Category Archives: Guest Column

Guest Column: The Importance of Trademark Protection

Strap a bike helmet on your brand

by Erik Pelton

I love to ride my bike. The fresh air, exercise and freedom are invigorating. As I leisurely rode to work one morning last month, I crashed and flew over the handlebars, landing on my head in the middle of the street. I escaped with a just few scratches and bruises–and a cracked helmet (see photo below). Some say I was lucky, but I believe I was not seriously injured because I was prepared. I wear a helmet every time I get on my bike to reduce the risk of injury in case of an accident.

Businesses, entrepreneurs, and consultants would be wise to place figurative “helmets” on their brand assets each time they create one. Brand names, logos, and slogans are some of the most critical and valuable assets held by successful businesses. For example, the Google trademark is worth over $40 billion dollars according to Brand Finance. When brands are plagued by copycats and knockoffs, they divert sales and harm a business’s hard earned reputation.

Registering trademarks with the USPTO is like putting a bike helmet on a brand. Trademark registration provides both preventive and contingent insurance for brand owners. A modest investment in trademark registration of a brand pays double dividends by reducing the likelihood of a trademark dispute, while at the same time providing the owner with a stronger position in the event of such a dispute. Another powerful benefit of registration is that by using the ® registered trademark symbol, brand owners communicate to their customers that their offering is unique, valuable and worthy of guarding against copiers. The legal benefits of a registration are tremendous too, but hopefully are never needed since infringers will be less likely to copy a protected trademark.

When you crash on your bike, it is too late to strap on a helmet. When your brand gets imitated, it is too late to benefit fully from trademark registration. Proactive trademark registration–just like my bike helmet—provides valuable protection and peace of mind day after day.


© 2014 Erik M. Pelton & Associates, PLLC

Erik Pelton has provided brand advice to hundreds of businesses and consultants, and has registered more than 2,000 trademarks for clients. For more information, visit

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Guest Column: Marketing Pitfalls

Consultants:  Don’t Let These Marketing Pitfalls Derail You

by Linda Popky

As a marketing expert who consults with a wide range of organizations, I am often asked about the most common mistakes consultants and small business owners make when it comes to marketing.

I typically see four types of issues:

  • Unfocused audience.  No product or service, no matter how exciting, is applicable to everyone all the time. Yet many consultants don’t clearly identify their audience. If you can focus on who really will benefit from your services, it will be easier to create effective marketing gravity that will drive clients to you.
  • Unclear value proposition.  Many consultants aren’t able to clearly articulate what differentiates them from other alternatives available to their clients. The key word here is “value,” which is in the mind of the client. Ask yourself how the client will be better after having spent time with you.
  • It’s all about me.  Your outstanding credentials, honors, degrees, expertise, and experience are only interesting to clients and prospects if you can frame these in a way that shows this is part of how you help them. The truth is clients don’t really care about you; they care about how you can help them.
  • No priorities. Like a kid in a candy store who wants to try every sweet treat in front of him, many consultants attempt to implement every marketing tactic they see. While any one or two of these may be effective, trying to master every single tactic that’s worked for others is just not doable. You’re more likely to wind up feeling sick—not to mention overwhelmed.

The way to avoid these pitfalls is simple: Identify your core area of focus. Be as clear as you can as to who you are targeting and how you will provide value. Focus your marketing on the results they will achieve, the business improvements they’re likely to see, and the ways they’ll be better off after working with you. Then choose one or two marketing tactics to implement to start. Check in to see how things are going: that’s when you can either make changes or add new tactics to the mix.

Focus. Clarity. Value. Priority. Keeping these in mind will help you stay on the path to marketing success.


Linda Popky is a Silicon Valley-based marketing expert who is a Master Mentor and a member of the Million Dollar Consulting® Hall of Fame. Called the Marketing Maestro, she helps transform organizations by taking their marketing performance to the next level.

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Guest Column: Banish The Smug Voice Telling You You’re An Imposter


Banish the Smug Voice Telling You You’re an Impostor

By Susan Trivers

Have you ever tried affirmations to help you get through a challenging situation? You say “I am smart, I am knowledgeable, I am successful” before going to see a client or giving a speech. Before the last syllable has left your mouth that smug voice in your head pipes up with “Do you really believe all that? Aren’t you afraid they’ll find out you’re an impostor, a wanna-be?” The problem with affirmations is that they have no substance. They’re puffs of air, wisps of wishes, evaporating as soon as they’re formed.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human. He offers the technique of ‘Buoyancy’ by which he means maintaining consistent energy and willingness to eagerly and confidently make phone calls, request referrals, meet as a peer with buyers and close business on terms that are favorable to both you and your client.

Pink refers to social science research that has proven that we need interrogative self-talk, instead of affirmations, to give ourselves a lift. He suggests that when we need a confidence-builder we should ask ourselves “Can I do it?” The theory is that this question will elicit self-talk that reminds you about your track record of success.

I am troubled by this question. It is a classic closed-ended question which may be answered by a simple yes or no. If that’s where we end our self-interrogation, I don’t think we’re any better off than we would be with affirmations.

I suggest that instead we ask ourselves this open-ended question: “How can I do this?” The presumption is that you can do it and takes you further into articulating steps that will make the outcome likely. Examples:

  1. I will start the conversation with pleasantries focused on the other person.
  2. I will ask probing questions in a tone that is friendly and curious.
  3. I will follow up points made by the other person with my own “Tell me more about that” until the other person has shared in depth.
  4. I will ask the other person about their personal objectives:  “What would the successful completion of this initiative mean to you?”
  5. I will set a date and time for our next meeting or discussion.

With these and similar answers to the question “How can I do this?” you’ve created a simple list of actions that you’re already comfortable taking. When you follow this list in your mind, you’ll be a buoyant and successful professional.

Susan Trivers is the leading voice on growth and opportunity. She helps her clients find hidden opportunities that generate new profits from existing infrastructure and resources.  Twitter @speakandgrowbiz


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Guest Column: Execution IS the Strategy

Laura Stack is the former president of the National Speakers Association, and organizer of The Elite Retreat, which I facilitate each January. She’s also a good buddy and loves Corvettes. Her new book launches next week.


Execution IS the Strategy:

 How Leaders Achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP


Just like the old gray mare of legend, strategic planning just ain’t what it used to be. The beloved five-year plan—complete with projections and detailed financials—is history. There’s barely enough time to stop and take a breath anymore, much less implement a planning tool that may be stale before it’s a month old. Today’s leaders and business owners rely on front-line workers to help them make reliable decisions on how to best execute the objectives in the moment that advance the organization’s strategy.


In more than twenty years of helping leaders create high-performance cultures and accelerate business growth, I’ve identified four keys to successful strategy execution—what I call the L-E-A-D Formula™: Leverage, Environment, Alignment, and Drive. Without these, even the best strategy can fail. My book, Execution IS the Strategy, outlines solutions to these failures with three factors for each key, and three components for each factor, or 36 different obstacles that might be preventing you from getting things done and achieving your goals. Measure your execution effectiveness at


Let’s take a closer look at each of the Four Keys in the L-E-A-D Formula:


Key One: Leverage


One of six simple machines, a lever is a simple machine with a rigid beam that pivots on a fulcrum to magnify an input force, so the resulting leverage can move heavy objects. The concept of leverage works equally well in the workplace to move a large organization. An efficient organization is one that operates with leverage already in place.

  • Maximize Your Input Force. The input force is the leader, who pushes down on the lever to achieve maximum output. Do you leverage your talent in a manner that allows you to obtain the maximum input force, only doing what you are unique capable of doing? Willingly delegate authority, allowing others to do what they can do more cheaply and effectively than you. Guide your team in their work without slipping over into micromanagement. Demonstrate trust and lead by example. Never expect of your team members what you won’t do yourself.
  • Strengthen the Beam.  You can move more weight with your lever if you strengthen your team members. Provide them with better tools and education. Hire high performers, based on the attributes and talents you need. Coach your team members so they can do their best work, matching them with mentors to show them the ropes. Invest in your team, giving them everything they need to strengthen their effectiveness.
  • Improve the Fulcrum. Multiply your leverage by moving or raising the fulcrum. First off, give your team the technology and tools they need to do a better, faster job. Emphasize the value of cross-functional thinking—escaping their narrow compartments to work with other teams. Cross-fertilize ideas, offset duplicative work, and coordinate goals with other groups. If necessary, outsource jobs that others can do more inexpensively outside the organization. Partnering with other companies to “fill in the blanks” takes this practice to its logical extreme.


Key 2: Environment


Effective execution depends on establishing a productive, supportive work environment, which depends on the workplace atmosphere.

  • Shape the Culture. Foster an environment of excellence, encouraging everyone to give it their best. A firm foundation of accountability—coupled with an emphasis on reliability—is a must. Embrace mutual learning and community to ensure success. All this works best when it takes place within a collaborative atmosphere.
  • Encourage Change Hardiness. No matter what, change will constantly pummel your work environment. Embrace it and roll with the punches, encouraging your team to do the same. Offer them a non-punitive atmosphere of risk-taking, where you encourage both creativity and innovation, always motivating your team to do and be better.
  • Ensure Engaged, Empowered Employees. The more that people “own” their jobs, the better they perform. Drive engagement among individual employees, encouraging them to take the initiative. Reinforce joint responsibility to achieve team and organizational goals. Show everyone how their efforts contribute to everyone’s success, which will encourage them to own and make the best of their jobs. Give them what they need, and then get out of the way.

Key 3: Alignment

Like a conductor of a symphony, today’s leader is out front watching, keeping everyone on the right track, steering team members toward the organization’s strategic priorities, and listening to their best ideas on how to get there.

  • Take Your Team on a Mission. Help your team members harness their overachiever tendencies in a positive, high-level way. Understand what motivates them, realizing they contribute their discretionary effort for different reasons. Show genuine appreciation for hard work, finding ways to be meaningful for all your people. Keep a clear picture of your goals in front of the team, consistently communicating your enthusiasm for your mission.
  • Plan for Goal Achievement. Plainly share all team and organizational goals. Establish clear performance expectations for everyone, so they know precisely what they should be doing at every moment, emphasizing common workplace goals. Project planning and management must be seamless to maximize success. Even the most minor, day-to-day activities should advance your common goals, merging strategy and tactics in a positive, productive way.
  • Measure Your Progress. Tie each team member’s goals into your project management system, tracking the progress of individual goal attainment. Along the way, check the team’s performance at regular intervals, jointly reviewing key milestones. Meanwhile, create and maintain crisis management plans, which will help you survive when predictable contingencies occur.


Key Four: Drive


As a leader, your greatest importance may lie in clearing the way for your team members to move quickly. This involves smoothing out the speed bumps and removing any obstacles that block task execution, particularly the procedural ones. Think of yourself as a bulldozer.

  • Remove Obstacles from the Path. Clear the obstacles, bottlenecks, and roadblocks that slow your team’s productive progress. Emphasize and maintain a tradition of urgency and efficiency, combined with the ability to turn on a dime as necessary. Making speedy decisions while discouraging over-collaboration and perfectionism helps speed things along.
  • Add Enablers to the Equation. Maximize your team’s effectiveness by giving them time to think, be strategic, and focus. Set up protocols and guidelines for efficient communications and eliminate activities that don’t support your goals. What you don’t work on can be as important as what you do work on.
  • Eliminate Time Wasters. All distractions have to go. Encourage your team to work their tasks in order of priority, after making those priorities clear to them. Continually review what’s on their task lists, without getting in the weeds with tactics steps. Remind them to stay focused on results, not just on staying busy, so they don’t become overwhelmed, soon hitting a point of diminishing returns.


Shift Your Mental Model


By necessity, modern business strategy has become as flexible and changeable as life itself. We still need leaders to hold us to the core values that define our organizations and articulate the mission, vision, goals, and strategy, while the team defines the tactics, which shapes the strategy, as leaders make the course corrections, in a continuous cycle.


Execution itself is the only strategy that matters. A decent strategy, brilliantly executed, trumps a brilliant strategy, poorly executed. It’s not about who has the best ideas—it’s about who executes their ideas best. As leaders and followers form tighter partnerships, the organizations with stellar strategies, which also follow the L-E-A-D Formula, will hurtle forward. Indeed, Execution IS the Strategy that will propel your organization to success.


Get your copy and special educational resources, including videos, leader guide, and complimentary bonuses at


© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.


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Guest Column: Is Your Network a Golden Ticket? Using Online Radio for ROI

Is Your Network a Golden Ticket?  Using Online Radio for ROI

By Kelli Richards

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to build great connections and a stellar network throughout my career.  Some of the most powerful came from my years at Apple, Inc.  (I don’t need to tell you the caliber of out-of-the-box thinkers and success stories that have been launched from that crowd.)  Other powerful relationships were formed through my experiences in the music industry and working with celebrities as a “talent wrangler”.  And now, of course, as a so-called “SuperConnector” I connect everyone from start-up entrepreneurs to billionaires to celebrities to real-estate moguls… the list goes on.


It’s easy to see how relationships turn into revenue, but how exactly do relationships build our brand?  One of the most intriguing and valuable platforms I chose to explore a few years ago was online radio.   I started with just a handful of colleagues to interview and a free streaming network.  (I chose BlogTalkRadio, but there are dozens of inexpensive choices out there.)  One reason I chose BlogTalk though, was that it already had a huge following – so discovery was likely to be enhanced by being in a place where the party had already started.


I have done many things to make sure my radio show became – and stayed – successful.  First, I aggressively seek top-notch guests with valuable content and cutting-edge information.  After all, there’s a lot of noise on the web.  If you’re going to create something, it has to be stellar.  Next, I made sure to make the most out of each “fireside chat” and showcase the guest and the interview in as many places as I could: my monthly newsletter, my website, my blog, on social spaces – and even to go as far as emailing out the link to those I think would be truly impacted by the conversation.


This type of asset has legs, believe me.  Not only does it build your online brand and showcase you as a leader – it’s also tangible – and ROI driven.  I’ve transcribed the interviews and used the content in eBooks (two of which went to #1 in Amazon – in Music and in Business) and I’ve also pressed 5-minute segments into CDs to hand out at conferences (great conversation fodder) — & ultimately create a subscription service.
Content.  Relationships.  Branding.  Preeminence.  It’s all about ROI.  It’s worth keeping in mind that ROI means RETURN on investment.  And every great result should count there:  renewed relationships, brand elevation, etc. But of course, the revenue also matters.  So every year that the show has been on the air, I’ve had my production team create a “Top 10” interview album that I sell through Audible and use for lead capture.


My point is that in a digital world, your network should do way more than gather dust until you “need” someone.   It should be a living entity of people whom YOU engage with and support constantly.  And if you get it right, with enough tenacity, you just might do what we did with All Access Radio and hit 1 million downloads only three years later.


To your success,


Kelli Richards

President & CEO

The All Access Group, LLC

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Guest Column: Steve Rigell

Mrs. Schloemer’s One Rule

By Steve Rigell

I learned the best productivity hack of all time when I was seven years old from the most unlikely source imaginable.

My mother had decided I would learn to play the piano and that’s all there was to it. And, she had decided that I would practice every day after school before going out to play. It didn’t matter that my friends and I were in the middle of constructing our best “fort” ever. There was no reasoning with her. She laid down the law and that was that.

I could tell Mrs. Schloemer knew I didn’t want to be there when Mom took me to my first lesson. She smiled at me and firmly closed the front door on my mother who clearly wanted to be invited in. She then asked me to follow her to the kitchen. I wondered if I was in the right place. There was definitely no piano in the kitchen. She puttered around at the stove for a few minutes and brought two steaming cups of hot chocolate to the kitchen table.

“I only have one rule,” she said as she sat down.

I didn’t say anything. I blew on my hot chocolate and watched the ripples in the foam.

“You only have to practice five minutes per day.”

I thought about this for a second or two. This was not sounding as bad as I had thought.

“Does my mom know about this rule?”

“I explained to her that she has to abide by this rule just as you do.”

I sipped my hot chocolate and tried to figure out what the catch was. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out, so I asked, “What’s the catch?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “my friends Laurie and David take piano and they have to practice at least thirty minutes every day. That really cuts into their playing time.”

“Different teachers teach different ways,” she said. “Can you promise me you will abide by my one rule?”

“Sure!” I said without hesitation. “Just five minutes a day, right?”

“That’s right. Now let’s get started.”

For the next several weeks, as soon as I got home from school, I sat down at the piano and “practiced” for my obligatory five minutes. Not a second more. Then, I went outside to play with my friends, and no one said anything at all to me about practicing piano. Mrs. Schloemer never mentioned her one rule again.

At some point I stopped watching the clock so closely and just went out to play when I was done.

One day, I was shocked when my friend Al knocked on the front door and asked when I was coming out to play. I had been practicing for almost an hour. Al didn’t take piano, but he was curious about it.

“How can you sit there and play for so long?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just lost track of time.”

“You still only have to practice for five minutes, right?” Al asked.

“Yep, that’s the only rule. I don’t have to do recitals if I don’t want to. Mom can’t make me play for her friends. I just have to practice five minutes a day.”

“But most of the time you practice twenty or thirty minutes. How come?”

“Well, it’s like I get involved and lose track of time. Sometimes I just want to get something figured out. It’s weird.”

“Yeah, weird,” was all Al said as we jumped on our bikes and headed for the creek where we knew the rest of our crew was waiting.

It was not until years later, after I had graduated from college and started my first business that I fully appreciated Mrs. Schloemer’s genius. With every business, every job, there are things that we just don’t relish doing; especially when there are things we enjoy doing instead. There are tasks we avoid, activities we procrastinate about, and deadlines we push out over and over–the adult equivalents of practicing piano every afternoon after school.

These hurdles can be mastered with Mrs. Schloemer’s one rule. Just make a commitment to give them five minutes per day and stick with it.

Give it a try. You’ll be on your way to radically improved productivity in just five minutes.

© 2014 Steve Rigell

CEO, Preemptis Consulting

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Guest Column: Imbalance, End Game, and Escape

Imbalance, End Game, and Escape

What to do when Collaborations Don’t Work

by Kelli Richards

As a coach, consultant and high-level connector in the tech, music/entertainment and digital arenas, some of the most important questions I get asked often center around the subject of collaboration – something near and dear to my heart.   Here are some of the largest pitfalls of being involved in collaborations that just don’t work – and what you can do to fix or get out of them.

1. Imbalance. One of the greatest pitfalls of any collaboration is that it is simply not reciprocal.  There’s no win / win – just hard work for one party and limited rewards for the other. The truth is that any collaboration can only succeed if all the parties involved are givers and takers. If any one party involved has nothing to offer, they’re simply a drain on the whole.  Be sure that all parties invited into any project are clear about their role and expected deliverables – even if it’s just to bring a creative edge to the process – and that nobody is “dead weight” in the group, just along for the ride.

2. End Game. Another pitfall to successfully working with mentors, creatives or business alliances is that we are simply not all cut from the same cloth. We don’t all have the same work ethic or goals.  Before any collaboration goes wrong, in fact, before it even gets started, you have to be very honest with everyone involved. Before you set out on any journey you must know that what is obvious to you may look like murky waters to the people you’re working with. In addition to making sure you have the right team (number one, above), be sure to take the time to discuss the goals and endgame of the project.

3. What to do when it goes wrong? No matter how great the team, sometimes things start out fine but go way off course along the way. Before you jump overboard, assess what has gone wrong, step back and measure what you can do to salvage your part – to bring the best you can to the project.  It might not be great, but it’s possible that showing up for your part of the work – to preserve your future relationship with the other artists or parties involved – might be the best solution (or at least a step in the right direction).

Collaborations are definitely NOT easy, but they can be worth it. The bottom line is that no matter what we’re buying, selling or creating – we are all in the people business. Tapping into the most important resource – the human resource – is an important part of any joint venture or affiliation or product launch.  So DO collaborate when it makes sense. Take the risk.  But no matter how “big” the names and other parties are, be sure to keep it simple, keep your goals & expectations clear and have defined accountability for every collaborator, every step of the way.  If you do, the rewards can be well worth it.

Kelli Richards
CEO, The All Access Group, LLC

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Guest Column: How Well Do You Rebound?

How Well Do You Rebound?

By Joellyn ‘Joey’ Sargent

When faced with a business setback, do you bounce back or just bounce?

The other day I was watching a news story about victims of Hurricane Sandy and I started thinking about how some people seem to rebound from major challenges much faster than others.

We all have off days, even bad years when we’re running a business. No matter how solid your strategy, how exceptional the value proposition or how distinctive your IP is, trouble is inevitable. How we deal with it is what separates the leaders from the losers.

Master the art of the rebound.

Learning how to bounce back instead of going “bounce…splat!” is not easy. It takes courage and conviction to stand up and face the reality that:

1)         You just screwed up royally.

2)        You fell victim to something beyond your control (possibly without adequate planning).

3)         No matter how well you prepare, it could potentially happen again!

Dwelling on these thoughts creates an insidious fear that wants to take up residence in your mind like an unwelcome houseguest. Fear paralyzes your decisions and prevents growth. Don’t let it move in!

Being resilient is essential to avoid a death spiral that spells the end of your business. An artful rebound is the best antidote for all kinds of professional (and personal) setbacks.

The Resilience Model

Those who bounce back most effectively not only have sound strategies for dealing with problems, they also have an innate ability to sense trouble before it appears on the horizon. This includes establishing a system of sensors to provide early warning signals that the market is changing, a deal is going south or a competitor is working on a game-changing innovation.

Assuming you have tools like this in place to alert you to approaching issues, how do you address these problems and respond in a way that preserves future growth opportunities?

An agile business anticipates major changes and leaps onto new growth cycles when the time is right. Picture a typical growth curve: after a period of acceleration, you hit a peak and things start to taper off. You can ride the curve down, or jump to a better one and reach for a higher peak.

The time to move is when you see this slowdown coming (move too soon and you leave untapped potential behind). When your sensory system suggests an oncoming problem, look for fresh opportunities and seize them before your velocity wavers, or employ creative strategies to put your trajectory back on course.

Hesitation is the enemy of resilience. Wait too long to react and crash landing becomes nearly unavoidable. Fall too far and the climb back is like summiting Everest: it can be done, but few have what it takes to make it happen. The goal is simply too high. It requires time, conditioning and capital that flailing businesses can’t spare.

The jump to a new growth curve often brings a minor loss of momentum at first. This is to be expected as you gain your footing, become comfortable with the new environment and establish your position. Don’t let that little dip scare you unless it becomes protracted, which may suggest you chose the wrong path.

Crash Avoidance

To avoid finding yourself in crash position, plan ahead and practice making small leaps like these on a regular basis:

  • When a product line or service offering shows signs of advancing age, determine how to rejuvenate it or make the decisive call to put it to rest.
  • If a customer segment is becoming unprofitable, seek out new markets and cultivate them before you need to rely on their revenue streams.
  • When your referral pool shrinks due to retirements or other inevitable factors, work with fresh partners to develop new opportunities.

As these small hops become habits, you’ll find it gets easier to make the leap on big changes when necessary. The fear of the unknown is tempered by anticipation and excitement for the payoff that waits on the other side.

Leap a little every day and you’ll learn to bounce back higher and faster when adversity strikes.

Joellyn ‘Joey’ Sargent, principal of the Claravon Consulting Group, connects brand vision, organizational performance and customer experience, unlocking powerful momentum for growth. Her clarity, vision and insights help leaders achieve breakthrough results with Maximum Market Impact™. Learn more at or read Joey’s blog at

©2013, Joellyn Sargent. All Rights Reserved.

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Guest Column: Confidence and Dealing with Risk

WorkplaceRx: The Question Mark of Confidence in Dealing with Risk

by Michelle Kerrigan

(Michelle is a member of Alan’s SuperCoaching Program.)

Risk is made up of probability and seriousness, minus preventive actions and contingency factors—Alan Weiss

The lower the confidence in asking or answering questions, the higher the probability and seriousness of risk.—Michelle Kerrigan

Operations of the day-to-day workplace comprise roughly 80% of most organizations, making them one of a company’s largest investments and indispensable to business results. Because of their size and varying stages, they are complex systems with a lot of moving parts that can go awry, and often do.

This is a prime target for probable and serious risk.

And, yet, it is often overlooked. Actually, “avoided” is a better word.  I know, because it’s the space I’ve worked in for over 25 years. By the time senior management calls me in to do repair work, the damage has already been done. Time, money and momentum have been lost, causing delays, dissatisfaction, and overall frustration.

Now—here’s what I find interesting: Once I begin to ask executives questions, the response is invariably the same: their eyes glaze over and they begin to shut down.

I’ve realized that most of the executives I’ve encountered don’t have the confidence to ask questions. Often, this crisis of confidence is passed down to the team, eventually resulting in serious repercussions. They ignore, avoid, evade, and sidestep until all hell breaks loose.

Most of my success has come from asking the questions nobody likes to ask. It has always been my way to diagnose and fix problems. Asking questions minimizes the probability of risk as well as the seriousness.

Whenever I assess a new operation, I closely observe the day-to-day, and sit side-by-side to interview members of the team. I find out what they do and how they do it, and am very curious about the why and when as well.

Here are some of the questions I ask:

  • Do you have a to-do list? What processes do you use?
  • What’s your responsibility in the process? What comes before you and where does it go from here?
  • What are your most important job functions?
  • How do you prioritize?
  • How do you follow up and monitor progress?
  • Who are you accountable to?
  • If you don’t know the answer to something, do you ask?
  • What happens when you ask questions?

Responses to these questions tell me a lot—especially the last two. When employees, line managers and leaders hedge, hesitate or can’t answer simple questions, I know something is wrong.

I’ve found that the lower the confidence in asking or answering questions, the higher the probability and seriousness of risk.

Here are a few examples of the problems which can develop:

  • Sales are lost because people and process fail to deliver.
  • Delays are caused by ignored or missed deadlines.
  • Projects frequently lose direction.
  • Customers and clients complain more frequently (and loudly).
  • The number of costly errors increases.
  • Revenue decreases.

People who fear asking questions avoid realistic issues that could impact their organization. The only probability they try to prevent is being judged negatively. That’s the risk they’re focused on.

Lacking the confidence to ask impacts not only preventative measures, but contingency plans too. They both have to do with a proper assessment and appropriate use of questions.

And here’s the amazing thing: when all hell does break loose, corporate contingencies are invariably inappropriate: firings and exhaustive autopsies begin. It is then that executives decide to ask questions!

But the damage is already done.

So—get confident with asking. It forces you to acknowledge that you don’t have the answers, and that’s the beginning of solutions.

The greater risk is taking no risk at all.

Copyright 2013 Michelle Kerrigan.

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Guest Column: Embracing Your Past to Succeed

To Succeed in Consulting, Embrace Your Past

By Dorie Clark

The following post is adapted from Dorie Clark’s new book from Harvard Business Review Press, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. She is a graduate of the Million Dollar Consulting® College.

Most of us don’t start out as independent consultants. Maybe we worked for a larger firm, or began our careers in another industry altogether. So when it comes time to launch our practices, it can be hard to know how to position ourselves – and feel confident enough to do so.

My new book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, focuses on the question of how professionals can “reinvent” themselves, whether it’s a big change (starting your own business, changing careers) or a smaller one (ensuring others recognize your leadership potential so you can move up in your company). What I learned through my research is that “owning your narrative” and seeing your past as a strength is one of the most important ingredients of success.

One of the “reinventers” I profile is Libby Wagner, now a successful consultant and member of the Mentor Hall of Fame, who began her career as a poet and creative writing professor. When she started her consulting business, says Libby, “ I didn’t want anyone to know I was a poet. I had a lot of tapes going in my head. The economists I had worked with had really talked down to me, and people in business certainly weren’t interested in what I did. I was so afraid. In the very beginning, I thought I should try to go to Harvard and get an MBA.” But she held off and decided to try without it.

Soon, she realized that her clients weren’t asking about her credentials: “When they see that what I do actually works, then nobody cares. Nobody has ever asked me if I have an MBA, ever.” In fact, she says, “I think my not having an MBA gives me an advantage; I can ask all the ‘new girl’ questions and it makes them step out of their paradigm for a little while to see if what they’re doing is working for them.”

And it turns out the very skills she honed as a poet were the ones most relevant in her consulting. “The way I see the world is very language-driven,” she says. “I’m going to be listening for nuances and connections and patterns. That’s the way I look at the world and I take that to any interaction with the client, so I’ve learned to ask really good questions.”

Today, Libby has consulted for Fortune 500 clients including Boeing and Nike – and she’s christened her monthly e-newsletter The Boardroom Poet. The secret to embracing her own narrative from poet to consultant was understanding the value she could bring to her clients. As she wrote in a recent essay, “…my clients want results. They want to know that the money, time and effort they are going to invest will give them what they want: higher profits, more engaged workplaces, less stress, success in their endeavors. I can do this, exactly as I am…When I show up as a poet, entrepreneur, and ordinary smart person, I can then help others be who they need to be, too.”

Early on, it’s tempting to want to paper over our differences and present ourselves in the image of what we think a “perfect consultant” should be. But it serves us far better in the long run to understand our unique strengths, and leverage them – as only we can – to help our clients.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the newly released Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant and speaker who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the World Bank. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.

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