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Butt-Kicked by the Universe

Oh man, did I do something stupid, embarrassing and untrustworthy today.

A colleague forwarded me a calendar invite originally sent by a client. I NEVER respond to an actual calendar invite as if it’s an email; I always respond to the actual invitation using the buttons “accept,” “reject,” or “tentative.”

But today, for reasons unknown only to whoever is in charge of the universe, I replied (I thought!!) to my colleague, regarding the client (Fred).

I wrote:

“…I’m so mad at Fred…seems like he hasn’t sent out all the materials we worked on last week.  I am trying not to be pissed.  I’m really frustrated. I’m trying to hold off getting too irate in case he did send stuff out…”

You guessed it. My response went straight to Fred.

He wrote back, “Hi Sarah, was this meant for me?”

That Gut-Punched Feeling

Ughh. As I had been writing that email, my gut was screaming at me: “You always say not to put in writing anything you wouldn’t be comfortable having the whole world read.”

You could say – I would – that the universe intervened because I had violated the “Inner Voice” rule.  The Inner Voice Rule is, “Say the things you’re thinking but don’t share.”  It’s where truth lies, and turbo-boosts the Intimacy component of the Trust Equation.

The Inner Voice Rule.

I groaned. Then I immediately wrote back to Fred:  “I am so embarrassed.  The email was meant for Julie, not you, and I’m sorry.  Are you somewhere I can call you?”  We spoke five minutes later.

I started: “Fred, I’m so sorry.  I knew as I was typing that email that I needed to pick up the phone and call you…I’m aware I have been avoiding a conversation with you.”  Fred was extra-gracious, acknowledging that he hadn’t met his commitments and that he understood where my frustration came from.

He then said, “And we’ve both been to Trusted Advisor programs,” which created a clearing for us to deal in an authentic way with the trust breakdown.  We worked through things; we both left the conversation having said what we needed to say, and feeling complete (and a commitment on my part to talk to Fred next time instead of complaining to my colleague).

He sent out the materials within 15 minutes.

The Universe Kicks Butt

I’m a bit fearful of calling myself a hypocrite on a blogpost destined for internet eternity. But if I’m real about it, what I salvaged from my mess du jour is that I talk a big game about clear speaking, using Inner Voice, and sharing constructive feedback – while the truth is, I’m woefully out of practice.  I choose to believe that the universe intervened today to give me a butt kick wake up call; to call me on being real and not a poser.

There, I said it.

So: what did I learn from the Universe today?

  • NEVER, EVER put in writing anything you wouldn’t want shared with the world
  • When what you have to say about another serves to diminish them, it’s time to either:

a) admit you’ve been a jerk and have a conversation with that person, or

b) own up and end the relationship.

  • The courage to have un-had conversations leads to growth, learning and deeper trust.
  • If we think of constructive feedback as “scary, bad, judgmental or otherwise” then we don’t share the most important stuff.  Then all that stuff builds up and – we send stupid emails.
  • If you make a mess – make it Priority One to clean it up immediately.

Real People Real Trust: Transforming a Business from the Inside Out

Ron Prater has worked in government consulting firms for almost 20 years, including three years with Arthur Andersen LLP. In 2007, he set out with partner Alan Pentz to create a company that would apply real entrepreneurial curiosity to find new ways to solve the U.S. government’s biggest problems. The result is Corner Alliance. Find out how this organization, triggered by a crisis in its formative years, applied the principle of collaboration to devise a new and different kind of corporate culture.

Leadership Lessons

Ron and I have known each other through other people for years. A few months ago I was talking with Corner Alliance Director Sarah Agan, a mutual colleague and veteran consultant. I was intrigued by the unusual ways she described a recent all-hands meeting. “We practice ‘inner voice’ all the time,” she said. “And we have an explicit value to eat our own dog food.” Needless to say, I was intrigued by Sarah’s word choice and even more so by her animation. I wanted to find out more. So I set up some time to talk with Ron and Sarah together.

Ron explained it to me, “‘Eating our own dog food’ means we operate the way we advise our clients to—we follow the same processes and approaches we recommend to them.” “Essentially, we practice what we preach. It can be harder than it sounds when you’re trying to balance helping clients succeed while also trying to grow a sustainable business. And it hasn’t always been that way, even in our company’s short life.”

Learning the Hard Way

Corner Alliance had some growing pains in its early years. “We had a really tough time a few years ago when we lost a project that led to a serious financial struggle,” Ron confided. “I, along with my partner, Alan, and our Director of Operations, Brandi Greygor, responded in typical ways. Privately, we talked daily about how much money we had left in the company’s line of credit and what to do if we maxed out what the bank would loan us. Publicly, we sent a general message to staff that we all needed to ‘increase billability’ but we were afraid to state the full reason.

“We thought we were doing the right thing by keeping the true stress from our staff. The MBA books say it’s important to protect the people from the stress of running the business. And the HR consultants told us we had to follow proper procedures to avoid lawsuits if we did have to lay people off. So we kept things hidden.”

Going contrary to conventional business wisdom, Ron and the other principals listened to their own inner wisdom. “It’s not how our guts said to handle it. We faced a real inner conflict every day for months. How do you form a company of trust and transparency when it seems like all the advice you get—from grad school, friends, lawyers, and more—says to withhold information?

“Looking back,” Ron said, “I grew more personally from that very tough time than from every great year I had. While it was hard, the learning from those six months led to one of the most positive and significant turning points for Corner Alliance.”

Eat Your Own Dog Food

Out of the crisis came a big transformation for the company. “With cost-cutting, along with full transparency with our staff, we managed to stabilize our operations,” Ron said, “And we realized that, on the heels of such a hard and painful time, we had a real opportunity to fundamentally re-think and re-vision.

“So Alan and I announced to our staff that he and I would map out a new company strategy,” Ron elaborated, “including our top three strategic priorities. We told people at an all-hands meeting that we’d start by focusing on which clients to talk to and what to offer them. That message landed with a thud. Within the first few minutes of the meeting it was clear we had made a huge mistake and needed to rethink the approach.

“Our people said, ‘That’s not how we advise our clients to develop strategy. So why are we doing it that way?’”

That uh-oh moment led to a dramatically different plan to create the company’s strategy. “We realized we’d be stronger if we engaged the whole company in the company,” Ron continued. “And instead of starting with what we do and where we want to go, we started with who we are and what we wanted to stand for as a company,” Ron explained.


Put Values First

The group put first things first. “We focused first on our values, and to do that we created a conversation rather than creating a task,” Ron said. “We also found a way to make it a truly collaborative process, not just a collaborative process led by one person. We’ve never been about one-person trust—not at our core—so we found a way to define our values that would reflect that we all have to trust everyone else in the company.

“Since we’re a virtual company with staff in five different states, we selected an on-line tool to help us create the conversation. Everyone could contribute real-time, see each other’s inputs, make comments, and vote.”

Take Your Time

The process of defining yourself takes time Ron learned. “We allowed three weeks to generate ideas, and it took us about four months to solidify our values. If we had tried to get results in a one-day strategy session, our output would have been more generic—even with everyone participating,” Ron added. “People needed time to digest and think through what they stood for and then internalize that in relation to the company. The elapsed time allowed people to contribute at their best, and allowed the most important things to materialize organically.”

They ended up with 10 explicitly stated corporate values that are the foundation on which Corner Alliance continues to be built. Not surprisingly, “Eat our own dog food” was on the short list.

It’s a value that Sarah especially endorses. “We live that value even beyond our approach to strategy development,” she added. “Everyone takes turns running our internal meetings—everyone. We share leadership that way, and expand our capacity as leaders and facilitators at the same time. People get to experiment, practice, and learn in a safe environment, and they get real-time feedback. Just like the leaders we serve, we have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes to learn.”

Sarah continued, “It’s okay for things not to go well. What’s not okay is not learning from it. One of the greatest gifts we give each other is feedback. We are deliberate about creating a culture where we all recognize we’re both perfect and imperfect, where we can bring our whole selves—who we are and who we aren’t.”

Tell It Like It Is

Financial transparency is another key value that emerged from Corner Alliance’s collaborative strategy process. “Alan was instrumental in moving us to open-books management,” Ron said. “We now share just about everything with all employees every quarter, the exception being salary information. We have bi-weekly company-wide calls where everyone sees each other’s billability, our revenue, where we are exceeding or falling short of revenue projections.  We don’t hide anything bad or anything good.”

Ron is clear that the effect is palpable. “It has made a massive difference in everyone understanding the business impact of their decisions,” he stated. “It also supports one of our other corporate values, which is sustainability. I believe the whole firm really understands the state of Corner Alliance and can see that we have a really strong foundation for growth right now.”

Be Bold with Clients

That kind of transparency also now extends to Corner Alliance clients—in a bold and differentiated way. The stated value “inner voice” is about people sharing their internal dialog as much as possible, recognizing that’s often where the truth lies. Corner Alliance staff is encouraged to not leave important things unsaid.

“This is definitely not easy,” Ron emphasized. “It takes a commitment to practice over time with our clients and with each other. We actually label it, as in, ‘Using my inner voice, I’d like to say I think there are serious organizational risks associated with what you are considering.’ This makes it easier to do and hear as the person listening now knows that the person speaking is taking a risk.

“Our people know they’ve got the organization behind them every time they venture into inner voice territory,” Ron affirmed. “As Alan points out about using inner voice, ‘It’s a personal risk to reveal what you’re thinking but not saying. It’s a risk to the organization if you don’t.’ But we all also recognize it’s important to apply this value wisely, appropriately, and thoughtfully.”

Perhaps the most unexpected result from this dedication to speaking the truth is that clients have begun to pick up both the practice and the lingo. Ron explained, “When our clients started saying to us, ‘My inner voice is saying xyz,’ we knew we were onto something bigger.”

Reap the Rewards

The list of indicators that Corner Alliance is onto something is long, and now includes growing staff, secure multi-year prime contracts in place, and work with key government executives who have budgets in the billions. “Corner Alliance is poised for an incredible year in 2012,” Ron said with pride. “Not only are we making a difference in the business of government, but we get emails from clients saying, ‘You’ve changed my life.’”

The focus for 2012? “Helping people thrive by doing creative, meaningful work, and living the life they want—not just the work life they want,” said Ron.

The Bottom Line

Ron feels very strongly that what Corner Alliance has created was not led by or done by one person. “Featuring me for this article is actually counter to our culture,” Ron stressed. “Corner Alliance has been led by a collaborative approach using values as our core, and that’s precisely what will lead us into the future.”

And a promising future it is.

Connect with Ron on LinkedIn.

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The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard: A CEO You Should Know; Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart; Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations; Heber Sambucetti: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership; Janet Andrews: What Trust-based Strategy Consulting Looks, Feels, and Sounds Like, and John Dunn: An Entrepreneur Wins with Partnership.

 

Story Time: How One Conversation Changed Everything

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story told a tale of risky business. Today’s anecdote zeroes in on the importance of being willing to interrupt the status quo.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on shifting from tactics to strategy. It demonstrates how simple it can be to dramatically alter the nature of a working relationship, and pave the way for delivering far greater value.

From the Front Lines: Upping the Ante

Sarah Agan tells us about the conversation that changed everything with her client, John.

“I had just joined a new consulting firm and was asked to take over as the engagement manager for a project that I soon learned was in dire straits. My client John was happy—he was responsible for a high-priority government-wide initiative with the potential to catapult his career, he had a high-end strategy firm by his side (that was us), and he was getting everything he thought he wanted—a well-documented plan identifying key investments required to guard against terrorist attacks.

“The problem was this: my team was very unhappy. Imagine a group of super-bright, creative, energized young graduates, well-trained in strategy development and execution, assigned to a high-visibility project, sitting in a windowless conference room formatting Excel spreadsheets. It was a troubled project that everyone in my firm had heard about and no one wanted to work on.

“While it was tempting to step in and make a dramatic move, I bided my time. I focused first on developing my relationship with John, understanding his interests and priorities. In several of our initial meetings he made reference to our team as his ‘administrative support.’ At first, I just filed it away. He was happy with the arrangement. He had no idea what he could or should expect from us.

“I also made a point to find out more about how our company had ended up in this predicament. We had fallen into the trap of being seduced by a lucrative long-term contract, doing whatever it took to keep the funding coming.

“One day when John referred to us again as his ‘administrative support,’ I decided it was time to speak up.

“I don’t recall being particularly nervous at the time. I just spoke from the heart: ‘John, this is at least the third time I’ve heard you refer to us as your administrative support. If that’s what you truly feel you need, let us help you find someone who does this as a core competency at a fraction of what you are paying us. If you’re interested in doing things more strategically, I’d love to have that conversation.’

“From that moment, everything shifted. The nature of all our conversations changed. The team began to bring ideas to the table, like helping John host a national workshop—with representatives from across the government, academia, and private industry—so that John could engage all his stakeholders in a way that they would have some ownership for the nationwide plan. It was an extraordinary workshop John’s successor is still talking about years later.

“Now we were positioned to deliver the kind of value we were truly capable of. The project that no one wanted to be on became a project people wanted to be part of.

“The biggest lesson for me in all of this was the importance of being willing to interrupt the status quo and say what had been left unsaid for too long in order to focus on what really mattered to John. Looking back, it was a pretty risky move. It was also the right one. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

—Sarah Agan

What’s been left unsaid for too long in one of your relationships?

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Read more stories about trust:

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Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.

 

Trust Lessons from a Turkish Rug Dealer

Turkish RugIn November 2000 we traveled with another couple to Turkey.

We stayed at the Pera Palace in Istanbul and cruised the Bosphorous River. We visited the seaside town of Bodrum where we learned NOT to try and party like a British sailor. But no trip to Turkey would be complete without a shopping spree at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. We set out to find the perfect stall.

Wendy and I ventured behind the curtain into a cozy shop owned by Mehmet. He welcomed us with a warmth and carpet dealer smile …Wendy and I were both suspicious and told Mehmet we were “just looking.” Anyone who has been to a carpet shop in Istanbul knows you don’t just look. It is nearly impossible. The carpets are piled, one on top of the other, several feet high. Hence the young, muscle-bound assistants lingering around, ready to “flip” carpets for would-be shoppers to assess.

Mehmet invited us to accept help in looking through the carpets. He said, “just pretend – like Monopoly.” We accepted his invitation and the next thing we knew we were hooked, enticed by his charm, fluency in many languages, and the offer of mint tea. “But our husbands…we don’t know where they are,” we protested. “Oh, it is no problem…we will find them and bring them here.” And his assistant did just that.

After several hours of looking through carpets two piles emerged: the “no” pile and the “maybe” pile. Our “yes” pile hadn’t yet emerged. This was “no problem” for Mehmet, the Turkish carpet dealer. He says, “we are just pretending, like Monopoly.” In the evening, after several glasses of tea and many rounds of negotiating, we exited Mehmet’s shop with our carpets. We were beyond satisfied with our perfect day of rug buying; and the rugs, while beautiful, were not as memorable as our experience with Mehmet.

Ten months later—9/11. We were on the email Mehmet sent to his American customers expressing his sympathy. Mehmet’s carpet business came to a screeching halt–80% of it had been from American buyers. Without his American customers he couldn’t provide for his special needs son.

So he brought his lovely carpets to the US. We hosted a show for him, and put him in touch with interior designers and people we knew would appreciate his carpets. He was and to this day is grateful for this.

A few years ago, Mehmet and his assistant, stopped at our home for a visit. I said, “Mehmet, can we pretend, play Monopoly?” And so we began the ritual of looking at the spot in our home where we wanted a carpet and then venturing to his truck to search through the piles of neatly folded rugs. After many hours of collaborating to haul rugs in, move furniture, look at the carpet in different light and from different angles we settled on one. Then the negotiating began.

He says, “Sarah, you are my sister.” And I say, “yes, Mehmet, you are my brother, and now we negotiate.” The business of negotiating wasn’t easy; there were tense moments when I thought we’d not reach agreement. But all business is easier from a foundation of trust – which there was and is with Mehmet. We reached agreement. We got another beautiful carpet; Mehmet made another sale. We then sat down to a lovely meal which Mehmet prepared for us in our home.

To this day, after a dozen trips to the US, Mehmet still calls us. The days of helping him find customers have long passed but the relationship endures. Mehmet drives across the US. He seeks no guarantee of a sale, only the possibility that someone might love one of his carpets as much he does.

He goes to his customers. He spends whatever time is needed with them. Sometimes they buy; sometimes they don’t. He knows that one day they might buy; that they might know someone who might want one of his rugs. He establishes friendships along the way, building relationships one home and one rug at a time.

He begins with the customer’s perspective by going to their home, looking at where they want a rug, and collaborating with the customer, to search through his piles of rugs. He then moves furniture and places the rug, just so, in his customer’s home. When they cannot decide he says “live with it for a while, I will come back before I fly home – then you decide.”

Without a deposit, without signing a contract about what happens if the rug is damaged, and without any assurance that leaving the rug with the customer for a few days will result in a sale, he continues on to his next customer. Mehmet takes the risk to trust by leaving his rugs–in return, his customers trust him.

He knows many will never buy. He also knows that by focusing on the long-term he will build a network of people who will first think of him when they need, or know someone who needs, a rug.

A carpet dealer may not be the profession we think of first when it comes to trust. Yet in many ways Mehmet embodies what it means to start from the customer’s perspective and to focus on the long-term. And, who doesn’t love to play a round of Monopoly every now and then?