Just Say It

There are very few things in life that I truly hate. We optimistic entrepreneurs are upbeat and resilient. But there is this one thing. Let me set the scene and see if you share the same disdain as do I. You reach out to a prospective customer and are able to actually snag a meeting. Arriving early, you are well prepared and have done considerable research on this person and his company. No question will go unanswered and every key point will be covered. The meeting seems to go well and you get positive though non-committal feedback from the prospective customer. As you wrap up you hear those 11 dreaded words . . . “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

Naturally you are polite when you are told this, but you leave indicating that you’ll check back in a week – the customer smiles and nods. Of course you send a nice thank you note, and a week later you are in follow-up mode. You call and leave a voicemail message. You e-mail and re-state your interest in working with this individual. There is no response. Another week goes by with another voicemail and e-mail. The third week you actually reach the customer when you call and he tells you how slammed he’s been; asks a question, and says he’s still thinking about it. But there’s hope isn’t there? He asked a question – that seems to be a sign that he’s interested.

You know the rest of the story. After an interminable period of time you somehow learn that he actually committed to buy the product from a competitor – weeks ago. This is a locker-kicking, punching-the-wall moment of frustration. The age-old question spews from your lips, “Why couldn’t he just say NO?!”

Whether or not we’re entrepreneurs, we’re always going to find ourselves in situations where we need someone to say yes or no. It doesn’t seem like these answers should be hard to provide. And yet there apparently is a great deal of indecision in the world today because getting to yes or no is a great struggle for some. Why? What’s the point of the “string-along?” Often it may be that a person is concerned about hurting someone else’s feelings by saying no. It’s true that a person may need to consider his or her options and truly contemplate before providing an answer. But that’s no reason for not responding to phone calls and e-mails.

Having dealt with this issue for many years, I’ve resolved not to treat others in similar fashion. When I’m called for a meeting I will try to quickly determine if I have an interest in what the other person is offering – now or ever. If I’m not interested – ever – I’ll tell the other person and refuse the meeting. It’s a quick “no.” If I’m not interested now but might be in the future, I’ll say this, “I can tell you that I’m not interested right now. However, I’m happy to take the meeting because I want to learn more about you and your product for future reference. It certainly helps to build a relationship.” The other person knows exactly where I stand and can decide herself if she still wants to schedule the meeting. If I go through with the meeting and don’t want what is being offered I will say “no” on the spot. If I truly need time to contemplate, I’ll tell the other person that I need to do so and will provide a firm date for follow-up.

Here’s one more thing about a “no” answer. Many of us learned that when we’re told no, it’s simply a plea to be “sold” some more. I think this is still true but with a twist. If I say no – never, that’s probably what I mean. But if I say no – not right now, that could very well mean that I’m a “yes” in the future. There’s no harm in building relationships and keeping our name in front of someone with whom we want to do business. Being in the right place at the right time is a real art. Through relationships the odds of being in this position are vastly improved.

We’d much rather hear a quick no than be strung along through indecision or sensitivity for our feelings. Giving no as an answer allows the other person to move into a longer term relationship-building mode, and enables him or her to pursue other prospects without wasting time.

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 – Audio Episode 47 – Trained Monkeys.

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.

Walking Shoes

We’ve all known hard-charging Type A entrepreneurs who have a “take no prisoners” attitude. These people are the doers. They are decisive and they know how to execute. But sometimes there is a downside to this sort of personality. Yes, sometimes those of us who are very driven may have a tendency to be insensitive. This usually isn’t intentional but nonetheless it can have a detrimental effect on our team members and the culture we are trying to build.

There are a number of ways that insensitivity can manifest. It can be as direct as making derogatory or belittling comments to as subtle as failing to acknowledge someone with a friendly greeting in the morning. Think about an exchange like this. Team member – “I’d like to volunteer to work with Jim on the Norton project.” Entrepreneur – “No, you just need to stay focused on what you are doing.” While it may be absolutely true that the team member needs to keep doing what she’s doing, the way the entrepreneur delivered the message could be construed as insensitive. A different selection of words would make all the difference. How about this instead? “Jan – thanks for the offer. Your project is critically important and I’m counting on you to get it wrapped up. But I will take a rain check on having you help with the next one.” This statement acknowledges the team member with an expression of appreciation and also affirms her value. And it gives her hope that she’ll be given another opportunity in the future.

So, how do we develop the appropriate level of sensitivity without going so far as to sing Kumbaya all the time? There’s a very simple method that I’ve learned over the years. I will admit to once-upon-a-time being the insensitive Type A hard-charger that was described in the opening paragraph. I justified my behavior by believing that I was simply being expedient in my dealings with others. After all, I was moving at 100 miles an hour and the quicker I could get through with one meeting the sooner I could move on to the next. But I gradually became aware that my people skills were suffering. I wasn’t doing anything to cultivate relationships or goodwill. Eventually I developed a new awareness by just putting myself in the other person’s shoes. How would I feel if someone spoke to me a certain way; said something in a certain manner, or failed to somehow acknowledge me?

The key is to practice, practice and constantly practice. I try to pay attention to how everyone around me is feeling. In a restaurant, I want to make sure that the wait staff is properly appreciated. At the office I try to make eye contact with members of our team as I walk by and greet each and every one of them. I pay attention to the language that I use, going the extra mile to avoid careless statements that could be misconstrued. Again, I’m always testing what I say or do against the basic premise of how I would want to be treated if I were the other person. After a while it becomes very intuitive.

The mark of a good leader is the manner in which he or she treats others. Running roughshod or being humble and sensitive? The choice is easy when walking a mile in another’s shoes.

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.

dirty shoes

The Anti-Bulldozer

Many of us entrepreneurs have a tendency to be a bit aggressive at times. The appropriate analogy might be something about a bull in a china shop. Speaking for myself I know there have been times when I pushed through a situation and likely ran roughshod over others who were involved. It’s not that we do so intentionally, but we are naturally assertive and want to get things done . . . right now!

Much earlier in my career I was totally oblivious to how others might be reacting to me. I had not yet learned how to “read” people. I thought I was doing things the right way, but apparently was stepping on a lot of toes in the process. When this was pointed out to me I became a bit defensive and thought, “It’s not my problem if others have such thin skins.” Perhaps this was true in a literal sense, but how others feel and perceive us becomes reality – regardless of what we intend. What I didn’t realize is that being the bulldozer caused my colleagues and others to resent me and not want to work with me.

After many years it became apparent that others weren’t going to change – I needed to instead. Fortunately this didn’t require me to compromise my principles. But I realized that not only did I need to understand how others were responding to me, but also that I needed to adjust my approach accordingly. I began to pay close attention to “reading” people and modifying my approach away from a “one-size fits-all.”

Reading people is multi-faceted. It requires us to listen not only to what others say but how they say it. If I am laying out a strategy and asking for feedback, I need to pay attention to voice inflection, pitch, cadence and tone. I need to watch facial features. Does the other person’s jaw clench; is there an eye twitch; does the color change in his or her face, and do the nostrils flair? I must observe other body language tells. Is there a stiffening or turning of the body; do the arms fold or gesture in some way; do the fists clench; does the head raise or drop; is eye contact lost; what do I see in the eyes, and does the person literally shrink in position? How exactly does the person verbally respond? Is there hesitation before speaking? What words are selected by the person in his or her response?

People reads are only part of the sensitivity process. How do I conduct myself when receiving feedback? Is my body language open or closed? Do I keep a smile on my face or do I send signals that I don’t really want to hear what is being said? Am I truly listening or just giving the appearance of doing so? I have found that repeating back what the other person says helps send the message that I am listening. Then it’s important for me to acknowledge what is being said in a positive manner. For example, “I hear you when you tell me that you aren’t in favor of reaching out to the client in the manner I suggested and understand why you feel the way you do. Let’s come up with a different way of handling this.” In the old days I would simply tell the person to “just do it.” Today, it’s become much more important for me to be flexible and help others find different ways to reach the same end goal than just the way I want to do it.

Sensitivity is not a weakness. Instead it is an effective leadership trait. Reading people; listening to them; understanding what they are saying, and making the necessary adjustments engenders the trust and confidence of our team.

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.

bulldozer

A Glance Back

Question: I was recently told that I don’t listen very well. I think I do but I feel like I’m being defensive if I say so. How should I respond?

Answer: Take a glance over your shoulder. What do I mean? When we’re driving a car and we’re going to change lanes what do we do? We check in the mirror. But if that’s all we do we could still have an accident. Why? Because the mirrors don’t necessarily allow us to see in our blind spot. Instead, we look over our shoulder to visually make certain we aren’t going to collide with another car.

This is a great life metaphor. When we look in the mirror we don’t always see what others see. To “glance back” is to accept feedback from others, and sometimes it may be something we don’t want to hear about ourselves. Then we have to make a choice. We can be defensive and reject what we are being told. Or we can swallow our pride (often false pride) and take a long and introspective look. Perhaps there’s some truth to the ugly rumor that we have a characteristic or trait that needs to be modified.

If we want to succeed as entrepreneurs we must be willing to become vulnerable and pay attention to how others feel about us. Earlier in my career I was a bit tone deaf when it came to being sensitive to other’s feelings. Apparently I had a tendency to run roughshod over people. I was told this several times and could not see my blind spot. In reality I was in denial about what I was being told. Ultimately I began to change my behavior after it adversely impacted my relationships and caused hard feelings. To stay on the straight and narrow I give my colleagues permission to “hit me on the head with a two-by-four” if ever again I fall into the same behavior.

It’s a rare individual who has no blind spots. We should accept the fact that we have them. But what we do to learn about them is a test of our character. When we pay attention to how others are responding to us we’ll be able to sense whether or not the reaction is positive or negative.

Actively glancing over our shoulder and checking with others to learn of our foibles will help us strengthen our relationships. In so doing we avoid allowing our blind spots to become destructive.

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.

blindspot