Saturday, February 27, 2010

Strengths And Weaknesses

Last year, I read Tom Rath's book StrengthsFinder 2.0. I highly recommend it. Small book, big impact! It essentially provides readers with a means to discover and focus on their assets rather than their liabilities. Rath correctly asserts that we're a society obsessed with identifying and improving weaknesses when we should be building on our strengths.

It's true isn't it? All these tools that help us identify weaknesses, all so we can develop plans which (if we're lucky) will result in only marginal improvement. As a lifelong Celtics fan, I try to imagine what it was like for KC Jones to coach Larry Bird. Can't you just see KC telling Larry to focus on improving his dunking ability rather than his three-point shooting or passing game - just a few of the strengths that made Bird among the best to ever play the game. Of course not. In fact it sounds kind of silly when you think about it that way, but Rath would argue that that's our mindset.

It's not only more fun to work on improving areas that come easily to you, but the rewards will be greater as well. I recall working with a colleague years ago on a project where we implemented communication strategies to help improve retail sales at low performing stores. While we achieved some success with these troubled locations, we also learned that most of these stores were in bad shape for a reason. We discovered quickly that by focusing our efforts on moderate performers and highlighting their strengths, that the return on investment for the company was far greater.

As public relations professionals who aspire to offer the best possible service to their clients or companies, it's far more important to focus on getting better at what you already do well, than trying to improve in areas where, compared to your competitors, you may only hope to be average.

Does that mean we should just ignore our weaknesses? Probably not. But if the three-point shot is your strength, then you may be best served by staying late after practice to shoot a few hundred more!

*Image from

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Telling Clients They're Wrong or More Right Answers?

At the end of last year, Ruth Seeley asked that I read an article by Sam Barnes that appeared in Smashing Magazine titled: How To Explain To Clients That They Are Wrong. She asked that I "take on this topic in 2010." Fair enough. If the title of the article were framed as a question, my short answer would be: "You don't!"

That said, I encourage you to read the article. You'll find references to the importance of objectivity and humility (which I agree with), and suggestions such as how one should "Establish Yourself As The Expert" (which I do not agree with). If your expertise in the client's mind isn't already established, then it's not likely to emerge positively during a dispute.

I agree with much of Barnes' advice, I just think he's talking about having the wrong conversation. The moment you sense you're about to be drawn into a positional negotiation with your client should be the precise instant when you reset the conversation. It's not about you being right and your client being wrong; it's about working together to reach the best possible solution(s) for the organization. There's a big difference.

When it comes to serving the organization, you and your client should work from the same side of the table. The "I'm right, you're wrong" conversation is unnecessarily personal and essentially irrelevant. Not to mention, prevailing in such an argument may result in the quintessential definition of winning the battle but losing the war. Whatever you do, don't take the bait! Your client is an ally with whom you may disagree, not your opponent.

I believe, of course, that despite your sharing the same organizational goals, you will disagree with your client as to how to achieve them from time to time. I delivered a presentation at Seton Hall University's Learning Leaders Symposium in 2008 called Truth to Power. It was originally aimed at providing truthful counsel to your CEO, but the same holds true for counseling clients: Here are my ten tips for speaking Truth to Client:
  1. Trust yourself. You have a great deal of value to bring to your client. Listen carefully to all perspectives and have the confidence to share your own.
  2. You owe it to your client to be heard. You're hired to draw from your expertise and bring your outside viewpoint to the conversation. Consider it your responsibility to share your professional judgment.
  3. Know your audience. Consider the best manner in which to frame and deliver your thoughts/ideas/concerns to ensure they are received favorably by the specific recipient.
  4. Be prepared with supporting data and anticipate questions. Come to the conversation with more than your self-proclaimed expertise. Be armed with data and be prepared to address perceived drawbacks.
  5. Make your case succinctly. Use your communication skills to state your thoughts succinctly and powerfully. Don't ramble.
  6. Advocate your case in the broader interest, not self interest. It's critical to the credibility and motives of your position that you're not perceived to be advocating a personal or agency agenda.
  7. Persuade (don't take ceremonial positions). If you believe in something strongly enough to mention it, then be sure to advocate it. You don't want to be the type who offers a thought in passing as a means of "personal/political cover."
  8. Be patient (let the information sink in). Once you've made your case, stop talking. Allow your client to process what you've said.
  9. Don't be afraid to share bad news. Understand that bad news or pitfalls are better coming from you now, than from the outside later on.
  10. Trust your client. Once you've been heard, the resulting course of action may be different from what you've advocated. Keep in mind that the client understands the information from which you are basing your recommendation, but you may not always be aware of all they know - and they are not always at liberty to share. Trust that the decision reached is in the best interest of the organization and join your client in moving forward.
I believe if you are working side-by-side with your client, it's never about who's right or wrong. Instead, it's about what renowned photographer Dewitt Jones regards as a mutual search for "more right answers."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What Is Your Purpose?

Last year, I shared a story about United Way to make a point about being helpful. The story is worth repeating to introduce a new conversation about purpose!

Many years ago, United Way produced a video that cleverly poked fun at itself, while at the same time making a powerful statement. The scene was set in an elementary school classroom where a student brought her Dad (A United Way Exec) to talk to her classmates about what he does for living. As Dad launches into his "United Way speak," the kids quickly look confused and bored. The daughter immediately senses the problem, stands up, and proclaims, "He helps people!" Fortunately, Dad picked up on the cue and began engaging the class. The confusion and boredom quickly gave way to comprehension and smiles.

Crafting a clear statement of purpose matters. Why shop at Wal-Mart or Best Buy? For customers, there's no ambiguity regarding why these stores exist or the reasons they shop there. Can you say the same thing for your customers and prospects? How well do you communicate your purpose in a single sentence? It can be more challenging for some businesses than others, but its importance cannot be overstated. You may deliver value on several fronts, but on closer examination, you'll usually discover there's a primary purpose, with supporting value propositions.

If it takes you several minutes (or even longer) to explain to a friend or relative what your company does, then take a moment to a write statement of purpose. It will not only offer the simple explanation you're looking for, but also serve as the foundation for even the most sophisticated of communication programs. Being part of an enterprise without a clear statement of purpose is tantamount to being in a boat without a paddle.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Need An Alignment?

When I think about the term alignment, it usually conjures images of letting go of the steering wheel while driving along an open road. If I'm aligned properly, my car will stay straight. If not, it will veer to one side or the other in a manner that without correction, would yield catastrophic results.

Last week, I attended a terrific presentation by Edgar Papke hosted by Vistage International on the topic of alignment. Essentially he offers a model that stresses the alignment of purpose, leadership and culture in order to win in today's hyper-competitive climate. It's not only great advice in terms of leadership and business strategy, but also essential with regard to communication.

While there are many companies which are criticized for saying one thing and doing another, such disconnects are often either intentional or victim of what I would regard as priority hierarchy. In such a case for example, a multi-national PR agency may exclaim the virtues of collaboration, selling clients true global capability because of its seamless cross office collaboration. Unfortunately, when times get tough, individual offices can become stingy with their revenues. General managers don't want to give up revenue to another office and, as a result, seamless collaboration takes a back seat. It doesn't mean the agency isn't committed to working together, it's just that collaboration falls down the priority list during lean times.

More problematic however is misalignment that's more subtle. It isn't that your car has a mechanical problem, it's that you as the driver get distracted reading a billboard or changing a radio station, only to discover how quickly your path has changed. It may be unintentional, but just as dangerous.

As a communication professional in your organization, how do you make sure everyone's keeping their eyes on the road? We'd love to hear your thoughts?


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