Dear Sarcasm…..

Ah Sarcasm,

We have had a good run you and I. There have been some fun times, but it’s just not working anymore.

Love Erin

Dear Sarcasm

I read somewhere that sarcasm is the lowest form of discourse (literature scholars please offer a source for this truth). I had always thought that sarcasm was a gift. I didn’t realise that it was one of those gifts that might be best left behind for another to use.

For a long-time I took pride in my fast responses and enjoyed the impact of a well placed disdainful comment. I didn’t fully value the impact that these remarks might have on perceptions.

As a professional I do my best to keep my terminology crisp and clear as so much can be lost in the space between words read quickly on a screen. This has come from some tough lessons of items that have been misconstrued due to language or context being undeclared in the content.

Sarcasm can be a great tool in the right circumstance. When combined with wit or humour a sarcastic retort can be impactful. It can make a story land in a way that makes a listener remember it. Over time I have learned that unlike sarcasm both wit and humour can be used to great impact on their own. Sarcasm can too, but without humour or wit to soften the blow it tends to just sound bitchy.

You will notice in great literature sarcasm is a tool for the supporting characters. Rarely is it used by the hero of the story. Heroes are known to put the villains back in their places without the need for this crutch. So why does this matter?

If you want to be the hero instead of the sidekick, you better get some more effective weapons for your arsenal.

Not too long ago I submitted some writing that I had done for a grad school assignment. One of the items had what I considered a cheeky dig at the opponent’s approach. While my work received a great grade, the point received a negative comment from my professor. At the time I thought that she was attacking my point which was well researched and valid. I was offended that she didn’t get me.

This weekend I went for a hike in the woods and was struck with an epiphany that she wasn’t actually attacking me. She was warning me that I might lose my argument because of the sarcastic delivery.

My work might not win the debate even though I had the better argument because my sarcasm would serve to make the reader stop listening.

People don’t hear your message when you attack them before you share it.

Persuasive arguments are fought on good data and sound logic. Sometimes they may include a witty or funny analogy in order to make the reader engage on a deeper level, but they have no need for bitchy digs.

It’s because of this realisation that over the next few months I am weaning myself off sarcastic comments. I work hard to build credible connections between different data points and should not serve to reduce their impact or risk losing the game by throwing foul balls at the batter.

I realise that it can be hard to change something that I used to take pride in. While I may mourn for the retorts never getting a chance to hit their mark, I will celebrate my ability to articulate an argument and win the debate as the hero of my story.

The art of pushing through

Pushing Through-Erin Burrell
The art of pushing through

adjective push·ing \ˈpu̇-shiŋ\

Definition of PUSHING

  1. marked by ambition, energy, enterprise, and initiative
  2. marked by tactless forwardness or officious intrusiveness

preposition \ˈthrü\

Definition of THROUGH

  1. into one side and out the other side of (something)
  2. from one side or end to another side or end of (something)

Based on these definitions in order to push through (you) must be marked by tactless forwardness or officious intrusiveness into one side and out the other side (of something).

It is the concept of officious intrusiveness that makes getting through personal blockages so key in my mind. It’s the idea that in order to get past/over/through something hard you have to stop being polite. You need to knock down the things between you and your goal in a bit of obstacle bowling so to speak.

When you are alone there are a thousand things that you can use as excuses as to why you can’t. They are all about being polite.

I have other things I should be doing: Really? Your laundry will wait for you to write that novel or climb that hill. We know you have clean underwear left in the drawer.

It’s not really what I want anyway: (I’m shaking my head as I write this phrase.) We cannot (and should not) give up greatness because it is too hard. If you want something: GO. DO. Carpe Diem is thousands of years old. Seize the damn day people!

Support-Erin Burrell
Sometimes we need a little support

It’s hard for a reason

If the things you hope to achieve are easy, they aren’t special. When you reflect on the lessons you have learned in the process you will be reminded why so many people never get to say they did this or that. Many years from now you might think back to a challenge you were faced with and it won’t be the finish line that you reflect on, but the hurdles along the way that you defeated.

Remember that you are overcoming something in order to feel the joy of achievement. The rush of victory is a powerful motivator, but you have to get out of your own head and stop listening to your excuses.

Stop being polite and start taking names

Excuses are your enemy. Between you and I we can come up with heaps of them.

Reasons why you shouldn’t be the hero in your story. Reasons why that goal was too big for you. Even reasons why you don’t deserve that achievement.

We are WRONG. The world is yours. Goals are specifically designed to be stacked up and knocked down like freaking dominoes.

Keep moving forward

My friend Anna was writing something that wasn’t easy to say. She is a woman of many talents and professions and had lots of reasons to walk away from the keyboard. BUT she didn’t. She pushed past the voices in her head that told her not to finish it. (You can see her thoughts on a page over at Too Convoluted. She’s funny and honest, read her stuff.)

Facing these fears and thoughts of inadequacy is never easy. They might have slowed her progress, but they didn’t stop her, she kept writing. One. Word. At. A. Time.

It took longer than it should have. It was harder than it usually is. It is some of her more thoughtful writing and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. I get to say that because, she did it. She was marked by ambition, energy, enterprise, and initiative into one side and out the other side. I know that her next goal will be bigger, harder, and more complex than the last and I can’t wait to cheer her on.

There is no easy button on things worth pursuing.

No, it isn’t easy. No, it isn’t fast. It is, however really freaking worth it.

She was reminded (as was I) that by persevering past the blockage, that she could. The mere fact that she was able to do this thing reminds us all that we can continue to pursue bigger goals and achievements.

Pushing through to greatness

  1. Don’t apologise for wanting something for yourself.
  2. Surround yourself with empowering people who don’t accept excuses. They can help get you through the hard times.
  3. Choose big, hairy, goals. Goals that intimidate regular people. Goals that make you a bit afraid just by thinking about them. Then when you accomplish them you will dance by the light of victory.
  4. Use your fear of failure (and actual failures) as fuel. Let them remind you that the odds of achieving your goals can improve when you learn from your previous mistakes
  5. Don’t stop trying until you get there. Famous entrepreneurs, athletes, celebrities cite failure as their strongest motivational factor. A friend and accomplished endurance cyclist gave me some advice on how to achieve a goal. His thought was that any forward momentum, no matter how slow or small was getting you closer to your goal.

It is because I continue to be inspired by great people like Anna that I have accomplished what I have so far. Hopefully, these few words help to remind you that you are capable of doing something great as well.

Personal Reflection-increasing understanding by making space

The need to have time to reflect is critical to solidify learning theories for students and professionals alike. By acknowledging the space between what we read or hear and what we already know we are able to create links between the two. It is through these associations that new ideas and perspectives are born.

Making time

When I headed back to school to complete my MBA in 2012 I had an instructor (Kim Gunning-Mooney)  recommend we focus on taking the time to reflect. She explained what I think was some version of my description above (honestly I was mentally and physically exhausted for most of MBA so I can’t guarantee that I am totally accurate here, but she deserves credit), and rationalized that we would never imagine what this space could do for the development of our ideas.

Honestly, I thought it was crap. What would writing down my thoughts about what I had read, seen, or heard do for my ability to write an assignment or to do my job?

LOTS!

We often don’t realise how our brains create connections, but in many cases it is when we aren’t studying a topic that we begin to understand it. Have you ever had that moment in the shower or driving to work when everything suddenly makes sense?

That is the power of space to reflect.

Creating connections

I spend a lot of my professional time telling stories to clients and partners. Customising the story to each individual is critical to making it relevant to them and this is where I discovered how reflection helps us make connections.

Many of the early years of my career were spent in the home improvement industry. This causes me to tell a lot of stories about how computer software/employee engagement /management/ marketing/leadership is like the plumbing in your home.

Stay with me here….

You often don’t take the time to think about your plumbing or FILL IN THE BLANK business challenge until it is broken and find yourself in a hurry to get it fixed before you are covered in poop. In a really bad circumstance, it is being covered in poop that tells you the problem exists in the first place.

The importance of the analogy (or any analogy really) is the fact that people can suddenly see the connection between two ideas and just how urgent or serious the challenge they are facing has become.

Our ability as experts to connect the dots matters more than the dots themselves

By walking away from a challenge, literally or figuratively we are able to encourage our brains to connect these new concepts with the information that we have already internalised.

Build compelling arguments

I used to follow my gut on everything. Gut instinct is a powerful thing, to be sure, but honestly it is meaningless when you are pitching a multi-million dollar venture to the board for sign off. You need to have evidence (shown through the connections) in order to make a point.

You: “Hey board of experts I just know that this is a good idea so can I have some cash, please?”

Them: “Yeah, nah bro.”

But when we have some evidence (I consider all ideas evidence to create a compelling argument), and then we combine it with gut instinct and past experiences we are able to make connections that create a compelling and successful business case in many situations.

You: “Hi board of experts we have a challenge and it can be met by combining this times that. We believe it will work because of this idea X connection = result and this idea X connection = result.”

Them: “Well of course! Here are your millions of dollars”

Yes, this may be a bit of a simplified circumstance, but the likelihood of creating those connections is infinitely higher when take the time to reflect and internalise new information. A few steps that work for me are below, but feel free to reflect in whatever way you find effective.

  1. Write down what the content told you in your own words:
    1. Create a summary of what you read so that a fifth grader can understand it.
    2. Journal about the items you are reading. When you start telling the story you connect items without thinking about it.
    3. If you can’t summarise it yet, that’s ok move to step 2
  2. Brainstorm around the topic:
    1. Use a mind map or fishbone diagram to list concepts and create connections between them. The lines are the part that matters most
    2. Use a word blurb to see what concepts repeat most in the article. Tools like Wordle are awesome for this.
    3. Use your favourite method of brainstorming, the method is not as important as taking the time to do it
  3. Walk away
    1. Go for a run, take your kids to the park, binge watch some OITNB, read a trashy novel, it doesn’t matter what it is just get away from the work for a few minutes/hours/days as your timeline allows and let your brain do its thing.

What’s in it for you?

This is the age-old question when we put a task in front of someone. Why would you give up something you value (time, space, money) in exchange for this thing?

Reflecting makes connections faster than reading or listening to lectures alone. It helps us to find ways to internalise the idea and merge it with our personal expertise to make it valid and relevant. AND even if you don’t get anything special from it at that moment, we are raising our likelihood for shower Ah ha! moments exponentially just by trying something new.

 

References:

Reflection is the most important part of the learning process

Mind Tools Brainstorming

Acting on your research: The business and humanities merger

Most of my career and definitely throughout my academic efforts, I have attempted to make immediate use of the knowledge I acquire. For me, application (or in some cases failed application) is in direct correlation with my ability to understand concepts clearly. What I didn’t realise was that despite being traditionally business-focused, many models of planning and research are pretty much the same, just with fancier pictures and acronyms in some cases.

In business we have models, and in the humanities we have models, while most people are loyal to one side very little keeps them apart. The main difference between the two seems to be a bit of editing and marketing jargon. Business, as we know is overwhelmed with buzz-words and visual tools to support memory and application. The humanities seems to be equally filled with people using big words to tell the story a picture could effectively convey.

One of these is just like the other

While neither approach is right or wrong, the more we understand the similarities, the more the two disciplines can merge for more effective implementation.

Action Research

The goal of action research is to learn from current and past experiences (through data analysis, interviews, literature reviews, etc.) and arrive at new approaches to problem-solving.

Following seven basic steps action research allows the researcher to make informed decisions about what is working or not working and arrive at conclusions that allow them to put their learning into practice to improve the life of the participants.

  1. Select focus: Identify the problem area
  2. Clarify theories: Perform preliminary research around the topic to ensure a clear understanding of challenges currently valid
  3. Identify research question: narrowing the field of purview to a single question
  4. Collect data: Through first person study or literature review
  5. Analyse data: with the research question in mind
  6. Report results: share with those involved
  7. Take informed action: based on what you know

Sounds simple right?

What I didn’t see at the beginning of the exercise was that this model is just the same as one that I have been using for years. I wasn’t calling it action research I was calling it lean management.

Lean Management-PDCA

The goal of lean management and the PDCA model is to focus on continuous improvement and the elimination of muda (waste). Muda is described by Kaizen World with 9 types of waste including wasted time, effort, and motion. This description is broader that the seven types traditionally listed, but is relevant for today’s environment.

Elimination of muda can focus on items like efficiency in production, reducing wait times, inventory maximisation (human or physical), ultimately resulting in process improvement.

Contrary to many opinions, lean management application is not limited to the traditional environment of manufacturing where it was born at Toyota. Lean methodologies are being used to create better human workflows and more effective automation in categories like marketing and health care.

  1. Plan: Identify the challenge and what you want to change
  2. Do: Carry out the test in a small (hopefully low risk) environment or pilot project
  3. Check: Identify what worked and what didn’t
  4. Act/Adjust: Place new knowledge into application

Sure, lean does in four steps what action does in seven, but what is really different? Nothing. The same concepts hold true for both. The more work you do planning and analysing, the more capable you will be of making change that is significant and valuable to participants.

So, what does this teach me? It reminds me that business and humanities are closer than I think. It also tells me that as my knowledge builds the ability to translate concepts from one to the other will be empowering.

Resources

Wikipedia PDCA

What is Action Research?

Kaizen for Dummies

Kaizen World

Everyone wins when everyone pulls-Cycling Lessons on Leadership

A few years ago I made a commitment to ride my bike across Canada with the Coast to Coast Against Cancer Foundation as a method to raise funds and awareness for paediatric cancer. I expected emotional and physical challenges as we crossed the vast landscape, but what I never thought was that I would learn lessons on leadership at the same time.
Organised sports have long been cited as being the foundation for adults and youth alike to take on challenges as a team and work to achieve them. However, in the more traditional team environment the role of leader is traditionally filled through a coach or manager who comes with more experience. This often limits the opportunity to have those not comfortable with leadership roles to step up and try them on.

Everyone Pulls

What road cycling taught me was that in a great team EVERYONE holds a leadership position. Certainly there are those that are naturally stronger and are able to carry more of the weight, but a great peloton (cycling formation) is formed with a balanced approach.

When each person takes a turn in the front of the group (referred to as pulling), the rest of the team can take a moment to recover their strength at the back so they are ready for their next turn. This small reprieve from the wind or weather provides each individual a chance to rest and reset.

Short Turns

Now, not everyone is ready to pull for hundreds of kiliometres, but even just a short stint at the front can help to build confidence and skill for those with less experience. It also provides those with knowledge and talent to pull beside the less accomplished rider and help them to improve as individuals.

Is it the journey or the destination?

These short stints as group leader might not be as fast or as smooth a ride as those led by one of the more talented riders in the group, but in the end the whole team can arrive at their destination just the same. Each time I was empowered to pull despite being the least skilled rider, I felt more connected to my team and was able to push my own boundaries further. As a result of pushing outside my comfort zone I improved and became a better contributor to the team as a whole.

In business we often default to doing things with the same people “pulling” because it is what we know. This leaves the bulk of the team hiding from the weather and wind and coasting along behind without a chance to learn and grow. It also often causes a rift between those at the front and those at the back because they never get the time to bond and share skills if they don’t switch positions and see the view from another persons saddle.

Maybe it takes a few more minutes to arrive so everyone can contribute, or maybe it means getting rained on, but each person got to grow through the process. This results in making the whole team more capable of meeting the next challenge.

In the end if the entire team meets its goal, does it make any difference how you got there? 

Why consultants need to say NO

Often a client is hiring a consultant to validate a decision they have already made. While in many cases the client is correct in their assessment of what might be broken in their organisation, they are probably not as well versed on the best way to reach a solution as the consultant likely is.

Consultants get hired because they have been exposed to multiple scenarios that occur in the same industry or vertical. They have met business challenges with different approaches and learned along the way what works, doesn’t work, and where the risks are. That knowledge is why businesses engage with consultants.

As consultants, we need to balance customer service and our desire to have repeat business with doing the right thing for our client. Sometimes that requires us to say NO.

Why no isn’t a bad word

As a client hearing no with the right logic and a contrary approach isn’t a bad thing as long as good judgment and reasoning are there. If an alternate solution is safer, faster, better for long-term growth, employee satisfaction, or fill in the blank, they will hear you and respond accordingly.

Actually client X, I see the correct approach as blah, blah, because of logic blah and blah. At alternate client Y we had success using this approach, because blah, and learned the following blah.

However, this means that we as consultants need to think before we speak. You cannot just blurt out the fact that the client’s approach is wrong; you must craft your response with evidence and examples. Once you have shared your reply, they should be at least considering your irrefutable proof. If they still refuse to follow your route, you have offered them a solid reason for how they should approach their challenges and that is where you are valuable.

When the client ignores your advice

Accept it. Move on, and think carefully if you want them as a client in the future. Logos on your client reel aren’t worth badly implemented programs so make sure that if you are going to do it their way, you can make the execution a success.

No fee or client logo is worth a black mark on your reputation.

4 rules of hiring: How to build a team (not just fill a desk)

Now Hiring
Now Hiring

Throughout my career, I have been lucky enough to build and create teams on a number of occasions. I have discovered that more often than not, it isn’t just about skills.  Great teams need a blend of the skills to do the job, fit to work together, personalities that are different and diverse, and so much more.

When I hire and recruit I see people that are about to be more than colleagues. I see the potential of chats over coffee, or some trash talking over late night deliverables. I see people who will not just meet the skills I require, but will truly complement those who already work there. I hire to put people with different talents and backgrounds together to work to enrich everyone’s experience. A friend of mine just started on the process of helping to build on an existing team so I thought I would share the advice I gave him with you.

My advice was simple: you want the place you and your team spend all this time away from partners, kids and friends to give them something. You want to create a workplace that is providing inspiration and motivation for your team to DO more and BE more, so when you are crafting that for a team take these four simple rules into account:

1.    Make a list:

Hiring people that have the right attitude is fantastic, but before you even meet them in person they need to have the right skills for your organization. Hiring is like dating, you need to know what you want from them before you have that cocktail. If you want someone who will run triathlons with you, you might not want to date the guy that plays hockey seven days a week.

2.    Translate the company culture in the interview process:

Making sure someone is right for your organization is YOUR job as the interviewer. You are responsible for making sure that your suit and tie culture isn’t crashed with someone in flip flops or that your philosophy of people and customers first isn’t overrun by someone chasing profit over quality.

Share the vision of the company and see that the candidate understands what you are trying to accomplish. If being passionate about customer service is a part of who you are make sure they know that before you put an offer in front of them.

3.    Bring it all together by mixing it up:

Once you have candidates that meet your skills criteria AND your corporate culture you need to look for how they are going to work with the other people on your team. I have learned through experience that hiring a bunch of people who are identical in terms of background, and skill sets creates a single opinion on a team.

You want to mix cultures, experience and personalities in order to create an ecosystem that works to improve what they need to deliver. These different people can challenge one another in a complimentary way and with that they will improve process, support one another through challenges and drive one another forward.

4.    Accept that you might make mistakes:

Sometimes it doesn’t work with someone or you just hired the wrong person.

They may be disruptive with your team, not capable to do your company’s version of a task, or just plain toxic. As hiring managers we have to accept that sometimes regardless of the screening and due diligence we put candidates through someone might not work out.

Accept it and move on. We can’t all be right every time.

We spend thousands of hours at work every year. THOUSANDS. A perfect forty hour work week with four weeks of vacation adds up to roughly 2000 hours in the office each year. Add in those late nights, early mornings, Sunday night flights and emergency calls while at brunch on Saturdays and the hours can really add up. So when you are recruiting do your best to make them count for yourself and your team.

The power of “I don’t know”

So often people are afraid to look unprepared in a meeting and because of this will make something up rather than just admitting that they don’t know the answer. These ad hoc answers are often incomplete at best and completely wrong at worst and do nothing to move the business forward.

It’s not worth the risk…

Many years ago I worked on the sales floor of a Home Depot store.  This is a place where the wrong answer can cause a customer to be electrocuted from bad wiring advice or see their basement flooded from bad plumbing directions.  This is where I learned to say that I didn’t know.

The risks of the wrong answer were just too high to take, so instead you offered “I’m not sure, but let’s find out together”.

In the end I learned as the customer learned and was better prepared to answer the question the next time a customer asked me.

Changing my habits

A few years ago I started to implement this in my work life. If I didn’t know the answer I said so and would do the research and follow up with the correct response as the information became available. This meant that I became a resource that learned the answers in many categories because I was spending a great deal of time researching each vertical.

At first I was afraid that saying I didn’t know would make people think I was unprepared, but it became quite the opposite. People discovered that if they added questions into the meeting notices I would come armed with as much information as I could and realized that if I gave an answer it was because I had the research to support it.

Challenge the desire to know everything. There is no person who can possibly know everything.  Experts in all categories reference their research and that of others before they make a claim.

So if you don’t know, don’t bullshit. Accept it and start digging up the answers.

Cold calls don’t need to be clammy

Please stop spamming my Linkedin profile.

I understand, its the end of the year and as a sales person you have quotas that you have to meet.  I’m not judging you for using your premium account to search out people like me that may need your good or service, but don’t let yourself think I’m not judging your approach.

“Dear Sir,”

Your first failing: I am plainly a female and would have preferred that since my first AND last name are already on my profile you would be best to address me as Erin, Ms. Burrell or even the slightly more annoying Mrs. Burrell. It would have only taken a moment to edit that form letter to incorporate my name. A clever person may even find a method to automate the Linkedin message to include a pull of the name I have displayed.

“It appears that my (fill in the blank good or service) may be of use to you or your company”

Can you get more generic? It appears to me that you did not take the time to READ my profile or do any research about where I work or what I do. Had you taken the time to read my info you may have realized that 1) your service might not actually be relevant to me,  2) I am actually responsible for providing the very service you are selling, or 3) This girl needs what you have to sell… tell me more!

I’m not saying that I dislike cold calls. They are sometimes a cost of doing business. You as a sales person need to create relationships, but ask yourself: Would you approach a potential future spouse this way?

Google just told me there is a guy that has the following tags associated with him: #job #car #doesntliveinparentsbasement.  He’s perfect!

Dear Sir,

I think that you and I would be a great fit since I want to marry someone who does not live in their parents basement.

Please reach out to me soon to discuss our upcoming marriage.

Best,

Random Girl

416.XXX.XXXX

randomgirl@youhaventmetyet.com

What?  You think that is a bad idea?

Some of my best professional relationships have been started with a well-researched cold call, but I can’t tell you how much more likely you are going to be to get a reply if you at least know why you are reaching out to me. Figure out how your goods/service would best fit my organization/role and use my name and that of my organization in your message.

If you spend the time to do at least that, I will read the rest of your message and likely even send you a reply. If you cannot take the time, I am afraid that neither can I.

Kotter is my Pal

It’s funny, when I started writing each new paper I kept hitting a wall when I wanted to credit my sources.  When I was attempting to follow the formal rules for citing a source, I was also breaking apart the framework that made my argument solid with a clumsy transition from my interpretation of the idea into the actual source of the idea itself.

It just occurred to me that the easiest papers to read were written as though the writer had just had a chat with the original idea guy or gal.  They were discussing a concept and using evidence from other peoples work seamlessly because of the level of familiarity that they had with the raw concept and the source writer.

In many cases the research papers and journal articles that I am reading are written by some of the greatest minds in the business community.  These writers are prolific and have produced books, articles, case studies and even have YouTube channels all about their concepts.  What I discovered is that I too, am getting to know these brilliant minds.  I now understand and can use examples from the different works because I am getting familiar with their theories.

I will be referring to these gifted academics in papers (respectfully and with the correct CMOS footnotes) as though I know them.  The risk of not giving sources credit is too high to not work as hard as I can at finding a way to do this well.  I am going to try this approach for my next two papers.  Kaplan, Miles, Kotter et al are now my friends and trusted inner circle.  Starting today I will be crediting them the same way I would credit an idea from a call with my mom or lunch with a friend.

My goal from this test is to see if it helps my writing become fluid again and see if it helps me to take some of the crispy tone out of the sentences supported by a citation.  From what I understand this is a skill that needs practice and will someday become something I no longer have to work at.  Until such time as I can integrate credit with the best of them, these celebrities of academia are my peeps.