Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spread the Word about Entrepreneurship

You teach best what you most need to learn.
~Richard Bach

Clearly this country needs more successful entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is an exceptionally difficult profession, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Entrepreneurs take care of their staff and their families all while building a legacy through their work and contributions. The bottom line is entrepreneurs make a difference in so many lives.
One of the most satisfying things to see is a new entrepreneur come into their own. As with many other things, an entrepreneur’s confidence increases exponentially the longer they are in the role, and I have watched this progression many times.
One lady I was assisting had me convinced that running a business was not her cup of tea. She just had no self-confidence at all. If I had been asked to make a prediction, I would have said she would throw in the towel and walk away from the business. But I was wrong. She learned her business and blossomed in the role. Now she is the epitome of self-confidence. The business was the vehicle that allowed her to find her confidence.
Though entrepreneurship is vitally important to our country, it gets very little recognition. In fact, many people do not even realize it is a viable occupation. Many times while at FSU, students would tell me they did not know that they could major in entrepreneurship or even that it was a valid and valued profession.
I think every entrepreneur has an obligation to spread the word about entrepreneurship both to ensure our country remains great as well as to help people find a better way of life.
For the past three years, I have taught entrepreneurship at the Youth Automotive Training Center in Deerfield Beach. The school was founded by Jim Moran as a way to give back to the community and help put troubled kids on a path to success. My role was to introduce entrepreneurship as a profession. What was surprising to me was that so many of these kids had no idea running your own business rather than going to work for someone else was an option.
Recently, I was contacted by the Gadsden Correctional Facility and was asked to give a series of classes on entrepreneurship. Initially, I was hesitant because I had no idea if this audience would be receptive to what I needed to tell them. And quite frankly, going to prison was not exactly what I thought I would be doing at this stage in my life. However, despite these concerns, I agreed.
A minimum-security prison encircled with razor wire, this facility holds 1,500 women inmates. There are many checks before you are let in, and each time I go, I am given an ID card and a special alarm to wear on my belt. If I am ever knocked down, the alarm will be tripped and the entire facility will be notified.
It has been a memorable experience as much for the novelty of the situation as for the people I have had the opportunity to work with. I was completely hooked after the first class. They are better students than many I have taught and they really want to learn – more than many of my FSU students. They are engaged, respectful and they just know this is what they need to do to provide for themselves and their family. I can truthfully say that I look forward to this activity every week as I am giving these women hope and knowledge for their futures.
Now go out and consider how you can help spread the word about the importance of entrepreneurship and how to get into this field. There are countless venues where you can do just that. Junior Achievement, for example, is always looking for volunteers to teach entrepreneurship in the public and private school systems.
 You can do this!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Answering Staff's Questions

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.”
~Bernard Baruch

There is no question in my mind that the primary job of a manager or entrepreneur is to help their staff progress and support each employee’s efforts. Your job as the leader of the team is not just to provide a fountain of answers, but to enable your staff to become the best they can be.
So many times when I am consulting with organizations, I see managers who are so busy that all they have time to do is quickly answer questions. Of course, answering questions is important, but if this is the only way you are interacting with your staff, you are not empowering them or using your time efficiently.
Simply answering the question at hand is effective only in the short term. It gets that staff member in and out of your office very quickly but does very little in the long term. Because questions are usually situation-specific, the employee will likely return again and again. There is no real exchange of knowledge and nothing to empower the staff member to deal with issues in the future.
Think of each question as a training opportunity. Every time a staff member comes to you with a problem, you need to ask them what solution they would recommend. In the beginning, of course, they are not going to have solutions, but if you continue to ask them for their thoughts, they will eventually come to you with suggestions.
Ultimately, of course, it is you who gives the ok, but making the employee think through the situation and propose a solution empowers them while helping develop necessary decision-making skills.
If the employee cannot come up with a good solution, it is the manager’s job to coach them through the process. The first step is helping the staff member articulate what the real issues are. Then they need to identify how these issues affect the business.
For example, consider an employee who is managing a new software conversion. The project is taking more hours than originally budgeted, so this staff member comes to you asking for permission to spend additional funds.
Although going over budget is the problem this employee has brought to you, there is a deeper cause that needs to be addressed. Before dealing with the budget concern, you need to help the employee recognize what caused this problem in the first place and think about how the budgetary process might have been flawed. Once they understand the cause of the problem, without blame, it is so much easier for them to come up with a solution.
Empowering your staff is the key to being a great manager.
The more you can get your staff to figure out problems for themselves, the more they will feel like part of the team. As a bonus, if you train them to come up with good solutions, they will come to you less and you will have fewer interruptions to inhibit your productivity. Interruptions are the number one cause of time management issues.
Now go out and make sure it is your practice to address staff questions as training opportunities. If you continue to ask your employees to offer their own possible solutions, you will develop better decision-makers. I promise your company and staff will be stronger for it.
You can do this!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gamification for your Business!

“Enterprise gamification, making everyday business tasks such as data entry and management training more engaging, continues to see burgeoning interest.” ~Wall Street Journal

Occasionally in my columns I highlight emerging technologies that entrepreneurs should be aware of and consider for their operations. This week, I want to talk about gamification, a new tool that has many neat applications for businesses.

The word was coined in 2004 and, in 2010, became widely used. The basic idea is to apply gaming theory to business settings or environments, which means you first have to have an understanding of these attributes.

The first relevant theory is the concept of behavioral momentum. This refers to the tendency of a player to continue doing what they have been doing. A second concept deals with giving rewards when success is achieved. Thirdly, there is the concept of blissful productivity, which addresses the fact that people prefer to be working hard in a game and earning more rewards for their hard work. A fourth concept, discovery, refers to building in opportunities for gamers to discover new attributes about the case. This is used heavily in the classic game, World of Warcraft, in which players can find new lands to explore as they progress through the game.

There are many other attributes that game designers use to make their games more exciting and addictive, but these four relatively universal concepts can be applied in business environments to make a mundane task much more interesting.

Salesforce has used gamification to support their popular CRM platform. Salesforce applies various game mechanics and enables direct competition among the users within an organization. Incorporating competition drives additional user engagement in the system.

Another system called CheckPoints allows firms to drive product engagement by applying gaming-style rewards for certain shopping behaviors. Users are incentivised to scan specific products for CheckPoints, which can then be exchanged as virtual currency for rewards such as gift cards.

One of my favorite products is called Fitbit. Fitbit works like a pedometer on steroids by recording both the number of steps you take and stairs you climb each day. Data is recorded both wirelessly through the Internet and on the Fitbit device itself.

During my recent visit to London with my daughter and grandson, my Fitbit said we walked over 12 miles and 33 flight of stairs in one day. This data helped explain why we were so exhausted that day!

Fitbit uses a number of gamification concepts to encourage you to walk more. The day we walked 12 miles, they sent me a badge to reward us for walking over 20,000 steps.

Fitbit also has a new weight scale that wirelessly connects to their website to give you a history of your weight loss. When I lost three pounds, they sent me a congratulatory email, which is a wonderful way to get rewarded for this achievement.

The concept of gamification will become more and more important for businesses over time. Its many applications can be useful to a wide variety of business types, so take some time now to learn about this neat new concept and see if it is appropriate for your operation.

You can do this!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Education is the Key to Success

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By nature, entrepreneurs are very busy. They tend to be understaffed and wear many, many hats. It is not unusual for an entrepreneur to juggle numerous responsibilities including management, marketing, accounting and even IT. Though being busy comes with the territory, it is imperative entrepreneurs make time for their own training and education. 

With so many trends at work out there, the business environment is always evolving. Technology is one of the most obvious examples of this. Technological innovations are constantly occurring, and even if you plan to outsource the department, you must have adequate knowledge to make informed decisions.

Where these trends are concerned, it takes continuous education to ensure you stay in the know so you are able to meet the ever-changing challenges of running your business. I strongly suggest every entrepreneur takes three to four days off each year to attend an educational seminar. 

I know some folks will argue with me on this – it happens quite a bit. Without a staff member trained to run things in their absence, they say it is impossible to get away. Though I would agree this is a valid concern, it is critical that you find a way to take time off for a number of important reasons. 

For one thing, allowing your business to be entirely reliant on you for its daily operation undermines its valuation. In addition, as I already mentioned, getting the proper education is imperative to the future of your business. Last, but definitely not least, you need to be able to step away to recharge your batteries. 

At any given time, there is a nearly endless offering of seminars and conferences – Google produced more than eight million results just for technology-related seminars for entrepreneurs. 

Having attended my fair share of conferences, I know that for every great seminar out there, there are many that are just not worth the time. For this reason, attending seminars for the sake of attending seminars will get you nowhere fast. You need to be sure the conferences you are attending are bringing value to you and your business, but how do you know in advance which ones are best?

Selecting the right seminar starts with determining your needs, and you are much better off finding one that prepares you for a future issue rather than one that addresses an existing problem. Unlike future concerns, existing problems are typically already pretty well defined, so it is not worth the time or expense. 

Once you have settled on the topic, look for a seminar that incorporates experiential learning, which actively engages the participant. I prefer seminars that use the Case Methodology, also known as the Socratic Method. I find they are more effective as participants are forced to solve the problem themselves and the instructor’s role is to assist and facilitate. 

Finally, it may be tempting to attend a nearby, inexpensive seminar, but your decision should not be based solely on the lowest cost option. Rather, you should always ask yourself what will bring you and your business the maximum value. These may not be cheap, but it is worth the cost to invest in your own education for the future of your business. 

Now go out and make sure you have a plan in place to attend an educational conference at least once a year. 

You can do this.