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Archive for April, 2012

As I get older I find my business style becoming quieter.  And I find it is helping me as an entrepreneur and a salesman and a father.

Take the latter role, for example.  I read with and talk with my daughter almost every night, when I am in town, before she goes to sleep.  I used to try to guide her by talking to her about values or little lessons I felt I  had to impart.  I don’t do that so much any more.  I’ve learned how to listen to her, really listen, till she asks me about something.  Then we have real talk.  This process has helped me as a businessman and a servant of my clients.

Listening is a critical business skill.  (One thing that bothers me about social media is that it often seems to revolve around aggressive strategies of pushing out tweets, emails, links, etc., but not of meaningful dialogue.)  Yet who has not heard the 80/20 rule of sales–that you should be listening the larger percentage and talking the smaller.

Listening is about discovery.  My process of becoming a better listener and a better collegial entrepreneur has been one of giving up my preconceptions, my ego, my wish to control, and, above all, my personal neediness.  To react as more of a human tabula rasa, not a sales creature waiting to jump in and impress, and to let go the effort of trying to read what people think of me.  In a sense this involves giving up and emptying myself before business or sales conversations.  What other people think of me is none of my business.

This does not mean that effective listening is a passive process. It is active, concentrated, focused, purposeful.  There is certainly a pressure, as a leader, to steer, control, and direct–to present a forceful image of being in charge.  But I have not found that entrepreneurial leadership requires hegemonic assertion.

So how do we become more effective executive listeners?

Well, I’ve just started reading a new book by Bernard Ferrari, an ex-McKinsey director, called Power Listening:  Mastering The Most Critical Business Skill Of Them All (Portfolio Penguin). Ferrari feels that all of us are flawed listeners to one extent or another.  In Chapter Two he lists six types of listeners.

  1. The Opinionator-listens only to determine if his ideas agree with what the opinionator knows to be true.  He uses sentences that begin with “Listen,…” and ends with the word “right?”
  2. The Grouch-is blocked from dialogue by the certainty that your ideas are flawed.
  3. The Preambler-uses long-winded questions which are really stealth speeches to box colleagues into a corner.
  4. The Peseverator-seems to dialogue, but is only trying to sharpen his point and categorize you as a supporter.
  5. The Answer Man-the smartest man in the room interested in impressing and always having the answer.
  6. The Pretender-he’s a great actor, but could care less.

I must admit to have at least touched on most of these in my seventeen years as leader of my company, more’s the pity.

I haven’t got to Ferrari’s conclusions yet, but for me the answer to effective listening is simply to really care about my client, my employee, or my partner.  It’s not always easy to do, but for me it is the Polar Star of determining if I’m present.  It’s a good place to keep coming back to in any meaningful business conversation.

Betsy Sanders, a former Sr. VP at Nordstrom, once said, “To learn through listening, practice it naively and actively.  Naively means that you listen openly, ready to learn something, as opposed to listening defensively, ready to rebut.”

Thank you, Betsy

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Entrepreneurship is cool these days.  It’s study is booming in universities.  Pardon me if I look askance at the phenomenon.

Teaching entrepreneurship was considered in the WSJ on March 19, 2012 (P. 4, sec. R) in dueling articles titled “Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?” It juxtaposes the thoughts of Dr. Noam Wasserman, Harvard Business School, and Victor Hwang, Silicone Valley venture capitalist.   To oversimplify, Wasserman believes you can teach entrepreneurs to use studied evidence to avoid the shoals of common entrepreneurial failure by teaching informed technical processes and preempting historic start-up mistakes.  He states, “We can teach founders to use  [data] to avoid common hazards.”  His belief is that an entrepreneur can be taught much like an accountant, an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer.

Victor Hwang, on the other hand, feels entrepreneurship can’t be taught.  Mostly because it is simply messy.  It requires a lived life and a broad personal experience to deal with wide-ranging problems like the daily unexpected and unprecedented, or the unquantifiable.  He also states,  “Leading a start-up also demands a deep understanding of people that can only come from real world experience.”

For me, Mr. Hwang clearly wins the argument over the teachability of entrepreneurship, despite the hordes of students currently piling into entrepreneurial courses.  (For more on this, see my blog of Oct. 17, 2011-“MBAs, Whaling, and Entrepreneurship.”)  I know very few of my entrepreneurial brothers and sisters that would not agree with Mr. Hwang.  But I also believe both he and Dr. Wasserman are arguing penultimates of the entrepreneurial experience.

So how can one prepare for entrepreneurship if it can’t be formally taught?

I would say that the entrepreneurial quest is at heart a spiritual quest, even among entrepreneurial atheists.  You can and should study everything in that quest:  from physics, to poetry, to philosophy, to history, to economics, to biology.  Study anything and everything.  Except entrepreneurship.

There is a spirit-sucking anomie afoot in the world that bespeaks meaninglessness.  The popularity of the idea of entrepreneurship comes from a deep and universal longing to impart real personal meaning to existence.  A self-generated business is a way to craft your own meaning, your own truth, your own freedom, and your own rapture of being alive.  It is, perhaps, a low-level search for God in a confusing world that God ofttimes seems to have left.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book “Good Business” talks of the importance of “flow (centeredness) to a creative businessman.  He states, “At its most fulfilling a career in business involves a series of steps in which one takes on ever greater responsibility, making it possible to experience increasing flow for many years….It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the growth of businesses is in large part the result of their leaders’ need to grow as persons.”   (2003, Viking Peguin, p. 64)

When asked what advice she would give to a young person planning a business, British entrepreneur and founder of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick, says:  “Listen, don’t even talk about business–don’t be controlled by language.  Bury it.  Talk about a livelihood that you can create for yourself, an honorable livelihood that gives you freedom.”

How do you teach that at Harvard?  Thank you, Anita.

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I don’t think entrepreneurs pay enough attention to their attire.  Call me shallow.

In the past I’ve written occasionally about clothes and entrepreneurship. (See May 23, 2010) Mostly I think clothes are important from a personal branding point of view.

Potential clients and customers make quick assumptions about you before you say a word. Your clothes can make an eloquent statement about who you are and what you represent before you open your mouth.  (I’ve always thought there would be a very good living for some fashionista in consulting on bespoke branding with executives, owners, and salesmen.)

Let me hark back here again to Steve Jobs. He wore black turtlenecks.  This said a great deal about his personal values and the user-friendly elegance of his products.  It spoke simplicity.  He was who he was.  He was sincere and spartan.

So, how do I apply this to myself as an entrepreneur?

Simple.  My clients use my firm Corporate Rain to initiate discrete, high-end business with c-suite people and corporate decision-makers.  I need to look the peer of my clients, to look like like I belong.  I want to create the visual assurance of stability, almost like the look of a banker.  I do this partially by investing in expensive, highly-tailored suits.  Almost like the look of a traditional banker.  (The truth is I’m an old hippie who has lived a quite bohemian, unbusinessmanish life.

Tangentially, there was an interesting article in the NY Times on April 4, 2012 entitled “Mind Games:  Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat.”  (Sandra Blakeslee-Science Section)  The article cites a recent study by Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School at Northwestern concerning enclothed cognition: the effects of clothing on the cognitive process.  Dr. Galinsky states, “Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.”

For example, in one of Dr. Galinsky’s experiments, when a subject wears a white coat that he believes belongs to a doctor, his ability to pay attention increases sharply.  But if he wears the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, he will not show improvement.

In other words, your clothes define you for other people, but they also define you to yourself and can affect your inner efficaciousness.

You don’t need to hire a personal stylist or to be a fashion plate to accomplish inner and outer personal branding. You just need to think about it a little.  It’s mostly common sense.  If it serves your image to wear t-shirts, wear t-shsirts.  If it serves you to be elegant, be elegant. If it serves you to dress in drag, by all means, dress in drag.

As Shakespeare says in Hamlet,  “The apparel oft proclaims the man.”

Thanks, William.

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Hanna Rosin wrote an Atlantic Magazine article in 2010 (July/August) called “The End of Men.”  Among other facts she noted that women now make up the majority of the US workforce:  They make up 54% of accountants, 45% of law associates and 50% of all banking and insurance jobs.

I noticed March was Women’s History Month.  It got me thinking about women and entrepreneurship.  I’ve been getting to know more and more of my female fellows lately.  I’m learning things.  Harold Pinter, in one of his early plays has a character say this:  “I know little of women. But I have heard dread tales.”   Nah. And Freud asks plaintively, “What do women want?” (To which Bill Cosby says, “The only thing I have learned in fifty-two years is that women want men to stop asking dumb questions like that.”)

Though I can’t really prove it, it seems to me that female entrepreneurs are quietly growing in numbers, prominence, confidence and influence.  I do know that 57% of college attendees are now women and, according to a new report from American Express Open Forum, more women are starting businesses. According to this report (called State of Women-Owned Businesses) American women are starting 550 new business a day.  The women’s start-up rate in the last year increased 54%, much higher than for men.

In an recent article in Entrepreneur (March 23, 2012), Carol Tice conjectures on women’s increasing presence in business.  She enumerates three reasons:

  1. The growth of women’s networking activities.  She cites such groups as Ladies Who Launch and Wild Woman Entrepreneurs, but there are many others.
  2. Women are finding more acceptance among angel investors and venture firms.
  3. The Internet.  It has made it easier for women to start businesses at home while juggling childcare responsibilities.

I think I could add more reasons than Ms. Tice enumerates.

To my mind, women are better team builders than men.  And they are better listeners, have more open minds than men and are less inclined to be autocratic. These are good qualities in relating to a modern, less hierarchical workplace.

In an article in Time Magazine in 2009 Claire Shipman and Katty Kay wrote a piece entitled “Women Will Rule Business,”   They quote projections from the Chartered Management Institute in England predicting that by 2018 the world will be much more fluid and virtual and the demand for female strengths of collegiality and management will grow exponentially.

Also, I think women instinctively understand the need for harmony and balance. Perhaps I am a bit of a womanish entrepreneur myself, as I find the meaning entrepreneurship gives and supports in my life is at least as important as the money it imparts. Women unquestionably understand better than men the value of entrepreneurship in creating happiness, as well as wealth.

So–what do women want?  Probably the same damn thing men want. They just understand certain things better.

In a recent biographical movie about Margaret Thatcher, she comments,  “If you want anything said, ask a man.  If you want something done ask a woman.”   Well, hush my mouth.

Thanks, Margaret.

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