Food for Thought

How not to choke under pressure

The right kind of preparation can keep us from stumbling during stressful situations, says cognitive scientist Sian Leah Beilock

“They choked.”

It’s one of the most humiliating things you can say about a person.Just about all of us have choked at some point in our lives, whether it was during a test, a game, a talk, or a sales call.

And, boy, do I know the feeling. Growing up, I was an avid athlete. My main sport was soccer, and I was a goalkeeper, which is both the best and the worst position on the field. All eyes are on you, and with that comes the pressure. I distinctly remember one high-school game in particular. I was playing for the California state team, which is part of the Olympic Development Program. I was having a great game — until I realized that the national coach was standing right behind me. Then everything changed. In a matter of seconds, I went from playing at the top of my ability to the very bottom. I choked under the pressure of feeling those evaluative eyes on me, my team lost, and the national coach walked away.

My experience on the playing field — and in other important facets of my life — pushed me into the field of cognitive science. I wanted to know how we could use our knowledge of the mind and the brain to come up with psychological tools that would help us perform at our best.

I also wanted to find out: Why do we sometimes fail to perform up to our capabilities when the pressure is on? 

It might not be so surprising to you to hear that in stressful situations, we worry — about the situation, the consequences, and what others will think of us.

But what may surprise you is that we often get in our own way precisely because our worries prompt us to concentrate too much. When we’re concerned about performing our best, we may try and control aspects of what we’re doing that are best left on autopilot and outside conscious awareness. As a result, we mess up.

My research team and I have studied this phenomenon of overattention, which we call paralysis by analysis. 

In one study, we asked college soccer players to dribble a soccer ball and to pay attention to an aspect of their performance that they wouldn’t otherwise attend to. Specifically, we asked them to pay attention to what side of their foot was contacting the ball. We found that when we drew their attention to the step-by-step details of what they were doing, their performance was slower and more error-prone. Much of this paralysis by analysis comes down to activity in our prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brain that sits over our eyes. While it usually helps us focus in positive ways, it often gets hooked on the wrong things.

In basketball, the term “unconscious” is used to describe a shooter who just can’t seem to miss a shot. NBA All-Star Tim Duncan has said, “When you have to stop and think, that’s when you mess up.” In dance, the great choreographer, George Balanchine, used to urge his dancers, “Don’t think; just do.” When the pressure’s on, we frequently try and control what we’re doing in a way that leads to worse performance.

So how do we unhook our brains?

We can do something as simple as singing a song or paying attention to one’s pinky toe — as pro golfer Jack Nicklaus was rumored to do. Or, we can find some other mindless activity that can help take our minds off the details of what we’re trying to do.

Another strategy requires closing the gap between training and competition, so we can get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. 

This means practicing under the conditions that we know we’ll be performing under. Whether we’re getting ready for an exam or a talk, we can put ourselves in a simulation of the future stressful situation.

If you’re taking a test, periodically close the book while you’re studying and practice retrieving the answers from memory in a set amount of time. If you’re giving a talk, practice a few times in front of other people. And if you can’t find anyone who will listen, rehearse in front of a video camera or a mirror. Our ability to become accustomed to what it will feel like can make the difference in whether we choke or we thrive.

We can also take steps to rid ourselves of those pesky self-doubts that creep up in pressure-filled situations and lead to paralysis by analysis.

Researchers have discovered that simply writing down our thoughts and worries before the stressful event can help download them from our minds. Journaling or jotting your thoughts on paper or on your phone can make it less likely they’ll pop up and distract you during the moments that count.

Fast-forward from my high school soccer game to my freshman year in college. I was in a chemistry class for science majors, and I did not belong there. Even though I studied for my first midterm exam, I bombed. I got the single worst grade in a class of 400 students. Not was I convinced I shouldn’t be a science major but I thought about dropping out of college altogether.

Instead, I changed what I did. 

Rather than study alone, I studied with a group of friends who’d close their books and compete for the right answers at the end of the study session. We were learning how to practice under stress, closing the gap between training and competition.

When the day for the final exam came, my mind was quiet, and I got one of the highest grades in the entire class. As it turns out, it wasn’t just about learning the material; it was about learning how to overcome my limits when it mattered the most.

Sorry to bother you, but do you say “sorry” too much? What to say instead

When we needlessly apologize, we end up making ourselves small and diminish what we’re trying to express, says sociologist Maja Jovanovic.

Think about all the times you use the word “sorry” in a typical day. There are the necessary “sorry”s — when you bump into someone, when you need to cancel plans with a friend. But what about the unnecessary “sorry”s? The “sorry, this may be an obvious idea” at a meeting, the “sorry to cause trouble” when rescheduling a haircut, the “sorry, there’s a spill in the dairy aisle” at the supermarket.

Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic believes the “sorry”s we sprinkle through our days hurt us. They make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and they can undercut our confidence.

Jovanovic, who teaches at McMaster University and Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, became interested in this topic when she attended a conference four years ago. The four women on a panel were, she says, “experts in their chosen fields. Among them, they had published hundreds of academic articles, dozens of books. All they had to do was introduce themselves. The first woman takes a microphone and she goes, ‘I don’t know what I could possibly add to this discussion’ … The second woman takes the microphone and says, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought they sent the email to the wrong person. I’m just so humbled to be here.’” The third and fourth women did the same thing.

During the 25 panels at that week-long conference, recalls Jovanovic, “not once did I hear a man take that microphone and discount his accomplishments or minimize his experience. Yet every single time a woman took a microphone, an apologetic tone was sure to follow.” She adds, “I found it enraging; I also found it heartbreaking.”

Jovanovic found the outside world not so different: “Apologies have become our habitual way of communicating,” she says. Since then, she’s collected needless apologies from her colleagues and students. One stand-out? “My research assistant said ‘Sorry’ to the pizza delivery guy for his being late to her house,” says Jovanovic. “She said, ‘Oh my gosh, we live in a new subdevelopment. I’m so sorry. Did you have trouble finding this place?’”

We can eliminate the “sorry”s from our sentences — and still be considerate. “The next time you bump into someone,” Jovanovic says, “you could say, ‘Go ahead,’ ‘After you’ or ‘Pardon me.’” Similarly, during a meeting, Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry to interrupt you,’ why not try ‘How about,’ ‘I have an idea,’ ‘I’d like to add’ or ‘Why don’t we try this?’” The idea is to be polite while not minimizing yourself.

The “sorry”s that fill our written interactions also need to be noticed — and banished. For emails, Jovanovic says, “There’s a Google Chrome plug-in called ‘just not sorry’ that will alert you to all the needless apologies.” With texts, she points out, “Every single one of us has responded to a text you got when you weren’t able to respond right away. What did you say? ‘Sorry.’” She says, “Don’t apologize — say, ‘I was working,’ ‘I was reading,’ ‘I was driving, ‘I was trying to put on Spanx.’ Whatever it is, it’s all good. You don’t have to apologize.”

And, in some of the instances when we’d typically throw in a “sorry,” we could just use the two magic words: “thank you.” Jovanovic tells of the moment when she realized the effectiveness of gratitude. She says, “Four of us were at a restaurant for a work meeting, and we’re waiting for number five to arrive … I put my sociological cap on, and I thought, ‘What would he say? How many apologies will he give?’ I could barely stand the anticipation. He arrives at the restaurant, and you know what he says? ‘Hey, thanks for waiting.’ … The rest of us said, “Yeah, you’re welcome,” and we all just opened our menus and ordered. Life went on, and everything was fine.”

Another time when “thank you” can work better than “sorry”? When you’re with a friend and you realize you’ve been doing all the talking. Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry for complaining’ or ‘Sorry for venting,’ you could just say, ‘Thank you for listening,’ ‘Thank you for being there’ or ‘Thank you for being my friend.’”

Besides removing them from our own communications, we should tell other people when they’re overdoing their “sorry”s, suggests Jovanovic. You can start with your family and friends — and if you’d like, go beyond them. She says, “I have been interrupting these apologies for three years now. I’ll do it everywhere. I’ll do it in the parking lot, I’ll do it to total strangers at the grocery store, in line somewhere. One hundred percent of the time when I interrupt another woman and I say, ‘Why did you just say ‘sorry’ for that?’ she’ll say to me, ‘I don’t know.’”

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Why Workplace Ghosting Is on the Rise

In the 1999 film Office Space, a dark comedy about the mundane conventionality of work, disgruntled software engineer Peter Gibbons tells his new love interest, Joanna, that he hates his job and doesn’t want to go anymore.

When Joanna, played by actress Jennifer Aniston, asks Peter whether he is going to quit, he responds, “Not really; I’m just going to stop going.”

What was once a funny work of fiction is becoming an increasingly common reality as more employers report being “ghosted” by job applicants and employees who simply disappear without a trace. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cited an uptick in ghosting in its December economic activity report, and an array of media outlets — including The Washington Post, Inc.and Business Insider — have been publishing stories recently about the pitfalls of the practice.

“Candidates agree to job interviews and fail to show up, never saying more,” Chip Cutter, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, wrote in a June article for LinkedIn that garnered more than 5,000 comments. “Some accept jobs, only to not appear for the first day of work, no reason given, of course. Instead of formally quitting, enduring a potentially awkward conversation with a manager, some employees leave and never return. Bosses realize they’ve quit only after a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach them.”

The term ghosting comes from the world of online dating, where romantic prospects are often dumped without warning or even so much as a goodbye text. But as this bad behavior spreads from the personal to the professional realm, it raises questions about business etiquette and the shifting balance of power between employers and employees. Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli, who is also director of the school’s Center for Human Resources, believes ghosting reflects a change in today’s work environment, where employers once held all the cards and often treated hiring as “a commodity exercise.”

“When the labor market tightens, the power does start to shift,” he said. “I think part of the reason this is so surprising to employers is we’ve gone through 10 years of the worst labor market for job seekers, but the best labor market for employers and hirers. You know, you didn’t have to do anything, and people were just really grateful that you’d even consider their application. So, the power has changed, and that’s changing the story.”

Cappelli and Jay Finkelman, professor and chair of industrial-organizational business psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, spoke about ghosting on the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM. Following are key points from their conversation.“When the labor market tightens, the power does start to shift.” –Peter Cappelli

It Works Both Ways

Ghosting prospective employees is old hat for employers. Companies have been engaging in the practice for so long that it has become perfectly acceptable for them, the professors said. And with the prevalence of online applications, job candidates have gotten comfortable with the fact that they probably won’t hear anything back from a company – positive or negative.

“The expectation is that the employers are ghosting you. What’s different now is that the employees are starting to do the same thing to the employers,” Cappelli said. “It’s not a big surprise. But, frankly, anything that happens to employers makes noise and news; anything that happens to employees doesn’t necessarily make news. This is a two-sided problem. It’s started by the employers.”

Cappelli cited a recent survey by HR firm Clutch that found 40% of employees believe it’s reasonable to ghost companies during the interview process. He likened it to putting an item in your Amazon shopping cart but never completing the purchase.

Finkelman said it comes down reciprocity. “There is a feeling that this is more OK because it’s exactly what employers do. Businesses just grind through potential applicants and make determinations and decisions that are in the best interests of their clients and not necessarily of the applicants. And that message gets conveyed through.”

To be fair, Finkelman noted, employers simply don’t have the time to reassure every candidate in the pipeline. That lack of investment can make candidates and existing employees feel fine about ditching without notice.

It’s Driven by the Tight Labor Market

Both Cappelli and Finkelman said the increase in ghosting is also an indicator of just how tight the job market has become. Unemployment is below 4%, and employers across many sectors report they can’t find enough qualified candidates to fill jobs. It’s a situation that gives employees more leverage.

“I think there’s no question that it’s the environment that encourages that behavior,” Finkelman said. “Will it revert back to better manners possibly next year, 2020, when recessions are being predicted again? It will move in that direction inevitably as that ratio of job openings to candidates shifts.”

But the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Cappelli. Few employers are interested in hiring someone who doesn’t already have a job, so there’s a lot of pilfering of employees across industries.

Cappelli calls them “passive applicants,” people who aren’t necessarily looking but find better offers and head for the door. A majority of people hired last year fell into this category, he said.

“That really starts to change the dynamic a little here, and also the moral question [about ghosting],” Cappelli said. Employees who are approached frequently by recruiters will respond differently – i.e., be more likely to ghost — than those who are desperately looking for work.

Finkelman is bothered by what he calls an “underlying lack of concern about the welfare of others” when it comes to ghosting because the job market seems to rule over individual morality.

“I think the changing job market is more likely to influence the frequency with which candidates solicit other jobs or make changes, rather than the behavior that they engage in when they’ve made a decision to take another job,” he said. “In other words, do they do it in a classy way or do they do it in a tacky way?”

It Has Little Consequence for Applicants

American workers have grown up with traditional advice about the workplace: Always give two weeks’ notice; never burn your bridges; don’t speak badly of your former employer. Such platitudes have waning relevance in the ghosting era because there’s little consequence for employees and applicants who drop everything and leave.

“As long as there are more job openings, the likelihood of getting caught in this is relatively small,” Finkelman said. “And when it does happen, it’s satisfying for employers when someone comes back to them and they tell the applicant, ‘No, that’s already been taken. And if you don’t recall, you didn’t call us back.’”

However, Cappelli pointed out that the average recruiter gets 200 applications per job posting. That pile has to be whittled down to a smaller set to be reviewed by a hiring manager. If an applicant ghosts then reapplies later, the odds of being remembered or even reviewed by the same recruiter are slim.

“You shouldn’t do it because it’s the wrong thing to do, but the idea that you’re going to pay a price for doing this is kind of wishful thinking on the part of the recruiters,” he said. “How many thousand applicants do they see each day?”

Candidates have also become more savvy about what the professors call “ghost jobs,” which are postings for jobs that don’t really exist. Some companies call for resumes just to build their applicant pool; others neglect to delete postings for jobs that have been filled.

“Staffing industry analysts and other organizations that set ethical guidelines for their member staffing companies all know that this is an improper practice, yet it still does go on,” Finkelman said.

Job applicants catch on quickly and let others know about the bogus listings. It’s another aspect of bad employer behavior that enables employees to rationalize ghosting.

It’s Just Plain Rude

Ghosting may be accepted, but that doesn’t make it right, Cappelli and Finkelman said.

“I think we can put this question behind us. This is just not a good thing to do for either side,” Cappelli said. “It’s not a good thing for employers to do. They do it as a matter of policy because they think it’s easier not to respond to all these applicants. And for individual applicants or candidates, it’s not a good thing, particularly at the point where it becomes personal, where you have some tie, some conversation with a human as opposed to the applicant tracking software.”

Finkelman noted that the anonymity of digital is not a justification for rudeness. “There is a way to use digital and still be courteous about it,” he said. “There’s still no excuse for not responding online, either by the potential employee or the employer.” Although it’s not very personal, both sides could at least deliver bad news by email. “Not the most ideal and polite way to do it, but people today are not hand writing notes of regret — and that’s on both sides.”

In a world with few real consequences for ghosting, a person’s moral compass matters more than ever, Finkelman said. “Depending on the degree of narcissism of that individual and how self-centered that person is, there have to be other values in place to avoid playing the game in a way that may well be reciprocal.”

Getting Over Your Fear of Cold Calling Customers

A recent research study found that 48% of business-to-business salespeople are afraid of making cold calls. Sadly, salespeople who are afraid of making cold calls have trouble hitting their quotas, are more stressed, and are likely making less money than their counterparts who don’t share this phobia.

I don’t know who said it first — Henry Ford, Zig Ziglar, Peter Drucker, or former IBM chairman Thomas Watson Sr. — but the business wisdom embodied in these six simple words is inescapable: Nothing happens until someone sells something. And before anyone can sell anything, someone has to generate a sales lead. Although technology can help generate leads, most of us are still going to find ourselves picking up the phone to find prospects at some point in our sales career. Doing this typically requires some amount of cold calling.

In my work with thousands of sales professionals, I have found that there are two central fears around cold calling that inhibit effective and productive lead generation results. They are: 1) fear of sounding like a sales person; and 2) fear of failure.

Let’s deal with the first: Overcoming the fear of sounding like a salesperson is a simple matter of accepting that you actually are a sales professional. What else are you going to sound like? A mechanic? A programmer? Here’s a news flash: Mechanics sound like mechanics. Programmers sound like programmers. And salespeople sound like salespeople.

The key to getting comfortable with sounding like a sales professional is understanding that sales is an honorable profession. After all, we salespeople are talented problem solvers. We improve business performances and processes. We help consumers and businesses get the products and services they want and need. We keep our companies in business. Some salespeople provide medicine and equipment needed to save a life. Some provide the technology needed to improve business performance. Some provide the services we need to improve our quality of life at home and at work. So get comfortable with the fact that you’re going to sound like a salesperson because you are a sales professional. When you dial someone’s phone number or walk into their office, remember this: You are there to help them improve their lives and businesses. Be proud of that. Until you understand this simple concept, you’re going to be anxious and fearful about cold calling.

You are adding value. And when you make a cold call, it’s important to demonstrate your value upfront. For example, instead of calling a prospect and saying, “Hi, would you be interested in hearing about how my company can help your company?” start with something like this: “Hi, my company just funded a research paper outlining three ways to immediately improve profitability in your industry. I’d be happy to email you a copy if you’d like to share your email address with me?” Knowing that you are providing valuable information to your prospects can go a long way towards removing the fear and anxiety around cold calling.

Now let’s look at the fear of failure. Sometimes the fear of cold-calling comes from a limiting belief that we simply won’t be successful at it, which creates anxiety and leads to a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s even a medical term for this: Atychiphobia is an irrational and persistent fear of failing at something, and it’s been found to cause anxiety, panic, and feelings of powerlessness.

We often avoid cold-calling because of this fear of failure. Nevertheless, if you understand the physiological responses to fear in your brain and take a few simple steps to change it, cold-calling can become as routine as having your morning coffee.

According to health experts at the University of Washington, when you’re afraid, the blood in your body flows away from your brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for logical thinking. The more reptilian part of your brain — the amygdala — takes over, which helps you fight or flee, as the blood flows into large muscle groups. Unfortunately, while this physiological response prepares you to fight or run from your prospect, it also renders you unable to remember your own name. You are ready to fight — not think. The fear of failing at cold-calling thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the fear of failure causes the blood flow to diminish your cognitive ability, which in turns limits your ability to think and respond quickly, which in turn hurts your lead-generating results. The negative cycle is reinforced when a sales professional confirms the expectation by saying, “I hate cold-calling. I’m lousy at it!”

The key to getting better at cold-calling is to simply get more accustomed to it, so your body does not perceive fear. The more accustomed you are to cold-calling, the more confident you’ll be, which creates a more productive self-fulfilling prophecy. Granted, while confidence doesn’t always lead to success, it is often a prerequisite for it.

So how do you become more accustomed to cold calling if you’re afraid of it? Try role playing with coworkers; chances are they’re experiencing the same anxiety. You can also practice with friends or family. You don’t need to be perfect — we’re not looking for an Oscar-worthy performance. The primary reason I recommend ongoing role play is simply to remind the brain that there is nothing to be afraid of.

As you practice, you’ll realize that nothing bad is actually going to happen, which will in turn ease your fears. To reduce your anxiety further, you can also try offering something of value rather than asking for something from your prospect. For example, “I am calling today to find the best way to send you a complimentary report on ways to increase productivity in your industry.” Offering something of value is often less stressful than asking for something.

Once you’ve role-played long enough that you’re no longer feeling butterflies, you’re ready to try a live-fire situation. Keep in mind that it will clearly be more difficult when it’s for real, but a few real attempts after role playing will settle you down and help get you into a very productive groove.

Cold calling is one of the most critical steps in sales and business success. If you want to become a top producer, there is simply no way around it. The key is to take pride in your work as a sales professional, knowing you are solving problems and adding value. Get comfortable with your value and your role, and you’ll be well on your way to consistent sales results.

Get your memo read

The unanticipated but important memo has a difficult road. It will likely be ignored.

The difficult parts:

A. No one is waiting to hear from you

B. You need to have the clarity to know who it’s for, what’s it for and precisely what you want them to do

C. You have to have the guts to leave out everything that isn’t part of (B)

Consider the memo below that was left outside my door at a hotel recently. The management distributed 1000 of them and perhaps ten people read it and took action.

Here’s what to keep in mind:

  1. Pattern interrupt. When was the last time you listened to the seat belt announcement on an airplane? We ignore it because we’ve been trained to ignore it. When you show up in a place, at a time, with a format that we’ve been trained to ignore, we’ll ignore you.
  2. Write a story. You seek engagement. Talk about me. About you, about yesterday, today and tomorrow. If you earn the first sentence, you’ll need to sell me on reading the second sentence.
  3. Frame the story. Help me compare it to something. Create urgency. Make it about me, my status, my needs.
  4. Chunk the message. How many things are you trying to say? (Hint: two might be too many). Let me scan instead of study.
  5. Include a call to action. Right here, right now.
Maker:L,Date:2017-8-28,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

by Seth Godin

5 Reasons Executives Wait Too Long to Fire Their Direct Reports

Of all the difficult decisions executives face, few torment them more than having to fire someone on their own team. High-risk innovations, layoffs, and even major acquisitions don’t cause as much angst as removing someone from a senior position.

Recently, a client of mine — a division president of a large manufacturing company, let’s call him Kyle — struggled with this problem. One of his VPs of sales had missed his targets for the third consecutive quarter. The VP had been given a coach and additional resources to help him succeed, but was still unable to turn around his performance, causing significant employee turnover in his region. Removing him seemed like the obvious choice, but Kyle was tortured by the thought. “I want to give him one more chance,” he said. “Is it wrong to want to give him every possible chance to make it?”

Kyle, who did not routinely struggle with difficult decisions and leads one of the highest performing divisions in his company, is not alone. Firing someone is a decision rife with complexity and personal angst. But avoiding it only prolongs the inevitable and increases the consequences of keeping a poor performer at the top.

In my work with senior executives, I’ve observed five things that often get in the way of making the necessary call. Recognizing and correcting these behaviors early on can help you overcome the fear of firing an under performing leader and prevent the damage that may occur if you don’t.

A determination to fix others. Well-intended leaders often feel genuine commitment to helping direct reports succeed. The importance of coaching and feedback has been drilled into them. But when your commitment to someone’s growth exceeds their ability to grow, you are unwittingly contributing to their failure.

Kyle offers a case in point. He set out to help his VP of sales turn things around and he wasn’t going to stop until he did. He saw the VP’s under performance as his own personal failure to effectively develop younger executives. In reality, however, the VP was years away from thriving in a role with such high demands. While Kyle’s desire for people to succeed was admirable, his belief that he could, and should, make that happen was a form of arrogance.

This is not uncommon. Another HR executive I worked with prided herself in developing leaders others had given up on. She invested in coaching, training, and created “developmental assignments” for struggling leaders. She sometimes succeeded at uncovering great talent that others had prematurely discarded. But too often, under the guise of creating a culture that prized employee development, she set people up to fail by keeping them in roles they’d long proven to be incapable of handling.

Be careful not to confuse your commitment to employee development with masked “savior syndrome.” Playing the hero could come at the expense of someone else’s career.

Fear of delivering a fatal blow. One of the unique complexities of removing an executive from their role is the damaging consequences it may have on their career. Falling from a high perch can make a leader damaged goods when pursuing future opportunities. As a result, bosses may experience guilt when it comes time to let that leader go — guilt for not preparing that person to take on their current role or guilt about the struggle that person might go through when looking for a new job. But you can do much greater damage to their career and reputation by allowing them to publicly struggle. A better solution is to have an honest conversation with that person and offer support.

In Kyle’s case, a conversation with the VP of sales about his poor performance and his future aspirations enabled Kyle to see that not succeeding in this role didn’t deem the VP unemployable or untalented. While disappointed, the VP knew he wasn’t delivering, and was relieved to acknowledge it. He’d been thinking about other roles in the organization for which he was better suited. Kyle saw that he could help his VP look for more suitable opportunities within the broader organization or provide a reference for him at another company.

Other leaders can follow this example. Feeling guilty about a potential outcome that you have no control over helps no one. In fact, 68% of executives who are fired find a new job within six months.

Ego. Firing executives is especially difficult when you hired them in the first place. The decision to hire someone is a rejection of your leadership and it’s natural to fear what people will think when you need to go back on that decision and remove them. But no one is infallible to making a bad hire, and no one has complete control over whether someone succeeds. You should do everything you can to hire with rigorous standards and onboard effectively. You should not become so attached to your own hires that you lose objectivity.

In the example of Kyle, he had promoted his VP of sales two years earlier and he feared his judgment would be called into question if the VP failed. Though the VP excelled during his first year, further solidifying Kyle’s decision, market headwinds and major competition made his second year difficult. The VP was simply too inexperienced.

It’s common for leaders to be blind to the shortfalls of those they hire. But Kyle needed to see that, while the decision to promote his VP was a calculated risk, the conditions of that risk had evolved and keeping the VP in his current role could have serious consequences for the whole division.

Public visibility. When an executive is fired, the world inside and outside the organization sees it. Irrationally or not, people speculate about what’s going on. While you can’t control what people think about a major decision, you can minimize unfounded conjecture by being intentional in your communications about the exit and why it happened. Internally, try to normalize difficult exits by letting your team know that moving on is a part of business and be gracious to those who are leaving. Externally, focus on looking forward. Publicly acknowledge the aspirations your organization aims to reach or the challenges you are working to address. Remember, it looks far weaker to ignore poor performance than it does to address it.

Kyle feared that his boss, the CEO (for whom he was a succession candidate) and other key stakeholders outside the company, might conclude his division was unstable or his team was weak once he fired his VP of sales. And for the VP himself, it could mean public embarrassment and loss of respect. What Kyle needed to consider was what people might conclude if he didn’t remove the under performing sales VP. It is far more cruel to leave a leader publicly poundering, particularly in Kyle’s case when the VP’s under performance drove other talented employees out the door.

Perceived indispensability. Often, executives fear the disruption a departing executive might cause. Certain it will result in irreparable damage, they convince themselves and others of the executive’s indispensability to justify tolerating a poor performance or bad behavior. I have seen this fear used as an excuse for not firing under performing executives many times, but I have never seen this fear materialize. With a carefully choreographed transition plan, it’s possible for an office to return to normal quickly. Important people, like top customers, understand that things change. What they want to know is how you’re going to take care of them, regardless of who does it.

One of my clients once put up with horrific behavior from their sales executive because they “couldn’t possibly risk” losing his customer relationships. Externally, the sales exec was highly regarded. He spoke at conferences alongside top customers and was regularly invited to exclusive gatherings of prominent buyers. Internally, he was loathed for what he got away with: never attending meetings, refusing to learn new technologies, and consistently violating travel expense guidelines. Eventually, a newly appointed leader had the courage to clean house and replace him, and those who followed in his example, with fresh talent. They didn’t lose one customer in the wake of these exits, and within a year, top-line revenue had grown by 35%.

The complicated decision to remove a senior leader from their job should never be taken lightly. And while there’s no way to avoid some fallout from such a choice, the decision to ignore irreversible poor performance is a choice with far greater consequences. By acknowledging the above behaviors, and practicing ways to overcome them, you will not only help your organization move forward, but also the employees you’re afraid to let go.

5 Little Words That Will Make You a Much Better Leader

Author Simon Sinek offers a dead simple mantra to instantly level up your leadership.

We all know great leaders excel at articulating their vision. What’s less often appreciated is that listening is an equally valuable leadership skill.

Why? First, because feeling truly heard is deeply empowering for a team. As Yale business professor Marissa Kind has explained, “when employees feel listened to, they are less likely to feel emotionally exhausted and less likely to quit their job. They are also more likely to trust — and like — their bosses, and feel committed to them.”

Second, because you need to actually hear and process information about the world to be able to set a sensible vision in the first place. Listening well makes you smarter.

So how do you get better at this essential but under sung skill? There are a million suggestions out there, but perhaps one of the most powerful is also the simplest. It comes from author Simon Sinek and consists of all of five little words.

“Be the last to speak.”

In the quick snippet of a talk below, Sinek offers a profound leadership lesson that’s dead easy to remember: be the last to speak.

“I see it in boardrooms every day of the week, even people who consider themselves to be good leaders, who may actually be decent leaders, will walk into the room and say, ‘Here’s the problem. Here’s what I think, but I’m interested in your opinion. Let’s go around the room.’ It’s too late,” he warns.

Instead, cultivate the skill to hold you tongue until everyone else has weighed in. Not only does this allow other participants to feel heard, but it gives you an obvious advantage: you get to hear everyone else’s brilliant ideas before you contribute your own. Of course, you’ll say smarter things compared to when you first walked in itching to put your ideas instantly out there.

The logic behind the idea is unassailable, but actually putting this wisdom into practice can be harder than it sounds, Sinek warns. We’re all dying to jump in and prove our brilliance or correct others’ errors, after all. But if you can manage to just keep your mouth shut, you’ll instantly level up your leadership.

Here’s Sinek’s complete advice if you want to check out the complete two-minute clip.

Insights From ITR Economics CEO: Three Subtle Signs You Should Know

There is a reason ITR Economics uses rate-of-change to identify four distinct phases to the business cycle: Each phase requires a particular perspective in conjunction with a view to the future.

The US economy is on the threshold of the third phase of the business cycle, Phase C. The “C” stands for “Caution,” which is what we urge most folks to use when thinking about the next four quarters. Caution is warranted if you tend to move in sync with any of the following measures: GDP, Retail Sales, US Total Industrial Production, Manufacturing, or Housing.

We are in that relatively unique stage of the business cycle in which the data is still generally rising (or seems to be at first glance), but the upward movement is definitely decaying. This is Phase C. It is a period of Slowing Growth. Not slowergrowth, but slowing, because it is a progressive phenomenon. The economy will continue to decelerate until it either (a) enters into a recession (negative growth), or (b) shifts into accelerating rise without first going through a recession. The latter is the proverbial “soft landing.” This business cycle will have elements of both (a) and (b). Retail Sales will experience slowing growth without subsequently contracting; Housing (a traditional leading indicator) is already beginning to contract.

ITR Economics presenters frequently provide our leading indicator analysis in webinars, company-specific meetings, and trade association meetings. The leading indicators tell a great deal about how much slowing is likely to occur. Sometimes the signs are relatively subtle; here are three of those subtler (and worrisome) signs:

  1. Adjusted for inflation, Retail Sales are now barely rising, and the 12/12 rate-of-change is below 2.5%. (The 12/12 is at 2.2% and declining; the 3/12 is at 0.8%.)
  2. Food Services and Drinking Places Retail Sales activity is now shifting into Phase C. (The 12/12 is edging upward at 6.3%, but the 3/12 is at 5.3% and declining below the 12/12.)
  3. Light Vehicle Retail Sales (passenger cars and light-duty trucks) over the last three months came in 0.7% below the year-earlier level for the same three months.

It is easy to see why people can miss these signals. They tend to focus on a snapshot of the data rather than the trend. This is one reason why many otherwise good decisions are made at the wrong time.

In other cases, it is simply a matter of not knowing enough of the circumstances. Single-Unit Housing Starts are in Phase C, Slowing Growth. However, Starts over the last three months are down, by 9.3%, from the same three months one year ago. Starts are trending lower.

There is a tendency to attribute this to there not being enough inventory to keep housing going. But that misses the point that these are Housing Starts we are talking about, not sales. The data for Building Permits, which lead Starts, shows that further downward cyclical change is ahead.

Knowing where you are in the business cycle and basing your decisions on the reality of where you are trending is key to making decisions with near-term profitable payback.

It’s as easy as A – B – C – D.

Brian Beaulieu
CEO

5 Pieces of Advice From John Bogle

John C. Bogle, is widely seen as having changed how ordinary people invest their money. His firm, the Vanguard Group of Investment Companies, which grew to have $4.9 trillion under management, was built on a belief that, over the long term, most investment managers cannot outperform the broad stock market averages.

“Jack Bogle made an impact on not only the entire investment industry, but more importantly, on the lives of countless individuals saving for their futures or their children’s futures,” Tim Buckley, Vanguard’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Here are some of Mr. Bogle’s investment tips:

“Wise investors won’t try to outsmart the market,” he says. “They’ll buy index funds for the long term, and they’ll diversify.”

Long-term investors must hold stocks even though the market is risky, because they are still likely to produce better returns than the alternatives, Mr. Bogle said in 2012.

Investors should weather any storms, he told The Wall Street Journal in 2016.

“If we’re going to have lower returns, well, the worst thing you can do is reach for more yield. You just have to save more.”

Money managers missed all the warning signs before the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Bogle noted:

“How could so many highly skilled, highly paid securities analysts and researchers have failed to question the toxic-filled, leveraged balance sheets of Citigroup and other leading banks and investment banks?”

In 2017, he waved younger investors away from financial advisers and gave his approval to robo-advisers.

“Unless you need a financial adviser to help you get started in that routine, you probably don’t need a financial adviser at all,” he told CNBC.

Vanguard’s fund shareholders own it collectively, so there is no parent company or private owner to siphon profit, allowing the firm to keep costs down.

“In investing, you get what you don’t pay for. Costs matter. So intelligent investors will use low-cost index funds to build a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds, and they will stay the course. And they won’t be foolish enough to think that they can consistently outsmart the market.”

Mr. Bogle became a harsh critic in his later years of the mutual fund industry and the high fees charged to investors for stock-picking expertise.

Invest in a diverse selection of stocks and bonds, trust in the arithmetic and stick to it — this was the essence of Mr. Bogle’s advice for Vanguard investors. “Impulse is your enemy,” was one of the mantras.

“Eliminate emotion from your investment program. Have rational expectations for future returns and avoid changing those expectations in response to the ephemeral noise coming from Wall Street.”

Mr. Bogle was the leading proponent of structuring an investment portfolio to mirror the performance of a market yardstick, like the S&P 500 stock index.

“The S&P 500 is a great proxy,” Mr. Bogle told The Wall Street Journal last year, adding that he hadn’t bought an individual stock in about 25 years.

Mr. Bogle also told CNBC that the United States market was a safer bet than other markets. “U.S. companies are innovative and entrepreneurial,” he said.

This Is Your Company One Year From Now

According to a Harvard Business Review survey, the quality that most distinguishes a leader from a non-leader is how capable she is of forward-thinking. In other words, a leader is someone who envisions a unique view of the future — and can enlist others into that shared vision.

What’s your vision for your organization? If it’s not as forward-thinking as it could be, run it through an exercise called One Year From Now. It’s a strategy-shaping technique that helps leadership articulate how innovation will shape their org twelve months from now — and what steps need to be taken to make that vision a reality.

Along with your fellow senior leaders, take twenty minutes to answer these questions:

  • What’s a recent news headline about our company?
  • What are the key topics our company’s thought leaders are speaking about at conferences?
  • What emerging social issue is our organization associated with?
  • What are customers or clients tweeting about us?
  • What’s the word on Wall Street about us?
  • What are the sales teams at our competition saying about us?
  • What’s the CEO of our top competitor saying about us?
  • Why are our employees excited about coming to work here?

Once you’ve got your future-thinking answers, imagine yourselves a year from now. It’s 2019 and your company has achieved the vision of success it just articulated. To reveal how you got here, take another twenty minutes to answer the following questions individually or in small teams.

  • What one decision or action put us on the path to success?
  • What was our biggest barrier to change?
  • How did we successfully overcome that barrier?
  • What exactly compelled us to make those changes?
  • Who exactly was the driving force for those changes?
  • How did we get buy-in for the changes we made?
  • What would have happened if we had just maintained last year’s status quo?

When time’s up, everyone’s answers should be shared with the room, and any common themes or ideas should be captured. Discuss the feasibility of the most strategic ideas and tactics, and then agree on your top three immediate priorities. Reconvene monthly to track the company’s progression toward its goals for next year and keep people accountability.

Imagining your company twelve months from now can replace hazy or lazy plans for innovation with a clear roadmap for achieving success.Whether you’re a hot start-up or a global brand, this simple technique can put you on track for becoming synonymous with 2019 round-ups of innovators of the year.