Go Back to Freelancing? I’m not Feeling the Burn

This is an article that accompanies my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Raising the Bar of Expectation. If you want to listen to it while you drive somewhere, you can access it here.

Let me start with an insult. I remember reading a comment someone made online about – well you know I can’t even remember what the comment was about. But I remember the burn. Some troll disagreed with the writer’s comment and wrote in reply, “go back to freelancing.” I remember being initially confused by this remark. What was wrong with freelancing? What did he mean by that? I have been essentially freelancing my entire career, and I feel I’ve done pretty well. What was the stigma that this troll was trying to push? That freelancing isn’t real work? That you only freelance if you can’t find a proper job?

I questioned the troll’s comments from three perspectives. The first was my own experience: two and a half decades of adventure, meeting new customers, devising new products and solutions, setting my own calendar and career path. Exhilarating and rewarding. Never dull or repetitive. What could be better than that?

Then I thought of the other freelancers I know. They, too, never stop improving their product. They are masters at finding work. They might change customers from month to month, but the work never stops for those who know how to find it. It’s job security anchored by your own talents and motivations, not those of an HR department.

Thirdly, I thought of the people I had met during one of my long-term contracts, where I taught groups of recently fired executives how to cope with the depression of job loss and the resulting loss of their identity. These people were truly at sea, with no compass and no hope. This is what happens when people get buried in their salaried jobs and allow no time for the entrepreneurial networking that is at the heart of freelancing. They don’t know who they are, and they don’t know where to go, because they never built the safety net that every freelancer owns. That’s why I wrote my third book, which is entitled, “Is This the Day I Get Fired?”

Go back to freelancing. Did that comment reveal a deep-seated fear held by the writer, who like most other bullies, projects his insecurities on those he tries to intimidate?

Well, I have news for that bully as well as everyone else, including worried parents, who fear that freelancing is not as secure as a career job or a unionized job. Not only is it more secure, since the power of mobility and self sufficiency rests with the individual rather than their employer, it is also the future of work. I remember a comment that a guest speaker once said at a networking session I was hosting: He said, “the chief difference between a salaried employer and a contractor is that a contractor knows when his or her last day is, and can do something about it.

We are in an age of profound transformation. Technology continues to change jobs and indeed make many of them redundant. It balances this out by creating new jobs in their place, as well as making it possible for networking and freelancing to flourish. But to anyone who grew up watching Dad and/or Mom leave the house every day at 7:00 a.m. and return home at suppertime year in and year out it becomes difficult to envision any other lifestyle, regardless how secure it ultimately is.

The Future of Work: The Gig Economy

Heavy hitters like RBC and McKinsey have publicly declared the following facts, for the benefit of employers and experts who are carefully watching the changing world of work:

McKinsey and Co. has stated:

  • 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable.
  • Automation could affect 50% of the world economy

Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) envisions:

  • 4 million Canadian job openings in the next three years, of which
  • 50% will undergo a skills overhaul.

The skills that will be required include soft skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, empathy and social perceptiveness. The ways in which these will be learned will be more about lifelong learning in place of traditional linear education.

But to take this even further, consider these three rather stunning facts delivered recently at the World Economic Forum.

1.) Less than a decade from now, by 2027, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelance.

2.) Artificial Intelligence and robotics will create more jobs, not mass unemployment as long as we responsibly guide innovation.

3.) Cities will compete against each other to attract top talent, as they see economic ecosystems grow and flourish.

These comments were made by Stephane Kasriel, who is CEO of UpWork, one of the largest and most successful freelancing websites around. It would be easy to assume he has a vested interest in saying such things, being the boss of a company directly dependent on the fulfilment of this vision.

But it is important to recognize that freelancing is not a cottage industry. Large multinational companies like Pfizer and Samsung are part of this rising breed of enterprises that have turned online to find freelancers.

And there are others out there, looking for highly specialized talent and paying well for it. One of these is Innocentive, a company that “enables organizations to put their unsolved problems and unmet needs, which are framed as ‘Challenges’, out to the crowd to address.” In other words, it is seeking innovation through crowdsourcing; putting the bounty on a solution. Maybe it’s an industrial challenge, like how to get toothpaste into a differently designed tube, or how to economically prevent oil from freezing when stored in cold climates. You would think large companies would have all the engineering brilliance it needs to solve these problems from the inside, but sometimes they just don’t.

Very often I win writing or project management contracts from companies who have all the right people already in-house. The problem is the backlog. It might take six months to appear on these peoples’ radar, and the client needs something done now.

Similarly, it’s those experts on the outside, the ones who must stay constantly ahead of the knowledge curve, who are the ones who come with the solution, more quickly and more cost effectively.

It’s the As-A-Service Economy

Let me draw a parallel distinction. Companies the world over have, over the past few years, become familiar with cloud, and with it, related technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. What are these innovations doing for them? Far more than simply storing your data. The accessibility and data flow that these technologies have enabled has given rise to the as-a-service industry.  Where once companies shipped boxes of their products to their customers, they now see the value in many cases of actually giving the basic physical product for free, and then monetizing the services needed to support it, along with the data that becomes collectible.

Individual consumers see this daily when they use their computers. Products like Microsoft Office used to arrive in a box and required individual installation from disks. But now, Microsoft, and all other software applications are subscription based.  Sometimes even free. The manufacturers are responsible for testing and upgrading and they do so remotely via your internet connection.

The same principle applies to every other as-a-service enterprise, which is what makes cloud storage and security so attractive and practical in the first place. The supplier stays responsible for the upkeep of quality. It need no longer remain in house, where it might be prone to delays and budget cuts.

So, back to the workforce. I can speak from direct experience, when I teach new topics to a group of employees, they admit that they spend so much time closeted away, working on the internal problems of the moment, they never get the chance to look up and around at what the outside world is doing.

This becomes one of the key value propositions of the as-a-service freelancer. Just like cloud providers and software manufacturers, the freelancer is responsible for maintaining the skills and knowledge that a company needs. And now, with direct and immediate communication and the capacity for working remotely, there is no reason for them to ever physically visit the company’s brick and mortar operations if need be.

None of this is truly new. There have been freelancers for centuries. The very word freelance denotes a mercenary fighter whose weapons, including their lance, were available to whoever wanted to hire them. They weren’t free from a price perspective, but they were free from fealty to any specific lord, king, or country.

Companies have long outsourced work to other countries – call centers and tech support, for example – and even the notion of as-a-service machinery has its roots in leasing and rental programs.

But it’s more now. We have passed a tipping point. As-a-service is more than just leasing. It is about servicing, maintenance and aftermarket opportunities that go well beyond any physical machine. And freelancing is far more than hiring warm bodies to cover peak periods.

Freelancing is a new type of work, fueled by communications and data technologies that help bring customer and supplier together more efficiently. According to a study commissioned by Upwork, half of the millennial generation is already freelancing.

There is an inherent security in the freelancing business, reinforced by the ever-present reminder that you are personally responsible for your future. This might strike many as the opposite of security. After all, how can that compare to the permanence of a salaried position, especially when it comes to qualifying for a mortgage? But ask any salaried employee what their biggest fear is: it’s losing their job. And that is not a healthy way to live.

So, back to the insult that started this monologue. “Go back to freelancing.” Many people reveal their own fears in the insults and swear words they use against others. As I tell my audiences, I have been looking for work for 25 years now. And I keep finding it. It’s always interesting, it always adds something to my skillset, and it always keeps me in demand. It called, colloquially, the gig economy, and it is the future of work.

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Text Messaging in the 1700s and How it Affects You Today

This is an article that accompanies my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Raising the Bar of Expectation. If you want to listen to it while you drive somewhere, you can access it here.

Boy it’s annoying when things don’t load at the speed you want them to, isn’t it? I mean when we have to wait around for Microsoft Word to fire up, or for your browser to configure its updates, or for an app to download to your phone. And this is a serious problem. People have a tolerance of mere seconds before they give up and move on to something else. Ecommerce people know this, which is why they place such high priority on solving shopping cart abandonment issues. Music companies know this too, which is why artists are asked to write tunes that deliver the hook sooner. Consumers know they have a choice and they will move on quickly.

Texting Your BFF in the 1700s

Imagine what it must have been like 300 years ago. Imagine, for example, you walk four hours into town, maybe two hours if you’re rich enough to own a horse, and as luck would have it, a ship has just arrived carrying – among other things – mail from the old country. It includes a letter from your BFF, your sweetie, your betrothed, who writes, basically, “we need to talk.”

You re-read the letter several times, your heart is pounding as you see your happy future dissolving before your eyes. You run to the local apothecary, borrow a quill pen and a bottle of ink, and frantically write back a heartfelt plea to save your relationship. You proofread your letter, dab the ink dry, seal it inside an envelope. You dash down to the dock, leaping over barrels and boxes, you dash up the gangplank and hand your letter to the first officer you see.

Two weeks later, the ship leaves the harbor to start on its two-month voyage back across the Atlantic, where your frantic letter might stand a chance of getting into the hands of your betrothed another month after that. If, this was all happening to you in New Holland (Australia), just multiply all of these travel times by ten. Back then, you had to have a lot of patience when it came to sending and receiving information.

Rearranging the Text Messages on the Titanic

Did you know, by the way, that one of the contributing factors to the loss of life during the sinking of the Titanic had to do with the fact that the radio operators of the time were employees of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company – subcontractors, essentially, not crew – and as such, their primary responsibility was managing messages between passengers and their families and friends in Europe or in New York. These radio operators had no time or motivation to pay attention to the frantic calls of “Icebergs ahead” from the lookouts.

Over the century since the Titanic’s sinking, our communications technologies have increased in speed and reach, and so have our desires to stay ahead of them. Nothing seems ever fast enough. We humans thrive on communication. Today, for example, if someone does not answer your email within five minutes, you consider it within your rights to send another email that asks whether they received your first email.

Texting at 90 Feet per Second

So, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing really, so long as you stay in control of the messaging. But most of the time we find ourselves not in control. For example, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to reply to a text while you’re driving your car. The compelling need to know what an incoming message says, and to then respond, overrules the logic of maintaining control of the vehicle. Evidence continues to mount that shows that even talking hands free, whether you’re chatting on the phone or dictating a text, is still an impairment. It takes a great deal of concentration to drive a vehicle, and that gets quickly eclipsed by the moment-by-moment activities of speaking and listening.

OK, you say, so why isn’t it the same when you have someone in the car with you?

Well, having a conversation with someone in a car can be distracting, especially if things get heated like in an argument, but when someone is in the car with you, they can see what you see, and are more likely to put the conversation on hold if there is a potentially dangerous situation unfolding up ahead. When a vehicle is travelling at 90 feet per second, that’s a lot of ground that can be covered during a moment of distraction. They can see that. But the person you’re talking to through your phone cannot.

The main reason why I am pursuing this line of thought though has to do with the bar of expectation, which continues to rise along with that increasing speed of communication. This rising bar does not just apply to messaging. It also applies to our own expectations of ourselves, and this anticipation of increased productivity sometimes exceeds our abilities. Let me give you an example.

Super Time Management Spray!

When I talk to my audiences about techniques for improving productivity, I deliver this offer paired with a challenge. My offer is this: I say to them, “I have, in the trunk of my car, a supply of time management spray. You spray it all over you and it will help you do everything faster. In fact, one spray of this patented elixir, and you will get at least four more hours’ worth of stuff done. Would you like some of this?”

Nobody actually believes I have this spray in the trunk, of course, but they play along, nodding their heads. After all, the truth is, there are few people who would pass up on the chance of being able to get a few more hours of productivity in a day.

“But wait!” I then say, like an old-time sales barker, “If you were to purchase this spray from me, even at this giveaway price of just nine dollars and ninety-nine cents a can, and you were to spray it all over you and you found yourself working at super speed, my question becomes, what will you do with this time you have found? Will you use it to answer more emails or attend more meetings? If so, my friends, you have won back nothing. You will call me back two weeks from now and you will be asking me for the extra strength spray.

This is the problem with best practices generally. They are not able to stick to the surface of a fast-moving culture in a way that ensures ongoing achievement. Instead they become part of the new normal. So, where you were once able to do five things in a day, now you can do ten. The bar of your expectations rises with this achievement and soon your expectation is that you can and should be able to do 15 things. And once you discover you are able to do 15, you start to expect to be able to do 20 things in a day and you start to make promises accordingly.

However, your body and mind have a hard time keeping up. Our instinctive desire to evolve and continue to make life better and safer for ourselves enthusiastically grabs this idea of doing more with less time, but our physical and mental selves really cannot do that.

So, you say yes to more and more emails, meetings, requests and tasks.

Or more precisely, you don’t actually say “yes,” but you don’t know how to say “no.”

The Smallest Word Is Also the Hardest to Pronounce

“No” is one of the smallest words in any spoken language, but one of the hardest to pronounce. Most of us have a profound fear of confrontation, or of offending or angering the person we are communicating with. After all, if you say no to your boss or your customer, you might lose your livelihood.

But the fact is, without that capacity to say “no” appropriately, the work simply piles up, but time does not expand to accommodate. And added speed is not enough. The extra strength spray just does not work.

The Future of Work: Cut Me Some Slack

That’s why, when it comes to looking at the future of work, many experts point to soft skills as the key. Skills like prioritization, delegation, and negotiation will become even more critical as timelines continue to shorten and the bar of expectation continues to rise.

I’ll give you an immediate example: Slack.

Now I love Slack. I am a devotee of online collaborative environments and I use them every time I am managing a multi-person project, which is all the time. There are other brands as well, of course, and Microsoft Teams will likely be the one most people encounter first, given the preponderance of Microsoft products in most workplaces.

Long story short, collaborative conversations grouped into channels are more efficient than email. There is an informality and immediacy to the communication that removes much of the mental overload and delay that email has been proven to cause.

But the pushback I get from people when they see a collaborative environment for the first time is, “how is this any different from email? What’s the difference between having a pile of unread emails in your inbox and a pile of unread messages in your Slack channels?”

It’s true. Even though I still think the collaborative messages can be handled more easily and more quickly over all, there is still an expectation that people be ready and available to respond to messages of any sort the moment they come in. The bar continues to rise.

But that’s where the soft skills come in. There is an ever-increasing need for people to be able to push back and say “no” in the most practical ways possible. “No” does not mean “go away, I never want to see you again,” it means, “let’s negotiate.” It’s a way of saying, let’s find a suitable alternative to the immediate.

So, whether you choose a collaborative environment like Microsoft Teams or Slack, or even if you choose to stay with email, it is up to you to let people know when and where you will be available. If you’re busy right now, or you plan to be traveling, then you’re not available to reply. This means you need to let people know this. You have to counter the rising bar of people’s expectations.

Get proactive and send out updates to those who are most likely to want to talk to you. Let them know the times that you will be available and when you will not be available. Give them access to your online calendar. Make sure to mark your busy times as busy, and your available times as available. If you use a collaborative environment, then update your status, and train your people to observe your status and availability notifications. This is a skill. It’s part of the skillset called influence, in which you get people to act in ways you would like, using positive emotion and positive reward.

A related and equally vital skill is that of following up. If you promise to be available at a certain time, then you need to ensure you are available. If you promise to return all emails and calls by the end of day, then you need to ensure you make the time to do that. People will believe in you and will accept these alternatives if they know they will be looked after within a reasonable amount of time. But if you break that promise, then the trust relationship will be broken.

The power is within you to manage the ever-rising bar of expectations – those you have of yourself with regard to workload, and those others have of you. It all depends on your ability to hone those soft skills of influence, planning, delegation, negotiation and prioritization.

Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here

This an article accompanies my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here. You can access it here.

I was watching a YouTube video the other day which talked about everything that is wrong with modern music. The host of the video, who goes by the name of Thoughty2, wasn’t even old. Probably around 23. It wasn’t like one of those 70-something prog rock old timers telling us what’s wrong with today’s music, but instead, he presented some interesting facts about how music is produced and marketed in this era, and I think there are some direct tie ins to at work productivity and workplace skills.

The video is available here. It’s about 20 minutes long.

Thoughty2 goes through a number of mechanical reasons about how modern hits by people like Taylor Swift are written by a very small group of people, and how a recurring musical note sequence called the Millennial Whoop echoes through dozens of modern hits, as this compilation video shows.

Now, as a musician myself, I can agree with much of what Thoughty2 was saying, but I could also picture his grandfather standing in front of a camera in 1963, slagging the long haired, gyrating freakishness of the Beatles, or Elvis, and lamenting the disappearance of quality music by Sinatra or the Big Band era. Go back even further and is great-great grandfather would have been complaining about Gershwin tearing the classics apart. Even Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for changing music too radically.

So is this change in music a change management issue? Every generation deserves its own musical heroes, after all, if only to distance themselves from their parents or older siblings.

But here’s the part of Thoughty2’s presentation that really resonated with me. He pointed out the effect that free downloadable music has had on its creation and quality. Back in the days of vinyl LPs and packaged CDs, you, as a music consumer had to head on down to the music store and plonk out some hard-earned money to purchase a collection of songs by your favorite artist. There’s a lot of work involved in that, and it wasn’t cheap. In 1975, an LP would have cost between $4.99 and $7.99. I remember wishing I could get the compilation triple album by KISS, which was retailing for an astounding $10.99 at the time. That might not seem like a lot now, but back in 1975, minimum wage in the U.S. was around $2.00 per hour.

Access to recorded music was expensive. But concerts, were cheap, compared to today, because they were the loss-leaders designed to get you to buy the merchandise and albums. Now, as David Bowie so accurately predicted back in 1980, music is free, which is why artists and their employers – the record companies – must recoup their costs through live performances at hundreds of dollars per seat.

So, is free instantly available music the culprit? Because it’s free or mere pennies, and because it is available for instant download, no time is needed to think through the process, to debate whether the tunes are worth buying, or to spend time afterwards listening over and over to the tunes if only to justify the cost of the purchase.

Instant access means that tunes must offer a combination of universal appeal and familiarity. To be too different entails too much risk. Tunes must have an instant hook – no long-extended introductions – and in many cases these play as a mere backdrop to the video.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, in my opinion. Art must always strike a balance between innovation and comfort of it is to make money.

But it’s the speed issue that I’m looking at here. As attention spans shorten and instant access to information dominates, skills such as critical thinking tend to atrophy, and this poses great danger to businesses and productivity.

Thinking is a process that requires a type of mental massaging. I tell my audiences that two of the best ways to think are, 1. To take a walk – just walk around the block and think about nothing. Do not check your email. Just let your mind relax, and let the thoughts come. Number 2 is to write things out. This is particularly productive because firstly it lets your thinking mind let go of preliminary thoughts and place them on a tangible surface – paper or a dry-erase board. Without this step you will simply be stuck holding on to an initial idea or worry. You can only move past this by depositing it somewhere and giving your brain permission to move on. Also, hand-writing has a correlation to the pace of clear thought processing. The speed at which you write things out buys time for creative processing to happen. These two actions together help “real thinking” really happen.

Much of the challenges people have concerning time management and prioritization has to do with the speed of reaction overtaking the quality of thought. We respond instantly to any incoming stimulus out of the fear and pressure of high-speed messaging. We have lost the ability for example, to exert influence over others, to manage expectations and buy time for ourselves. Why? Because influence requires careful thought and time to implement.

Look at ransomware for example. How often does cybercrime like this happen not because of any sophistication on the part of the hackers, but because they send one of those phishing emails that fool people into thinking their bank account has been frozen? People read them, and they react without thinking. They click on the link and the malware is allowed in. Phishing is a crime of distraction that exploits the busy-ness of its victims.

Similarly, much of the polarization happening in politics, especially in the U.S. also has to do with the fact that people no longer need to think through issues or talk with other people to come to a considered opinion. It is easier now to simply find an organization or news site that already sides with your beliefs or fears and wrap yourself inside. You will no longer hear a person of one political stripe say to someone with the opposing belief, “yes you have a good point there.” Instead disagreements are started and ended with a fast demographic smear: “you’re a liberal” or “you’re a dem” or you’re a republican. An “us versus them” mentality has taken over politics and has extinguished reasoned argument.

Critical thinking is a skill. It is the type of skill that needs to be taught to school age kids as well as to adults. It’s like street-proofing. You must give people an awareness of the importance of stopping and thinking before acting, otherwise their lives or careers will be in jeopardy.

Now in case you think I’m playing the old man here, dissing the younger generation for acting too quickly with their mobile phones and their autotuned musical heroes, I’m not. Music reflects its culture and our current culture is high-speed and ubiquitous. But there’s one thing that is not evolving as fast as technology, and that is the human brain and body together.

Reaction is reflex. It is not thought. Consequently, people lose the capacity to prioritize or frame a discussion when they exist solely in a reactionary state. Building a strong relationship with your manager, managing up, as the term goes, is impossible when neither of you have the time to do it. The same goes for delivering feedback to an employee or engaging in active listening. So many valuable activities and resources go out the window when people do not give themselves the time to fully use their thought processing skills.

A recent article in Quartz at Work outlined the concept of the silent meeting, being used by groundbreaking companies like Amazon, in which the first 30 minutes of an in-person meeting are spent in silence as the meeting attendees read the meeting material and reflect upon it before speaking.

This strongly echoes the original philosophy of Apple when they were the ones changing the world, whose campuses included lots of space and time for employees to meet, chat and cross-pollenate their ideas. This is where human brilliance and synergy some from.

One last example: how many careers, political campaigns or brands have gone quickly south due to a single ill-advised tweet? A moment of passion which flies around the world and eradicates years of carefully built trust and reputation?

There seems to be no time allowed any more to sleep on idea. To see how you feel about it tomorrow. There’s a lot to that idea, because twelve or fourteen hours from now you will be a different person: chemically, emotionally, refreshed and re-set after a night’s sleep. You will be a different person tomorrow.

What I am saying here is that critical thinking and taking time to think things through before acting will become a competitive advantage to companies that actively support it. Because far from me, or Mr. Thoughty2 being the old man in this scenario, the truth is, we are all old, female, male, of any age, we share a physiology that is not evolving as fast as our machines. We all use the same type of brain matter and autonomic reflexes to keep us alive. I honestly think the future rests with those who can use the best of their physical and mental makeup, and that has more to do with time than with speed.

The Law of Sharp Edges – Maximize Synergy by Framing a Conversation

There are many times when communicating via text or email is insufficient. The dynamics of human creativity are not one-dimensional. Thoughts and ideas must be echoed and bounced off one another so that we may experience and interpret the patterns that reverberate around us. Think, for example, how much more productive it is to “talk it out” with someone, rather than merely texting back and forth. Think also about how damaging it can be to keep feelings bottled up inside, or the complications that can arise from someone misinterpreting the tone of a text message. Creative thought thrives on the positive interference patterns that happen when two creative forces intersect. It falls away when given only a unidirectional track upon which to work.

Live conversation is essential for situations where there is something that needs to be created, agreed upon, resolved, or worked through. There is no real substitute.

When people contemplate getting together, whether face-to-face or over the phone, the thing that often puts them off is the fear of getting trapped in a conversation filled with small talk and irrelevancies. But it need not be that way. I use what I like to call The Law of Sharp Edges, which states that if you give someone a clear delineation – a guideline as to where things start and end rather than just a vague idea, they will be more likely to accommodate your request or behave as you would like them to.

Here’s a bad example: “Can I call you tomorrow?”

Here’s an excellent example: “Can I call you tomorrow at 2:00 for a 10-minute chat about the ABC project?”

The bad example puts people “on the hook for the entire day.” It’s like being on call. You know the event might

happen, but you don’t know when or for how long. This has a profound impact on your entire internal self-preservation system. Your instinct fears the unknown, and it’s not an overstatement to point out that something as simple as a vague phone call commitment is indeed an unknown. As such your body reflexively tenses itself for the interaction to come.

The excellent example removes the unknown and delivers three essential knowns – when it will be, how long it will last and what it will be about. It makes it a far more appealing thing to commit to since there are sharp edges surrounding the event. It is constrained and finite.

Such simple techniques will make a huge difference in productivity and process, by merely allowing the dynamic creativity of live conversation to flourish without fear. The many tools we have to facilitate live discussions, from meeting rooms to phones, video-conferences, online collaborative chat apps, even virtual presence devices like the Double (pictured) or Beam, still need to win someone’s attention through the most basic of concerns: “how will this hurt me and how will I benefit?” Once you can get such instinctive self-preservation needs out of the way, your conversation is free to do what it does best: make progress.

Why “Manager of First Impressions” Is Not a Vanity Title

There are two principles of human memory called the Law of Primacy and the Law of Recency. They are similar in concept. They support the notion that when someone encounters a series of related items such as a bunch of different messages written inside one email, or a group of people in a receiving line, it is either the first or the final item or person in the sequence that is remembered much more vividly than the rest. This one item or person will color an entire relationship going forward.

That’s why I pay particular attention to the way in which companies employ the individual who works at the front desk, in the lobby or reception area. Perhaps I should replace the word “employ” with “deploy,” for I am not referring to employment as in providing a job, but instead how that person and that position are used to further the positive image of a company.

Reception work is not always seen as the most rewarding position in an office. It can sometimes be tedious, and sometimes overly busy, and it is seldom well-paid. I have often heard people make the condescending statement, sometimes unintentionally, when giving a speech or presentation about how a particular topic, product, or trend will affect everyone from the CEO down to the receptionist, as if this latter position is the lowest on the corporate ladder.

What people tend to overlook with such a statement is that the person at reception holds an unrivaled power of first and last impressions, a force that can impact the entire company and everyone in it. I once visited the head office of a large pharmaceuticals company whose gleaming and airy atrium served as the meeting point for hundreds of vendors and buyers every week. Each of these people encountered a polite and efficient person at reception. This individual carried the title of “Manager of First Impressions.”

To me this is not an overly cute vanity title. It is instead the manifestation of the company’s mission statement. First impressions will influence a visitor’s actions and attitudes forever (that’s the Law of Primacy). It shapes an individual’s behavior upon entering the place of business and will influence how they interact.

Back at the pharmaceuticals company’s main lobby, as visitors return their badges and sign out of the building, this Manager of First Impressions takes care to not only actively and sincerely wish the visitors a good day, but also thanks them for visiting. Such simple but well-placed actions demonstrate a degree of care that is becoming less and less common. These actions, demonstrating an above average level of care to each of the hundreds of weekly visitors extends into the brand, generating an image of above average-quality that every company seeks to attain. The reception person operates as a primary catalyst in the success of any business.

On an individual level, the first and last seconds of your interactions with anyone will color their actions and attitudes from that point on. Everyone knows the importance of making good eye contact when shaking hands for the first time, but what about using their name in your parting remarks? Are you able to remember the name(s) of the person or people you have just met? This is a vital skill for managing reputations and relationships. Including a person’s name to your “goodbye” makes things warmer and more personal. It shows indisputably that you care.

In this age where so much communication is done by text, it is still human emotion that guides actions and ultimately influences decisions. Investing some time to implement and practice proactive impression management is essential, for individuals and businesses alike.

Change Management: Is It All In the Delivery?

Regardless of political affiliation, it is incumbent upon anyone involved in change management, stakeholder management or leadership to sit up and pay attention to the techniques currently being used by Mr. Trump and Mr. Ford. This is only common sense. Even if you dislike their style, to paraphrase the words of Don Vito Corleone it is better to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Both men maintain positions of almost absolute power. For them, this makes the initiation of change much more manageable. Mr. Ford has learned from Mr. Trump that there is no longer any need to run an idea through a gauntlet of advisors. It is far more expedient to announce it directly to the public through social media or carefully selected journalists.

If one were to compare this against Robert Cialdini’s six faces of influence, this is indisputably the face of authority in action.

However, as Mr. Trump has discovered, and as perhaps Mr. Ford will soon too, not every change deployed by a single tweet or hasty press conference will live to see its day. Numerous lower court rulings that have overturned many of Mr. Trump‘s initiatives show that at least to this moment in history, absolute power in either country is not yet absolute.

But it is still worth observing in both cases the degree to which they understand their stakeholders. Each leader recognizes a solid core base of devoted followers that approaches cult status. The influence and power that each has over their respective bases are not one based on fact, statistics, or explanation. It is one solely based on the power of personality.

Is this something that other people involved in change management should emulate? Is the power of charisma stronger than that of careful planning and communication in the stakeholder management process?

By comparison, how much of this type of charismatic influence did Steve Jobs have in the successful marketing of Apple products? Was it the cult of Apple that spurred sales, or was it a carefully executed plan? Compare this to BlackBerry, once the darling of the corporate crowd. Was a belief in charisma and brand instrumental in the company’s failure to pull the market in its direction? Blackberry did not really have a “face” the same way Apple did, or Virgin still does.

How much of your change management strategy will rely on personal relationships and charisma? Is it even fair to expect successful deployment to be based on the personality of the change leader? In the world of stand-up comedy, a joke or even an entire act can succeed or fail depending on the style of the person delivering it. There’s something to be observed there. Credibility on the part of the messenger or change agent and acceptance on the part of those accepting change rely a great deal on subjective emotional interpretation.

Not every corporate leader charged with initiating a change either within their department or outside in the world of the public is blessed with a fiery personality or unyielding self-confidence. However, it is essential to point out just how crucial it is for people upon whom change is being foisted, to believe in the person initiating that change. Intelligent project management is vital to the successful deployment of change initiatives, but without a personal connection, the plan will fall upon deaf ears.

Humans need to feel comfortable, they need to feel looked after, and they need to feel optimistic. This has been the backbone of organized religion for millennia and is undoubtedly the backbone of populist politics. The question becomes whether an emotionally charged base of disciples is sufficient to carry the day for any of us involved in organizational change. Mr. Trump and Mr. Ford face challenges in the courts, and corporate change managers face the same type of scrutiny and diligence from boards of directors, shareholders, other levels of management and the rank-and-file.

In the end charisma without substance, speeches without research, and personality without plans may be doomed to stumble or fail. But this statement can also be read in reverse: substance without charisma, research without speeches, and plans without personality may also be doomed to the same level of failure.

But those of us busy focusing on a successful change management initiative must take note of the fact that people love to connect with strong leaders who actively listen to their concerns. It is always best when such attention is genuine, and that it results in tangible, people-focused actions, but the point remains; the majority of stakeholders continues to be ruled primarily by emotion, especially fear. Facts are important, of course, but your investment in the emotional side of change should be sufficient to balance out the logic of your project plan.

King Street Pilot: May I See the Whine List?

Intellectual powerhouses at KitKat showing love to the community. Maybe time to update the website, boys!

Maybe I’m missing something here. How, exactly does the King Street Pilot affect the restaurant business? There are many times I have considered driving into Toronto to dine out or to see a show, and one of the reasons why I think about sticking with my car is because the GO trains are already packed.

Packed! There is always a game on. The Raptors, the Jays, the Maple Leafs, Toronto FC. When there is no game, there is a concert. Big name concerts. Yes, Toronto, we are world class when it comes to the touring superstars. And outside of the mega-acts, there are hundreds of clubs, pubs, and restaurants all offering a great time.

I don’t know if Mr. Ford or Mr. Mammoliti has ever taken an inbound GO train at 6:00 on a Friday or Saturday night, but they are always full. We are a sports and entertainment city. These are people coming in from the ‘burbs to spend their money in the Toronto core. This is not a city that rolls up its sidewalks at 5:00. Not everyone who works in Toronto drives home to huddle in some bedroom community until the Monday morning commute.

OK, so I choose to drive in. Well, guess what, the inbound roads are also packed. Commuting into T.O. along the Parkway or the QEW at 6:00 p.m. is as bad as doing it at 6:00 a.m. Face it. Thousands of people want to get into the city to have fun.

So let’s say I choose to drive in and I want to go to a restaurant in the Theatre district. Maybe I should call ahead to make a reservation? OK, well now the restaurant knows I’m interested. “But wait,” I say, “can you guarantee that I can park directly outside the restaurant?” Of course not. It has always been impossible to park on any downtown city street. That’s why we have parking lots! That’s why GreenP exists! If I want to go downtown, I pull out my app and look for a place to park. There will always be places to park. Even when every outdoor lot turns into a skyscraping condo, there will always be parking spaces in the basement.

So let’s say I haven’t decided where to eat. I want to chance it. This is where the King Street restaurateurs may base part of their argument. “If people can’t drive by, they won’t see us. They won’t stop to get out and buy from us.” Well, welcome to the 21st century, Mr. KitKat and Mr. Fred’s Not Here. Most people don’t make dining decisions on a drive-by. They choose based on one of three items:

  • Proximity/convenience. There are dozens of parking lots within a block or two of every King Street restaurant. Easy, convenient and easily findable on an app.
  • Reputation/recommendation. If your food and service are great, people will talk.
  • Social media/apps. Most consumers use their phones for everything, and that includes deciding where to go and eat. Along with great food and service, a restaurant today needs a top-tier website – mobile friendly and filled with detail to attract new customers. That’s the new version of the drive-by, spontaneous choice. People will search for you, and they will find you.

Hey! Here’s another idea. Instead of giving your city and your customers the finger, why not do promotion instead. Something like “Welcome to the King Street Pilot. Here’s a $5 discount or a free appetizer! Come back! Tell your friends!”

The restaurant business is tough, no question. Rents are high, and margins are thin. Competition is fierce. But success does not come from whining. It comes from innovating; moving with the times;  delivering consistently pleasing customer experience all the way along the journey, from the first notion of “where shall we go out to eat tonight” all the way through to the time the meal becomes a pleasant memory and the subject of a recommendation to friends.

Captain John’s. The vodka martini was actually vermouth soup. My bad for ordering an exotic cocktail.

There was once a restaurant called Captain John’s that sat at the foot of Yonge Street. Anyone who ever dined there knows its only redeeming culinary value was that it was a ship (kind of). For decades it used that novelty alone to lure tourists in from neighboring hotels. They would never come back. But that was OK. Until, of course, the restaurant got towed away for non-payment of taxes. If that’s what the King Street restaurateurs want to do, sucker in the tourists for a one-off, then perhaps they should flip the bird at the new high-rise hotels that surround them, each of which has its own inbuilt entertainment section to keep those people close.

To the smart guys who think that an extended middle finger will win back customers, I suggest you look at your business model instead. If you are an attractive place to eat, people will show up regardless how they get there.

Planning for a Successful Vacation

Show Notes From CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 15

Note – this podcast was originally aired as a longer, one hour episode (Episode 1). We have been cutting them up and re-releasing seleted parts to make them easier to listen to (i.e. shorter).

To listen to this podcast, visit my Blubrry page here.

To subscribe to the series, click here.

Vacations – we all dream about them, but are they being put to the best use? Half of the therapeutic value of a vacation comes from planning – not just where you want to go, but planning the days leading up to departure date as well as your return to work after it’s done. If you do these right, your vacation will be doubly beneficial.

The Guardian article that I referred to was written by Jana Kasperkevic and can be found here.

Jana Kasperkevic in The Guardian writes:

In the U.S, the number of unused vacation days in the US recently was 169 million days, equivalent to $52.4bn in lost benefits. The reason for this, she writes, is that many employees are afraid to take it, while others just don’t get any at all, in fact she points out that only about 77% of Americans working for privately owned companies got paid vacation days. Those who choose not to go fear the face time problem, and they also feel that too much work will pile up while they are gone and they will be so stressed when they return that time off won’t be worth it.”

There are three distinct ways in which vacations work as a productivity and time management tool:

  • The most obvious is the vacation itself. It is supposed to be a time when you let go of all of the stresses and pressures of the working year and do the things you really want to do. Most people find the first three days or so to be a major period of transition as they catch up on all the sleep they have missed, and actually gear down from the pace of business. After those first few days, the restorative effects of the vacation start to take shape, and like so many other areas of life, this does not exist only in the mind. It has profound effects on the body, particularly the immune system, as you start to actually feel relaxed and feel good.
  • There is also the anticipation of a vacation to consider. If you find yourself in a stressful work situation, putting in extra hours and dealing with crisis after crisis, one of the best ways of mitigating the stress of that moment is to look forward to a break or vacation on the horizon – this is the light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing there is an end in sight has both a motivating and calming effect on your mind and body.
  • Third, there’s the memory of the vacation. Once you have had some time off, hopefully you have done something great with that time, those pleasant memories of the activities – or just the rest – will stay with you forever. Those are good memories, and feeling good always has long term physiological rewards. As the old expression goes, no one on their deathbed ever wishes they had spent more time at the office. Great memories flood your brain with endorphins. They make you feel good, and this too serves as insulation against the stressors of the workday.

HOW CAN YOU PREPARE FOR A VACATION?

Your vacation should be treated as one of the most important parts of your job, because that’s just what it is. Consequently, vacation days must be defended if year-round productivity and achievement are your goals. This means you must take the time to plan your vacation period carefully to help ensure a smooth, stress-free departure and a smooth, stress-free return.

First, plan ahead to avoid that pre-vacation crunch. The last few days at the office before a vacation can actually be more stressful than usual, because it seems that all the work that you would have done if you were not going on vacation becomes immediate top-priority. Everyone around you feels you absolutely must get it all finished before your departure. Start planning your departure a few weeks or months before the actual date, and you can influence the timelines of your projects, meetings, and other office events.

Draw a protective barrier around the period of your vacation, especially including the ten business days leading up to it and the ten immediately following it. Make sure those days before your vacation are carefully planned, so that you can hand off responsibilities to others and wrap up your projects. The days preceding a vacation should not be just business as usual for you. They should be about winding down and handing off. If you try to keep on working on your normal tasks at your normal pace on these days, you will simply generate more stress and overwork than the holiday could possibly alleviate.

Plan your return before you leave. Though most people don’t want to even think about their return to work as they start their holiday, a smooth return will help to ease the stress of stepping back into the rat race. The day of your return should not include any meetings. It should be a transition day, in which time is given over to catching up on the events that happened during your absence, returning returning calls and emails, updating your agenda, and getting back up to speed.

Why is this so important? Because too many people simply return to the office and hit the ground running, trying to immediately regain the pace they were at when they left. They return straight away to the stress levels and pressures that they left behind, erasing much of the therapeutic benefits that a vacation brings. Remember: your vacation is a tool for relaxation and rebuilding. It is part of your job. You benefit, your family benefits, and your company benefits. Ease your way back into the momentum of work, just like a runner warming up before a marathon, and you will be better prepared to handle it. Start planning your next vacation immediately.

ISVs and Future Proofing Your Payment Integration

Here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote this week for the payment processor Clearent.

When a consumer walks into a store or browses an online ecommerce site, very little thought is given over to the “paying” part until the time comes. At that moment, a fast and convenient point-of-sale or checkout experience helps create a positive memory, raising the loyalty factor a little bit. But a less-than-ideal transaction, caused by long lines, a failed tap, or a shopping cart page that crashes and burns, steers the shopper to the competition. No one has time to wait for a reboot or to listen to apologies.

The expectation and the requirement are that the payment system be up-to-date. For that to happen, the merchant and its ISV must be future-proof. What’s the best way to future-proof something as complex as payment integration?  The answer is right in front of you, in the apps inside your phone and your tablet.

To learn more, visit our most recent blog, “ISVs and Future Proofing Your Payment Integration” available right now at CloudTweaks: go to https://cloudtweaks.com/2017/12/isvs-proofing-payment-integration/

How to Buy and Hold Bitcoin

Show Notes From CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 15

Everyone wants to know about Bitcoin these days. It continues to defy the odds and the pundits to keep climbing ever higher. Do you feel you’re missing out? Well, it might too late to get in on the ground floor with Bitcoin, but it’s not too late to start understanding how to buy it and how to hold onto it. There are many more cryptocurrencies out there as well. In this short ten-minute podcast, I talk about how to buy bitcoins, and the difference between wallets and exchanges.

  • To listen to the podcast, visit my Blubrry page here.
  • Check out my professional blog posts dealing with Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies (I hate that term!) and blockchain technologies at the investment and wealth website ValueWalk.com.
  • Choose a Wallet by checking out the selection at Bitcoin.org.
  • Check out some useful exchanges for buying and holding Bitcoin and other currencies. Be sure to do your homework first, to ensure the rates and terms of any exchange match your requirements.
  • A great review of Canadian Bitcoin exchanges is available at Coinforum.ca.
  • Great resources for learning about Bitcoin include

Bitcoin and crypto investment is risky and volatile, and really requires your daily attention. Don’t forget I am always available to speak to your group or association on how to understand cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Check out my speaker page for more details.