Believe

While talking about career transitions and social networking this week, one individual asked me (and here I’m paraphrasing) what was the one thing to do above all others in building an opportunity network.

The answer that came out surprised even me at first. It has nothing to do with tactics, or specific social platforms.

I said to Sara that you have to believe. You need a gut-level conviction that building a network is the most important professional endeavor you can undertake.

And I do believe that. I think I gave it lip service for much of my career, because networking equaled schmoozing in my mind, and frankly, I am not a schmoozer. But it was the early days of LinkedIn that opened my eyes to the potential power of networks – and the massive advantage of a hybrid approach marrying digital technology to personal relationships.

Each step along the way – blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc. – has grown that belief. But it has been getting past the pre-meeting stage which digital tools facilitate, and getting eye-to-eye, mind-to-mind, and heart-to-heart with people that has utterly convinced me. When friends are made, and opportunities opened up, and lives changed through these connections – well, it’s awfully hard not to believe.

You’ll read a thousand blog posts about the tactics, or the higher-level strategies, of using social networks. There’s a ton of noise about specific tools. I’m going to point you to the one thing that is foundational and drives the rest.

Believe. And if your faith is a little shaky right now, feel free to borrow some of mine. I have a lot of stories to tell – and so do a bunch of other people I can point you to.

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Announcing the Connection Agency

With a talented close-knit group of trusted collaborators, I’ve been working on something behind the scenes called the Connection Agency. We’re just now emerging out of stealth mode. But before I say more about the CA, I want to point to a very crucial part of the “why?” formula.

The boom of networked communications has opened up an amazing array of opportunities for individuals who are knowledgeable, connected, and trusted. Welcome to the new intermediation.

We talk often about how on-line networks are bringing about radical disintermediation (removal of the “middleman” – think about what Amazon is doing to the publishing and book-selling world). But what we need to see is that new intermediaries are needed, particular when it comes to knowledge curation, resource-finding, and person-connecting. eHarmony provides an example of how technology can intermediate to make matches more efficiently.

When I started my Impactiviti business 5 years ago, it was actually a “trust agent” business model – even before that term was coined by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. I “matchmake” my pharma/healthcare clients with personally selected, trusted and excellent outsource suppliers; and I work on a referral fee basis with those partners. It’s an intermediation business built on trust, reputation, knowledge, and new efficiencies (in fact, this week, I met with 2 high-caliber individuals for brand therapy sessions and encouraged them to adopt a form of that model in their respective spheres).

And here’s a wonderful little secret: there’s not much competition. We become so used to the inefficiencies, dishonesty, and incompetence baked in to our current work models, that few see what an astonishing opportunity awaits a network connector who can create and grow a new ecosystem, with character and virtue and proven capability at the center.

But the business need exists in ALL sectors, not just pharma/healthcare. So we’re evolving a model of an organic network of trust agents who will refer their trusted clients and suppliers across the network to “matchmake” needs – while splitting referral fees. The Connection Agency is a way to help entrepreneurs who work by old-fashioned, trusted handshake values to multiply value through the power of social networks and the universal need for trust-referrals.

The CA is a work in progress. It is, by design, a slow-grow evolution with a very long-term goal – a transformation of how business can get done when the purpose-built network is the heart of the business, not some add-on. We’re figuring it out as we go along and you won’t see a lot of noise about this network, because we’re focused on a high-quality, high-trust, high-touch business that, by design, is very selective.

Will the CA succeed? My current business experience as a solopreneur says, Yes! Scaling it to a network of people is a huge challenge, but I  think we can do it. And I/we will value your support, your input, your recommendations, your referrals – this is, fundamentally, a team effort. The adventure begins…!

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Welcome! How May We Gouge You??

It was a rainy morning in Chicago. I had flown in early, taken the train downtown, and gotten pretty well soaked on the walk to the hotel – but, I was here. Ready for a great few days of networking and SOBCon.

I’d booked the conference hotel (Hotel 71) months ago for the duration of SOBCon but needed a place for one night, so I had gone on-line and reserved a room at a relatively nearby place, which will remain unnamed at the moment.

Dripping my way into the lobby at about 10 am local time, I was flabbergasted by the following exchange:

Tom: “We have a room ready for you, Mr Woodruff, but there will be a $35 early check-in fee.”

Me: ???????????????????????

OK, let me get this straight. A room is sitting there ready, I arrive early (terrible sin!) – and now you want to ding me for an extra $35? In 25 years of business travel, I’ve NEVER run into this gouging maneuver (have you? If so, enlighten me – please!)

This, after mentioning that, no, I don’t recall ever staying here before. What a nice welcome for a new guest!

I described this red carpet treatment on Twitter and apparently others agree with me.

I’ll try to communicate my displeasure privately and see where that goes, which is why I’m not mentioning the property by name at this point. But if you’re in the hospitality business, take away this lesson – when your first encounter with the customer is a grab deeper into their pocket – for no good reason – you’re really not likely to build repeat business.

Not. Likely. At. All.

ADDED BONUS: no e-mail address, no electronic message capability on website, and no Twitter! Free Wi-Fi, though….

UPDATE: I confirmed with a second desk person that this is indeed a policy of the small chain (though I think it is presented as a reserved red-eye early check-in on some document I see in the room here – I was a walk-up). That person gave me the name and e-mail address of the Customer Service Manager, whom I e-mailed, and who kindly got right back to me with an offer to waive the charge. That was (in my opinion) the right thing to do – and I respect the two desk personnel who actually did what they had to do – enforce policy (even if it was uncomfortable).

I will continue to leave the name of the hotel unmentioned and simply suggest that they forward this post up the chain of command so that an internal decision can be made about the wisdom of said policy.

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Do Me a Favor at SOBCon

Later this week, I’m planning on enjoying a few happy days of networking at the annual SOBCon gathering in Chicago. And, if you’re attending, I want to ask you a favor.

But first, a funny story from last week…

I walked into an agency for a brainstorming session, and one of the folks there was surprised at my appearance. I mean, he knew I was coming, but he’d been following me on Twitter for a while, and for some odd reason, he thought I was some kind of intimidating 6’5″ behemoth. Maybe it’s that Steve 3-D avatar which does have a certain Terminator quality to it, but really – I pretty much look like a regular guy! Intimidating? Nah….

And no matter how I come across publicly or on-line, when in large groups, I’m actually the one who feels a bit intimidated. The shy gene never fully disappears, I guess.

So, do me a favor. As Carol Roth did last year (and I never forgot her for it), if you want to meet me, just come up and introduce yourself. I want to make the most of every moment in Chicago, which means talking to you, not drifting self-consciously in the crowd.

Oh, and fair warning on three things:

1. If there’s actually time to talk, I’ll cut through the fluff pretty quickly and really get to know you.

2. You’ll understand me if you have a sense of humor.

3. I do hugs. Despite my New England upbringing.

See you in Chicago!

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Hello Chicago: Free Brand Therapy!

Tomorrow (Wed April 27th) I unexpectedly have a free afternoon in Chicago. While I could thoroughly enjoy a lakeside walk and picture-taking safari, I’d actually rather get to know some of my contacts in Chicago better. So….

I’m offering three free Brand Therapy sessions (~60-90 minutes) for entrepreneurs/small business types who’d like to sit down, and not only get better acquainted, but also brainstorm your brand positioning. It’s something I love to do (read the comments in the linked post) and  if I can get to know some folks better and provide a little help – why not?

I’ll be in the vicinity of the Hotel 71 area.

Interested? E-mail me quickly and let me know (steve at connectionagent dot com).

Also, if anyone wants to get together for a quick dinner/tweetup meeting Wednesday evening – let’s pull it together!

- Steve

Inspiring Loyalty

A recent NY Times article – you’d almost think they’d known about this week’s LeadershipChat topic and planned the timing – described the Shifting Definition of Worker Loyalty. It’s a good overview of the many reasons why the old business contract is null and void – companies no longer earn long-term employee loyalty, and employees are learning not to expect Big Brother Employer to take care of them from cradle to grave.

Whether this loss of MAS (Mutually Assured Symbiosis) be interpreted as good or bad, it just is. And it brings up the question – what can a leader do to build and inspire loyalty within a company? (note the two verbs – build and inspire.  “Assume” doesn’t cut it anymore).

There’s no magic bullet, but I think people will open the wallet of loyalty when they see these three things:

  1. A mission worthy of their affections
  2. A culture worthy of their attention
  3. An example worthy of emulation

If your company is just providing good or services in order to perpetuate its own existence, that’s not going to inspire anyone who aspires to higher purposes. And as soon as something better comes along, there will be few ties of loyalty – after all, it’s just a job, not a mission.

On the other hand, many employees have refused better offers, or come back to the fold, because there was something special in the company culture – something that makes people actually want to come to work and be part of it.

And then, something very powerful – a leader who is a great example inspires loyalty because people instinctively want to follow and learn from someone who is blazing the trail ahead. There will be little loyalty to a mere functionary with a title – but far more attachment to an example who walks the talk and inspires greatness.

That’s all the high-falutin’ stuff. Now, let me turn to one very simple action – which anyone can do – that engenders loyalty. It so simple, that it’s easy to overlook.

Notice people. And let them know that you notice them.

This link came across my Twitter stream today. Look at the number of Twitter followers Trey has. Do you have any idea how much it means to me to be called out as a Twitter BFF (we’ve only met IRL once, btw)? And do you think that, just perhaps, I might feel a deepened sense of loyalty to my pal in South Carolina for noticing me publicly? (but Trey, that pink jacket…I dunno, maybe it’s a Southern gentleman thing…)

What are your thoughts on Leaders who inspire loyalty? That’s what we’ll be discussing during #LeadershipChat on Tuesday, April 26th at 8 pm ET. And, be sure to read my co-host Lisa Petrilli’s post Leadership and Loyalty: Why it Must Start Within You.

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Brand Therapy

I have a confession. I love every aspect of the work I do, but there is one thing that gives me the most immediate gratification and sense of accomplishment – sitting down with entrepreneurs and doing a brand therapy session. Distilling down a small business brand to the Core Four – its differentiating offering, its one-sentence summary, its compelling brand story, and its key marketplace analogy – is one of my favorite exercises. There’s a certain magic that occurs when you can help re-define a company in a few hours.

Recently I was in the midst of this process with a talented and successful digital agency in the Northeast. As I queried them about their core strengths, they kept coming back with nice-sounding (and true) phrases, none of which really distinguished them. So I scribbled J.A.D.A. on a piece of paper and pushed it across the table.

They sounded like Just Another Digital Agency. A commodity.

Now, in fact, they weren’t, and I knew it, but they hadn’t boiled their message down to a unique, differentiating identity. It was there, but it took some more pointed questions to finally bring it to the surface. They had revenue, they pleased their varied customers, but they were on a treadmill. Commodity brand positioning does that to you.

Why do companies need a brand therapist? It’s simple, really – we’re all too close to our own work. We get so immersed in our companies and offerings, that we can no longer see clearly who we really are. I serve as a brand therapist for others – but, I realize that I also need an outside voice for my own company. Because I’m too caught up in my own work to be objective!

I see this brand identity murkiness all the time – and the lack of definition even leads to taking on the wrong kind of work. It seems to be  unavoidable – ironically, even marketing/branding companies regularly suffer from the syndrome – but it’s certainly curable.

You may be coming across as J.A.S.P. (Just Another Service Provider), or J.A.T.C.  (Just Another Training Company) – or, fill in the blank for your offering. Sometimes an outside perspective – a therapist who can ask the right questions and guide you to a clearer vision – is just what you need when you’re at that point of doing a lot of work, but suffering from a lack of focus and direction.

Lots of big-time companies will suck you dry of time and dollars for a branding exercise, but my brand therapy sessions typically take about a day of focused time. We get to the Core Four, and if you need help in execution and campaigns beyond that, I have some wonderful resources in my network (yes, including digital agencies, marketing consultants, and loads of other talented providers!) Give me a call at 973-947-7429 and let’s set aside a day for some brand therapy. If, like me, you have eyesight that needs correction, you can look forward to that feeling you get when you put on a brand new pair of prescription glasses!

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Burning Initiative

Glancing over at my Tweetdeck columns right now, I see the faces of many friends and professional colleagues. There’s an astonishing diversity in this group of digital networkers, but when I think about the common ground among those to whom I feel closest, there is definitely one thing each possesses.

Burning initiative.

Great ideas are a dime a dozen. Knowledge is easily obtained, and superficial appeal is a make-up kit and sound-bite away.

My people make things happen. They’re not into the status quo. They see what is, dream what ought to be, and take action.

I see, on my screen, Tom Martin, who is constantly pushing the marketing/social media envelope, and who works as a solopreneur and change agent. I see Lisa Petrilli, who could easily land a job in a big corporation, but who is pursuing her own, more revolutionary, vision. There’s Jason Falls, and there’s Jay Baer – two thinkers and doers who are not afraid to try out new things and push, over months and years, to make a difference.

I spot Dave deBronkart in my Twitter stream – ePatientDave who took the bull by the horns when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. My pharma co-conspirator Sally Church, who takes the arcane world of clinical research and brings it into the social world. And Geoff Livingston, who will puncture the balloon of just about any status quo, and continually seeks to do something about it.

I could go on and on, but the point is – no matter how smart you are, or what title you’ve been granted, 90% of the game is initiative. Preferably burning initiative, hot and steady, over the long haul.

It might be a thrill to be called a guru, or to be a best-selling author, or to put “award-winning” as your first name. Maybe none of that is so bad, but to be a catalyst, to be someone who makes the pie bigger for everyone, to be a change agent in a positive direction – isn’t that what matters most? Or am I just an idealistic dreamer?

We’ve all been called many names (only some of which can be reproduced on a public blog!). I mostly gravitate toward people with the title Catalyst, Initiator, or Revolutionary. If you’ve got the fire, let it burn and take some initiative!

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Playing 20 Questions

While walking my dog in town yesterday, I strode up Main Street (Boonton, NJ) and, glancing right, saw that a new business was occupying one of the storefront retail spots.

I saw chairs. I saw desks. And a small sign, identifying the occupant as PMD.

That’s it. If I was a potential customer, I didn’t know it – nor was I going to stop and ask.

Now, I make so secret of the fact that I despise meaningless names, especially when they are a jumble of letters. But even if this company was open for just one week, or about to open next week, shouldn’t there be something to tell me what it is about?

PMD could mean Plaster Mask Designers. It could stand for Plutonium Manufacturers and Distributors. Or Paul, Mike, & Darryl. By itself, without any other explanation, it’s just a Potentially Meaningless Description.

Besides coming up with a real name, all it would take would be one eye-level sign: New Jersey’s Only Nutella Bakery (or whatever) – and now I know why you’re there. Without having to ask questions.

You have 3 seconds while I’m walking past your retail store. Or driving past your billboard. Or browsing by your tradeshow booth. Or visiting your website. And I don’t have time for 20 questions.

Give me the one message that matters, at eye-level, in 3 seconds. Your Purpose that Makes a Difference (PMD). Or you’ll just be another acronym in memory’s dustbin.

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What is your Leadership Mission? Is it Greater Than Yourself?

Let’s say you’re a professional (if you’re reading this blog, you probably are). You have skills, you have a job, you’re making a living to support yourself and perhaps a family.

Let’s say you’re a Regional Director in a corporation.

What is is your mission?

“I’m here to earn the best living I can.” OK, that puts you in a pool of about 7 billion.

“I’m here to get to the top.” Common, if not particularly noble sentiment.

“I’m here to come alongside others and enable them to reach their full potential.” Whoa! That’s someone breathing some rarefied air.

Leaders who practices what Steve Farber calls “Greater Than Yourself” (GTY) Leadership aren’t simply in the game for themselves. Their goal is nothing short of equipping others to become even greater than they are. And if you’ve been in the career world for any length of time, you know just how rare these people are.

Do you see how, whatever your position – corporate manager, solopreneur, teacher, parent – the principles of GTY living and leading apply? The need is universal, even if the practitioners are few!

So, we’re going to talk about this theme during #LeadershipChat this week, and encourage one another to embrace that mission. Lisa Petrilli and I are very pleased to welcome Steve Farber (who wrote the book on GTY Leadership!) to join us as a guest host for this lively discussion.

For a nice summary of three key principles of GTY leadership, read Lisa’s blog post this week (Greater Than Yourself Leadership: How to Change the World). Then join us at 8 pm ET and get to know the extraordinary community that is LeadershipChat on Twitter. Just follow the hashtag #LeadershipChat, and jump right into the discussion!

And, to make your chat experience even more enjoyable, try out ChatTagged, a custom-made Twitter client for helping manage your on-line chat interactions!

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Do Customers Need to be Led?

The short answer to the above question is: of course. If someone is in one place, and needs to be drawn to a different place, that means exercising leadership.

However, there’s a whole different relationship involved. If you’re leading employees, there are built-in motivations, and a hierarchy of authority to enforce leadership. Not so with customers (or others where influence is more indirect – volunteers, collaborators, etc.)

Let’s say you are a graphic design consultant, and you have been hired by a customer to create a website design. You know what works on the web. You know what color schemes are appealing to the eye. You know about typefaces and layout and all that other juicy designer stuff. Yet your client wants you to put a 1,000-word marketing dissertation in 8-point type on a black background. With 14 references to Justin Bieber because they read an article on a plane once about keywords and SEO. Does this customer need to be led?

To ask the question is to answer it. And just replace the details with a hundred other business scenarios, and you’ll see that we need to lead customers every day.

As a consultant, I am leading my clients all the time. I have no value unless I’m leading them in the direction they need to go. Here are three basic ways in which I seek to lead a customer:

  1. Listen and ask questions. Put on your therapist hat first. Draw out the thoughts and goals and ideas bubbling in their minds (yes, typically, that is the way it is – very few customers actually come to you with a pre-packaged blueprint. Why do you think  they called you??)
  2. Steadily direct the questions and conversations to this one main point: What are you seeking to accomplish? It is amazing how many questions and ideas appear in a different light once you help the customer reach that one-sentence statement of purpose.
  3. NOW begin to apply your expertise to answering that question. Believe it or not, by playing the therapist and then clarifying the issue, you have attained a leadership position far greater than if you trotted our all your qualifications and pointed to your wall full of awards. Customer resistance is removed, not by intimidation, but by understanding. People are ready to hear your expert point of view and recommendations once they see that you’re standing right next to them, helping them see the main goal with 20/20 vision.

I have an accountant, and a financial planner. I want their expertise because I don’t have the bandwidth or interest to mess with all that financial stuff. They are both younger than me (I used to lead one of them in his high school youth group!). And I gladly let them lead me, because they can track and think about issues that I can’t or won’t. They ask the right questions, and show their ability to come up with a plan. Now I have one less worry.

Customers want to be led. They want one less worry. And you’re the answer – right?

Join us on Tuesday nights for #LeadershipChat on Twitter (8 pm ET). And, before you pull up a seat at the table tonight, read what my lovely and talented co-host, Lisa Petrilli, has written about this topic, drawing lessons from the life of Abraham Lincoln! And, to make your chat experience even more enjoyable, try out ChatTagged, a custom-made Twitter client for helping manage your on-line chat interactions!

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Valor-Fuel

On this week’s LeadershipChat, we’re going to be talking about Valor in Leadership. My co-host, Lisa Petrilli, gives a nice summary of her thoughts on her blog post this week (Three Lost Truths about Valor in Leadership).

For my part, I’m going to narrow the focus down to one aspect that is crucial to the exercise of valorous leadership. It’s what we can call “valor-fuel” – a conviction about what is right, and commitment to do it at all costs.

When we see bold, sacrificial, heroic courage in a leader, we are deeply impressed (think about the movie Braveheart). But what gives a person that sort of backbone? Are they taking valor vitamins with their Cheerios? Is it an inborn trait?

I don’t think so. It’s principled conviction. It’s dedication to a transcendent cause. It’s conscience joining hands with action despite all inner and outer opposition.

And, it’s rare. Look at all of our so-called leaders and ask yourself – where do I see this type of William Wallace-style bravery? Who is demonstrating Eric Liddell-like conviction?

While a certain level of pragmatism is warranted in the navigation of life, the valiant leader knows that commitment to principle is the lighthouse. Even a timid soul can be bold as a lion when driven by a sense of right and wrong. So-called leaders whose moral compasses swing wildly according to the conditions and opinions surrounding them may be able to exercise influence, but they will not be known for valor as leaders.

That title is earned, often at great personal cost, and with a willingness to endure headwinds. The valiant leader doesn’t poll others to find out what is right and wrong. He or she shows others by a commitment to principle.

Valor. May we aspire to nothing less.

Join us on Tuesday nights for #LeadershipChat on Twitter (8 pm ET) – and, to make your chat experience even more enjoyable, try out ChatTagged, a custom-made Twitter client for helping manage your on-line chat interactions!

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Inconceivable! The Princess Bride Guide to Leadership

It took 20 years of study, but finally it’s out – Inconceivable! Tapping into a rich vein of wisdom from the iconic business video The Princess Bride, this indispensable volume will thrill and inform every leader who is seeking the answer to the question: “I wonder if he is using the same wind we are using?”

Or if you’re thinking about going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line…

You’ve heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates? I’ll tell you what I think of them in light of this stellar business guide, in the video review below.

Here is my 5-star video review of this important handbook:

Critics are raving about Inconceivable, even if the word does not mean what they think it means:

We will be seeking to get the author to co-host an edition of the weekly LeadershipChat, if he’s not swamped.

The book is relatively small, but the ideas are of unusual size. Pick it up, especially if you have no gift for strategy, and your job is at stake. It’ll be a miracle!

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