The Assertive (or Aggressive?) Entrepreneur

Dear Entrepreneur:

I watched you the other day as you “took command” of a situation involving a vendor who works with your company. Obviously, the vendor did not perform his service satisfactorily – you certainly let him know this in no uncertain terms. I did get a little concerned when I saw the veins begin to pop out in your neck. I’m sure glad I wasn’t on the other end of that call!

Sincerely – One of your employees

Just reading this feels a bit embarrassing. Have you ever known anyone like this? Some entrepreneurs pride themselves in being very direct and matter of fact. They pull no punches and sugarcoat nothing. They wear their bluntness as a badge of honor. Unfortunately, they have become confused about the virtues of honesty and transparency and feel the need to demonstrate these traits in an extremely intense manner. But to what end? Did this approach resolve the situation? Did it build a stronger relationship? Is the vendor more or less likely to want to go out of his way for the entrepreneur in the future?

This brings us to an interesting point of discussion. Is it better to be more assertive or more aggressive? When we’re assertive, we’re able to be direct and straight-forward without becoming angry. Being aggressive typically brings with it a sort of heavy-handedness that evokes negativity. Often, aggression is more a demonstration of power than anything else. It’s a real art to being able to deal with a situation assertively where everyone walks away with generally positive feelings – but the message has been clearly delivered.

What can we do to re-pattern our aggressive tendencies and convert them into a more positive and assertive approach? Years ago, I took a Caliper Profile. It’s a computerized test that identifies traits and tendencies and is an excellent tool for hiring people. On a scale of 1 to 100, my Assertiveness score was a 99 and my Aggressiveness score was a 92. I was told that this was a bit of a dicey pattern. I could just as easily flip from being assertive to being aggressive – and sometimes too aggressive. Knowing this, I’ve been working for years to try and tone down my aggressiveness. I’ve learned that I need to keep my temper in check and try and remain as James Bond-like as possible. Sure, that may sound corny, but the goal is to be unflappable and even keeled.

I try to remember to keep a smile on my face even when the bullets are flying at me. I attempt to stay on a fact-path and eliminate emotion from my conversation. Every once-in-a-while when someone else is being aggressive I’ll succeed in lowering the volume of my voice. In turn, the other person may begin to calm down and lower his or her volume as well. Once the temper is in check, being assertive is much easier. Clear and persuasive arguments can be made in a cool and calm fashion. Now I’m working more on the intensity I convey, particularly with my body language. When I’m feeling quite passionate or positive about something, I can sit forward in my chair and raise my voice a bit – even though I’m not at all angry. I have to try harder to be less animated which some people can misinterpret as aggressiveness.

We are much more likely to reach our goals when we replace aggressiveness with assertiveness. Then the badge of honor we wear is that of positive outcomes instead of trampled feelings.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Bad News Bears

Uh-oh. Jack just learned that he did not win a contract that was supposedly all but certain. He was counting on this deal to make his quota and had been bragging to the vice-president of sales and his co-workers that it was in the bag. What’s more troubling is the fact that he’s been under the gun by upper management over the past few months to improve his production. Now what?

Jack has to deliver the bad news. The first thought running through his head is that he’s going to be fired on the spot. He’s deep in debt and has a wife and two small kids at home. What does he do? Unfortunately, Jack chooses to do what so often happens in situations like this. He fudges the truth. He tells his boss that he hasn’t yet “heard the final word” from the client. Jack holds onto a thread of hope that he might be able to salvage the deal.

It’s obvious that delivering bad news is never fun. It actually starts with an organization’s culture. What is the reaction to bad news by the leadership? Is there screaming, yelling and threats? How about chaos and recriminations? If so, this sets the tone for anyone on the wrong side of having to report unfavorable results. It’s human nature to try and avoid painful encounters of this sort. Thus, some people may have a tendency to stretch the truth, fudge the facts or outright lie about the situation, rather than endure the wrath of the boss.

In a healthy organization, delivering bad news is just another routine task to be performed. The enlightened leader will encourage team members to openly talk about what isn’t working including setbacks that have recently occurred or are anticipated. He or she will work with the team to understand what went wrong and how to avoid a similar result in the future. There’s no negative emotion or drama associated with this analysis. In so doing, team members feel safe in bringing news of any sort – good or bad.

A leader who operates in a fair and even-handed manner is entitled to expect full and total integrity from the team. The team member in a healthy organization who fudges the facts like Jack did should be dealt with in a severe manner. Here’s the calculus. I won’t blow up and make you feel lower than whale poop, and you owe me complete transparency. It’s as simple as that.

If you are part of an organization that struggles with bad news, first look inward and remember that it’s a two-way street. If the organization is unwilling to react in a calm and measured way, then it cannot expect team members to want to deliver bad tidings.

There’s another element to delivering bad news. It may be that the leader does not have an angry tantrum at all. This individual may always be very upbeat and optimistic. But members of his or her team may still not want to tell it like it is. Why? Because they don’t want to disappoint him. In many situations feeling like one has let down a co-worker or a leader is a powerful motive to duck or delay the inevitable. It’s circumstances like this where the leader must take care not to send any signals that he/she may be disappointed. In fact, this leader should go out of his way to encourage members of his team not to equate bad news with a disappointed boss.

One way to solve this dilemma is to embrace failure as simply a step in a process. A forward-thinking entrepreneur will model this attitude by sharing his or her failures with the team. Being vulnerable in this manner may encourage others to be more comfortable doing the same without fear of disappointing the leader.

Let’s replay Jack’s scenario with a different twist. Jack learns that he did not win the contract. He immediately goes to his boss and explains the facts of the situation. His boss says, “Jack, this reminds me of a situation a few years ago where I was positive I was going to win the brass ring only to be left holding the bag. But I scrambled together a radical new approach and took a long-shot by asking to see the client one last time. Believe it or not he changed his mind and I won the deal after all. You might try the same approach.” Maybe Jack went on to win the deal and maybe not. Regardless, there was no hesitation when it came time to deliver the bad news initially.

Delivering bad news can be done in a matter-of-fact fashion if an organization’s culture encourages it. If not, we can expect that people will take extreme measures to avoid this unpleasant task.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Entrepreneur and the Dirty Diaper

Let me set the scene. We get a call from a customer and boy is he mad. He rants and raves about how he’s been wronged by one of our team members. “She was so incredibly rude to me!” he exclaims. “And she even laughed at me when I explained my issue.” Honestly, what is our first thought? It may be that we can’t believe our team member would act in this manner. We may also prepare ourselves to have a serious conversation with this team member and really lay down the law. Perhaps we are even ready to put a note in the personnel file about the incident. What happens next? We’re plenty steamed, so we track down our team member and lay out the situation in a somewhat accusatory fashion offering plenty of righteous indignation in the process. Except . . . it turns out that the customer was all wrong. What happened here? I call it the “The Case of the Dirty Diaper Tossed Over the Cliff.”

In this situation, we heard a complaint (the Dirty Diaper) and immediately jumped to a conclusion (the Cliff). We failed to gather solid evidence in a calm and reasonable fashion and instead rushed into an unpleasant encounter with our team member half-cocked. In this specific scenario, had we conducted a proper investigation we would have discovered that there was a witness – another customer – who observed the whole thing. And after talking to this customer, we learned that the accuser had an axe to grind with our team member and called her names and said ugly things to her. Not the other way around. Unfortunately, we failed to give her the benefit of the doubt when we launched into our accusation which of course caused unnecessary tension.

In the “heat of battle” aka/confrontational situations – it’s easy to sympathize with the party that is upset. Perhaps our team has had the type of issues in the past that are being presented in the current situation. We instinctively may have a tendency to jump to erroneous conclusions and even worse, act upon them. The fallout from this approach can be devastating. Our team member felt that we weren’t supporting her and the feelings of trust she had for us were broken. Other team members learned of the incident and the trust with them was damaged as well. Ultimately the team member involved quit – all because this matter was so incredibly mishandled.

Maybe this has never happened to you. I truly hope that is the case. I’ve seen it occur in my own organization and I’ve even been the “accuser” in a bit of a milder way, but nonetheless I didn’t do my homework first. I’ve resolved to listen carefully to information that is being provided by the complainant and ask questions sufficient to fully understand this person’s point of view. I also try to glean as many facts as possible. Often there’s a lot of emotion involved, and the “diaper” gets really dirty very fast. It’s critical to be adequately sympathetic without taking sides and try to focus on the facts. Then, rather than taking the “dirty diaper” and “throwing it off the cliff,” I try to factually determine the other side of the situation without accusation or condemnation.

There will be times when the facts presented by the two parties are vastly different. Let’s assume for a moment that there are no witnesses and there’s just no way to corroborate either version of the encounter. We have to be very careful passing judgment in such situations and determining that one party is right and the other is wrong. Instead, we offer our counsel with the intent to coach our team member, and we do what we can to placate the party who is aggrieved. In a sense, we need to operate as would a judge or jury. If the evidence is insufficient, it’s pretty hard to render a clear decision. Should a pattern develop with our team member where we learn of similar issues occurring on an ongoing basis, we may need to take stronger action based upon such a pattern.

Strong teams are built on trust. We must protect this trust by handling contentious issues in a calm and measured fashion; gathering evidence and resisting the inclination to jump to conclusions.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The World’s Scariest Roller Coaster

I never have liked to ride on roller coasters. The feeling where my heart ends up in my stomach is not what I consider to be a pleasant experience. When I was learning to fly airplanes my flight instructor would tell me to close my eyes and put my head in my lap. He would then undertake some radical maneuvers – up and down at random – then he’d say, “You have the airplane.” It was my responsibility at that moment to figure out what was going on and take the necessary corrective action to get the airplane straight and level without crashing! This involved several hundred feet at over a hundred miles an hour. Talk about a roller coaster ride on steroids – yeow!

Entrepreneurial endeavors are much like a roller coaster ride and sometimes like my flight training. There is one difference with the flight training however – we practiced the wacky maneuvers at an altitude of 5,000 feet or more. As entrepreneurs we often fly metaphorically at 50 feet or even less providing little room for error. So, how does the roller coaster ride manifest? Here’s a typical set of scenarios.

We get up in the morning and work out at the gym then go for a run. Usually we feel pretty “up” afterwards – a great way to start the day. The roller coaster is flat and level and just picking up speed. We have breakfast with a client who tells us she is going to place a substantial order for our product. Woohoo! The roller coaster is on the first vertical climb. Then on to the office where the minute we hit the door we find out that one of our top product people has given two weeks-notice and is going to work for a competitor. Oops, the roller coaster is moving fast downhill now. A couple of hours later our breakfast client called to tell us that she has decided not to place the substantial order after all – the roller coaster now takes a couple of barrel rolls before heading into a terrifying dive. Then out-of-the-blue we get a call from our corporate counsel informing us that a class action suit for which we’ve been a part has been settled and we’ll be receiving a healthy check (after deducting legal fees, of course). Now the roller coaster is soaring up into the clear blue sky blue again. And so it goes for the rest of the day.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, welcome to the wonderful world of entrepreneurship. You are not alone. We all know this is going to be the life we live. It’s the life we’ve chosen. The challenge is how we successfully deal with the ups and downs without letting the roller coaster get the best of us. So what to do? Here’s something I learned a long time ago. We entrepreneurs can have a tendency to magnify whatever is in front of us. If it’s something positive we can see it as the greatest accomplishment for which we’ve ever been a part. And if it’s a negative experience, we can’t imagine that it could have been worse for anyone else. As a result, we can experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I have resolved that I’m not going to take any of this too seriously and you might take this approach too. Most of the time nothing is as good or as bad as it may seem to be at the moment. Once we realize this to be the case, we can go about our business with less emotion.

The NFL football players of today are into celebrations – big time. When they score touchdowns they “perform” in the end zone. Many of them do the same when they a part of a big play on offense or defense. I remember a player named Marcus Allen who scored a lot of touchdowns for the Oakland Raiders and later, the Kansas City Chiefs. When Allen scored, he handed the ball to the official. There was no display of emotion – no end zone antics. Instead, he showed true professionalism and acted like he had been there before (which he had, over and over and over). When we can focus on a professional approach to our entrepreneurial endeavors and avoid the emotion, we can avoid the roller coaster ride. No, this doesn’t mean we are void of emotion altogether. It’s fine to celebrate when truly major good fortune has been realized. But we don’t need to jump on the roller coaster for everything that happens during the day.

Realizing that nothing is really as great as it seems or as bad as it seems can help us moderate our emotions. We can then function like the professionals that we are and avoid the roller coaster ride.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 121 – Moats.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Stress and the Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship can be a very stressful proposition. We’re trying to build our businesses and encounter countless challenges along the way. Cutthroat competition, product design issues, labor shortages, cash flow problems, slow sales, shipping snafus, government regulations, incredibly tight deadlines, lack of sleep and a host of other struggles. A lot of this is simply unavoidable and part of the growth and scaling process. How we deal with stress under duress is the name of the game.

Here are several questions we can ask ourselves. Is stress negative and draining? Do we view stress with fear and trepidation? Is stress something that we must survive? Or do we embrace stress and use it to “lean in” and thrive? You may think that thriving in stress is counterintuitive. But it is not.

It’s a fact that there are many opportunities for situations to become stressful. However, just because a situation is stressful doesn’t mean that we have to buy-in and take on the stress for ourselves. I know – this is certainly easier said than done. We start by observing how we normally react when confronted with potentially stressful circumstances. Some people withdraw and climb into a shell. Others might be combative and hypersensitive. Still others may wear their heart on their sleeve and present a woe-is-me portrait. Finally, there are those who may show panic and confusion. As entrepreneurial leaders we cannot afford to display any of these tendencies.

How we react outwardly is important to our team. If we are snippy and curt with the people around us, they will sense that something is wrong. If we show fear they will smell fear and know that something is wrong. By maintaining an optimistic and cheery demeanor at all times, we can ensure the mental health of our enterprise. I realize that this is pretty hard to do if we really aren’t feeling all that confident in the situation. It’s very difficult to fake it successfully. What to do?

On April 17, 2018, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 bound from New York to Dallas suffered a massive engine failure that resulted in the loss of cabin pressure and the life of a passenger. Captain Tammie Jo Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor remained calm under fire and safely landed the aircraft. They didn’t panic and followed their training to the letter. Once back on terra firma, Captain Shults personally spoke to each passenger as they deplaned. What was their secret? They eliminated the emotion and worked the problem.

When we’re overwhelmed, stress can build exponentially. This is the time to heed the old saying – eat the elephant one bite at a time. We break down whatever massive undertaking that is causing the stress into manageable tasks. I am a compulsive list-maker. When a mountain looms in front of me I try and avoid looking at it in its totality. Instead, I develop a series of individual tasks and check them off my list as I finish them. I know this may sound like a mental game but it works for me and it might work for you too.

The next idea may seem like a bit of a stretch, but actually can achieve the concept of leaning in and thriving. When faced with a sticky situation we look for the silver lining and ask the question, “How can I turn this into something positive?” Accomplishing this takes a lot of practice. It involves rising above the chaos and stress to take a clinical look at the landscape and find a way to succeed. I remember talking to a friend who had a major client that was terminating the relationship. Many entrepreneurs would have wrung their hands in despair. My friend immediately reached out to the primary competitor of the departing client and told him that he was now available to work with the competitor. This new relationship was worth twice the amount of business for my friend than before.

There are many other stress-busting techniques – and there may be times when we need to utilize all of them at our disposal. We should make certain we don’t become one-dimensional. Having other interests besides work provides outlets for our stress and frustration. This may include physical activities, hobbies, civic or charitable work to name a few. Meditation and deep-breathing exercises are excellent ways to remain centered and relaxed. It’s important to practice them continuously and not just when we are in distress. Finally, I’m a big proponent of creating and saying positive affirmations. Positive affirmations pattern our minds away from negativity and fear. For example, saying something like, “I am totally relaxed and ready to claim my good!” may be a great way to start. I know it may sound corny, but I’m living proof that it works. Saying a positive affirmation in groups of ten at least 100 times a day will lay the foundation. Doing it for a week or two adds the cement.

We all have moments where stress can build to overwhelming levels. But it doesn’t have to be debilitating if we choose to embrace it; lean into it, and thrive.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 100 – Congratulations – You Own a Gold Mine!

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Staying Away From the Cliff

What is your reaction when you hear the word “debate?” Is this code for conflict? Entrepreneurs and humankind in general are inclined to try and persuade others to see their point of view. Unfortunately the art of debate has been stigmatized by what happens in the political arena. Political debate has degenerated into something far removed from the honorable tradition of true debate. Sometimes in our business and daily lives what is being termed as “debate” is also something much less noble.

I remember taking debate classes in school. We were taught to construct factual arguments to support our position on an issue. In college my favorite class of all time was Logic. It was fascinating to listen to the professor walk us through various arguments that were commonplace in society and show us where the logic broke down. To effectively persuade and convince others to make decisions that we want them to make, it is helpful to frame our argument in solid facts and logic. To clarify, I’m not using the term “argument” in the “argumentative” sense but rather in the context of a thesis.

Every time I read an article that might contain an element of controversy, I always think of my old college professor as I read the comments. There is often a lot of emotion on a particular subject which may result in ad hominem attacks, name calling and a loss of decorum. Usually when this happens, the offending party has already lost the debate because he/she can’t offer a logical opposing position supported by facts.

In my opinion, the components of a healthy debate include a willingness to lay out one’s position in logical and factual manner; the ability to listen to and understand a contrary position without interruption; the ability to politely use facts and logic to counter the contrary position, and at the end of the day, the willingness to have respect for the person making the contrary argument. In other words, smile and shake hands when it’s all said and done. We may or may not persuade the other person to see our point of view and vice versa, but we avoided falling off the emotional cliff.

The emotional cliff is a dangerous place to be for entrepreneurs. I would much rather persuade someone to agree with my position on something using facts and logic, than appealing to their emotions. Using emotional appeal is another term for manipulation. Business does this every day through marketing a myriad of products and services. But often the person being persuaded is left dissatisfied with the overall experience when he/she realizes the product or service may not meet his/her needs. The feeling of manipulation has a long shelf-life, whether in a marketing or sales sense, or when making decisions based upon the arguments made in debate.

Debate and persuasion that are fact and logic-based can build positive and lasting relationships. When we aspire to stay above the emotional fray we win every time in so many ways.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Cliffs

Sliced Bread

Question: I’ve been working for the past two years on bringing my dream idea to fruition. And it seems like it’s two steps forward and three steps backwards. When do I know it’s time to throw in the towel?

Answer: This question really resonates with me. Over the course of the past 40 years I can’t tell you how many dream ideas I’ve pushed, prodded, cajoled, coaxed and dragged, trying to get them across the finish line. Fortunately I’ve succeeded more often than I’ve failed, but there definitely have been a number that succumbed along the way.

Something I learned may surprise you. I’ve discovered that becoming emotionally invested in an idea can be dangerous. You may rightly ask, “How can we work to realize our dream without emotion and passion?” And here’s where the distinction comes for me. I am very passionate about the process of creating an idea and taking the steps necessary to implement it successfully. But I try and avoid becoming emotionally attached to the idea itself. By doing so, I can pursue an idea up to the point that it appears to be no longer viable and then discard it, moving on to the next idea.

Here’s what happens when we take a “this is my baby” approach to nurturing an idea. The process of birthing the idea takes on an emotional dimension that can blind us to things that we may not want to see. As a result we may not maintain our objectivity and might even miss some critical signals that would otherwise steer us in a different direction. We tend to have tunnel vision, believing that our idea is the best thing in the world since sliced bread. Yet others may not see what we think we see. So we start trying to sell people on our idea . . . rather than helping them buy it. When we don’t get the response we’re looking for we may begin to put pressure on ourselves to push the idea over the top. Then the frustration builds to the point that we’re ready to scream. By now our creative flow of energy has been blocked by our frustration and there is no way we’re going to succeed.

What works for me is to remove the emotion from the idea and replace it with a process. This process includes milestones and metrics that help me determine if I’m making progress in developing an idea. I’m also more receptive to pivots that may be necessary – that is, changes in direction that I need to take to ensure that the idea succeeds or is enhanced. More than anything, it’s liberating to know when an idea needs to be thrown on the scrap heap. I can now do this with ease, knowing that I did what was reasonable to make it work and recognized when it wasn’t meant to be.

Becoming emotionally invested in our dreams may actually hinder our success. Having passion for the process of realizing a dream will help us relax and maintain our creative flow.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

sliced bread