.

Last night's attempted diss was merely the latest iteration of the "birthers" and their failed policy to convince the American people that Barack Obama and his presidency is a fluke.

And he rightly smacked them down with his now famous "I won both of 'em." line. People can't even get it right adding the frigging "th" to what he said. He did not say "them." He said 'em, as in "I'm goin to the sto with Stacey and 'em."  He said what he meant and the translation was clear.

Clap all you want. I won. And I won, again. It's time you get over it.

As a high achieving fellow Black American, I applaud you, President Obama.

Oh, how I've imagined you unleashing your true thoughts on the constant onslaught of clear disrespect and you've held you tongue each time. You were even cool in your clear and obvious verbal backhand. I have tried, in vain, to emulate your cool head in those moments. Sometimes, I've succeeded but most often I've failed spectacularly.  I am happy to see you are human like the rest of us.


Not sub-human as many people see Blacks since the days we were brought to this country in service of others and a continued problem we fight daily.  Nor superhuman, the other equally damaging image of Blacks in our country that was recently documented, studied and analyzed in this review of the abstract.  You see, as either sub-human or superhuman, Blacks are not deemed worthy of basic respect and human treatment in the the United States. And while we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 last year, we have a long way to go.

Electing President Obama showed us in spades. All the progress and seemingly "post-racial" harmony of the 80s and 90s was turned on its ears when BHO was elected. It is OK to once again display your intolerance and downright fear of smart Black folks. Why do all politicians constantly refer to taking our "country back"? We all know damn well what they mean and until we have an honest conversation about our country's sorry relationship with race, we will continue to get what we get but I digress.

I am very glad to see our Harvard educated President remind everyone of who he is and what he's accomplished in a smug and confident manner.

Nothing stings your opponents more than your silent success. Or the occasional verbal smack down.

Thanks, President Obama for this one time of giving us a bit of both.

Monday, January 12, 2015

3 Things Clients Say And What They REALLY Mean

Entrepreneurs are among the most optimistic people on the planet and with good reason. It takes tremendous courage and resilience to build something from nothing and to keep building year over year. Entering the 4th full year of business ownership, I've learned how to decipher what clients and potentials really mean when they say certain things. Regardless of where you are in your entrepreneurial journey, the sooner you understand these 3 things clients (and potentials) say and what they REALLY mean, the better off you will be.

1. You have one or two typos in your proposal, it's no big deal but you should be aware.

This is code for if I didn't know and trust you, I'd have judged you. There have been multiple times in my journey that I have heard this from someone who bought from me already. While I went back to look for the typos, I have to say it wasn't until late last year that I paid someone to review my writing, all the time.  And that is not cool. I am certain that my oversight has cost me business.  On one RFP we lost, the gentleman who gave me feedback told me that my "typos did not affect the vote" but the fact that he mentioned them tells me it's important. Your friend/colleague/potential is telling you to stop being sloppy and it is blessing that they are doing so. It is tough to pay for services at any stage of your business but especially in the early days. It is easy to review things yourself and hope for the best. The problem is you only have one shot with some folks, even people who know and trust you.  Don't do what I did and ignore suggestions for proofreading. Do something. Today.  It is worth it in the long run. Don't lose business or face over a typo.

2.  Our team is having some heartburn, I'm working on it. 

This is classic for one person has a major sticking point in something you said and I'm trying to clean it up.  While this one is not one you hear often, it is common when you present to groups and have to get many different people to buy into your idea/solution/service. Don't be afraid to ask your contact point blank what the issue is. I had several instances of this and in 2014, I mustered up the courage to ask my client directly. They were so relieved for several reasons. One, they did not want to "give up the information"without a direct inquiry. It was a very sensitive discussion and because I asked directly, I gave them an opportunity to tell me with a clean conscience. Two, they were genuinely in a tough spot of not knowing how to answer.  The people who know you and want to do business with you are putting themselves out to bring you in. When there is push-back, it is on you to make it easy for them to advocate without selling you. Asking directly what the issue is and for an opportunity to address it yourself. This not only makes life easier on your contact  but gives you another shot to demonstrate why you are the right person for the job. You take the burden of selling you off your pal and put it firmly where it belongs - in your own hands.

3.  We are having some challenges with the budget.

"Challenges with the budget" means you have not clearly articulated how you will add value to the organization with your project. This one is really cut and dry - it needs to be crystal clear how what you will do will  do one of the following: save the company money,  make the company money or solve a problem that has gone unsolved. Now, when consulting in the space that I am in organizational development, inclusion strategy or strategic planning, it is slightly tougher to articulate but must be done. The person on the other side of your proposal wants to work with you. People don't get to the proposal stage of potential projects without a clear budget expectation in mind. When you get to the final stages of the sale and money is the issue, you have not demonstrated value very well.  Ask the budget, whenever possible. You avoid putting yourself in a tough spot later by taking the risk to learn what the budget is as soon as you can. Another tactic we use is finding out the "pain", the thing that keeps them up at night.  When you can solve a problem that is eating away at someone, they always find the "budget." No joke.  My favorite example was last year when a potential and I went back and forth for a few months on a project that he could not get approved budget wise. Finally, I sent him a note that stated why we may not be a fit at this time and how I am ready when they are ready for my type of services. Within 2 weeks, he came back with his own discretionary budget. When you clearly show how what you can do, people find the funds.

Those are the most common things I've heard over the last 3 years and how we've solved for them. We rarely hear these anymore.  Take time to peek behind the words and understand what people are really saying, especially people who connect with you. Few people connect with the intention of wasting time.  Make it easy on all involved by anticipating needs and addressing them for smoother selling.

Monday, January 5, 2015

#2015Unshakable - 3 Reasons I'll Be Unshakable This Year

There is nothing like consecutive days of rest to crystallize what's important and focus a person. After what felt like weeks (but was actually days) of full nights of sleep, eating my favorite foods with my favorite people and almost no work - I am ready for 2015.

As I brainstormed my theme for this new year, I was torn between two words - relentless and unshakable. The two words are somewhat similar in definition:

Relentless: showing or promising no abatement of severity, intensity, strength, or pace -  sustained; unremitting

Unshakable:  not easily panicked or upset -  utterly firm and unwavering

The one distinction for me came in the imagery I wanted to project. Couple that with the rocky way 2014 ended, I needed to focus on why 2015 will be different for me and my business. Here are the top three reasons I will be unshakable in the coming year:

Prioritize More Strictly

I will be even more selective in how I spend my time in the coming year. I thought I was really good at this but the final two quarters of 2014 taught me that I could brush up on many areas. The two areas I will focus on the most will be my media consumption and how much I give of myself to others. Media is partially my life. I love it. I create it. But late in 2014 as our country's discussion of race and social justice escalated, I found myself drowning in consuming great commentaries across all medias. No more. This includes social media. There is so much great content out there and being curious by nature makes it difficult, at times, to honor boundaries. In 2015, I will be more diligent about this and prioritize my consumption even more. Secondly, I am a people magnet and I do get lots of energy from genuine connection to others. One of my greatest gifts is my ability to connect with others, deeply.  But I also get lots of energy from alone time and I yielded lots of my solitude late in the year. Over my break, I read and absorbed some amazing wisdom from Chobani Founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya. He said in a recent Fast Company article, "The more time you give to the world, the less you give to what you are doing." With a new book releasing and a full PR blitz, I am anticipating that as 2015 unfolds, the ability to prioritize what I give to others will be even more critical. 

Feel More

In my triad of change, my go-to and best strategy for managing everything is structure and my second choice is behavior or action. My "achilles" is perception or feelings. I hate to feel. It drains me so severely that I have built many mechanisms over the years to avoid feeling most often. And while, I recognized that fact late in 2013 and spent lots of time in 2014 working on it, it was not nearly enough. The final quarter of 2014 dropped like a ton of bricks from 50 stories above me.  There were so many good and bad things to feel in that final quarter of the year and because I'd pressed many months without feeling much, it crippled me. By the week of Thanksgiving 2014, I was depleted and barely limped into my vacation 4 weeks later. Never again.  I need to push myself to feel more as I go along and stop "batching" my feeling episodes. It is futile to avoid feeling. In the NY Times Bestseller, The Fault In Our Stars, one of the characters says - "That's the thing about pain, it demands to be felt." That quote reverberated my soul when I heard it. It is so true and not only for pain but also for joy and goodness. We must allow ourselves to feel, even if feeling drains energy at higher rates than other activity as it does for me and many people like me. 

Replenish More Often

You know the saying - work hard, play hard. I am the incarnate version of that saying. I love my work and I love my play. Since becoming my own boss, I have struggled with transforming what replenishment means as an entrepreneur. When I worked for someone else, I had little issue with completely unplugging for the 4-5 weeks per year I had off.  I had no remorse not answering email or even reviewing until I was 100% back in the saddle. Now, I struggle to completely unplug. Partially because I am in a critical growth time in my business but mostly because my income depends entirely on the effort I exert.  For an overachieving Type-A, that is heaven. Bliss. But it is also danger and wrought with opportunities to destroy me and everyone I love.  My former definition of replenishment always required me (and my husband or entire family) hoping on a plane and getting away from home. Not even sure I can say former as I have managed to squeeze travel out of our condensed budget the last three years at almost the same rate as before. I love the challenge but need to figure out additional ways to replenish myself. I don't even know where to begin on this one as quenching my wanderlust is a key priority and what keeps me married and not returning to my single gypsy life of yesteryear. I have to honor my need to see and experience the world but I need to find ways to replenish in between voyages. 

Getting those three areas of life aligned with intentions and actions will surely make me and my business #Unshakable in 2015.

What's your theme for the new year?