Why Clarity Is a Competitive Advantage

Have you every driven while blindfolded? I hope the answer is no! But I bring up the question as a way to illustrate why creating clarity as a leader is so critical.

Now, back to the analogy. Let’s say that you happen to be driving through the mountains on an adventurous road trip. You’re headed someplace you’ve never been before, so you’re keeping your eyes on the road while simultaneously checking for any signs that indicate that you’re headed in the right direction.

It’s a gorgeous day and you’re making good time toward your destination. But all of a sudden, just as you crest a mountaintop, you enter into a thick, soupy raincloud. You can just picture it, right? Before the cloud, you could look far ahead and plan your next few turns. But now, you’re limited to seeing just a few feet in front of your car. You’re forced to slow way down to compensate. You’re also a bit jumpy; you’re anxious. You start to over-correct to each change in the road as well as every sign you come across wondering all the while if you somehow missed a critical turn along the way. It’s nerve-wracking enough that you just might pull over and hope the cloud simply goes away.

Put another way, when you lack clarity behind the wheel, you’re literally going nowhere fast – which creates a lot of wasted time and energy as a result.

Similarly, if you as a leader aren’t creating clarity for your team in a way that gets everyone aligned and moving toward the same direction and in the same way, you might be sending them out driving into the clouds.

Clarity begins by setting a vision for the organization – a destination that everyone can align themselves with. With clarity around the destination, you can then drill down into developing a more actionable strategy about who is going to do what, when, and how – a map, if you will, of how you will reach your shared destination.

But when your team doesn’t have clarity about the shared destination, as well as the intended route to reach it, they can find themselves overreacting to any kind of distraction that might pop up along the way or locking in on tasks or ventures that don’t help push the organization toward its goals.

Clarity in your business can actually become what the military calls a “force multiplier,” meaning that you can get more done than your competitor can with the same or even fewer resources. Just like if an army can take the high ground on the battlefield, thus making their soldiers more effective (it’s easier to shoot down than up), the more clarity about your vision and mission your team has, the more effective they’ll be serving your customers.

While we remain a work in progress, we have work hard at ITX to achieve clarity around our shared vision and it’s become a competitive advantage for us as a result. The more clear we are with our customers about what we are going to do – and what we aren’t – through our specification, we can help eliminate what we call “cloudy” issues, which is anything that results from a lack of clarity and cause us to slow down and create waste. When we can work toward clearing away the clouds on projects, where everyone’s expectations are met, and everybody wins.

The more clarity you have, the less waste you’ll experience – which allows you to compete more effectively in the market. You’ll be able to judge how effective certain tasks or actions are based on whether they get you faster to your destination. Clarity also helps to reduce anxiety – which is another advantage not just with your employees but also with your customers. When customers feel anxiety, they can become hyper-focused on removing the cause of the anxiety, and not necessarily on achieving the stated goal, creating extra work. The less anxious your customers are in working with you, the more productive and profitable those relationships will be.

Let’s say you are on a business trip to New York City. And, after one of your meetings runs a bit long, you realize you need to get to the airport ASAP so that you won’t miss your flight home. So you dash out to the nearest curb to hail a cab. “Take me to the airport!” you tell your cabbie as you try and catch your breath.

But, there are three airports in the NYC area: LaGuardia, JFK and Newark. If you and your cabbie don’t discuss which airport you need to go to before he starts driving, you’re likely to end up at the wrong destination, thus missing your flight and creating a lot of waste and even moreanxiety.

Similarly, even if you let your cabbie know which airport you’re heading to, but you fail to let him know you have a time constraint, you might be anxious about the route he takes – through the tunnel or over the bridge? – all the while wondering if he knows where he’s going and whether he’ll get you to the airport in time to catch your flight.

Now, if your cabbie immediately asks you which airport you’re headed to, clarifies your answer, and then asks for your approval on the route he plans to take to get there, he immediately just created value for you because he created a sense of clarity.

The point is that the more you and your cabbie are in alignment about where you’re headed and how you plan to get there, the less anxious you’ll be. As a result, you’ll be more satisfied with your cabbie’s driving and perhaps more willing to hand over a bigger tip.

I’ve actually found that most people fall into one of two categories: they are either consumers of clarity, meaning they passively wait until someone else establishes it; or producers of clarity, as exemplified by the communicative cabbie.

Unfortunately, we run into consumers of clarity all the time: people who like to obfuscate their desires as a way to play the blame game later on. By not being clear about what they want, these consumers of clarity tend to say things like, “You should have known what I wanted.” But is that really a workable idea?

But when you get two parties who are both creators of clarity, well then you have a thing of beauty – a strong foundation for a workable and profitable relationship for everyone involved.

That’s the power of clarity and why it can be a competitive advantage for just about any kind of business.

Which begs the question, which camp do you fall into – do you strive to create clarity on an everyday basis or do you consume it? If we can all commit to the former, the better off we’ll all be.









Posted in Articles, Responsibility, Value

The Power of Building Trust

Human beings don’t naturally trust one another. You can blame our brains for that. Your brain makes unconscious decisions regarding trust on your behalf and you can’t force your brain to trust.

Yet we hear people say all the time that they automatically trust everyone they meet – until the day they get betrayed. But what they really mean by this is that they are willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, which is very different than trusting someone.

Of course, when we develop trust, great things can result. Consider Stephen M.R. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, in which he describes how trust eliminates the costs associated with relationships while increasing the speed and efficiency of how things get done. If you trust someone, for instance, you’ll spend far less time worrying about whether that person is going to do what he or she said they would. That, in turn, will save you tons of anxiety and wasted time in checking up on them and formulating contingency plans.

But, as we noted earlier, building trust isn’t easy. Our brains aren’t easily fooled. You cannot simply say, “Just trust me.” Trust results from patterns of behavior. If you work with someone who operates with integrity – someone who does what they say they will or cleans up the mess when they don’t – then you will begin to trust that person. They begin to create value for you, which makes them a valuable resource for you because you’re saving on all that wasted energy created when you’re anxious.

Think about an example involving, say, where you need to hire a real estate broker to complete a transaction for you. Only, the person with the skills you need is someone you just met. If your brain hasn’t already developed a pattern of trust for that person, you’ll spend a lot of time and energy worrying about whether the broker is going to get the job done in a way you need them to.

On the other hand, if you were working with a broker you did trust, you’d be saving all that wasted time and energy.

You can even think about trust in terms of a formula where:

Comfort (or the lack of anxiety) = competence (one’s proficiency) multiplied by confidence (a belief on say, a scale of 1 to 10, that the job will get done). You can then divide that by the absolute value of the impact on your life.

While the result is admittedly measured on a subjective scale, the key takeaway here is to understand the relationship between these different indicators. The more confident you are in someone, for example, the more comfortable you will be. At the same time, if the stakes of the situation are extremely high – say, you face the possibility of going to jail – then your anxiety level will be high no matter how much you trust your lawyer. Similarly, if you tell me that you’re losing sleep because the IRS contacted you about some missing 1099 filings, I could lessen your anxiety simply by letting you know that the stakes might be far less that you originally thought. If I were to tell you that the worst-case scenario was that you would have to pay a $150 fine, wouldn’t that completely change the equation for you?

It all comes down to how you perceive these three factors relative to any given relationship you have and how they interact with each other. Basically, your brain will perform a calculation with these three indicators before it decides if it will trust someone.

On the flip side, we can use this same equation as a way to inform us about how we can make other people feel more confident and less anxious when it comes to working with us.

For example, I have had project managers lament to me in the past that their customer doesn’t trust them. But my retort is always, “It’s not their job to trust you. Rather, have you trained them to trust you?”

Let’s say you are working with a new customer, someone you don’t have a history of working with. So you know they can’t trust you yet, though, based on your contract, that they have given you the benefit of the doubt. A good way to build trust from that foundation is to establish a pattern with that customer of doing what you say you’re going to. That could be as simple as giving them a status update every day at the same time. You can also send them a note reminding them that you sent them the status like you said you would. Just those simple behaviors will begin to establish a pattern in your customer’s brain that allows them to trust you.

It’s the little things that help sow the seeds of trust and begin to develop patterns. That’s how you can help train your customer’s brain that you are indeed trustworthy.

This also illustrates that you also need to be careful in how you talk about your competency around your customers. If you ask your plumber to look at a problem, and he scratches his head and says he’s never seen anything like that before, you aren’t likely going to trust that he’s capable of fixing the issue. If, instead, he said something subtly different like, “Well, that’s interesting,” you could arrive at a very different result. At the very least it’s a big indicator they he isn’t confident in tackling the job – which isn’t a great way to start building trust in your brain.

The point is that the more trustworthy you become, the more valuable you are to your customers, friends, family members, and beyond. It’s amazing that once you establish trust with someone, how eagerly they will go to bat on your behalf to take on your doubters. People will passionately advocate for you when they trust you – which is an incredibly powerful ally to have.




Posted in Responsibility, Value

Distinguishing “Workable” from “Fair”

As a parent of three young ladies, I often find myself embroiled in household battles over fairness. On almost a daily basis, I hear things like, “That’s not fair!” when it comes to everything from who gets time on the computer or who gets the last cookie in the jar.

That means that my wife and I are constantly being forced into situations to help mediate and solve these disputes. And what my wife and I have figured out is that not everything that is fair is workable and not everything that is workable is fair.

For instance, if there are only two cookies left in the jar, there isn’t any real “fair” way to split them up three ways since we have less than three cookies to dole out. The workable solution in this case, however, is that dad and mom will throw out the two remaining cookies and the children will get none. (Cue the sound of three whining girls).

Of course, we all have our own subjective definitions for what might be “fair” in a particular situation. When it comes to kids and cookies, it comes down to who might have more than someone else. The point is that we often find ourselves in situations in life where we need to choose between what might be fair versus what is workable.

Obviously it’s ideal when those two dynamics are in perfect alignment – when something is both fair and workable, like, say, having three cookies to share between three daughters. But I’ve found that sometimes our need to achieve fairness can become the enemy of workability.

One experience from my career in particular stands out for me. It was back in the early 1990s when I had the opportunity to buy the equipment from a computer repair business that was closing up. The seller of that business was moving to Florida and he asked a friend of his, a broker, to work with me to strike a fair deal.

Well, the broker and I worked through a valuation process and, in the end, I handed over a check for $3,500 for the equipment. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. The seller called me up screaming, telling me that I had screwed him with a lowball amount and that he was going to sue me and his friend.

I have to admit, I was upset. It wasn’t fair – I did everything he asked me to! I was offended that he was accusing me of cheating him and I started relishing the chance to prove that he was wrong in a court of law.

Fortunately, around that same time, I met up with a longtime family friend and my personal mentor, Al Ferrini, who offered me some advice. Al was a great listener who, after hearing every detail of a situation, could distill it down into a single question. In this case, after hearing me rant and rave about how unfair this guy was, Al simply asked: “Do you make money taking care of people’s tech needs or by suing people in court?”

With that question, Al helped put everything into perspective: in my pursuit of “fairness” I was creating an unworkable situation. I wasn’t going to win anything by challenging this guy in a courtroom.

What I did instead was call up the seller and ask him about which items he thought were underpriced. After some thought, he told me the total difference was $500. Wow. All of that emotion and hurt feelings came down to just $500, let alone all the time and expense I would have incurred if I had gone to court. I wrote him a check on the spot without even bothering to make him a counteroffer. I was just relieved that we could put it all behind us with a workable result.

Was it fair that I had to pay the additional money? No, since I had done everything he had requested and his broker determined the value of the equipment. But paying the extra $500 created workability – which was far more valuable than fairness to me in this case.

Now, if the seller had come back to me with a request for another $3,000, we still would have had a big problem. Fortunately, though, it didn’t come to that and we were able to reach a workable solution. Maybe the seller, too, thought the extra $500 wasn’t completely fair. But it was close enough to what we might call the sweet spot, where workability and fairness intersect, to close the deal.

It’s important to recognize that when people hold onto fairness over achieving workability, you’re usually left with untenable situations. Just look around the world at say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They can’t come up with a solution because they are each so focused on what’s “fair” versus what’s “workable.” No one wins in that scenario; it results in a stalemate that can persist indefinitely.

Again, not everything that is fair is workable and not everything that is workable is fair. But understanding how those dynamics interact can help us approach our decisions and actions in a more mindful way.


Posted in Articles, Responsibility

Being Cause in the Matter of Outcomes and Not Just Tasks

In the course of a workday, we all have something that doesn’t go the way we want it to. There are generally two reasons why we don’t get the outcome we want:

  1. Someone important wasn’t committed to that outcome.


  1. More likely, they were committed to something – just something else.


I think that most managers could say they work with a committed team – otherwise you would already have found ways to weed out those who weren’t. That means mishaps or low performance can more likely be tracked back to the fact that your team wasn’t committed to achieving the “right” thing – not that they weren’t committed to their jobs. Specifically, I think that most mishaps in the workplace result when we commit to solving tasks rather than focusing on the desired outcomes.


Let’s walk through an example to show what I mean.


Imagine that you work for a tech company in customer support. You are also truly committed to your job: you always answer the phone when it rings and speak pleasantly with the caller. Now, let’s pretend that your phone rings:


“Hello, you’ve reached Ralph at ITX. How can I help you?” you might say.


Now let’s extend our example and say that the person who called you responds: “Can you help me reset my password?”


“I’d be glad to help you with that,” you might say. “I’ll get right on it. Meanwhile, I hope you have a great day!” You then hang up.


All in, I’d say you did a nice job: you made the customer feel welcome and you agreed to solve their problem right away. Or did you?


What if, for example, your customer went back to their computer and tried to log in again – only to fail yet again. What happens then? Most likely, they’ll be forced to call into the customer service line yet again to ask for help – only this time they’re going to be even more frustrated.


Can you see what we might have done differently to avoid this situation?


The point is that the customer’s main issue was that he or she couldn’t get into their system. That was the outcome they needed help with. Changing their password was just a task they thought would help them get there.


But as a customer service rep, you showed only the commitment to the task – changing the password – rather than committing to the outcome that the customer actually needed: accessing their system.


How could this scenario have been played out differently if you had been committed to the outcome rather than the task?


What if, after your customer calls, you then suggest something like: “Why don’t you try logging in again. I’ll stay on the phone and see if it works. Oh – it still won’t let you in. Let me try something else.”


See the difference? Tasks are just tools to help you reach the kinds of outcomes you want. Once you’ve shifted your focus from the task to the outcome, you stand a far better chance of actually addressing your customer’s primary need, which is a big component of establishing a workable relationship with them.


This is what I mean by making the distinction of being “the cause of the matter” of an outcome versus just a task. That’s ultimately what creates the most value for the customer and for us.


Now, I understand that sometimes just changing the password does actually create value for the customer. But, when it doesn’t, you’ve wasted your time and the customer’s time – let alone the cost of the call itself. Add all that up and you’ve actually subtracted value from the relationship by focusing on the task rather than the outcome that truly adds value for the customer: getting them into their system. So why take the risk of a negative outcome in the first place?


Let’s look at another example. What if you worked in our company’s accounts receivable department and you learned that we have a customer who has an unpaid balance of more than 90 days. Your job is to collect money for the company, so you send an email to that customer alerting them to the balance along with a request to pay it. You may even call them up and, when they don’t answer, leave them a message asking them to pay. The result: you can place two checkmarks next to the two tasks you completed. “You can’t blame me,” you might now tell yourself. “I tried.”


But what if the customer continues to not pay? My good friend Gregg Gordon has a good way of framing this kind of scenario. He asks his employees what else they would do if someone personally owed them $1 million. Invariably, the employee can come up with several more ideas about how to get in touch with that person – including showing up on their doorstep everyday until they got paid. That’s being committed to being the cause in the matter of an outcome!


Now I recognize that collecting money isn’t the most fun job in the world – it’s uncomfortable at best. And that’s why we often see why people are willing to commit to a task – sending an email or leaving a voicemail – because it’s easier to do than, say, showing up on someone’s doorstep. But that’s also the power of asking someone to commit to delivering an outcome.


There may even be times that the outcome you want someone to commit to is actually impossible to achieve. If you tell your service tech that you need that computer server up and running by the morning, for instance, he might do everything and anything in his power to deliver that outcome – only to fail because of something beyond his control.


But that’s OK because he exhausted every task first before we actually learned it was impossible. Seth Godin has an interesting take on this where he distinguishes things that we believe are impossible from those that are nearly impossible. Just by adding that word – “nearly” – Godin shows us that we can change a problem from something to avoid into a challenge we can commit to, even possibly enjoy.


The takeaway for us, then, is that when we can get our team committed to the outcomes we want, irrespective of the circumstances and the number of tasks we might need to take to achieve them, that’s how we’ll create truly workable situations.

Posted in Uncategorized

Why It’s More Workable to Tackle the Harder Tasks First

Thanks to our internal wiring, human beings favor the path of least resistance. That makes sense for many reasons. For one, it’s a survival mechanism: of course you’re going to grab the food that’s easiest to get. At the same time, we humans also hate to deal with repetitive problems. Think about the inspiration for the washing machine. Hand-washing your clothes is a hard and cumbersome task – so it makes sense that we would be driven to find a solution that would eliminate that task by inventing something that could automate the process.

But sometimes our drive to take the easy route can backfire on us – especially in the workplace. Think about the last big, complicated project you were involved with. Which tasks did you tackle first? If you’re like most people, you may have knocked out a few of the easy ones – the low-hanging fruit that you could quickly finish and that allowed you to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Far fewer people would say they went after the harder tasks first because, well, they’re harder to do.

When we think about “harder” tasks, it might include something you’ve never done before or something you don’t know how to do. Or, it could even be something you’ve struggled with in the past, which is why you might want to put off working on it to tackle something easier instead.

But when we go after the easiest tasks first, it can be less workable.

Uncovering Unanticipated Hurdles Earlier

Doing the harder things first means you are more likely to find unexpected hurdles earlier in the project. Finding hurdles earlier then means you have more time to deal with them before missing a deadline.

Let’s think about an example where you have a project that is due within a week. Let’s say it involves completing seven separate tasks, five of which are easy ones and two that are difficult. Now if you spend the first few days knocking out the easy tasks, you might feel like you’ve made some good progress toward your goal. But, you’ve also pushed out the most challenging tasks to the last minute. What happens, then, if those tasks take longer to do than you’ve allowed yourself time to complete them? What if you’ve suddenly realized that the task you left for last will actually take you two, three, or even four days to complete? You’ve just increased the risk that you’re going to miss your deadline. You’ve also taken away all the time you may have used to overcome an unanticipated hurdle.

In a nutshell, that’s why always going for the easy tasks first isn’t always workable. If you go for the harder work first, on the other hand, you can greatly increase the likelihood of your project finishing on time and on budget.

Waste Less

Going after the harder stuff first also increases the likelihood that you will finish the project. Many projects get abandoned precisely because when you do the easy stuff first, it can seem too daunting to continue once you need to move on to a more challenging task.

This happens as a result of a defective cost-benefit analysis. You looked at the benefits of the project but only weighed it against the first task. But when you realize the cost of doing the more difficult tasks (time, money, etc.), you abandon the project – which turns everything you have done so far into waste.

Let’s use another example, say something like reading a book. The easiest task when it comes to reading is buying the book: it could be as easy as a few clicks on your computer. The much harder part, of course, is making the time to actually read and process the contents of that book you bought. But there are so many good books out there filled with so many good ideas. It can be easy to find yourself clicking away and ordering a bunch of books that soon line your shelves – only you still haven’t made time to read any of them. That, too, just isn’t workable over the long haul.

Now, I understand that there actually might be times when you do need to abandon a project or a book. But what I’ve learned is that it pays to be very intentional about the projects that we even start by doing a more complete cost-benefit analysis up front.

One way to force yourself to do a better cost-benefit analysis is to do the harder stuff first.

In this case, you might want to consider doing the harder task first (reading a book you already own) before tackling another easy task (buying a book). After all, you’re only wasting your resources (the money you keep spending on books) and opportunities to learn something new (because you haven’t made time to read).

There’s nothing wrong with not reading a book. But wouldn’t it be nice to save yourself the money you spent on all those unread books, let alone all the extra clutter they’re causing?

Bigger Projects / Bigger Savings

This approach can pay off in even bigger ways when it comes to bigger projects.

At ITX, for example, we’ve found that it pays huge dividends to break up the more difficult tasks in a project into more manageable chunks as a way to make it easier to do the harder things first.

Let’s say we have a large project that will involve importing a whole series of files into a system. The hard part is building the software routine that will automate the process. After that, the job is easy: you just run the routine until all the files are imported. In this case, you have to do the hard task first. But it might also make sense to look for any other harder tasks involved with the project before you move on to running the easy automated ones.

By doing that, we then eliminate much of the risk that the project will go over budget or, give us a better chance to assess early on if it’s something we want to abandon.

In the end, you’ll find that by doing the harder tasks first almost always creates workability. And this added workability can save time, money, and headaches for you and anyone counting on you to deliver.

Posted in Uncategorized

Making Remote Work Workable

It used to be that when you went to work, it meant you headed to a physical location somewhere: an office, factory, quarry, shipping terminal, or wherever. But now, with the dawn of the Internet Age, more and more workers find themselves with “remote” jobs where they live and work apart from their co-workers and managers – maybe as many as 30 million of us.

Employing a remote workforce can be a great advantage to companies like mine, ITX, because it gives us access not only to talented employees who might be nearby one of our offices but also as far away as Argentina, Romania, or Spain where some of our team members live and work. It’s like tapping into an entire gold mine of talent you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

While a remote workforce offers many opportunities, it also comes with its fair share of challenges. It’s simply not enough to just tell your employees they can work from anywhere: first you need to work hard to build the kind of culture that can support their productivity wherever they might be based.

If you don’t have the kind of foundation you need for your remote workers to thrive, you can rapidly find yourself with major problems and dysfunctions. Just consider all the waves that Marissa Mayer made when she ended Yahoo’s work-at-home policy.

At ITX, we feel the benefits of accessing the 99% plus of the global labor pool that doesn’t live near our offices far outweigh the challenges of managing a distributed workforce. Based on our experience, I’ve found that they are three key challenges when it comes to making remote work workable: accountability, geo-location, and synchronicity.



The most common issue with a remote workforce is that companies fail to establish clear standards and systems of accountability with its workers. Namely, that they fail to make it crystal clear about what constitutes “working.”

For example, I recall a time when one of our workers asked if he could work from home on a Friday before he was scheduled to take the next week off for a vacation. I asked him why he didn’t just come in for the morning and then take the rest of the day off. He replied that he was out of vacation time but wanted to be home so he could do his laundry and pack for his upcoming trip.

The problem is that doing your laundry isn’t doing your “work.” This is why the notion of “working from home” has become almost a joke these days where no one actually believes you are actually focused on your job. I’d even wager that this was the main issue at Yahoo when they made their policy change.

If you have everyone working at the same physical location, then you can remove most of the anonymity or secrecy around what your employees might be doing. It’s a lot harder, for instance, to shop online or surf Facebook all day if your manager is walking around. And doing your laundry is definitely out of the question.

If you want remote workers, though, then you have to invest in the effort of making it crystal clear to everyone what their job is and what accomplishments by which they will be measured. Sprinkling in a few work activities like checking your email throughout the day doesn’t mean you worked that day.

But if you get the performance you need, such as the amount of software code produced or a certain number of sales calls placed, then it becomes far less important about how many hours that employee is working or when. And once you get to that tipping point, it becomes a natural progression to worrying less about where your workers are based.



Once you have good standards and systems of accountability, then you can start working on the other issues that stem directly from the fact that your employees are based somewhere other than the office.

One of those issues is ensuring that every employee has access to a suitable work environment. For example, if someone works from their home alongside an infant, that might not be a suitable environment. Depending on the type of job they have, coffee shops might also be problematic because of the high number of distractions around.

Another key issue when it comes to location is finding ways for remote workers to feel part of the larger team. When you work from home, you miss out on everything from ad hoc update meetings to the after work happy hour gatherings. Even if you’re able to dial into a meeting, it’s easy to miss out on important physical cues that you can only learn from watching someone’s body language.

You need to find ways to replace these physical interactions for your remote workers so they still feel part of the team or they will begin to feel like “second-class” citizens of the company.

I attended a conference in San Francisco earlier this year called Office Optional, where I picked up a couple of great ideas along these lines from a few of the presenters (it’s worth noting that quite a few attendees of the conference actually participated remotely).

For example, from Paul Hepworth, the VP of Engineering at UserTesting.com, we learned that not only do you need the right kind of technology to help integrate remote workers, such as providing wide-angle webcams and good speakers, you can also make everyone feel like part of the team by sending pizzas to everyone. We’ve added to this practice at ITX by holding our own virtual toasts where we celebrate with a delicious beverage over a video link.

Another great tip we’ve integrated, this time from David Yee, is to establish a fulltime chat connection between members of a team. Just as importantly, every conversation the team engages in – and especially those between people in the same location – must be included in the chat to ensure that everyone is on the same page and no one is left out. That includes even non-work related or personal humorous comments because they serve as the mortar keeping the team together.

Escalation is a third crucial issue you need to invest in when it comes to your remote workforce. When everyone is in the office, it’s fairly easy to build a relationship with your boss and, when something important comes up, to walk into his or her office to try and get a resolution.

But when you’re remote, it’s much harder to do that. You can’t just raise your hand and have your boss come over and help you solve a problem. And from a manager’s perspective, it can be difficult to understand that employee’s concerns because you can’t read their body language beyond their verbal cues to assess how upset he or she might actually be.

Meeting in person from time to time or using video chat are two ways to overcome this challenge.



A third challenge area in managing your remote workforce is dealing with the issues that arise when you have workers spread out among different time zones. That means you could have someone working 9 to 5 in the Eastern Time Zone and another worker on Indian Standard Time, each of whom work at the exact opposite times with virtually no overlap. If those two workers are collaborating on a project, it can be extremely challenging for them to coordinate their efforts because they can’t just hop on the phone and talk through an issue. And email really just doesn’t cut it.

Having workers in different time zones also poses challenges for celebrations and company-wide meetings – which again, can make remote workers feel like they’re cut off from the rest of the company.

To be honest, we haven’t solved this problem in our company. But we’ve found that you need to be very intentional about setting up windows of availability where those two workers understand when it is and isn’t a good time to collaborate. Another policy that we’ve found to be very effective is that any time someone holds a meeting, the results of that get together are posted on our internal chat board as a way for everyone to keep up with the latest information.

These aren’t perfect solutions – but they are steps in the right direction and ones we hope to learn from and improve upon over time.



As a whole, the key point in managing a remote workforce is that there can be so many things you take for granted when everyone works together in the same physical location. And the challenge is to put thought into how to address the needs of your remote workers and try and replace some of what they might be missing.

When you are thoughtful about addressing those needs, you make remote work workable. And when you do that, the payoff is simply huge.


Posted in Uncategorized

Let Concerns Drive Your Life – Not Consequences

When you go about setting your to-do list for your week, how do you set your priorities? Do you tend to place items higher because you really want to tackle them? Or, do you find yourself prioritizing the things that you somehow have to do in order to please someone else?

If you find yourself doing more of the latter, then you’ve found yourself in the trap of living your life based on consequences rather than on concerns – which I define as something of interest to you that you truly care about. But when you find yourself spending more time on things simply because you’re worried about the consequences of not doing them, you’re not living a very passionate life, right?

We all know people who tend to explain everything along the lines of, “I have to do this or this other thing will happen to me.” But when you’re more worried about the consequences of not doing something, then all of a sudden it feels a lot more like a burden than anything else. Not surprisingly, those same people never seem to get that much accomplished in their lives.

But when you live your life focused on your concerns, you accrue all kinds of benefits – such as having a lot more energy and passion for the things into which you invest your time. To put that another way, the more you live your life and take action in a way that supports your concerns and the things you are most passionate about, the more purposeful your life becomes.

For example, if you find yourself out for drinks with co-workers and you suddenly realize it’s bedtime for your kids, what do you do? Do you tell your friends, “I have to go home and put my kids to bed,” because, if you don’t, you face the consequence that they’ll think you’re a bad father? Or, do you head home because it’s truly a concern and a priority for you to say goodnight to your kids to show them how much you love them? See the difference?

Think about people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., people who had a major impact on the world because they focused on their concerns rather than the consequences of taking action toward what they believed. In other words, greatness comes from living a purposeful life.

Now, to be clear, if you make choices in your life without any regard toward the consequences of your decisions, that’s being reckless. You may not want to renew your driver’s license, but if your concern is to be a responsible member of society, you will. But if you have a job where you do things just to avoid being called out by your boss rather than working to create opportunities to further your own passions, perhaps it’s time to find a new job.

The big takeaway here is to take an honest look at what percentage of the activities you undertake during the day that are driven by your concerns rather than the consequences. What does your to-do list look like? Are there ways where you can move the needle and prioritize the action items tied to your concerns rather than your consequences.

Imagine for a moment that your job is in customer service. If your life is driven by consequence, you will do anything you have to do to avoid being fired. But you won’t go above and beyond. You can’t wait until work ends. You will complain about what happened to you that day. But if you are focused on the concern of delivering great customer service, you will enjoy your work more. You will celebrate your successes. And you will be more satisfied with your work – and you will constantly be looking for ways to do it better.

Consider, then, which of these people would you prefer to deal with? The one who creates energy or the one who consumes it?

The goal is to spend more of your limited time engaged in activities that further your concerns and less of your time simply avoiding consequences. Invest more of your time on what Simon Sinek calls, finding your why. When you do, you’ll be amazed by how much joy and passion you have on a daily basis.


Posted in Performance

Why Virtues Hinder Workability

Does your company struggle with keeping your values as something more than just words on a poster in the break room? Or, how do you build values into your organization so that your company truly operates by those values?

The answer lies in not being so virtuous.

Let’s consider the most famous set of values out there, the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus.

When you boil it down, the Ten Commandments were a set of rules established by the Jewish people as a way to make their society more workable. If everyone were stealing from each other, for instance, or running around with each other’s spouse, that wouldn’t make for a very sustainable community.

The mistake we make is that we apply these commandments as virtues, meaning that when we violate a commandment, we fail a moral code and become a “bad” person. But that’s just not workable. It makes sense for children to honor their parents, for example. But what happens when a parent tells their kid to do something stupid, like cheat on their taxes? If the child disobeys their parent, are they now in violation of the virtue of honoring them? A more drastic example might be when someone attacks me and, in fighting back, I kill him or her. Am I wrong to have done that?

Now think about what a company does when it creates its core values. Choices common to many companies often sound a lot like virtues: trust, honesty, and loyalty. And they use these values to judge each other or, because they know they can’t live up to them 100% of the time, they just ignore them. They put them on a wall and never use them – unless they want to demonize the people they push out. But I believe your company values should be focused on driving Workability in your organization – not providing a way for people to judge each other about whether they are being virtuous or not.

Case in point: One of the values we have at my company, ITX, is integrity – widely understood as “we are going to do what we say we are going to do.” Integrity also happens to be a popular value for many organizations. After all, who wants to do business with anyone who lacks integrity?

But integrity can mean different things to different people. If I were to walk down the street and ask ten people to define integrity, each answer would be slightly different.

At the same time, if I ask each of those same people if they thought that they personally exemplified integrity, I would expect to get ten affirmative answers. “Of course I have integrity,” I would expect to hear. That’s because integrity is widely considered a virtue in our society and saying that someone lacks integrity is akin to calling him or her a liar.

In fact, I find myself out of integrity every day. I miss phone calls, show up late for appointments, and forget to pick up milk at the market on my way home from the office after I said I would.

But wait, you must be asking, how can you have integrity as a value if you admit to violating it?

Quite simply, because we don’t apply integrity as a virtue. If we did, we would create incentives for people to be untruthful about their actions because they wouldn’t want to be seen as bad. At ITX, we define integrity differently. For us, it means we will keep our word, and will clean up the mess if we don’t.

Let’s say I promise to get you a report by Monday. But, for whatever reason, I realize there is no chance I am going to get it to you on time, even though you need it for a board meeting you have on Tuesday morning. Clearly, I have failed to do what I said I was going to do.

I broke my word and hence, did not act with integrity. We’ve all been there. But that’s why our corporate values are different than virtues – because virtues don’t always lead to Workability.

When someone is out of alignment with a value, the idea is to judge the circumstances to be unworkable – not judge the person to be bad. By doing that you create an opening for the person to clean up the mess they created. And you’ve created an opening to be a resource for them rather than just being a judge.

In our example, you still need the information for your board meeting. So I need to either work late to get the report complete or be creative and get you the most critical material now, which you can use for your meeting, and then follow up with the rest later on.

Rather than judging me because I was out of integrity, you gave me an opening to take action by thinking of integrity as a value and not a virtue. Sure, you would have preferred to get the full report sooner. And yes, if I mess up again, we need to have another conversation about performance. But the point is that we put our joint focus more on solving the problem and taking action rather than on simply passing judgment, which accomplishes very little in the end.

The goal in setting values should never be about simply delivering admonishment or punishment along the lines that someone was “bad” like you might do with a virtue. Rather, when you create your corporate values, you need to spend as much time sharing stories about what your team members can do if they find themselves out of alignment with the company’s values.

Did you miss an appointment with a customer? We’re not going to fire you for it. Just figure out how to make it right. Forget to pick up something on your way home? Grab your car keys and go fix it. Workability is all about giving people the room to redeem themselves when they do make a mistake – which we all will from time to time.

Put simply, our goal at ITX is not to create a culture that strives to never break its word. That won’t lead to Workability, only a less productive workplace that aims low. When we focus on virtues, people become more reluctant to promise anything because they become worried about being judged. As a result, nothing extraordinary happens. You cannot win the game of virtues. But if you give people openings for action by building your values around Workability, you can begin to play a much bigger game with a limitless ceiling. Which begs the question: What kind of game are you playing in your workplace?





Posted in Uncategorized

How Exactly Do I BE a Mentor?

I’ve been asked to mentor as part of High Tech Rochester’s LaunchPad program. It certainly sounds like a great opportunity to help fellow entrepreneurs gather some momentum. I can’t help but wonder, “How exactly do I be a mentor?” I’ve played many roles, including mentor, without thinking much of it. However, I can’t say that I could explain even to myself exactly how to be a mentor.  I asked several people about how to be a mentor, and received several interesting but divergent answers. These musings are my attempt to answer that same question for myself.

One of my first places to go was dictionary.com, where I found two definitions for mentor:

Mentor (n): (1) a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; (2) an influential senior sponsor or supporter.

These definitions help me understand what a mentor is, but not how to be a mentor. The definition doesn’t give me an understanding of the state of being of a mentor, nor the core beliefs that make a mentor successful.

A couple of weeks ago, I met David Cohen of TechStars at an event called SERGE, a small gathering of American entrepreneurs in Miami, FL. David shared with us his Mentor Manifesto, which he had previously published on his blog. The Mentor Manifesto includes a set of rules that help to describe what a great mentor does, but remembering a set of rules has never been a strength of mine. I’d much prefer to understand the intentions, beliefs, and most importantly the way of being that would help me be successful.

A way of being begins with a declaration of who I am when I fill a particular role. It might start something like this:

  • I am a mentor.
  • I am fully committed to your success.
  • I offer you the benefit of my experience without the weight of my judgment or the expense of my service.
  • I open your perspective to possibilities that you might not otherwise see.
  • I create clarity so that the next action becomes apparent.
  • I recognize that I have no decision rights with respect to your venture.
  • My success comes not from being right or showing you how much I know, but solely from your success.

When I make the declaration above, I feel like a mentor. Many of the rules I’ve seen about mentoring fall within one of the declarations above. In fact, if I’m truly living my declarations, most rules are redundant.

The last missing piece, I think, is a list of core beliefs that must be true, and without which I cannot be a successful mentor. In circumstances where these beliefs are not true, it will be very difficult for me to have a positive effect as a mentor. These may be simple rules, but could be restated as beliefs. Here are a couple of examples:

  • I may not know the answer.
  • Listening is more important than speaking.
  • Those I mentor gain the most when I am truthful.

Taken together, I believe the declaration and beliefs above, however incomplete, can still help to create the right frame of mind to actually be a mentor.

David has indicated he’s working on an updated version of the Mentor Manifesto. I’m looking forward to seeing the direction he takes in continuing its development. In the meantime, I’d be grateful for suggestions on how to improve the declaration and list of beliefs.

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Posted in Leadership

Banishing Burnout

If we want to be high achievers, we have to work really hard; if we work too hard, we’ll get burned out and fail to achieve much of anything. Contradictory?

Not exactly. It’s about perception. Sometimes, people warn us that pressing too hard toward a goal will burn us out. And we all know weary-eyed team members who think they are being asked to take on too much. Managers may go to their superiors on behalf of those team members, often after a mistake has been made or when a deadline won’t be met, believing that they are standing up for them. They’ll say something like “They’ve been working really hard on this project and they’re exhausted. If we keep pushing them, they’re going to snap. Some of them are starting to already, as you can see by the mess- up yesterday.” Essentially, the manager is saying that the company has to accept that the team members are doing a less-than-perfect job because they are working exceptionally hard.

This perception illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about what causes burnout. Most people think that working hard burns a person out. Yet, it’s almost guaranteed that there is something you can point to in your own life that you enjoy so much that you will spend a great deal of time doing it without burning yourself out. You’ll do it when you’re tired, even exhausted, and even when you don’t have the time to do it. Somehow, you get it in there anyway, no matter what’s going on. In fact, you could call it a compulsion, because the hit it delivers overrides the reality of what’s best for you: sleep, spending time with family, work, eating, maybe even showering. Yet, you don’t suffer from mental burnout. If your team members got that high at work, they wouldn’t suffer burnout, either.

Burnout doesn’t come from working hard. Burnout comes from persistent anxiety, a minimal sense of accomplishment or a lack of engagement—any one of those three—coupled with a high level of stressful activity.

Maybe there’s an intense video game that you can play for three hours straight, despite the apparent waste of time and lack of actual payout. But if you’re not really engaged in a work project, and you’re toiling away and being asked to step it up, you’re not getting a payout, either. Even if you get the job done, you can’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything if the completion is meaningless to you. Sadly, getting to the next level of a video game may give you more of a high than a job well done, because creating one more of something that you don’t even like feels like a drag. There’s no excitement about its completion. As a manager, you never want your team members to feel like this.

Perhaps you’re feeling persistent anxiety about your performance, a deadline, an outcome or an unknown variable. Whatever is causing the anxiety, if you also lack engagement, meaning you’re not really committed to the project, you’re only working hard because you have to in order to keep your job. Laboring away at something you don’t care about for a hundred hours a week provides no sense of accomplishment; even when it gets done, it doesn’t matter one iota to you. And you’ll just have to do it again for the next client. It doesn’t feel good. In fact, it’s downright depressing, and that’s what causes burnout.

What should a manager do when his team members say they are feeling overworked? He should look not at the workload, but at his failure to manage their anxiety, to get them excited about completing the project and to get them fully engaged.

Ultimately, burnout is a managerial problem. It’s not the workload that causes burnout; it’s the manager failing to deal with his team’s collective mental needs.

The Cure for Burnout
The most obvious cure for burnout is simple: reduce the level of stressful effort. A manager could certainly decide that the pressure is just too great on his team and ease up on a challenging project. The team members might, in fact, feel a lot better if they worked fewer hours or simply didn’t work as hard. Perhaps the manager could call the client and ask to extend the deadline that was initially promised. However, if we choose to cure burnout by reducing productivity, we must be honest with ourselves about the possible consequences. We could disappoint people who are counting on us, and it might even cause the end of a relationship. In many cases, the consequences of lowering productivity are more severe than pushing a team to its limits.

If you choose to deal with burnout by reducing the level of effort, you must be willing to absorb the consequences.

I prefer a different approach: preventing burnout by maximizing engagement and the sense of accomplishment, while at the same time minimizing anxiety. People will work really hard without getting burned out if they feel good, and when doesn’t it feel great to put your intelligence, education, training and personal talent into a worthwhile project? A manager is the facilitator of this feeling at work. If he celebrates all of the little wins along the way toward completing a big goal, he will provide his team with the necessary sense of accomplishment that will bring them the distance.

If a manager’s job is to ensure that his team functions smoothly, like a well-tuned machine, it is a mistake to think that the machine is operating well just because the work is getting done. If the minds that control the machine are in a negative state, it will create bad situations, and all that high productivity the manager was insisting upon will never happen. One sure way to drive ambition into the ground is to let the inspiration upon which it soars erode. Too often a manager under stress will do exactly the opposite of what needs to be done and be the cause of burnout. A manager will often transfer his own anxiety onto his team. He thinks that if he feels stressed, his team members should, too, if they are committed. However, that’s putting the cart before the horse, because the manager has failed to get his team committed in the first place.

What must be understood is that the team is not focused on the outcome of the project; they’re focused on themselves as individuals. People don’t work hard for you; mostly, they work hard for personal gain. Nobody is killing themselves to make you look better or to make sure you get a raise or promotion.

The good news is, there’s another way: People will also work hard for a grand idea. The greatest engagement of all is being committed to something larger than yourself. People will throw their all into a project if they believe in it and feel like their unique abilities are an integral part of it. A work project isn’t the Iditarod. Instead of driving a team by pushing them to work ever harder and causing them undue stress, give them something to celebrate and plenty of reasons to want to do their best.


© 2013 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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Posted in Performance