Stop, Drop, And Roll Before Answering

“I can’t believe what they’re telling me!”, that’s what the little voice in my head screams in some of my initial client meetings. Fortunately it usually passes through the marketing and PR filter en route to my mouth and it comes out “That’s interesting. How’s it working for you?”

You wouldn’t believe some of the systems and processes I’ve seen over the course of my 16 years as a consultant.

Some people know that they have a horrible patchwork of broken systems that are loosely held together by duct tape and bubble gum. Others think their system is “flexible except for this one issue we’d like for you to fix.” I’ve learned that one man’s flexibility is another’s bad design.

Fortunately experience begets familiarity and some of the issues I see are remarkably similar to ones that I’ve solved in the past.

It’s tempting to show them just how smart I am and immediately jump to the solution. In fact, cutting to the chase would save them time and money so everybody wins. Except there’s only one problem: I didn’t listen.

You’ve Got To Listen

Listening is incredibly important, not only for consultants, but for everyone. Regardless of your walk in life, being an good listener will help you as you work with other people. Listening helps people to feel understood, to feel that you care. And that goes a long way in building a relationship.

Conversely, if you don’t take the time to listen, other people don’t feel understood. You’re not listening, so you simply cannot understand what’s going on. They assume you don’t care or that you’re just too self-centered. Without a good understanding of the problem, they reason, how can you possibly offer a good solution?

So before you offer a solution, take some time to stop, drop, and roll.

Stop

Don’t interrupt their description of the problem. Let them tell it to you in all its glory, even if you’ve heard it all before. It’s important to them to tell it.

Most people feel their situations are unique and quite different than the problems you may have faced in the past. Let them tell you why. In fact, you may actually learn that their problem is subtly yet significantly different that what you were expecting.

Two rules to keep in mind. First don’t interrupt. If the other person is talking, be quiet. You can nod your head in agreement or smile when appropriate, but don’t say anything. Second, when the other person has stopped talking, count to 5 to make sure that he is really finished and not just regrouping his thoughts. Only then do you know it’s your turn to talk.

Drop

Drop a few clarifying questions back to the other person. Ask them to explain in more detail or from another perspective. Many people will focus solely on the immediate affects of the issue or what they deem as pertinent. If you delve a little deeper you can uncover a lot more information. Asking relevant questions also reassures them that you are listening.

Don’t limit yourself to abstract or technical questions. Ask them about the impact of what they are describing. How is this situation affecting them personally? How has the problem affected their job or other’s perception of them?

Getting personal helps you to understand their motives. This is especially powerful when talking with a prospective client.

Roll

Roll back what you hear them saying. Restate their problem and its affects. Summarizing or restating what they’ve told you helps makes sure that you, do indeed, understand their issue. It also communicates to them that you understand.

This also helps to transition the conversation. It’s moving from their turn to talk to your turn. They’ve described the problem, now it’s your turn to offer suggestions or recommendations.

Solve

After they have completely described their scenario to their satisfaction, then you are free to offer your guidance. Your initial assessment may have been right on, but they wouldn’t have listened to you since you didn’t listen to them. Listening cost you only a few more minutes of time and the rewards were definitely worth it.

So, the next time you’re visiting a prospective new client or someone approaches you with a problem, remember: Stop, Drop, and Roll.

So I Got Promoted, Now What? Employ the Same Successful Tactics

[This is part three in a series of posts about how to effectively transition to your new role after being promoted.]

Series Outline

Constant Change

It seems that Moore’s Law is on its seventh double espresso. The law, which was originally described by Gordon E. Moore in 1965, primarily relates to advances in computer hardware. But given the dizzying pace of changes in all technology , I think it’s more broadly applicable to other areas today. The affects on IT Professionals is fairly obvious.

Can you name a database administrator, a solutions architect, a seasoned developer, or any other highly skilled, highly technical IT Professional that views his job as a run-of-the-mill 9 to 5 position? I can’t. Most successful people in our industry realize that in order to do their jobs, a certain amount of continuing education is required.

So over time, we’ve developed ways to keep up with the latest trends in our field. We listen to podcasts, read blogs, attend conferences, participate in user groups, and take training classes. These sources, among others, help us to do our jobs better.

There’s A Lot To Learn

It’s important to realize that once you’ve been promoted, your job has substantially changed. Many IT Professionals fail to recognize this shift and languish in their new role as Team Lead, Manager, or Director. I’ve seen it countless times at the companies where I’ve consulted.

Need proof? Think back to the first few weeks or months as a new database administrator or application developer. How much did you know, really know, about your job? At the time you may have thought you knew it all, but if you’re honest with yourself, you didn’t. Think about how much more you know now.

The same applies to your new job. You may feel like you know how to manage others and work at a higher level in the organization, but trust me when I say there’s plenty more to learn.

New Job, Same Preparation

That’s not to say that everything you learned in your last role is now obsolete. On the contrary, we can supplement that expertise with newfound and complementary knowledge and once again prepare to excel in our new role. The good news is that you already know how to do this – just take the same approach that landed you the promotion.

Dive Into Your New Role

In much the same way you seized your prior technical role and sought out every bit of information you could in your area of expertise, you can and should do the exact same thing in your new role. How?

  • Seek out podcasts on how to manage a technical team. I like Manager Tools series of podcasts.
  • Look for blogs that are dedicated to effective management.
  • Attend a non-technical conference. Once again I hear good things about the Manager Tools conferences.
  • Read books on effective communications and leadership. There are classics like anything from Peter Drucker and Dale Carnagie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People as well as more contemporary books like Good to Great.
  • Join associations.

Expand Your Horizon

In your prior role, you may have found it valuable to learn some ancillary technologies to help you do your job better. The same is also true for your new role.

  • Get involved with ToastMasters International.
  • Read books about making presentations. Presenting to Win describes how to create an engaging presentation.
  • Learn more about negotiations tactics.
  • Look for opportunities to improve your budgeting and financial skills.

You Can’t Improve What You Don’t Measure

As a database or network professional, you may have found that capturing statistics and benchmarking data paid off in many ways. Metrics help determine when things are begining to depart from the norm. They can be used to help predict when upgrades will be needed. And they can be used to identify where the problem really is, and more importantly where it isn’t.

Metrics can be used in your new role, too. Capturing metrics can help you to justify new expenditures, identify gaps in your current levels and processes, and benchmark your areas of responsibility. Remember the adage: you cannot improve what you don’t measure.

Show Me The Money

Redundancy, high availability, and up-time are all good concepts and even measurements in some cases for technical people. We can see how they naturally help us to achieve our goals. However, oftentimes those concepts are a bit too abstract for other people, particularly those who may hold the pursestrings. In those cases, putting the concept or technology into financial terms often helps. For example the cost of a High Availability solution may be $200,000. That sounds expensive until you realize that the cost of being down for just one day is $500,000. In that case, $200,000 maybe well worth the investment depending on the probability of an outage.

The same tactics can be employed in your new role. Learn to associate your projects and requests with financial measures. Calculate the Return On Investment. The practice will help you to better understand the real need (or lack of real need). And it’ll help form a good basis for your request to your boss.

Carpe Diem

Although I couldn’t find a reference for it, I believe it was Tom Peters that once quipped “Nothing begets failure like success.” I believe he meant that once a company was successful at one endeavor, it was in danger of always trying to repeat that success and thus stifling true innovation.

As individuals, we are susceptible to that as well. If we, in our new job, continue doing the exact same set of tasks that made us successful in our prior role, we will doom ourselves to failure. However, we can employ the same fervor, the same passion, and the same tactics that lead to our prior success in our new roles and seize the day.

So I Got Promoted, Now What? Stop Doing Your Old Job

[This is part two in a series of posts about how to effectively transition to your new role after being promoted.]

Series Outline

Your Hard Work Has Paid Off

You’ve work hard over the past few years, going the extra mile to make sure that everything in your charge has gone well. You’ve managed your individual and team projects well; you’ve organized your work and developed a personal discipline so that nothing has fallen through the cracks. And now your hard work has finally paid dividends. You’ ve been recognized with a promotion. So now what do you do?

This is a question that many highly skilled, highly technical people ask themselves once the euphoria of increased pay and acknowledgement has worn off.

Unfortunately, many don’t pursue the answer long enough to find it. Instead they get mired down into the daily routine of their new role and never explore how they could better prepare to succeed. Many languish in mediocrity at best, and fail at worst.

So what’s the first thing you need to do?

Stop Doing Your Old Job

Stop doing your old job. To many, this may sound too obvious to mention. If you are promoted to a new position, why would you want to continue doing your old job as well as the new one? Isn’t one job enough?

Unfortunately, in many cases it’s just not that discrete. Often the promotion is a “working promotion.” You’ve been promoted to Senior DBA, to Development Team Lead, to Manager of the Administration Team, or to Director of Operations. The promotion comes with a new title, an increase in pay, and some new responsibilities. However, you find that in addition to your new duties, you are still accountable for many of the same tasks you had before your promotion.

To be successful in your new role, you will need to approach it with the same fervor and dedication that led to your promotion. You won’t be able to do that if effectively if you are spending a significant amount of your time doing your old job. Something has to give and it had better be the old job.

“But, It’s Not My Job”

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you tell your boss “It’s not my job anymore.” when he asks you about something that was your direct responsibility prior to the promotion. They don’t want to hear that. And besides, unless your promotion has moved you to a completely new department, that task still falls under your purview. And it’ll remain your responsibility until you’re told specifically otherwise or your replacement can be found.

So, in order to stop doing your old job, you’ll need to identify people who can successfully step into the role you once occupied, or at least take on many of the responsibilities. This can be done through a series of progressively larger and more impacting steps: assign immediate tasks, delegate small projects, and create a growth plan for your team.

Assign Immediate Tasks

Many of us have daily, weekly, or even monthly tasks that require our time and attention. There are backups to verify, meetings to attend, status reports to create, numbers to run, and logs to review, to name but a few. None of these are particularly urgent. Many are not high profile. But all need to be done.

In your prior role, you probably handled each of these at part of your job. Those responsibilities were commiserate with your level. In your new role, however, many of those activities will drain one of the most precious resources you have: your time. If you can safely offload those discrete yet repetitive tasks to one or your team members, you’ll potential free several hours per week.

Delegate Small Projects

The next step is to begin delegating some of the projects for which you are responsible. Start small and work your way up. Don’t begin with a large, complex project with multiple moving parts requiring input from numerous colleagues. Start with a small, fairly self-contained project that can be accomplished without  much outside input. Expect to work closely with the team member to whom you’ve delegated the project.

Initially, delegating will not free up your time. On the contrary, it will likely consume more of your time in the short-term than if you just did it yourself. But the payoff is just around the corner, just a few months down the road. As you get better at delegating and your team learns how to run with the delegated projects, you’ll be able to do more and more. Delegation is a force multiplier once you pay the initial start up costs in time.

Create a Growth Plan for Your Team

The best people have a knack for bringing out the best in other people. They somehow get others to perform and exceed even their own expectations. You want those kind of people on your team. And if you want them on your team, you can bet that your boss wants them on his team, too.

One way to bring out the best in other people is to consciously and intentionally create a growth plan for each of them. Talk with them. Learn their aspirations. Discover their likes and dislikes. Create a plan to help  them grow professionally, technically, and interpersonally. In short, you’d eventually like for them to easily step into your shoes once you get promoted again.

Ifs, Ands, and Buts

But isn’t all this risky? Won’t one of your team members take your job? Or won’t they get promoted out from under you?

Fostering an environment where you can be more effective while growing your people is not “risky.” In fact, a good argument can be made for just the opposite. Not growing your team is risky. Creating an environment where personal growth is not evident, where the same old routine is done day in and day out, is far riskier to you than growing your team. The best people won’t want to stay in that environment. You’ll be left with the mediocre.

One of the best compliments you can be paid as a manager is to have one of your team members promoted to a new position. It’s speaks well of the environment you’ve created. And when that happens again and again, senior management will recognize your role in producing highly effective people.

And when you get promoted, you’re next transition will be easier because you’ll have already cultivated your replacement.


“So I Got Promoted, Now What?”

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” That’s the premise of Dr. Laurence Peter in his 1969 book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong My first thought when I read a statement like that is: I wonder if Dr. Peter worked in a hierarchy and if so would his premise still apply?

Nevertheless. I think we’ve all seen instances where someone who is very good with technology is promoted and flounders. Horribly. And the worse they do, the more stress they feel. And they flounder even more. So what happens? The don’t make changes in their daily work required by the new position.

This is the first in an nine-part series on how to do your job better once you’ve been promoted. Hopefully the next eight posts in the series will help you to be aware of the new dynamics required by your new role so you adjust and excel.

Stop Doing Your Old Job

At first blush, this may sound too obvious to be worth mentioning. But there’s a reason it’s first on the list. This is far more prevalent than you may think.  If you don’t address this shortly after your promotion, it can set you up for failure down the road. [more...]

Employ the Same Successful Tactics

In your prior role, you approached your job, your responsibilities, and your preparation in a certain way, one that eventually led to your promotion. And while you don’t want to simply repeat the “what” you were doing before, you can most definitely leverage the “how” that got you the promotion. [more...]

Get to Know Your Peers

Far too often, IT professionals believe, mistakenly in my opinion, that they are paid to be good with technology. To be sure, that’s a part of it. In some jobs it may even be the majority of it. However, none us work in a vacuum and it’s important to know your colleagues before you need them. [more...]

Get a Trusted System

In your prior role, your may have had little difficulty managing your  workload and tasks. But now things are more complex. You are responsible for for work that you assign or delegate to others. You had better find a good system for managing that work.

Manage Your Email

Email is a great way to communicate, however when you receive scores or even hundreds of emails every day, it can quickly become unwieldy and detrimental to your productivity. A considerable portion of your day, or even night, can be consumed by email. You’ve got to find a good technique for managing your email inbox.

Manage Your Calendar

This could just as easily be called “Protect Your Time”. The collaborative world of shared calendars can be great for people who’s job it is to coordinate and plan meetings. However, for those of us who must attend meetings as well as doing work, shared calendars can be quite a disruption our days. You must take steps to ensure you have time to work.

Start Having Weekly One-on-Ones

As a new supervisor, team lead, manager, director, or even executive team member, it’s critical to build a trust with your team that can weather the storms that are sure to come. A great way to do this is to conduct a weekly, one-half hour, one-on-one meeting with each of member.

Recognize the Tendency to Revert

When push comes to shove and the pressure really begins to mount, many new managers tend revert back to their comfort zone, to their strengths, to what made them successful in their prior role. But that only makes matters worse. Being aware of this can help you to avoid it.

Questions:

  • What were some of the unforeseen challenges that you faced after your last promotion?
  • How did you cope with the new challenges?

My Productivity Tools

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Ever felt like you’re in a game of electric football? Like you’re one of the players jiggling up and down slightly but never really going anywhere. I have days like that.

One of my goals for this year is to have fewer of those days by making better use of my time, by becoming more productive.

I’ve been a quasi-practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done
Getting Things Done for many years now. I found it to be good in theory but I struggled to put a good process in place to make it happen. Instead I tinkered with my system (something that Allen warns against by the way) trying to find a new tool, a new technique, a new anything to make me more productive with less stress.

Earlier this year, it all began to fall in place. I discovered that my GTD problems were less system-based and more of a discipline issue. I was missing two key components: the concept of context and the discipline to routinely have a Weekly Review. I discovered this while trying out a new GTD tool – OmniFocus.

So I thought I’d share with you my current, and hopefully my lasting, system for Getting Things Done in hopes that you’ll benefit from it. Or maybe you’ll share with me some things you’ve found helpful since I’m always on the look out for something better.

One requirement for me is portability. Whatever software or system I use must be available to me when I need it. For me that usually means desktop or web application that has a mobile counterpart for my iPhone.

InboxZero

One of tenets of GTD is that must have a trusted system for collecting, evaluating, and managing the barrage of requests that come to you throughout the day from many different fronts. Lots of people try to handle this through their email inbox. That didn’t work for me; I tried.

Now I use my email inbox just like my snail-mailbox; things arrive and I take them out. I don’t allow things to accumulate in there for too long. Every email that comes in gets processed (evaluate and either acted up immediately, placed into a to-do item to be handled later, deleted, or filed for future reference).

This doesn’t happen everyday. In fact it usually builds up to 30 or so emails before I make some time to go through them all. Ideally I’d leave the office each evening with InboxZero. I’m still working to get there.

OmniFocus

Omnifocus is the heart of my GTD system. I use it to keep track of my to-do lists for my clients. I can easily view the tasks by project, context, and due date. I can also flag the tasks that I plan to work on each week.

OmniFocus has “Perspectives” that narrow the long list of to-do’s to a more manageable list. One of the built-in perspectives even helps with the Weekly Review, the Achilles Heal of most GTD practitioners.

EverNote

Every GTD system needs repository in which to file information that you may need later. I’ve found EverNote to really good at this. I keep meeting notes, design documents, project planning information, etc in there for future reference. It’s got great search capabilities and can index most anything – documents, pictures, hand-written notes, etc.

TimeSvr

In consulting there are a lot of fairly mundane tasks that must be done – searching the internet for potential training materials to use upcoming class, finding the best hotel and flight bookings, locating funny or clever pictures to use in blog postings, making a trip folder, etc. All of these are required, yet not billable. And they take precious time away from the more important activities.

One way to increase productivity is to focus on the things that only you can do and delegate or outsource the tasks that someone else can do. I learned this from Stephen Wynkoop (Twitter) when he tech-edited my consulting book. It was great advice.

TimeSvr helps me to do that. TimeSvr is not so much an application as it is a service. I can outsource some of my more mundane tasks, allowing me to focus on the ones that only I can do. I’ve written about TimeSvr before so I won’t repeat it here.

Other Productivity Software

Over the years I’ve used other software and techniques in my never ending quest to be more productive, more effective in the way I spend my time.

What about you?

  • What software applications do you use to be more productive?
  • What techniques have you found useful?
  • Is the quest for productivity any easier than that of the Holy Grail?

Consulting and the MBA

The year is 1991. Nirvana’s Smells like teen spirit is the must-have album of the year. And everyone who is anyone has seen Silence of the Lambs.

It’s the economy, stupid.” is getting more airplay than The New Kids on the Block.

And although it doesn’t seem like that long ago to me, 1991 is the year I graduated from college with a degree in Electrical Engineering. It’s also the year that I decided to postpone my entrance into the real world for a while longer.

Getting an MBA

I decided to go straight through and get a Masters in Business Administration (MBA). I reasoned that an MBA would be good for me in the long run and there’s no better time than the present to do it. So I went through the application process and dove in.

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A recipe for a headache

Coming from an engineering background with ump-teen advanced mathematics classes under my belt, I was accustomed to equations with more Greek letters than English numbers. So naturally I thought accounting would be a piece of cake. After all, it’s just adding and subtracting, right. How hard could counting beans really be? Ha! Was I wrong!

The same could be said for some of the other classes as well. In the MBA program I had to learn a whole new way to study. Gone were the days of learning to solve types of problems and receiving partial credit for my work. The new curriculum required a new way of learning. I adjusted pretty quickly though and did well.

After taking some heavy loads in an accelerated program, I graduated from the program in 1992.

Fancy Wall Paper

Now, fast forward almost twenty years. Has having an MBA helped me in my journey? Would I do it again? I get asked that question from time to time.

It may surprise you to hear me say this, but frankly in the days since I graduated, just having an MBA hasn’t really helped me all that much. It’ll really surprise my parents, who supported me financially, emotionally, and spiritually during my college years. But given the path I’ve chosen, it’s true.

Perhaps if I’d have joined a large company with a tall corporate ladder that has many rungs on the way to the top, having an MBA to frame and hang on the wall behind my desk would have mattered more. Maybe it would have gotten me promoted faster than my peers. I’d hope so, but I don’t know.

Instead I’ve chosen for the past fifteen years to run my own small business. So there isn’t really anyone to impress with a piece of paper on the wall.

But that’s not to say that my time in the MBA program was a wasted effort. Not at all!

The Value of an MBA

The knowledge and skills I gained while going through the MBA program have been invaluable to me as I’ve managed my own company and as I’ve served in volunteer roles for organizations.

Although I didn’t truly appreciate it at the time, classes in organizational behavior, marketing, corporate finance, and yes even accounting, have helped me tremendously over the years.

Whether I was serving as Executive Vice President of PASS or on the Budget Committee of my local church, having a good understanding of business administration has helped me to appreciate more, understand more, and contribute more.

This is especially true for technical consultants. We, on the whole, tend to focus on technical skills while almost ignoring the non-technical side of things. We increase our technical prowess while neglecting the soft skills and business acumen. When we do this, we do ourselves and our clients a huge disservice.

If you’re a consultant considering an MBA for purely the destination, that is if you’re looking to get an MBA just so that you’ll have an MBA, then you’re missing the point. Just having an MBA may help somewhat in the corporate world, but that perspective is still short-sighted.

It’s not about the paper on the wall; it’s about what you learn while earning the piece of paper. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

So, was it worth it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? You bet.

Giving Back

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Lunch with Aubie at a recent Board meeting

This is one of the reasons I enjoy giving back to the MBA program that taught me so much.

The College of Business regularly seeks input and feedback for how to make the program better and for the past three years, I’ve served on the MBA Advisory Board for Auburn University. We provide real-world insight and perspective that the program can use to adapt to the changing world.

And it’s worked. In the years since I’ve graduated, many good changes have been made to even further enhance the curriculum of the MBA program. I’m glad to see that happening.

And I’m glad to contribute.

My Experience with a Virtual Assistant using TimeSvr

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Predicting the future with bold certainty is not for the faint of heart. It’s a hard job. A few get it right; most just get egg on their face.

Want some examples?

  • In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune gambled that Dewey would beat Truman in the US Presidential election and ran the presses before the final result was certain, a mistake that literally made front page news.
  • In 1936, the New York Times asserted that “A rocket will never leave the earth’s atmosphere.” Wrong.
  • Tradition attributes “There is a world market for maybe 5 computers.” to Thomas Watson of IBM in 1943. Wrong again.

Finding More Time

In a similar vein, pundits and marketing folks predicted that the personal computer would revolutionize the way we work, that we would get more done in less time, and that the work week may actually shrink to 25 or 30 hours as a result of our increased productivity.

Ha! I wish that was the case! Most people that I know are working longer and harder than ever. There just seems to be much more to do in our professional and personal lives just to keep up, not to mention trying to get ahead.

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Hey Buddy, do you have the time?

With so many activities and only a finite amount of time to devote to them, something has to give. You can either stop doing some of the activities. Or, you can somehow find more time. Since most people either really enjoy their activities (leisure) or feel compelled to keep at them (work), finding more time is the more appealing option.

But how to find more time? Unless you get into Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, time is a fixed asset. Everyone has exactly the same amount of time during the course of a week: 168 hours.

The answer: offload some of your activities to someone else, also known as delegation. But what if you don’t have anyone that reports to you? What if you don’t have an assistant to whom to delegate?

Enter: the Virtual Assistant.

Using a Virtual Assistant

With this in mind, I recently decided to try a Virtual Assistant. This is an industry that has really gained in popularity over recent years. If you’re not familiar with the term, essentially it’s like having a personal assistant that’s on call when you need him. A Virtual Assistant can pretty much do anything that doesn’t require their physcial presence.

There are varying levels of experience and skills available from Virtual Assistant companies. Some are highly skilled and can help you with such activities as keeping your financial books, updating your web page, and even drumming up new leads for your business. Other Virtual Assistants focus on doing the more mundane tasks for you like making travel arrangements and doing internet research.

Since this was my first experience with a Virtual Assistant, I decided to go with the a company that specializes in taking care of the many short duration but very distracting tasks that come up throughout the day.

After a fair amount of research on the internet (a task I would have loved to have delegated to a Virtual Assistant), I discovered a relatively new comer to the business, TimeSvr that repeatedly received great reviews from their clients. I decided to give them a try. I won’t fully restate their service offerings here; you can visit their web site for that. Sufficed to say that for 69 USD, you receive up to 8 tasks daily that require 15 to 20 each to complete.

My Trial Period with TimeSvr

I signed up with free three-day trial period with the company on Monday morning. It took just a few minutes and was relatively painless. Shortly thereafter, I received a welcome email describing the many ways I can submit tasks: the dashboard, Skype, email, and a telephone call are all available.

My First Task: A Clarification

I decided to test out the timeliness of their responses so my first request was very easy. I asked for some clarification on their services. Within an hour, I received a very polite email explaining exactly how they can help me to save time during the day. I was impressed since I know that the company is based on the other side of the world and it was night time there.

My Second Task: Location Information

For my second request, I asked my Virtual Assistant to find the closest UPS drop-off location that would accept a box of a certain size. Within 20 minutes, I received another email providing me with the location address. The email even included the name of the person that my Virtual Assistant spoke with confirming that they’d accept packages of the size I’d indicated.

My Third Request: Internet Research

The third task I asked of my Virtual Assistant was a bit more difficult. I asked him to find some possible course materials for a technical class that I may deliver to a client. I gave him a basic outline with a list of topics that I’d like to cover. I also explained some other preferences I have.

This request took much longer to complete; in fact it took nine hours to for me to receive a reply. I can’t say if the research took that long or if there may have been some kind of technical glitch in their system that prevented my Virtual Assistant from becoming aware of my new task.

I did however submit a fourth task before this one was complete and within one-half hour of delegating that task, this one was also completed.

My Forth Request: Internet Searching

My fourth request was very straightforward. I asked for a recipe for cooking pizza in a Dutch Oven. I made it easy for them by providing some potential locations for the information.

In half an hour, I received links to several recipes, along with a link to some instructions for cooking with Dutch Ovens. A nice touch, I thought.

Parting Thoughts

Overall, I was very impressed with the timeliness and quality of services that I’ve received from TimsSvr. Every person I’ve communicated with has been very professional and pleasant.

I’ve only used the Dashboard to submit tasks so I cannot comment on the other means. However the Dashboard has proven very convenient. It even has a good mobile front end page too.

70 USD isn’t cheap, but for what you get from TimeSvr, it’s worth it. The way I see it, if it saves me one hour a month the service has more than paid for itself.

As an aside, I didn’t receive any free compensation for this review. However my Virtual Assistant did have a hand it helping me to put it together. I asked him to find the pictures for me and to find me a list of predictive quotes that later proved to be false. Not bad, eh?

Oh, and one more thing. I’ve referred through this post to my Virtual Assistant. In actuality, it’s a team of people that field my requests. You can, if you prefer, actually contract with a specific individual within TimeSvr. I may consider that one day but for now this arrangement meets my needs.

Now some questions for you:

  1. Have you used a Virtual Assistant?
  2. Would you be comfortable using a Virtual Assistant for more complex tasks?
  3. What are some tasks that you’d like to outsource?

Mitigating Consulting Risks

Hazardous_Bridge_2010_03_02.jpgIn my last post on consulting, Isn’t Consulting Risky?, I contended that in many respects, when done with sufficient forethought and planning, consulting may be even less risky than a traditional full-time job. I know that sounds counter intuitive and I hope to elaborate and clarify that a bit in this post. But before I do, if you haven’t read the prior post, I’d encourage you to do so; it really lays the groundwork for how consulting affords you the ability to mitigate risks.

Diversity Is Good

With few exceptions, diversity is widely acknowledged to be a good trait in most cases. Ecosystems with a wide range of plants and animals tend to do better and be more resilient in the long term than large monoculture farms or environments. The same is true for retirement accounts; financial advisors recommend a diversified portfolio because it tends to outperform, on average, an account with just a few stocks or bonds. And in business, a well functioning team composed of people from many different backgrounds usually provides much a greater insight and a broader perspective that produces better results than a very homogeneously composed team. Simply put, diversity is good.

And what’s true for nature, finance, and management teams is true for your consulting business, too. A consulting practice with multiple clients and sources of revenue tends to weather economic storms better than those businesses whose sole focus is one client or one type of revenue.

Diversity Doesn’t Just Happen

Diversity usually doesn’t just happen. It’s not something that tends to naturally occur in businesses. Diversity must be planned. It must be intentional. And it must be nurtured.

Left alone, businesses naturally tend to gravitate toward those one or two things where success is found. It’s the path of least resistance. But as renowned management consultant and author Tom Peters once quipped “Success begets failure.” His point is that when we succeed in one area, we tend to stop innovating and begin to try to reproduce that success over and over again.

I think the same can be said for consulting. When we find a niche that works, we tend stay in that niche and ignore other opportunities. And I think we do this at great risk to the longevity of our business. But what happens when that niche is no longer a safe and sure bet? There are plenty of examples; all you have to do is look for them.

A Risky Business

Think back a few years when technical training companies were thriving. There were scores of them in every major market in the U.S. They were offering training to IT Professionals and to Career Changers. It was a great time to be a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT). MCT’s were in high demand. Basic economics teaches us that high demand plus low supply equals high prices. Many consultants became MCTs and focused their business exclusively on the highly profitable training business.

Unfortunately, the economic phenomenon known as the dot-com bubble burst. Many training companies went belly up as the demand for training evaporated. And those MCTs that were bringing in the big bucks all of a sudden found themselves to be a commodity as their colleagues where willing to take less and less for their services.

A similar story can be told about all of the COBAL programmers in the lead up to the Y2K. And there are other examples.

So this begs the question, “How can I, being a sole practitioner, add diversity to my consulting practice?”

How Can I Diversify?

Fortunately, diversifying your consulting practice can be done without taking a huge departure from your core business. Diversifying involves looking at your core business from different perspectives and identifying areas where you can implement relatively minor changes to your approach or offerings to broaden your surface area. That way if any one aspect of your business is adversely affected for whatever reason, there are other areas already in place to help you absorb the impact.

Consider some of the following ways to diversify your consulting practice.

  • Work with Multiple Clients. Many consultants work with one client at a time. And that’s fine. However, juggling multiple clients simultaneously provides you with a buffer should any one client default on their invoices, unexpectedly cancel your agreement, or otherwise give you the old heave-ho with little advanced notice.
  • Vary the Types of Projects. Establishing good and long term relationships with a handful of clients and mixing in a string of new, shorter term projects or engagements from new or former clients allows you to maintain a good mix of projects. Some may want you to come in and diagnose a performance problem, others may want you to provide ongoing support and/or maintenance of their systems, while still others may have a long list of things for you to do when you have the time.
  • Offer Complementary Services. Consider broadening your offerings to include technical training, development, mentoring, and technical auditing. These give clients different ways to leverage your core competencies.

Now it’s your turn.

  1. Do you agree with the premise of diversifying your consulting practice?
  2. In what ways have you mitigated some of the risks associated with consulting?
  3. How have you broadened the offerings of your consulting practice?

Isn’t Consulting Risky?

Small Business Ownership. It’s one of the Great American Dreams. Our forefathers, the founders of the country that I call home, were entrepreneurs. They were merchants, farmers, and woodworkers. Many, such as the blacksmiths and cobblers, were in the high tech industries of their times. And like those forefathers, the call of self-employment persists in many of us today. We long to “hang a shingle out” and see if we have what it takes to make it as a small business owner.

And the desire is not limited to Americans, either. No, people from around the world want to join the ranks of the self-employed. It seems to be a common trait in most everyone.

So, what’s stopping us? Why don’t more of us break away from the employee-employer relationship and go to work for ourselves?

Risky Business

As I’ve talked with developers, database administrators, project managers, and others in the IT field, a recurring theme continues to surface when I asked that question: RISK! It may not be expressed so concisely, but that’s what it frequently comes down to. Risk.

Many would-be consultants are concerned that launching a career in consulting would be like setting a course straight into stormy weather. And that understandably gives them cause for concern. There’s just too much on the line in many people’s lives: a mortgage payment to make, mouths to feed, and a certain level of creature comforts to maintain. If a career in consulting doesn’t pan out, we stand to loose much of that. Nobody wants to risk their livelihood.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with risk aversion. We all, at some level, want to minimize our exposure to risk. That’s why we buy insurance, to help protect us from uncertainty. We invest in a diverse portfolio to help protect us from a volatile free market. (Although both of those are probably not the best examples given what’s happened in the world’s economy of the past couple of years.)

We all have different tolerance levels for the amount of risk we find acceptable. And for many of us, that line is drawn before what we reach the self-employment point.

The Risk of Staying Employed

But to be fair, let’s consider the alternative; it’s not risk-free either.

The employer-employee relationship has been described by some as a sort of marriage where there is a bit of give and take on both sides for the good of the overall relationship. It’s full of compromise and trust. The employer trusts that you’ll work hard and you trust that they’ll pay you for working there.

But employment really isn’t like a marriage at all. There’s no commitment. There’s no loyalty. There’s not a “till death do us part” clause in an employment contact. When you receive an offer to go work for another company, you can. If the organization believes they can outsource your job and save money, they will. The employer’s priority is maximizing returns for its shareholders. The employee’s priority is making a good living for himself. If anything, it’s more of a marriage of convenience than a life long commitment.

sailing_into_a_storm_2010_02_09.jpg

I don’t mean to sound cynical about employment. I’m not really. There are a lot of really good companies out there to work for, a lot of good managers to have as a boss. And finding one can mean many years of contentment in the workplace.

However, you must realize that employment is not a safe harbor from risk. On the contrary, I’d even say in some ways it’s even more risky than consulting.

No matter how hard we work, no matter how well we do our jobs, we are only one downsize, one merger or acquisition away from the unemployment lines. And it really doesn’t have anything to do with us as employees. It’s completely out of our hands. If a decision is made to sell off our division, to close this factory, to off-shore our department, we’re out of a job. Even though we were best in our job, we’ve lost it because of something that had nothing to do with us as employees.

You Have the Power

On the contrary, in consulting our success depends solely on our performance. Our jobs cannot be out-sourced or taken off shore. We cannot be downsized or re-organized out of a job. Our livelihood depends solely on how well we perform our role as a consultant.

Oh sure, some of our clients will no longer need our services. But if we’re actively engaging multiple clients at one time or we have other clients in the pipeline, our livelihood is not affected. We simply move from helping one client to assisting another client with little disruption to our streams of income. And I’ve found that if I do a good job for a client that generally leads to either more work from them or glowing recommendations to others.

It’s No Cake Walk

But consulting does require effort, not just in areas where we consider ourselves strong either. To be successful, we must nurture our client relationships; we must arrange to have another engagement lined up after this one winds down; and we must be willing to talk about money and negotiate agreements.

In short, consulting requires that we expand our skill set beyond our technical abilities. We must learn to become project managers, bookkeepers, salespeople, executives, and janitors. Our success in consulting relies not only on our technical prowess, but on the skills that will get us to a point where we can exercise our technical skills to help clients.

And can be a scary proposition. One that we should not enter into lightly. But more about that in another post.

Now it’s your turn

I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  1. What lessons have you learned about employment? About consulting?
  2. Do you want to start consulting? What’s holding you back?
  3. Is consulting really as risky as it sounds? Why?
  4. How can remove some of the risk associated with consulting? Employment?

And finally, I’m thinking of doing a series of blog postings on consulting. Interested?

Conducting Effective Meetings

Have you ever received an appointment request for a meeting that you knew was going to be unproductive? Nothing was accomplished the last time this team met; the only thing that was decided was that we needed to meet again. What a waste of time!

Meetings are not free, even if everyone is local and there are no travel costs to consider. The loss in productivity alone can be staggering.

Personal Productivity at the Expense of Team Productivity

I used to just “grin and bear” it as the saying goes. I used to take my laptop to those meetings under the guise of “taking notes”. But what I was really doing was being productive on my own. I was sifting through email in pursuit of InboxZero. Or I remoting into a client’s server to do some “real work” while the meeting languished.

But I’ve learned that although I was being productive as an individual, I was contributing to the ineffectiveness of the team. My mental absence was hindering the team as a whole. My personal productivity was at the expense of the productivity of the team. In essence I was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I’ve written about some of those experiences and my short-sightedness in a prior post entitled “Closing Your Laptop in Meetings“. If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to do so and then take the challenge.

Conducting Effective Meetings

Something had to give. I didn’t want to spend scores of hours each year sitting in meetings that even most of the attendees would say was worthless. So, I did a lot of research and experimenting, looking for ways to make the meetings I conduct and the meetings I attend more effective.

I finally found a few critical points that have helped me immensely in making my meetings more productive. I’ll be the first to admit that these are not rocket science; they are common sense approaches that just seem to work.

I’ve wrapped this into a presentation that I’ve delivered to clients with very good feedback. And now I’m delivering this session in a Microsoft TechNet Thrive! webcast next week. Here’s the information:

Language(s): English
Product(s): Other
Audience(s): IT Generalist
Duration: 60 Minutes
Start Date:Tuesday, February 02, 2010 9:00 AM Pacific Time (US & Canada)
To Register: Click here

I hope you’ll join me for this session.

Now, your turn. What techniques have you found for making meetings more effective?

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