8 Skills Everybody Needs

Whatever work one does, from start -up founder to pastry chef, automotive mechanic to chief financial officer, it is interesting that we all need the same short list of skills to become successful.

Consultants are often advised to hone and promote fluency in the skills listed here but everyone who works—-business owner, Freelancer, or employee—-taps into these skills on a regular basis. Your hair stylist and the guys who do your yard work use the same skills as your bookkeeper and your periodontist and if they didn’t, you wouldn’t have hired them. Let’s remind ourselves of what we really need to know in life.


Because when we wake up in the morning, we never know what the day will bring. One may learn, for example, that a potentially lethal and highly contagious virus, for which there is no reliable antidote, has entered our country by way of a meeting of executives employed by a prestigious biotechnology company.

When those who attended the meeting returned home and went about their daily lives, some of them infected people with whom they interacted. Very quickly first hundreds, then thousands, of citizens contracted the virus and many died. In an attempt to block the spread of the virus, governors in all 50 states ordered nearly half of commercial enterprises, plus all schools, government offices, libraries, museums and other public spaces, closed. So what did we citizens do?

We adapted as much as possible, that’s what. Grocery stores, the post office and other entities deemed essential were allowed to remain open. Many business owners and leaders found ways to keep their ventures functioning, with revisions.

Millions of knowledge economy workers used their personal computers to work from home, as department heads kept their teams united with videoconference meetings. Schools quickly switched from classroom to online learning (many colleges long ago added online courses).

Retail stores sold merchandise through their already robust e-commerce websites. Personal trainers and fitness instructors contacted their clients and followers and invited them to participate in outdoor workouts. We did what we had to do and we got by.

Creative thinking

Whether or not an out-of- the-box solution is needed, every once in a while it’s fun to bring innovative flair to a plain vanilla task. Whatever the motivation, resourcefulness and creative thinking are appreciated, because the need for an end run or a work-around can be part of daily life. Sometimes, one needs all of that just to get through the morning commute!

Creative thinking is often associated with the arts or architectural design. But during the COVID shutdown wedding planners, who were watching the ground give way beneath their feet, flexed their creative genius to reimagine weddings for panicked brides and grooms. That often meant broadcasting the ceremony virtually and rescheduling the reception for the following year.

Creative thinking can also reach back into the past for an innovative solution. This year, the New York Film Festival, barred from using shuttered movie theaters, will debut its contenders at drive-in theaters in the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs.


Dependability, judgment and expertise are the three pillars of professional credibility. These attributes add up to trust and trust is what gets one hired and motivates customers to give referrals. People do business with people they like. They do more business with people they trust.


As it is often said, it’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it. You’ve got to know how to talk to people.

One of the best ways to communicate with someone is to not talk (much), but tlisten. Use nonverbal cues to demonstrate that you are following the narrative. Ask questions to clarify or confirm what you think you’ve heard. Pay attention and let others know that you value them and their opinions (even when you see things differently).


Here’s the reality—-when a big decision is on the table, we seldom have access to as much information as we feel would be helpful as we weigh the possibilities. It is frustrating, to be sure, and we’ve all been there. The thought of taking the wrong path makes the stomach queasy.

But at some point, one must make a move and travel to the left or right, say yes or no, or leave well enough alone. Or, one can elect to put the matter aside and revisit it within a certain period of time.

If a decision carries impact, it cannot be ignored. The fear inspired tactic known as analysis- paralysis, where information is considered and reconsidered ad nauseum, is counterproductive. The best way to improve the quality of information to use as a guide for wise decision-making is to ask the right questions.


Nearly every purchase one makes is intended to solve a problem, from a bottle of juice (thirst) to calling Lyft (door2door, on-time transportation). Whether the items your company sells are products or services, you’ll make more money when you 1.) understand the business you are really in, by thinking through the underlying motive for the purchase, beyond the obvious, and 2.) design your marketing strategies and sales pitch to reflect item #1.


Many hands make for light work. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Teamwork and collaboration lie between those warring poles and a real professional will persuade others to join him/her in the sweet spot.

Someone must step up and take the lead on a project of any magnitude. Those responsible can draw up an action plan, complete with due dates. Milestones or a mid-point check-in will help to keep everyone on schedule and ensure that mistakes have not been made.

If everyone holds up their end and the project is completed on time, you’ve got a team. If a mistake is discovered and corrected in a timely fashion with the help of your colleagues then congratulations, you’ve got a high-functioning team.

Time management

The ability to prioritize and organize, enabled by an action plan that includes target completion dates, are the three pillars of time management. Understand and get agreement from stakeholders and decision-makers regarding mission- critical tasks. Confirm that team members and other collaborators have the time to produce what has been asked of them within the desired time frame.

Thanks for reading,


Photograph: Kim Clark, February 2019. Choreographic Objects, installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston by William Forsythe (a choreographer who works with world- class ballet companies)

Bad Decisions: Or, Why We Screw Up

Research has shown that every day, we make 2000 decisions, i.e. choices, by another name. Most of our decisions are minor and we make them quickly, almost without thinking. We decide what to wear to work in the morning, we choose whether to eat lunch now or in 30 minutes.

But a select few of our decisions have serious consequences and for that reason they demand serious thought, if not actual research. The choices we make affect our health, safety, finances, relationships, our time and our reputation. Ultimately, our decisions define our lives. Consistently making good decisions can be considered among the best things we can do for ourselves, in both our personal and professional lives. 

Now when we make a decision, we do not always have all of the information that we’d like to have. Sometimes, what one could reasonably expect to be a sound decision turns out to be less than positive because of factors that were unknown when the decision was made.

According to Michael Erwin, CEO of the not-for-profit organization The Character & Leadership Center, U.S. Army Reserves Lt. Colonel, Asst. Professor in Leadership and Psychology at the U.S. Military Academy /West Point and author of Lead Yourself First (2006), those faced with an important decision should be mindful of the following conditions, which are capable of undermining good decision-making:

Decision fatigue

With so many decisions to make, especially those that will have a big impact on our own lives or the lives of others, it’s almost inevitable to avoid decision fatigue. To counter it, identify the most important decisions you need to make and arrange to make them when your energy levels are highest.

Social Psychologist Roy Bauminster studied mental discipline at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH and at Florida State University in Tallahassee.  His work indicates that it’s best to make important decisions in the morning after eating a light, nutritious breakfast. Our brains derive energy from healthy food and that helps us to comprehend and value long-term prospects and bolsters decision-making ability.  In the morning we have enough willpower to exercise the self-control needed for making important strategic or financial decisions.

Bauminster advises that we tackle big decisions first, before we have to make numerous smaller decisions that will sap energy and lead to decision fatigue.  So do your best to schedule client meetings for early in the day, before late afternoon, whenever possible. Write and pitch proposals early in the day as well.

According to the researcher Martin Hilbert, Professor of Communication at the University of California at Davis and instructor of the seminar Information and Communication Technology: A Venture into Applied Data Science, our brains process about five times the amount of information today as we processed in 1986. Consequently, many of us live in a continuous state of distraction and we struggle to focus. Ongoing distractions are detrimental to sleep, productivity, concentration and, yes, decision-making.

To counter this, schedule time each day to go offline and step away from email, social media, news and the onslaught of the Information Age. It’s easier said than done, but do-able if you make it a priority.

Insufficient information

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, IL found that in a typical meeting, an average of three people do 70% of the talking. As author Susan Cain describes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts (2012), many introverts are reluctant to speak up in meetings until they know precisely what they want to say. Unfortunately, introverts fairly often feel blocked by overly expressive extroverts and they keep their insights to themselves. As a result, decision-makers might ignore or gloss over certain possible answers or options, perhaps due to the bias of habit (“we’ve never done that before”).

Meeting conveners can temper this inclination by sending out a meeting agenda 24 hours in advance, to give everyone time to think about their questions and suggestions regarding the agenda items. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon the convener to create an environment that encourages all attendees (whether they participate physically or virtually) to contribute— i.e., speak up and share information and when necessary, persuade others to examine and question their assumptions.

Introverts often ask the right questions, or contribute great ideas and relevant information to their teams, because while the extroverts are busy talking over one another and doing whatever possible to monopolize the conversation, introverts are quietly listening and thinking, questioning and analyzing. Decision-makers can greatly benefit from input supplied by the quiet members of their team.


There are few jobs left in the world today that don’t require at least some multi-tasking. While that’s the reality, research pioneered in 2009 by Earl Miller, Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that performance, including productivity and effective decision-making, can be diminished by as much as 40% when we attempt to focus on two (or more) cognitive tasks simultaneously. When called to make an important decision, set aside a block of time so that you can devote the required thought and focus to the question (or task).

Analysis Paralysis

The Information Age has deluged us with an abundance of information—Big Data, algorithms and a vast array of metrics— and there’s almost no end to the amount of information one can access. However, more information doesn’t necessarily lead to the best result.

Information overload can hinder the decision-making process; the more information there is to consider, the longer it takes to make the decision. Which data thread should we follow? Analysis-Paralysis, which is an expression of confusion and fear, can set in.

Because time is often a factor in big decisions, knowing when to draw the line on data gathering and move forward to finalizing your decision is a valuable leadership skill. While the decision-making process should be thorough, the best way to make good decisions is not to continually search for more information but instead to understand what information will be useful, review the selected data, set a decision-making deadline and adhere to it.


Strong emotions have the power to impair one’s ability to make sound decisions and it is advisable to delay important decisions when one is angry, frustrated, excited, or even very happy. May I also include fatigue, inebriation, illness, pain and hunger in this category?

During those times, one’s ability to reason and take a measured and balanced view of an important question or unfolding events usually disappears. When blood sugar drops, a trip to the grocery store often results in a shopping basket filled with the wrong foods. Sending an email when angry or frustrated can present a danger to one’s career or business, since the temptation to use provocative or even harsh language could be strong and the ability to self-censor may be low. Likewise, inebriation, fatigue, illness and pain may potentially diminish one’s ability to think clearly and reach a rational decision about anything of importance.

When faced with an important decision while in the grip of strong emotions or similar feelings, honor your emotional state and focus on self-control. Give yourself time to calm down and gain perspective on what is happening. Forgive yourself, postpone your response, breathe and take a time-out. Have a cup of tea. If possible, you might also take a nap or a shower. Resist the temptation to respond to people or make decisions while you’re flustered or agitated.

Thanks for reading,


Image: Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Belgium, June 1577 – May 1640) The Fall of Man, Adam and Eve 1628-1629, courtesy of The Prado Museum, Madrid

How to Make Better Decisions

Making good decisions is a crucial life skill and a defining component of success in life and business but so many times we wonder what the best course of action might be. Theoretically, we make decisions after evaluating the available information, weighing the potential impact of our actions (or inaction) and determining what appears to be the best option. But truth be told, we rarely have all the information that could guide us as we decide and as a result, decision-making is loaded with unknowns. Not only that, our perception of the best course of action is inevitably shaped by our past experiences and personal biases.

Fortunately, methods exist that have been designed to limit some percentage of the unknowns and biases inherent in decision-making. One approach, a type of strategic planning known as scenario planning, has been attributed to 1950s era executives at the RAND Corporation.

In its most simplified form, scenario planning involves imagining three possible future environments for each decision alternative: a future where things get better, a future where things get worse and a future where they stay about the same. Scenario planning also allows decision-makers to factor in variables: what you know, what you don’t know and what you don’t know you don’t know.

Scenario planning requires decision-makers (and strategic planning teams) to think outside the box and imagine what might happen if a certain road is taken and then create a story line that “paints a picture” of what your life or business will look like while on that road.

When faced with an important decision, we all tell ourselves a story that describes an idealized version of what our life will look like if we do (or avoid) a certain thing. For example, if you’re thinking of changing careers, you tell yourself a story of how much more satisfying and/or lucrative work will become if you make the change. If you’re considering a move to a warmer climate because you’ve had enough of winter, your story focuses on the avoidance of snow and ice and the warm, soft breezes that await in the new location.

If you include a scenario planning exercise in your decision process, you’ll be encouraged to fill in a few more potentially relevant details that go beyond the rosy picture that you paint as you daydream about new possibilities. If you’re seriously considering a job change, scenario planning will guide you to fully investigate, among other things, the credentials or professional experience you must earn to successfully change careers and how much time and money that will cost you. The ROI of the career change is another component you’ll examine as you objectively evaluate your likely job prospects and reasonable expectations for professional advancement and earning ability.

In addition to scenario planning, there is also a clever decision-making support tactic called the “pre-mortem” that was developed by psychologist Gary Klein, Ph.D. and his team in 1989. Inspired by the post mortem, when a coroner or hospital pathologist performs an autopsy on the deceased to determine the cause of death, Klein’s pre-mortem technique flips the script. “Our exercise,” Dr. Klein explains, “is to ask decision-makers to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out—-and it has failed. That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed.”

So you think you want to move to Florida? OK, so you move down in early November, just ahead of winter. You’ve got no snow to shovel and that’s a relief. But there are alligators on the golf course and you know, those things eat pets and people. You’ve been down there for 8 months and you’ve had to call an exterminator 3 times because there are these scary bugs crawling through your house. Not only that, but Christmas didn’t feel like Christmas when the temperature was 80 degrees. Oh, and in the winter everyone you know begged to stay with you for a week so they could escape the snow and ice but you were in no mood to entertain people because your vacation is scheduled for August. Maybe this move was not the greatest choice? The pre-mortem will make you think about many potential downsides to your decision and help you understand if you can live with the fallout.

Klein attests that the pre-mortem has proved to be a much more effective way to recognize the lurking flaws in a decision. Magical thinking, from groupthink to confirmation bias, blinds us to potential pitfalls once we’ve become attached to a decision. By forcing ourselves to imagine scenarios where a decision turned out to be disastrous, we can discover the holes in the plan.

Eventually you must pull the trigger and commit to a decision. In some cases, working through the initial phases of decision-making will lead to an obvious choice. But if a decision you can accept still seems unattainable, the final phase can be completed with an old-school pros and cons list. What have you got to lose?

Thanks for reading,

Image: Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848 – May 8, 1903) detail of “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1978-98) courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Exercise Leadership in the New Year

Physically fit people are in general healthier, smarter,  physically and psychologically stronger,  younger looking, less stressed,  more disciplined and more focused than their sedentary peers,  according to medical researchers and exercise physiologists. These attributes benefit all of us and they in particular serve Freelance consultants and business owners very well.

The tangible and intangible benefits of exercise are directly transferrable to our business lives,  for what a successful Freelance consultant must be is calm,  disciplined, focused, resourceful and prepared to overcome challenges, seize opportunities and deliver excellent results every time.

Because the self-employed typically have more control over our schedules that should make it easier to begin and maintain a regular exercise regimen.  Researchers recommend that to achieve the  best results of an exercise regimen,  we should aim to get at least 45 minutes of weight lifting, cardio, core training and/or yoga at least four times per week.

Surfer and CEO of Manhead Merch, Chris Cornell, shared a few reasons for making the sport  (that is, physical fitness regimen) of surfing part of his life and business strategy.

Better perspective

As we go through life, we are eventually able to view challenges in a more balanced way.  What appeared to be a life-altering crisis at age 21 is all in a day’s work by the time we turn 35.  Because working out regularly makes us physically and psychologically stronger,  it prepares its practitioners to fight stress and fatigue.  “Working out serves as a life balance and centering point for me,” according to Cornell.

More creative

In Cornell’s experience he has observed that “Working out while being alone with your thoughts enhances creative awareness. You are more mentally sharp and physically settled at the same time”, he notes.

I’m not the most creative person that you’ll meet,  yet most of my clients , colleagues and friends I believe would consider me to be resourceful.  As a matter of fact,  during my work outs (and especially, in the post-work out shower) solutions to vexing problems have come to me.

Improved decision-making

Those who work out regularly learn to listen to their bodies and their intuition and they are able to figure out what is and is not good for them. They eventually  learn when to work through a problem, or when to walk away, for that is what is encountered in the gym.

Am I too tired to continue this workout? Am I injured and should I do a light work out, or take a few days off and make an appointment to see a chiropractor or an orthopedic surgeon? Decision fatigue and general indecision is diminished.


Formidable challenges await in the gym and in the business arena. In the gym,  one learns to dig deep and push through the challenges.  As you train to do this physically,  you also train to do it psychologically. Working out makes us stronger and more resilient. It is a confidence booster, as studies have shown. One develops the mental strength to face down onerous tasks and take them on with everything you’ve got.

If you regularly visit your local gym and/or participate in a sport,  you have experienced and appreciate the numerous benefits of exercise.  If you are among the 80% of Americans who is sedentary,  why not rethink your strategy and view your exercise regimen as an activity that confers competitive advantages?

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading,















12 Sample Customer Survey Questions

In numerous posts over the years,  I’ve recommended that you conduct customer service surveys to guide your decision-making as you refresh your brand,  update your business model,  promote client retention,  stimulate referrals or initiate any other changes in your business practices.  Customer surveys can unearth all sorts of interesting and actionable data.  A dozen well-written questions can  give revealing insights into what drives the need for your services,  what persuades decision-makers to choose you instead of a competitor and customer expectations that may not be immediately apparent.  Surveys help you learn how your operation stacks up against the competition and can identify business strengths and weaknesses.

To give you inspiration,  I hereby provide a few sample questions.  Send your customer survey along with the final invoice of a project.  Include it on your website,  Facebook, Google + or LinkedIn page.  Announce it on your Twitter feed.

  1. What service did (the company) provide for you?
  2. What factors made you decide to hire (the company) for this project?
  3. Do you feel that your project contact/manager acted in your best interests and your organization’s?
  4. How closely did (the company) adhere to the agreed-upon project timeline?
  5. Do you feel that your project contact/manager responded to your requests for information and other inquiries in a timely fashion?
  6. Considering the value of this project to your organization,  how do you feel about the amount paid as compared to the value received?
  7. If you feel that you received poor value,  please describe the problem (s).  How do you feel about the process of providing resolution?
  8. Would you be willing to invite (the company) to work with you on another project?
  9. Are there additional services that you wish (the company) would provide?
  10. How often do you typically hire outside project-specific workers?
  11. Based on the experience of working with (the company) would you be willing to recommend to a friend or colleague?
  12. Do you have any suggestions for improving the services provided,  or related administrative matters?

Thank you for your feedback. Your honest opinions are sincerely appreciated.

A big part of growing a successful business is through referrals and repeat business.  Clients only return to you or recommend your services when they are extremely satisfied with your performance and have a high degree of confidence in your operation.  Your clients possess a wealth of information that may not only give you the opportunity to bring solutions to their problems and increase your revenues as a result,  but may also give you ideas about how you might attract new business.  The only way to access this information is to ask your clients and listen to their answers.

Thanks for reading,


Howdy, Partner!

It is said that two heads are better than one and that is often true.  When two people join forces to work on an important goal,  expertise and resources are shared and the goal is reached more quickly.  Moreover,  there is someone available to help make decisions,  someone to vent frustrations and celebrate victories with.  Human beings are social animals.  Most of us have an intimate partner in our life,  or would like one.   Many aspiring business owners and entrepreneurs would like to have a partner in their enterprise,  as well.

A life or business partner can bring many advantages to a relationship,  or can bring disaster.   Most business partnerships fail and nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce.  Your marriage partner and your business partner must each be chosen with care and an eye to the future.  Opposites may attract,  but they are usually unsustainable affairs.  Shared values,  goals,  priorities,  expectations,  vision for the enterprise and complementary skills are the ties that bind.

Before you start talking partnership with your presumed intended,  catalogue the resources that the business needs to reach and sustain profitability.  Consider what you are willing to give up to obtain those resources.  If you need start-up or expansion capital,  approaching a lending institution may be the best strategy.  If your financial projections indicate that business revenues generated will allow you to repay the borrowed money within 5 years and also your credit is good,  talk to your accountant and banker and figure out a loan strategy.  If specific expertise is what the business needs,  then write-up job specs and hire employees.

If money is the primary issue and you prefer to finance privately,  then some form of partnership is your money-raising strategy.  Calculate the optimal amount of capital investment required and ask your accountant or business attorney to estimate how much ownership you will likely have to relinquish to your investing partner.   If it appears that you cannot afford to keep at least 51%,   then consider taking on two partners and giving yourself controlling interest.  Never split 50 – 50,  to avoid becoming deadlocked on important decisions.  In my business plan writing workshop,  I emphasize that you have to know yourself when you’re in business.  Think objectively about how much of a presence of others in your business you can tolerate.  Your personality type may lead you to seek a limited or silent partner arrangement,  a partner who mostly wants to make money and believes in your ability to operate the business wisely.

However,  you may conclude that you need a general partner,  one who makes both a monetary investment and contributes expertise and business acumen.   You will then have to accept that there is more than one way to view challenges,  opportunities and risks and that decision-making will be shared.   Those realities are always big adjustments for the founding partner.  Additionally,  you and the partner must carve out your respective roles and responsibilities in the business.  Be sure also to address the amount of time the partner plans to contribute weekly.  Can you live with that?  The division of labor must be established and written into the partner agreement.   Check also the presumed partner’s financial history.   Do not form a partnership with one who carries heavy debt.

Finally,  include an exit strategy in the partner agreement.  Sometimes things don’t work out and someone wants out.  Protect the business and yourself with a partner buy-out option and provisions for the divorce,  illness,  or death of a partner.  Make sure you don’t wind up in business with an ex-spouse,  surviving spouse,  or the partner’s children.

Thanks for reading,


Self -Discipline, the Secret of Your Success

How do you build a successful life and business? Good fortune helps tremendously,  but it is possible to if not actually create your own good luck,  then create the drive needed to build the best life possible.  Business coach and strategy consultant Dan Kennedy advises that we develop self-discipline.  To help our understanding of the concept, he breaks self-discipline into four parts:

Will power

Will power is the core of self-discipline.  It’s like a muscle and if we want to develop that muscle and ascend to self-discipline,  then practice is required.  As with running or weight lifting,  start small and gradually build to more challenging work.   Making yourself vacuum and do laundry could be a good place to start,  if those tasks bring out avoidance behavior in you.   Speaking of exercise,  scheduling and completing a certain number of weekly workouts is another way to simultaneously build our will power and physical muscles.   Set up a rewards program when important milestones are achieved.  Massages and facials are nice relaxing gifts to yourself.


Value and respect time and boundaries,  your own and that of others.  Cease immediately selfish and controlling behavior.  Appreciate that everyone has responsibilities that very likely must be completed within a certain time frame.  Calculate  in realistic terms how long it will take you to travel from point A to point B,  for example,  and give yourself the appropriate time to reach your destination at the appointed hour.  The pay-off to your reputation will be significant.


Kennedy notes that all achievement is fueled by decision-making.  If we acknowledge our priorities and then decide to make those priorities a reality,  then we will do what is necessary to ensure their creation and sustainability.   Self-discipline is integral to decision-making.  Refusing to exercise self-discipline has deleterious consequences.

Should we decide to not decide,  we table decision-making indefinitely and never become a responsible and productive adult.  If we are paralyzed by the process of decision-making,  we become trapped in a vortex and squander all opportunities to utilize or attract good fortune.  Such an individual becomes a wastrel.  Decision-making is goal setting and all self-disciplined individuals identify and pursue goals.


Kennedy points to three kinds of action,  which I interpret as an arc: planning,  implementation and completion.  Once the decision is made,  a plan is then created,  to give yourself a road map and timetable to bring your goal into reality.  In business,  one would think strategy and action planning.  Next,   implement your plan and see it through to completion,  making any necessary adjustments along the way.

This is the point at which self-discipline becomes essential.   As we all know,   many initiatives are begun with great enthusiasm,  but not all are completed.  Give your self-discipline a fighting chance and set SMART goals for yourself:  specific,  measurable,  attainable,  relevant and timely and then create a strategy and action plans that make achievement of your goals a likely possibility.  If you anticipate obstacles,   build into your strategy a way to overcome them.

Self-discipline is the foundation of a successful life and it brings many rewards,  not the least of which is integrity and authenticity.  I would consider those attributes to be the most desirable personal brand.

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year,


Leadership Starter Kit

Christmas Season notwithstanding,  I am busy this December and it feels so good! Catch my act on Wednesday December 4,  when Dalya Massachi of  “Writing Wednesdays” and I talk about the benefits derived when nonprofit leaders write a business plan for their organization.  3:00 PM EST,  2:00 PM CST,  1:00 PM MST,  12:00 PST. FREE! Register at http://www.writingtomakeadifference.com/writing-wednesdays

Readers in the Boston area may want to direct clients who are leaders at nonprofit organizations to get essential how-to information on business plan writing at my popular workshop “Become Your Own Boss: Effective Business Plan Writing”.  We’ll meet on three consecutive Wednesdays,  December 4, 11 & 18  5:30 PM – 7:30 PM at Boston Center for Adult Education 122 Arlington Street Boston 02116. Register at  http://bit.ly/1bP4uw9  or call 617.267.4430 class ID# 10190.

Congratulations,  you have been named project leader of a prestigious assignment.  You are thrilled to the gills,  but also apprehensive.  You have practical experience,  creativity and enthusiasm,  but you are not quite accustomed to such a front-and-center role.

You’ve scheduled a meeting to bring everyone together for the project kick-off,  where roles and responsibilities will be discussed,  timelines established,  milestones identified and important success factors and potential stumbling blocks will be acknowledged.  You know this is where you establish your bona fides and stake out your claim as the leader.  You are in charge and ideally you will project good natured authority and not arrogance or insecurity.  You are 20 years younger than several project team members.  How do you get this right ?

Introduce yourself

Welcome the team and thank them for participating on the project.  Express that you are very happy to work with such a talented and experienced group of professionals.  Without bragging,  state your professional experience as it relates to the project,  to let the group know that you are qualified and that they have every reason to trust your judgment and expertise.

Team introductions

Invite team members to participate in the standard round robin of introductions.

Confirm the project deliverables and due dates

Establish the expectations and begin to assign roles and responsibilities,  milestones and timelines.  Encourage team members to have a say in this process,  as they know more than you about how departments interact,  unspoken protocols and overall how to get things done.  Be secure enough to accept their suggestions,  as it will promote your credibility and earn you respect.

Ask questions

Pose questions that allow team members to contribute to the decision-making process and telegraph that you value their expertise.  Let team members share their knowledge.  Avoid being a know-it-all.

Listen carefully

Make team members feel heard and you will earn their confidence,  respect and loyalty.

Be humble

Team members must believe that you are qualified to lead the project,  but take care to portray yourself as a team player and a leader who wants to make everyone involved look successful.

Be empowering

Champion good ideas that are presented by team members,  and not just your own perspectives,  and you will build the team’s enthusiasm for and commitment to the project.  Respect and value the perspectives and recommendations that deep experience and long tenure bring.  Some ideas may fall by the wayside when explored in detail and others may turn out to be brilliant. Your tenured team members have the ability to make the project successful. Whatever happens,  empowering team members builds respect and loyalty and makes you look like (and be) a good leader. Remember also to be publicly generous with compliments.

Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving,


Intermediate Expert  Ezine Articles

Ezine Articles Intermediate Expert

To Work For a Nonprofit Board

Not-for-profit organizations make up the majority of my client list.  Frequently,  it is the executive board and not the executive director who contracts for my services.  Getting hired by an executive board is nearly always a challenge.  Typically,  a dozen  (or perhaps nearly twice that number)  people must approve both the proposed project and the service provider (me!).

Boards are always political and they are frequently hotbeds of strife and rivalries.  I have first-hand knowledge of board dynamics because for the better part of the past 20 years,  I’ve served on boards.  Board service can be tremendously rewarding or maddeningly frustrating.  I’ve experienced some of my most exhilarating victories and most painful defeats while serving on boards.  Through boards,  I’ve made good friends with whom I remain in contact and unfortunately,  more than a couple of lifelong enemies.  I understand boards very well.  In fact,  board development is a service that I offer to clients.

The problem with working on a per-project basis is that organizations are chronically understaffed and over-loaded with work,  both essential and ridiculous-but-required.  It is very easy to put anything that is not immediately urgent on the back burner forever.  The best way to get a project approved is to gain the confidence of a champion,  a person with authority and a budget,  or someone who can influence the one with the authority and budget,  and convince that individual to shepherd your project through the decision-making process and protect it from the inevitable naysayers who will oppose the project for reasons either understandable or mystifying.

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures in Los Angeles has compiled a list of the usual suspects who impact group decisions.  In addition to the players listed,  there will also be neutral people,  who can go either way.


The project champion is its greatest supporter.  This individual has oftentimes conceived the project and has a big stake in seeing it realized.   The most effective project champion has authority,  persuasive power,  well-positioned allies and access to funding.  The champion takes an active role in pushing the project forward,  lobbying for support and outmaneuvering those in opposition.  Any initiative that involves a group decision will die in committee without the support of an influential and active champion who will run interference and speak up to defend it.


Decision-makers often have someone who acts as the  “expert witness”  when important matters are evaluated.  This person may have a background that allows him/her to know well the specific needs of a project,  which guides the choice of who is hired.  Alternatively,  the expert may be one who has excellent judgment or a gift for playing devil’s advocate that helps the decision-makers see obstacles or even other options that might otherwise be overlooked.  This person has influence,  not authority,  but their recommendation carries weight.


The influencer probably does not possess the specific project knowledge of the expert,  but  he/she is a peer who has knowledge,   experience,  perspective and authority that the decision-makers respect.   He/she will be consulted or may volunteer an opinion when an important matter is up for discussion.


This person has significant tenure with the organization,  understands its core values and is generally respected by others.  He/she knows how things work and how to get things done.  The sage can be very helpful to you during the approval process.  He/she has valuable information that can be shared,  if you portray yourself as someone who cares about the organization and shows him/her some respect.  The sage can tell you who’s who on the decision team.  The sage usually cannot directly impact the decision process.


This person hates you and aims to derail the project and get you off the premises.  He/she may be a rival of the champion.  He/she may be competing to scoop the funding for a project of his/her own.  The enemy may believe that the project is a waste of organization resources.   Sometimes the enemy doesn’t want you to do the project because he/she is angling to get a friend or relative hired.


This person cannot approve the project,  but is happy to act as a spoiler.  He/she may not be able to prevent the project’s approval,  but will do whatever possible to delay the start date,  limit the scope and as a result,  impact your billable hours,  and/or generally catch the project up in red tape.  This person is not necessarily evil and may not actually hate you.

Thanks for reading,




Your Brilliant Idea, the Set-up and the Pitch

You envision a project concept that has the potential to significantly benefit both you and a particular organization.  You wrangle a meeting with either the decision-maker or one who has influence.  Convincingly,  you show that the proposed project will add money or prestige to the organization and that you are uniquely qualified to put the plan in motion and make it work.  You are invited to submit a formal proposal and you see dollar signs twinkling for all concerned.  Needless to say you are stunned when the proposal,  which you perceived to be a confirmation letter since you received the decision-maker’s unqualified invitation to submit,  is shot down.  What the heck happened?

Kimberly Elsbach,  associate professor of management at University of California / Davis,  has done research that shows it’s not only the perceived value of the project that is at issue,  but also the perceived value of the seller—you. According to Elsbach,  the decision-maker makes a judgment about your ability to generate a genuinely creative and beneficial idea and that prejudgment diminishes its perceived value.

Elsbach reached this conclusion when she studied the Hollywood film industry,  where filmmakers regularly  “pitch”  movie concepts to studio executives.  She also attended meetings where entrepreneurs pitch business concepts to venture capital investors,  yet another venue where brilliant ideas are proposed to those with the potential to fund them.

Elsbach emphasized that there are no reliable criteria on which to base creative potential,  so decision-makers rely on purely subjective and often inaccurate evaluation stereotypes,  which kick in very early in the pitch meeting.  From that point on the decision is made,  no matter what they tell you.

However,  Elsbach discovered that there is sometimes a way to redeem oneself.  The trick is to make the decision-maker feel that s/he is participating in an idea’s development.  In other words,  rather than bringing it in all wrapped up in a red ribbon,  showing that you’ve thought things through and you’re basically ready for the roll-out,  devise something for your decision-maker to do to feel needed and  important.  Make the decision-maker feel like a creative collaborator.

First,  set the stage and gain the decision-maker’s empathy by finding common ground or perspective.  If you’ve worked with this person before,  then mention some shared memory of mutual success.  “How is that program going these days?  I so enjoyed working on that project.  It is great to know that your customers have responded well…”  If you’ve not worked with this person previously,  go to their LinkedIn profile and look for common ground there.  After the greeting and other pleasantries,  slip into a shared experience or perspectives story,  whether it’s a project you did for him/her,  or an accidentally-on-purpose reference to a company that the two of you worked at  (“So you worked there, too? I remember the days…”)

Second,  when you segue into pitching your proposal,  show the proper level of excitement and passion.  Moreover,  resist the temptation of being so thorough that you don’t give your decision-maker,  who has an ego,  a chance to put their hands in it and impact the project.  As you are enthusing about the features of your proposal,  ask qualifying questions that will engage your decision-maker in a discussion of what the organization and its customers really need from the concept you are pitching and together with the decision-maker be willing to improvise and compromise on your original proposal.  If you can make the decision-maker feel some ownership,  s/he is much more likely to identify with and support you at the meeting where projects and proposals are reviewed and the executive team finalizes what gets funded and what doesn’t.

Coming up with a brilliant idea is the easy part.  Selling the idea to the organization with the means to fund that idea is the hard part.  Psychology is a sales resource and the successful sales professional makes expert use of it.

Thanks for reading,