Staying Relevant For The Zombie Apocalypse

nice-night-to-shoot-zombies

Most people who know me are unlikely to put my name in the same sentence with zombies, especially in the context of designing book covers. My style tends to embrace architecture, nature, Art Deco and sometimes a splash of unabashed whimsy. Yet when a colleague recently asked me if I could come up with something for his Romeo and Juliet riff in which the star-crossed lovers team up against the ghoulish undead, I heard myself say, “Sure! Why not?” Not only was it a chance to expand my mental margins (and get paid for it) but also to explore the correlation to today’s businesses needing to stay relevant in a mercurial marketplace.

In a nutshell, no matter how well a particular approach to your services and products has served you in the past, nothing courts obsolescence faster than the belief that the status quo will continue to work in the future.

Take restaurants, for instance. When customers began paying more attention to what they were eating, savvy restaurateurs recognized the need to tweak their menus to reflect nutritional information, calorie-count, heart-healthy choices, gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan, low sodium, no trans-fat, etc. Longstanding cooking techniques such as fried, breaded, battered and glazed began giving way way to grilled, roasted, broiled and steamed. Depending on the cuisine, there has also been a downsizing of plate and portion size to trick the mind into feeling “full.”

Another example is the landscape design business. Southern California homes that once boasted lush green lawns have now turned to a combination of drought-resistant plants and ground cover, artificial turf, and bark, brick and decorative rock – lawn alternatives which 21st century landscapers have had to step up and accommodate in order to stay viable.

Own a brick-and-mortar shop? Many have already transitioned to an online or hybrid presence in response to their customers’ desire to have 24/7 access, not have to deal with holiday crowds and parking lots, and addressing the escalating fears that being out in public places such as urban malls isn’t nearly as safe these days as it used to be.

Even publishers of books, magazines and newspapers are making the shift to electronic platforms in concert to the way today’s readers like to read. Given the fact that 30 percent of trade paperback and hardcover books end up in landfills, the evolution of ebooks and self-publishing reflects not only a “green” environmental solution but also a way for authors to exercise more control over their intellectual property, accrue higher royalties and get their books on the market much faster than via traditional channels.

With these examples in mind, what has your own business done to reinvent itself in the past year? The past five years? The past decade?

The following are some considerations which should be at the top of your To Do list:

  1. Study your competition’s unique selling points. What can you do to (1) emulate their successful platform and (2) differentiate yourself in attracting the same clientele?
  2. Explore new ways to keep your existing clients and customers happy. Engage them in the process by letting them know their opinions count. At the end of the day it’s much easier and less expensive to retain loyal fans than it is to pursue new ones.
  3. Become a lifelong learner. Educate yourself (and your employees) on industry trends by attending seminars/webinars, reading new business books and trade publications, tuning in to podcasts, and expanding your social media network.
  4. Update your business image. Whether it’s a creative retooling of your website, a redesign of your corporate brand, an expansion of your existing services and products, or doing seasonal window displays to catch the attention of passersby, it’s the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome that makes people curious to discover something new.
  5. Invest in new technology that will allow you to manage your time and delivery systems more efficiently. You may also want to invest in the expertise of a marketing coach to guide you in maximizing your resources, identifying ways to diversify, and reach potential consumer groups you might not have thought of.

It also goes without saying that survival is ultimately contingent on the mindset to take risks, to try things you’ve never done, and to stay absolutely and positively fearless. Your business adversaries may not be zombies but they will indeed eat you alive if you’re not prepared to stay one step ahead of them.

 

 

Website Wonderland

 

July 2016 monitor with truckDuring the 1980’s, I was always asked if I had a business card so that prospective clients could call me. In the 1990’s, the question became, “What’s your email address so I can write to you?” By 2000, both of these queries were replaced with, “Do you have a website?”

There’s no question that websites have evolved into a highly popular tool for showcasing products and services, providing customers with 24/7 access and attracting media pros seeking interesting stories to put in front of their readers and viewers. That websites are so commonly in vogue today prompted an associate of mine to recently remark that whenever she hears a business doesn’t have an online presence, she can’t help but wonder if (1) if it’s really a legitimate entity or (2) it’s just too lazy to embrace the technology.

Obviously neither assessment is a fair one to make if you don’t know anything about the company or its reputation. In the first place, the existence of a website isn’t an ironclad guarantee of authenticity, nor is there a correlation of authenticity based on how slick/polished/glam the screen looks or how many moving parts there are to seduce your senses. Many an aspiring model or screenwriter, for instance, has been taken in by bogus agencies and production companies that use eye-popping graphics, persuasive language and effusive testimonials that sometimes have no basis in truth. Secondly, the absence of a website could be either a planned decision on the part of management to focus on traditional advertising or a reflection of temporary confusion on how to build a website from scratch.

If you want to avoid the expense of hiring someone to build it for you (and if you don’t count yourself among the computer-savvy), the good news is that there are plenty of software programs, books and online resources to painlessly walk you through the process. The bad news, though, is that an amateur-looking website won’t do you or your company any favors; in fact, it could be worse than not having a website at all.

Once you have it up and running, the challenge is then to keep it interesting enough that visitors will keep returning to see what’s new. To accomplish that, you need to think of your website in terms of a car dealership. Let’s say, for example, that you drive past the same lot twice a day on your commute to work. If you always see exactly the same line-up of cars out front, there will quickly come a point that you no longer bother to even glance in their direction. Since the owner of the dealership can’t afford passersby to be indifferent to the inventory, s/he routinely rotates the vehicles. “Wow!” you exclaim one day. “Was that orange truck always there? I wonder why it never caught my eye before…”

The reality is that the orange truck was always there but just parked in a different place. Once you notice the orange truck, you’re going to start paying attention again and wondering what other kinds of vehicles are available for sale.

The same principle applies to websites. Even if you’re simply reshuffling the contents and changing the color scheme, you’re laying the groundwork to drive repeat visitors to your door.

Excerpted from MEDIA MAGNETISM: HOW TO ATTRACT THE FAVORABLE PUBLICITY YOU WANT AND DESERVE (Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle)

Five Easy Ways to Build Positivity in the Workplace

 

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For the first time since Media Magnetism debuted in 2012,  I’m taking April off and putting this month’s column in the capable hands of  Rosalind Cardinal, aka The Leadership Alchemist. What makes Ros’ guest blog such a timely fit is that the world at large is currently awash in negative energy that not only foments distrust but also incites violence, jeopardizes global economies and causes many to view the future through a perspective of doom and gloom. While it’s a reality that nothing changes overnight, it’s the small, incremental steps we can each take on a day-to-day basis (including in the workplace) that can lead to a better – and more productive – tomorrow.

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Positivity in the workplace makes a real difference.

It not only determines a person’s well-being but their success as well. In fact, it does more than that. Positivity can also:

  • enhance team members’ ability to think creatively
  • help them cope with challenges
  • nurture their progress in their career
  • and aid them in getting along with others in the workplace

So how do we build a positive culture?

Martin Seligman, positive psychologist and author of the 2011 book Flourish, developed the PERMA model, which details the five elements that must be in place for us to experience lasting well-being.

P: Positive Emotion

E: Engagement

R: (Positive) Relationships

M: Meaning

A: Accomplishment/Achievement.

Let’s break each of these elements down further and see how they apply in the workplace:

Positive Emotion: As a leader, it’s essential you set a positive tone for your team and their working environment inasmuch as possible. One way to do that is to reframe the negatives that can and will arise at times. For instance: “We failed.” Vs. “The project wasn’t successful this time around, but we received valuable feedback that will make the next one more viable.”

Engagement: Rewards and incentives can be great motivators to keep a team focused on crossing the finish line when used correctly, but team members can also develop self-rewards of their own, even if it simply means getting a cup of coffee once they finish a section of a project. The key is to create a reward the team member will enjoy working toward.

Relationships:  Human beings are social beings, which means that we crave healthy, empowering relationships. Many studies show that people with a larger support network often outlive those without it by 22%! Devote at least 20-30 minutes a day toward relationship building. Visit a team member’s office during lunch, ask about their family, encourage them in their personal goals, and learn more about what they’d like to achieve in their career.

Meaning: People want to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their day-to-day work life. We want to feel that what we does matter; that what we are contributing plays a central part in the ‘bigger picture’. Leaders therefore must empower their team members to see the deeper layers in their work. Revisit your company’s mission purpose and vision statements in a special meeting. How does each team member’s work relate to those statements? In what ways does each team member fulfill your company’s unique vision? Getting to the heart of it may very well be what your team needs to feel inspirited and encouraged.

Accomplishment/Achievement: We are naturally programmed to want to better ourselves. In doing so, we flourish and experience well-being. So how can leaders empower their team members and equip them with what they need in order to experience accomplishment and achievement on a regular basis? One way is to help facilitate their development. Connect employees with a training program that can up-level them. Introduce them to the appropriate connections within your workplace for the advancement of their career. Devote time regularly to reflecting on how you can help develop your team members and they’ll thank you for it.

When a leader focuses on building positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment in the workplace, a positive culture will flourish, making for happier employees, a stronger team, and better work.

Ros

Rosalind Cardinal, known as ‘The Leadership Alchemist’, is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, a consulting practice in the field of Organisational Development and Human Resources. She has coached clients at Executive and Senior Levels in government agencies, private enterprises, and the community sector and is a sought-after speaker and expert at conferences and events. Visit her website at www.shapingchange.com.au to learn new strategies and game-changing ideas toward becoming a better leader and to download Ros’ free e-book on leadership.

 

Owning the Table

Cielito

A few months ago, my husband and I went to a favorite Japanese restaurant. The former owner – a dear friend – had recently retired so as to travel and work on his golf game. Since we had always enjoyed the food, the service and the ambience, we decided to check out how his successor was doing and have a mid-week lunch date. Although the server took our drink order immediately, it was sometime later before she returned to ask if we’d like some food to go with it. My own order arrived in a timely fashion and we both assumed my husband’s would be out next. Nearly 10 minutes passed. When she finally strolled by to ask how everything was, we asked about the still-missing order. With a shrug, she said she’d go check on it. Upon her return, she immediately threw the chef under the bus with the explanation that “He screwed up because we’re really busy” (which, rather obviously, they weren’t). When the order finally arrived – and after a long enough passage to suggest it had never gone in to begin with – it wasn’t even correct. All this time, the manager had made several strolls through the dining room; although he would likely have seen and heard what was going on, he never stepped up to remedy the problem. Suffice it to say, we won’t be going back.

We contrast this to quite a different experience we had this past weekend at Cielito, a delightful Mexican restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara (California). Not only was our server pleasant and attentive but over the course of our lunch we were checked in on by four other servers, both of the young hostesses and the eatery’s new owner – each of them genuinely interested in how we were enjoying our meal and whether there was anything else they could get us. In a nutshell, not only did every employee “own” that table but also clearly owned Cielito’s reputation as a “go-to” place for an enjoyable experience. Whenever future getaways include a trip to Santa Barbara, there’s no question where we’ll be headed for lunch.

So how does this correlate to your own business? If you’ve ever dealt with a snarky receptionist, a put-upon sales clerk, or a customer service rep who’s clearly in the wrong career, it impacts your impression of the entire organization and makes you disinclined to remain a customer. On the flip side, how many times has a store employee walked you to the correct aisle to find a particular item, wished you a great day or – if you’re a regular –addressed you by name?

Couple the interpersonal equation with the dismaying reality that despite the fact we’re living in a technologically rich wonderland where we can nimbly text someone 8,000 miles away, participate in chat rooms with total strangers, and share Instagram photos across a broad swath of social media channels, we have become increasingly starved for real-time face-time with fellow human beings. Such insularity subsequently breeds a mindset of spinning in a solo orbit – a potentially damaging scenario if what you project in the workaday world reflects poorly on the entity that employs you.

If we choose to define “communication” as 140 characters, emojis, and hashtags, we’re purposely choosing emptiness over the chance to connect on a deeper level, to empathize, and to not only let others know we have actually noticed their presence but that such presence has made a difference – even briefly – in our lives. It is a table ownership in which both sets of participants must be fully engaged in order for the experience to be memorable.

Tuning Out the Naysayers

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History has given us no shortage of dreamers whose friends and foes were probably quick to say, “I told you so!” whenever one’s defiance of convention resulted in fizzles, flops and failures.

  • The eighth time was the charm for R. H. Macy after his first seven businesses went belly-up.
  • As a youth, F. W. Woolworth wasn’t allowed to wait on dry goods customers at his first job because his boss said he didn’t have any sense.
  • Fledgling author Dr. Seuss was rejected by 27 publishers before someone finally decided to give his stories a chance. Jack London tops that rejection count with 600 “no’s” before he got his first “yes.”
  • Henry Ford went broke five times before launching a car company that finally found success.
  • Elvis Presley was fired after his debut performance and advised to go back to driving a truck.
  • Long before he gave the world The Happiest Place on Earth, Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who told him he lacked imagination and good ideas.
  • The Wright Brothers went through years of failed prototypes until they came up with a model that literally got off the ground.
  • Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime and yet kept at it because – well, he really liked to paint.

The lesson here is that if any of the visionaries on this list had caved to the pressures of the bliss-blowers and shelved their dreams in deference to a well-lit, safe and predictable path of ordinariness, what a loss it would have been to the generations that followed.

So it is as well with aspiring sole proprietors. If you have the aptitude for your chosen field – coupled with the patience and ambition to learn how to make your ideas work in a commercial context – the world is truly an oyster of your own making.

Just make sure your shell has enough layers of insulation to drown out the noise of everyone pounding on it and saying you should be making something else.

 

Excerpted from Office for One: The Sole Proprietor’s Survival Guide (available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle)

Pink-Slip Your Non-Performers

nonperformers

When you’re an employer, it’s no easy task to let someone go that hasn’t been pulling his/her weight and measuring up to company performance standards. Have you communicated your concerns with clarity? Are there resources or motivational strategies you may have overlooked? How will assignments be reallocated in the interim so as not to disrupt the workflow?

When you’re a freelancer – and writers are especially prone to this – it’s just as hard to let go of all the dribs-and-drabs publishing markets that are supposed to collectively sustain you until Something Really Big comes along. Yet how many of these low-paying gigs have actually increased your exposure, added to your skill sets, and/or made you feel deeply appreciated? If they’re just taking up space on your calendar and desktop, maybe they need to be shown the door.

Consider the following:

  • “Non-performing” markets take up a disproportionate amount of your time and resources and – because you’re not seeing the results you want (i.e., a growing bank account, a bigger global footprint) – can put a negative cast on your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. Content mills are a good example of this. On the surface, $25 for a short article sounds like a pretty easy and consistent income stream. If you can turn out said article in 60 minutes, not have to do any research, and not have your material sent back for rewrites, you’re earning $25 an hour. But what if that project takes you two hours? Four hours? Eight hours? Before you realize it, you’re now making $12.50/$6.25/$3.12 an hour. Those hours add up – and could be better spent on projects that pay more handsomely.
  • In focusing on how to correct ongoing problems (i.e., chasing down payments, dealing with difficult clients), there’s no telling how many opportunities are being missed in venues that provide greater promise. As recently as last week, for instance, I had a writer colleague tell me that she’s reluctant to dissolve her relationship with her agent despite the fact the latter hasn’t sold anything for her in almost two years. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings,” she said, ignoring the reality of her own career being hurt by a non-performer that’s holding her back.
  • Whether it’s personally or professionally, you’re also known – and evaluated – by the company you keep. As a leader, you’re judged by how effectively you’re managing your team. As a team member (albeit a subcontracted one), your reputation can be jeopardized if the entity with which you’re associated starts getting bad press. This further extends to the issue of whether you should stay with a sinking company and squeeze out a few more checks until you’re officially let go or jump ship before a replacement opportunity for new income has presented itself. While the saying holds true that it’s easier to get a new job while you still have one, how much of a sinking company’s failure do you want attached to your own name if you wait too long to leave?

This being a new year and a chance for a fresh start, it’s time to have a staff meeting (with yourself!)  and take a critical look at what can be jettisoned in order to get you where you want to be.

In my own experience, I look at three key elements in either accepting new projects or culling venues from my existing list of obligations: (1) what does it pay, (2) who will I reach, and (3) how will I feel about doing it. For a project/venue to be viable, it has to satisfy at least two of these three criteria. For example, I’ve been writing lesson plans for free since 2009 for an online resource for video arts educators; I’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future because I’m not only reaching multitudes of teachers and schools across the country but the feedback and effusive appreciation they express makes it all worthwhile. Conversely, I’ve turned down a number of ghostwriting projects which – while they would have yielded a high paycheck – would have involved stressful interactions with demanding/unpleasant/contentious clients and left me little time or energy for the projects that gladden my heart…and bear my own name.

Lastly, it’s important to look at the consequences of off-loading business relationships that don’t seem to be doing as well as you’d like them to. Is there a way to negotiate better terms and conditions? Is it a platform for professional growth if you continue to pay your dues and prove your worth? Are there perks or networking opportunities that might not be found elsewhere? A case in point for the latter is an associate who pens freelance interviews for an arts and entertainment magazine. While he often grouses that the pay is paltry, he’s also compensated with tickets to film screenings, play previews, concerts, gallery openings and the chance to schmooze with celebrities. For the time being, it’s an association that meets the performance definition of Priceless.

 

 

Scattered Thoughts With Intermittent Brainstorms

December 2015 image

If you want your business to stay viable, visible and competitive in the coming new year, it’s essential that your staff not only have a sense of ownership in that process but also be invited to show you what they’ve got in terms of untapped creativity and problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for a risk-averse manager to use “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” as an argument to discourage initiative. By the time the breakage occurs – sometimes irreparably – the chance is often lost to hear solutions that may have been floating in the hallways all along and yet were never actively solicited.

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Thinking Outside the (Suggestion) Box

If the drop-slot of your employee suggestion box is crisscrossed with cobwebs, it’s time to embrace a more interactive approach to feedback. Distribute questionnaires (with an option for anonymity) to gauge staff satisfaction levels with working conditions, procedures, policies, and perks/privileges. Demonstrate that you’re actually receptive to input by publishing the results in your company newsletter and using them as your talking points for the launch of a brainstorming task force. This strategy works well if the size of your organization precludes a full group meeting or if you’ve observed that workers are hesitant to speak out with suggestions for fear of rejection or reprisal.

Thought Bubble Diversity

Within any goal-oriented group – be it TV sitcom writers, nonprofit volunteers or corporate committees – there are typically four personality types: leaders, creative thinkers, analysts, and pleasers. If all the participants in your think-tank session are drawn from the same quadrant, don’t hold your breath for progress to ensue. Why? Because functionally they will cancel each other out: the leaders will grapple for power, the creative types will bounce off the walls, the analysts will scrutinize everything to death, and the pleasers – too timid to offend anyone – will assume the role of bobblehead yes-men. Likewise, if you’re exploring new ideas which will impact multiple departments, the reception to those ideas upon implementation will be a lot warmer if each division had a rep involved in the planning stages.

Forbid Podium-Hogging

What do brainstorming meetings and elementary school classrooms have in common? They are either a scene of cacophonous pandemonium in which everyone talks at once or a setting wherein a handful of know-it-alls dominates the discussion and intimidates the rest into silence. For a brainstorming session to be effective, you must not only brush up on Robert’s Rules of Order (http://www.rulesonline.com) but encourage full participation as well. To get the conversation started, make sure everyone has a clear understanding of The Problem. In other words, what, exactly, are they there to solve? Next, have each participant write down his/her solution to the problem on a folded slip of paper and put it in a bowl. Each “anonymous author” idea is then drawn forth and written on a whiteboard for everyone to see. Start with the first idea listed and ask each participant’s opinion regarding that idea’s merits and flaws. Set a timer so no one is allowed to hog the stage with a filibuster. Rebuttals and interruptions are not allowed when someone has the floor. Ideas that accrue a higher number of negative hash tags are erased. Once you have gone around the entire room, start the process again, gradually whittling down the list – and incorporating modifications – until you arrive at a solution that everyone can agree with.

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As energizing and empowering as these brainstorming techniques can be, however, an absence of sincerity – coupled with an unwillingness to compromise – is the quickest way to kill esprit de corps. Whether you’re requesting fresh ideas and then stealing them, trivializing contributions or ascribing value based on rank, or asking for input on a decision you’ve already made, it won’t take long for employees to start keeping their best thoughts to themselves or, worse, giving them to your competition.

Wherever you are in the world, here’s to a joyful holiday season and a spectacular 2016!

Office for One

P.S. Will this be the year you decide to go into business for yourself? If so, you’ll want to add Office for One: The Sole Proprietor’s Survival Guide to your wish list. Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, this indispensable resource is perfect for any entrepreneur who wants to go it alone without getting lonely.