Every once in a while, someone says something that makes me race for a pen. A while back I was at a St. Norbert College board meeting, and a comment was made that was both totally unexpected— and a great jolt.

Believe me, this college is amazing and the board members are some of the best minds and most courageous leaders I’ve ever known. Imagine my surprise when the chair repeated a comment he’d made during a different meeting: “So, if you don’t like change, how do you think you’ll like being irrelevant?”

My pen— and my head— were off to the racetrack.

Much of my professional work involves change management. With 30+ years of professional experience in more than 7 industries, I’ve fueled new ideas, garnered acceptance from multiple sources, drummed up the resources to make change work, and produced results that mattered.

After experiencing confusion, misunderstanding, distrust, resistance and fear, I’ve seen time and again those people who didn’t like change move from being significant leaders to discounted and disgruntled has-beens.

We’re living in an era where change is a huge driver. None of us can— or should— avoid it. If we want to move things forward, negative reactions like “we don’t have time for that,” or “we tried that before and it didn’t work,” or “we’re too big (or too small) for that,” are the last things that any leader of change wants to hear or is likely to tolerate.

Want your contributions— at work, at home, in your volunteer circles— to be valued?

Realize you control your own relevance. Begin to see options and think from multiple perspectives. Consider past and present more as small steps towards the future, not big drivers of what’s next. Be bolder than you’re accustomed to being. Add some risk to your thinking. Express curiosity. Frame more questions.

Be someone who matters.

I grew up Minnesota Nice… born in a mid-sized, Midwestern town, attended a mid-sized, Midwestern undergraduate school and spent nearly 10 years in the public sector as my first post-college experience. In many ways, following the rules, being “right,” and making sure others knew you thought they were right was far more highly valued — and considered far more appropriate— than offering a different perspective.

When I moved into the business world, things no longer seemed black or white. In my work as an advisor/consultant/coach and facilitator, Minnesota Nice doesn’t necessarily add much value. Why would a client need me, if all I offered was affirmation of what they were already doing?

Over the years, I’ve found that when I follow my instincts, offer alternate ways of seeing things, especially through stories, and directly push back on the one right way, clients are usually far better served. To get them there, I’ve developed and continue to refine three simple steps.

Be the Teacher, not the Mother. With a degree in education, and a passion for adult learning, I’ve seen how many different ways adults learn. When I approach things with questions (vs. “I know the answer”), clients can see their current experiences from multiple perspectives. They say thanks often enough that I’m convinced they see my conversation and behavior less as a push back against their standard approach and more as a door opener to change.

Model the Tailor, not the Tinker. Remember the old nursery rhyme Tinker Tailor? The tinker was an unskilled worker, who mended household pots and pans, and, was considered clumsy. When we challenge others, we need to be as skilled as the best tailor, customizing our approach to the specific needs of that person. We need to understand the client— their expectations, preferences and desired outcomes. And, with that base of understanding, we need to offer options that are grounded in their values and present them with an emphasis on why, not what.

Face the Fear— and Do It Anyhow. Options really open up once we realize that it’s natural to worry when it comes to client relationships. Whenever we prepare to push back, at least one of these questions inevitably comes up—

  • Will they think I’m stupid?
  • What if I lose the business?
  • What if I’m wrong?

I’ve learned these queries are all masks for resistance and, because of that, the best answer is to lean in to them, accept that those outcomes could be possible, and, push yourself to do what is best for the client. When serving clients, if my gut says— what they’re suggesting won’t work— I need to honor that, use questions wisely, and help the client make connections between the problems they’ve identified and the value of other alternatives.

Challenging is not the opposite of nice. Pushing back is not the opposite of being thoughtful. Offering options is not the opposite of agreeing. None of these behaviors oppose strong relationships. To the contrary, each of them helps stretch the relationship, add value and demonstrate respect. That matters.

Do you know your IQ (Intelligence Quotient)? In my earlier life, a person’s IQ number was considered relevant, important and valuable (although not to be shared with anyone). I don’t recall if anyone ever said this, but my perception was that the higher the IQ number, the “higher” professional opportunities would come your way.

Within the last twenty years, there’s been a heavy emphasis on EI (Emotional Intelligence), with Daniel Goleman’s incredible insights leading the way. His work focuses on the value of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and interpersonal skills. He suggests that while high IQ might be an indicator of what “rung” in the then hierarchical model of business, EQ would have a profound impact on your ability to work with and manage others.

I’ve been thinking a lot about QI (Question Intelligence) lately, triggered by re-reading Peter Drucker’s, The Changing World of the Executive, first published in 1982, when he noted: “The leader of the past was a person who told; the leader of the future will be a person who asks.”

As someone who spends her professional life advising organizations about strategic growth and revenue generation, I started to wonder: Why do I care so much about questions? After talking to some friends and colleagues (as well as to myself), three reasons emerged. Questions help us:

  • More deeply connect with others. If we really want to talk with people, instead of at them, we need to understand more about what they’re thinking. And, in asking questions that help us become more aware of that, we often also realize that the first questions we’re asking are not the only ones worth addressing.
  • More fully explore multiple options. Instead of taking something at face value, deeper questions can help us see broader opportunities, can produce a more meaningful level of shared understanding, and uncover hidden inspiration, empowerment and action.
  • More efficiently generate short term results and long term success. In meetings where the leader tells, there’s little reason for the rest of the attendees to do much beyond taking his/her message, and robotically moving it forward. The energy is low, the accountability even lower. We’re all just following along, like a herd of sheep. When many are engaged in the dialogue, asking questions, and listening to one another, there’s far more buy-in to getting it done, and getting it done well.

Is asking (vs. telling) easy or hard? Actually, both. Asking takes authentic listening and a good deal of reflection and courage before you frame the questions. A great book: Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask by Michael Marquardt, highlights some terrific examples of disasters that occurred in large part because the right questions weren’t asked (or not asked early enough). The sinking of the Titanic, the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. By asking more questions, decision makers in those situations might have anticipated what could be catastrophic and chosen another path. Having the courage to push for more information can cure a much greater ill, if done quickly and effectively.

There’s both an art— and a science— to asking good questions. Closed ended questions, seeking black and white yes/no responses, are far less likely to produce better thinking than open ended questions: “In what ways could we…?” If you frame questions to encourage new thinking and build positive relationships, they will. “If it would be comfortable for you, I’m wondering if you could tell us what’s most important to you in choosing a CPA (attorney, banker, doctor)?” 

Some keys to the art of questioning—

  • Be insatiably curious.
  • Don’t assume you know the answers to your most important questions.
  • Start with the desire to see the world through their eyes; don’t be thinking about your next question while they’re answering the first one. I keep myself focused on them by writing this at the top of my note pad: AAT, ATT (All About Them, All The Time).
  • Listen for unexpected answers, probe further and have the agility to capitalize on the resulting opportunities.

Do you want to break old habits? Increase your learning? Fuel more growth? Heighten your QI? Just ask. And, while you’re at it, I welcome your questions… and can’t wait to ask you some right back.

Marketing inside professional services firms— CPAs, law firms, architectural and engineering practices– has come a long way in the last 25 years.

While there are still partners who equate marketing with brochures, webinars or coordinating the firm’s holiday gifts, in many firms the role of marketing has evolved. No longer a department that just makes “stuff”, marketing has become recognized for solid competencies in lead generation, client acquisition and retention, and brand awareness.

With this growth in functional responsibilities comes a natural question: Do we need someone with broader, deeper experience to lead our marketing, to be our CMO?

That’s the BIG question. To get the best answer, consider answering these three questions first:

  1. How did our current most senior marketing person gain the respect of and trust from his/her colleagues, especially partners? How long did it take
  2. In what ways have we invested in this person’s growth and development? What specific skills, talents, abilities, and attitudes would it take for this person to “grow into” our CMO?
  3. What would this person do, think about, feel like if we bring in someone above them? What would it do to their department, and, to relationships inside the firm?

In a world where it’s become more popular to rent a vacation home than buy (and maintain) a summer cabin, where it’s become more common to engage a consultant to tackle non-recurring work than to add headcount, it’s also become more practical to bring in an executive coach to train and groom a highly competent marketing professional into becoming a CMO. This versus adding one from the outside and living through the painful period of cultural adjustment and acceptance.

If your current most senior marketing professional has 10 + years of professional experience, solid confidence from his/her colleagues throughout the firm and a commitment to the organization, compare the financial costs and the impact on firm morale both before making the decision to hire from the outside or coach and develop what’s already inside. Time. Trust. Investment Value. Morale. Results. They all matter when it comes to this big question.

If you’ve ever been part of a family raising pre-teens (or even watched one on a sitcom), you know all about “the talk”. In preparing for this experience as the caring adult, endless questions can drive resistance:  When to have it, who should say what, how to best prepare for it, what to do to remove as much discomfort as possible. The answers aren’t always easy to come by, and all too often, avoidance becomes the first line of defense.

For many professionals, bringing up the subject of fees and budgets with potential clients (or even existing ones, who are exploring adding services) and learning about their budgets provokes a similar (or even greater) level of anxiety.

Here’s the good news: the solution for both is easy; focus on them and prepare for a meaningful conversation that moves things forward.  Three simple approaches:

Internally, focus your preparation on why first. Be clear about why this conversation is so important. We care deeply about the values, health and continuing maturity of our kids and grandkids. We want them to understand matters that are not entirely clear to them. And, we want them to realize we are there for them during these periods of change.

The same is true in conversation with a potential, or existing, client about a service. We care about their needs, and, when we believe our services are genuinely the best solution, we need to turn our focus on them— even if it means bringing up a subject, such as money, that we’re a little uncomfortable about.

During “the talk” which often involves several conversations, timing matters. In our preparation, we should first seek to discover where they are, and then identify their needs and wants second. The deep discussion about investment— of self-management with the kids, of money and time with the potential clients—comes third and must always precede detailed recommendations and solutions.

Anticipating objections creates a more positive experience for all.  Building an environment of positive emotional connections helps to do just that, with kids and with clients. Our approach is not to pursue, push or manipulate. We’re guiding their decision making as they discover, identify needs and wants, realize their actions will take investments and consider their options. As adults, we have to anticipate the kids’ objections: “Everyone else does”, “I’m old enough to make my own decisions” and have our answers.

The same is true with potential clients. The answer to “Your price is too high” has many proven answers, ranging from “what was your expectation?” to “can you share your rationale?” to “Price is important and so is ROI. How does a 9x return…?” The issue is less about what is the right response, and more about what is the best way to keep the conversation going.

Knowing why, planning timing based on their decision making process and anticipating objections all contribute to making serious conversations— whether with our kids or with potential clients—meaningful, effective and decisive. AAT, ATT: all about them, all the time.

Somehow, at the holidays, memories of earlier days always pop into my head.

This morning, it was my mother, Kate Wisdom Holland Buckley. A southern bell transplanted to Duluth in the 30’s, held on to her accent. When I asked why she still talked with that drawl on her 80th birthday, she smiled as she noted “I like it.”

There’s a balance we all can strike in our lives— holding on AND testing out. Nearly thirty years ago, when Grandma Kate had come to the Twin Cities for a weekend, we took her out to dinner at a neighborhood Chinese Restaurant. As my then four year old son ordered chow mien (the only thing he ever ordered in those days), she spoke up: “Felix, you’ve got to expand your taste bud horizons.”

I think of that phrase so often when I find myself fascinated by something I’ve been reading, or energized by a new idea, or questioning how something works. Curiosity.  Expanding horizons. It’s good for all of us. There is a great book, by Todd Kashdan, called Curious? that I suggest reading to learn more about how curious exploration can increase feelings of fulfillment.

As I reflect on life and the pursuit of happiness, I realize that questions broaden my horizons, deepen my self-awareness and uncover more of the nuances in my life. (MORE)
When curiosity steers me into the unknown, the boundaries of my mind are stretched and multiple solutions unexpectedly show up. Curiosity fuels my learning, strengthens my relationships and offers new experiences. It’s almost like a circle.

Grandma Kate had an ability to hold on to something that was a big part of her… and, to push for exploration of the unknown. Today, I’m rekindling my own curiosity as Grandma Betsy’s role to Felix’s amazing son Ruben— we play rocket ship in the car, camp out and watch the shooting stars, read books and more books, and hike with binoculars to find the squirrels.

Life is an adventure for all of us. Want yours to be more positive, more fulfilling, more happy? Get your curiosity working again. By the way, Felix’s horizons— in food, in music, in books, in friends, in life— are now very wide. And, happy.

Consider a process that begins well before you get to the venue. Find out who typically goes to these meetings—- and email or phone some of them, to see if you could connect there. Do some research on the speaker so you have some ideas to share.

Commit to “big talk”, not small talk— using the research you did on the speaker, the topic, some of the attendees, an interesting blog you’ve read to open dialogue with others. Don’t thrust your card at them. Rather, offer to send them something— an article, an introduction to someone else. Then, ask for their card so you can do it— giving them an opening to ask for yours.

MVP. Mindset. Venue. Process. Whether you change one— or all— your networking is bound to pay off. Realize it’s networking, and just dig right into it. As Nadia Comaneci says, “Hard work has made it easy. That is my secret. That is why I win.”

At What Matters, when we’re thinking about adding new clients, we start with the mantra: AAT, ATT. All about them. All the time.

It’s the difference between focusing inside; “What’s the best way for me to get them to buy?” to outside; “Let’s understand and build our plans around how they make buying decisions.”

Putting potential buyers into four categories helps us figure out how to work with them, not how to work on them, so I created the OH-IS System. Oblivious, Hesitant, Involved, Signed. Understanding where they are is the starting point to guiding them forward.

: Many times, these prospects are actually found at “networking” events. But often, we’re so busy worrying about telling our story, we don’t get theirs. They’re oblivious not just because don’t think they need to “buy” anything. They don’t like “stuff”—webinar, tradeshow booth with cute gimmicks to get them to stop and talk, a flashy new brochure. Instead, reach them with interruptive messages and channels. Don’t be boring. Try a combination of humor and storytelling, and ask about them, don’t tell about you.

THE HESITANT BUYER: This buyer starts with an internet search, wanting to learn about the best possible solution. Usually, no budget has been set up and the problem probably isn’t even well articulated. Progress with this buyer will continue as long as no one tries to “sell” them anything. What can you do to move them along? Give. They want:

  • Have a website where they can self-qualify. Combine that test with substantive content and they’ll feel more in control.
  • White papers and articles on your website are great, but don’t force them to give you much more than their email to download that information. Don’t do anything that makes them feel like they’ll be getting a call from you tomorrow. And, if you send an auto-reply when they download, make it gracious, not sales-y.
  • Make their experience with you more real. Instead of just names and pictures of your senior leaders on your website, offer a Q&A that helps them see how those leaders lead. Instead of just sharing your mission, vision and values, make sure you always add “and what that means to our clients” (ideally with quotes from real clients).

THE INVOLVED BUYER: They know their needs and you’ve made the short list. That doesn’t mean the content or the experience you offer next is a mere formality. They’re actually looking for substantiation and confirmation. Give it to them from:

  • Case studies. Stories from well satisfied customers make them feel like they could be one.
  • Direct, plain English conversations. When someone is beginning to engage with you, the first thing they want/need to know is, “Are you real?” Be open, share references.
  • Be proud. If they ask you to compare your organization with competitors, don’t turn into Casper Milk-Toast. Highlight your strengths, and be prepared to distinguish yourself from others without bashing them.

THE SIGNED BUYER: Someone who has said “yes” makes investments that are both economic and relational. They deserve high marks and never ending attention. It’s our job to make everyone who has said “yes” feel connected, appreciated and well informed. How to do that?

  1. Treat them as a stakeholder. Inform them on a regular basis about things that are going on with your organization or the products or services that they bought. Make sure that all information you send them is personalized and has both substance and value. Put them on your Google alerts to know what’s going on in their business.
  2. Don’t take them for granted. In addition to staying in touch, consider a special note or appreciation event. Invite them to be involved in focus groups and recognize special times in their lives (anniversaries, business milestones).
  3. Do you need, or does one of your clients or customers need what they have? These people have shown you trust. Pay it forward. Reflect on who you know that needs their competencies. And, don’t stop after you’ve done this once.

Remember OH-IS. Figure out for each potential prospect, which one they are. Treat them in ways that work for them. Think this is worth a discussion. Do share.