Soliciting Feedback

As we head into the end of the year, it’s a great time to motivate ourselves to reach back out to friends and colleagues to look back on the year and also solicit feedback for use in personal development and reflection over the holidays.  I find this to be a really valuable way to keep yourself properly networked and shepherd actionable feedback from your colleagues and friends, so that you ultimately avoid the tendency many of us have to not show substantive improvement in our capabilities or skills year-over-year.

Good questions to yield healthy dialogue as part of a feedback session:

  • What do you feel my major strengths are with respect to my current position/role?
  • What are two or three key areas you think I could improve personally in order to add more value or drive better results for the team?
  • How would you describe my morale around the office?  My work ethic?
  • In what area (of the business overall or within our functional space) should I spend more time and energy next year in order to grow?
  • In what ways do you feel like we best collaborate?
  • If you could describe me as any type of animal, what type of animal and why?

OK, so the last one was a bit of a joke and kind of “out there”, although I have been known to ask interviewees about themselves likened to an animal (for no other reason than to chuckle – I’m really not psychoanalyzing the answer I swear).  But, as you can see, I generally try to avoid common “Yes/No” answers, and aim to capture feedback that is both positive as well as constructively critical.  That is because it helps me continually develop a healthier internal personnel profile, letting me know who my advocates could be for future opportunities, as well as the areas in which I could stand to use some development or practice.  Selfishly, it also lets me establish a baseline with the reviewer so that I can come back to them over the course of time and do a temperature check on whether I am making progress (e.g. “Hello Jill, I know you had previously mentioned that I could possibly stand to do better grammatical reviews in my summary reports; I wanted to see if you feel as though the last few have been going better?  It is something I have been working on in recent months.”).

As far as whether these should be conducted in-person, over the phone, or through an electronic source (email/Survey Monkey), I typically adjust based upon the personality of the person from whom I am seeking feedback.  You will hear “experts” in strategic communication or feedback processes tell you it has to be in person – but I don’t think that is far to the feedback giver (and, ultimately, will net you a diluted or watered down version of the truth in many cases).  Either way, as long as you are making an effort to capture this sort of feedback with a regular cadence, you will ensure you are setting yourself up for personal or professional success in whatever endeavor next year may bring.

Til Next Time,


Happy Veteran’s Day!

Just a quick note out to all our country’s service men and women, past and present. Without your hard work, dedication, and tireless pursuit of freedom, the rest of us would not be able to enjoy everything we have at our disposal. I hope one day that I can repay you. You are an important reminder to us all of what the power of collective effort and collaboration can yield.


Scope Creep

One of the things that has long bothered me about the consulting and professional services space is the concept of scope creep.  Before I dive in, let it be known that I fully understand the intent behind it and believe that properly-executed contracts must be followed in order to fulfill legal, financial, and personal responsibilities that were agreed to at the outset of a project.

But hear me out for one minute.  When’s the last time you said “I’m sorry, I cannot do that, because it is not in my scope” and a client reacted happily or respected you more for that?  At the end of the day, you are in the client services industry.  Happy client = happy bosses.  Happy bosses = happy company.  Happy company remembers consultants that made life happy.  Consulting firm wins because they’re not the weasels disagreeable folks who decided to call the client out on not being able to 100% define their scope day one out of the gate.

So how do I approach it?  Simple.  I have what-I-refer-to-as a “goodwill bucket”.  Client is allowed to make withdrawals from this goodwill bucket from time to time so long as a few criteria are met:

  • The request is not going to impact the budget by more than roughly 5-10% (variable based upon size/original scope)
  • The request is not going to impact the schedule by more than roughly 5-10% (variable based upon size/original scope)
  • The request is not going to ruin me or my people emotionally, physically, or mentally
  • The request is not one that follows immediately on the tail of a similar request
  • The request can be offset by (potentially) re-prioritizing other in-flight activities

If any of these criteria are not met – then you can’t make a withdrawal from the goodwill bucket.  I have actually found this to be a rather effective process, because it establishes credibility with my clients, but also lets them know that there is a line in the sand so they can’t treat me as a complete pushover.  And you know what?  A lot of times, the “perceived impact” (which most people and firms would scream “SCOPE CREEP!” to) is much less impactful than the opportunity cost of delivering a crappy product.  Crappy product = cranky client.  Cranky client…  You get the picture.  I’m not one for trying to overwhelm my team by bringing on additional items to turn their 45-hour week into a 60-hour one, but prefer to keep it more of a negotiation with my clients so they start to understand what it does to the process (The conversations are rather easy, actually, something like “by doing this one originally unscheduled ‘nice-to-have’ for you, I want to make sure we can de-prioritize something else in order to make sure we are not running over capacity and can hit our original deliverable timelines”).

I’m not saying this is a foolproof method or one everybody should follow.  I know that we are also all responsible for driving results, and results can’t be achieved if there’s no governance for the process, the schedule, the scope, or the budget.  It just makes my blood boil that so many consultants have gotten so complacent with themselves and their contracts that they are forgetting the real reason you’re out there – to provide a professional service to achieve a desired outcome.  If someone changes their minds and asks me to mop the floors instead of configure their Salesforce – guess what?  I’m grabbing the mop.  Because that’s what drives incremental and follow-on business.   Not being the guy that says “Sorry, that’s outside of my scope”.

Til Next Time,


Technology in Society – the Importance of Coding & Engineering

Be warned: this post may sound slightly complacent, mildly pessimistic, and altogether like a bit of a rant on the current state of our society in America.  But – hey – isn’t that why I started my own blog?  To allow myself an avenue to opine on real issues facing ourselves and the next generation of people to roam this great Earth?  I run the show around here; the choice is yours if you want to read it. 🙂

In short, I am wildly concerned about the state of technology awareness and technical intelligence in our American society.  And, no, I don’t mean the ability to use an iPhone or knowing how to start a group message on Facebook.  Because, last time I checked, there are only extremely narrow windows of opportunity to capitalize on those skills.  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook is already published, sorry.

What I’m talking about is our country’s seeming indifference towards teaching children the value of technical skills.  For instance, I firmly believe that everyone in their lives should be required to take at least one course on coding and engineering in their academic careers.  Not because I think we’re severely lacking coders in America (side note – we most definitely are), but because learning to code teaches someone several valuable skills that ultimately leave oneself better off and more marketable in their career.  Before you say it, it’s true, not everything draws back to your career; but I think we have started to undervalue people’s ability to provide for themselves and earn a decent living (maybe that’s the Midwestern blue collar seeping out of me).  I am not going to use this post or this site to go into any economic lessons or discuss the value of money and whether or not it buys happiness – but rather I do want to speak for a brief moment on the value of technology awareness and skills in 2013.

So why should everyone learn to code or start to brush up a bit on technology and spend more time in the Engineering building at school?  Simple:

  • Coding, at it’s quintessence, teaches people to be problem solvers: Whether it’s the process of debugging some “cranky code”, or following a process to create something as simple as “Hello World”, coding forces you to work through problems and setbacks.  Be it through consulting electronic/external sources (e.g. Google) or friends/experts – you will have to figure out a way to get past roadblocks.  This is a skill that I think we can all agree is highly valuable whatever your walk of life may be.
  • Technology is the wave of the future.  Everything is going mobile.  We are all strapped to our devices as is.  Why shouldn’t we embrace that and start to learn more about it?  It’s our only chance to remain viable in a global marketplace.  And, as Americans, don’t we generally like to win?
  • Engineering is all about how things are built.  It’s about process.  Starting with a rough concept, investigating feasibility based upon organic, material, or dynamic qualities, developing a design, prototyping a design, testing it, and eventually finalizing a buildout…  These skills are not only useful in buildings/bridges/cars/planes, but rather in your traditional life as well.  Think about the ability to build a relationship and take in/analyze information that is given to you to further enhance that relationship.  It’s all an exercise in engineering.
  • Technology and Engineering are what drives innovation and are uniquely responsible for most of the great inventions since the start of time.  Be it the automobile, the airplane, or the telephone – behind most of those great inventions was someone hopelessly dedicated to science and engineering.  And who doesn’t love cool new toys?

I could go on all day, I really could.  But I won’t.  I hope you get the picture.  And even if you don’t agree, I just ask that you consider the risk if we refuse to refocus our energy towards technology, engineering, math, the sciences.  I am incredibly alarmed at American society’s refusal to take these areas more seriously.  I love the arts – I really do!  I think having a portion of our population dedicate their time and energy towards creating wonderful works or art, literature, or performances for the rest of us to enjoy is a fantastic thing.  I would be lying though if I didn’t say I am worried that we have overcorrected in these areas over the past couple of decades.  In my personal opinion, spending six figures on a French Art History degree for most people just may not pay off.  Ever notice that in other developing countries (e.g. majority of Asia), the percentage of graduates with technical/skills training versus other language arts is substantially higher than here in the U.S.?  Wait, where are all of our technology jobs in America being lost or offshored to again?

Listen, I know it’s not all about what “pays off” from a financial perspective.  But at the end of the day, money makes the world go ’round.  You need it to eat, need it to sleep (comfortably), need it to get around.  So give technology a chance.  I think you’ll be amazed at what we are collectively able to create and how quickly we can innovate if we start to drive more of our talented youth (and even aging professionals – you’d be surprised at what great resources are available for out-of-school or on-the-job skills training!) towards technology, engineering, math, and science.

Til Next Time,


The Unicorn Club

Remember all of that talk about the 1%?  Here’s a fascinating piece on the 0.07%…  I have always had an affinity for technology and venture capital.  Probably because when I was growing up, my father did venture capital, and I was interested in technology.  I think deep down, most of us are allured to one of our parents’ professions by nature just because we often idolize our parents and want to grow up to be like them (until we get old enough to realize the traits of theirs that we absolutely do not want to mimic – alas I digress again).  Regardless, I am fascinated to this day by technology venture capital and hope one day to be in a position in my career where I can contribute to this exciting community.  Maybe even one day consider myself part of the “unicorn club”.

Hope you enjoy the article!

Til Next Time,


Career Progression

So we’ve hit the promotions and laddering topic.  But that doesn’t help us automatically draw the roadmap for our career.  I fundamentally believe that career progression is something that must be analyzed independent of straight line promotional activity within any one corporate confine.  I personally am a huge proponent of advancing your career whenever and wherever possible, especially outside of the typical performance review cycles. So, dovetailing off my previous post on promotions and laddering, I figured it made sense to take the next step and chat for a minute about career progression. When to stay, when to go, and what the implications of money, rank, and culture mean to the equation…  And, most of all, how you can add color to your career roadmap in both large and small ways.  Those sorts of things.

But first, a bit of background on me… I am incredibly logical and calculated. Almost to a fault. I weigh the pro’s and con’s of something as simple as whether or not to make myself dinner or go out and eat.  To my credit, I think this ability to analyze situations, problems, and people has enabled me to do things and make decisions in my career that others might have shied away from.  But I do realize that this means I will never be the kind of person that can immediately pick up their life and their belongings to chase a narrow window of opportunity at some obscure startup in some faraway land.  But I’m fine with that – every person’s career roadmap is unique and should be assessed independent of societal, economic, or cultural pressures that may exist.

Back to the point, though. In terms of career progression, there are a few fundamental questions I keep in mind when considering any sort of move or decision in the career progression space:

  • How can I evolve my habits and traits in order to be more like the person I want to become?
  • What types of behaviors are indicative of the people I deem as “successful” or who model the type of career I want to hold?
  • How is my company, my role, or my client enabling me to grow and take on more responsibilities or develop new competencies?
  • What are the people around me doing to ensure I am supported in my endeavor to further myself and my career?
  • What kinds of opportunities am I afforded (or not afforded) in my current position that would be different in another environment, functional area, or company altogether?
  • What threats exist in my current situation that I need to consider when looking at myself and my career progression?
  • Where have I prioritized compensation for my job with respect to the other intangibles that exist (non-monetary factors such as self-worth, long-term investment, ability to network or build high-profile relationships)?
  • Would I ultimately be happier doing something else somewhere else?
  • Have I appropriately prioritized “work life balance” (another topic for another time) and does my role put me in a comfortable spot along that spectrum?

These questions don’t have right or wrong answers.  They just provide other lenses through which to view one’s position along the continuum of their career.  And, please know that you don’t always move in the “right direction”.  Movement of any kind, even in the wrong direction, will ultimately leave you more wise for the wear.  Some of the greatest leaders have been complete failures for large portions of their career.  It is their ability to learn from those mistakes and return to the fight with a better strategy and greater sense of purpose that have left them in the winner’s circle.

So don’t be scared to take action relative to your own career path.  You will look back someday and have greater appreciation for the times you chose to act rather than sit on the sidelines.  The times you were proactive rather than reactive.  The times you took that “stretch role”.  As long as you are continuing to engage formative experiences (i.e. not stagnating as we discussed in our last post), you will ultimately reap the rewards of having those experiences.

As always, hope the read was worth your time.

Til Next Time,

Laddering and Promotions

So you’re ready to get to the next level?  Prepared to climb the next rung in that corporate ladder?  That’s fantastic.  Let me caution you, though.  There are a host of things to consider when preparing for this kind of step.

Without beating the point to death (and ultimately trying to make an argument that rank progression is not in anyone’s best interest), here are a few of the key questions I’ve asked myself when moving forward with any rank progression:

  • Are you ready for the increased responsibility?
  • Do you have a solid case for promotion?
  • Are you going to be compensated appropriately?
  • Is this progression in line with your personal and professional goals long-term?

Everyone gets ready for these kind of moves at different rates.  That’s why I have never liked the companies with hard line “up or out” policies.  You can’t brainwash personal advancement and readiness for next level of leadership into someone.  And, for those who may fall behind the proverbial curve, that doesn’t mean that they are poor resources or should be fired off.  Everyone has a place, from the janitor to the CEO.  We just have to instill more awareness to everyone’s contributions while at the same time making sure that everyone is avoiding stagnation.

As usual, hope you enjoyed it…

Til Next Time,


Expense Forecasting

Happy Friday!!!  Just returning from a business trip to the Northeast (specifically, Boston and Rhode Island) and had some plane time to compose a few thoughts around an area that has been a hot topic for me for quite some time.

Expense forecasting has always bothered me. Being responsible for things like predicting the ever-changing game of flight pricing is nearly as impossible as placing a round peg through a square hole (side note – I generally dislike a lot of the consulting jargon but sometimes the similes just roll off the tongue better when you embrace it). It just doesn’t make sense, and having your project financials hinge on it seems to me as a fairly large gamble that the original forecaster was doing a judicious and thorough job. I always error on the side of caution, of course, but there are simply some forecasts to which clients or internal audits will scream “Too high!”.  It’s even worse when expenses are billed as revenue, because it will ultimately impact the perceived delivery bottom-line when you assume your delivery contribution spread to be basically equal to (total project revenue) – (total project direct costs). Because, in this case, every additional dollar billed to the project code as a direct cost (even if it is reimbursed as paid expenses by a client) lowers the effective contribution margin % (even if it does nothing to impact total dollars profit). I have worked for a company that has accounting practices similar to this and it is always an exhausting fight to justify the increase in expenses (e.g. Client demanded I travel there one additional week that was originally meant to be working remote). And before you scream “Change Order!!” just know that my personal opinion on doing something like writing an additional CR to cover unexpected travel expenses per an SOW is childish aside from extreme cases where your company stands to lose substantial money (e.g. Fixed Fee engagements).

I don’t mean for this to be a diatribe on the nature of project accounting or expense policy, but I do feel like it is worth mentioning that I think the way we have course-corrected from the prior days (no budgets, free will travel, thousand dollar dinners) has really handicapped the very people that have to dedicate an already-enormous amount of their time worrying about “real world” problems they face.  Cranky clients, long hours, scope creep, overselling/underdelivering are the real things that should keep able-bodied managers and employees up at night.  Not whether Mark spent $30 or $35 on his dinner one night.  Or the fact that he tipped 19% as opposed to the policy of 18%.

So what is one to do? I personally don’t have the silver bullet, but do have certain rules and tips I follow whenever pricing out or estimating expenses at the outset of a project:

  • Look up flights to the city you’ll be traveling to one week, one month, and six months out to get a feeling for the rack rate and the rate that the flight bears when you start to enter airline flight/hotel price increase windows (~3 weeks out, ~1 week out, etc); this will give you a feel as well in case there is any seasonality for the route (e.g. people may fly a lot more to New Orleans during festival season or around Mardi Gras versus December)
  • Expect that your flights will typically run at 50% greater than the six month out rate; this will give you a buffer for all the flights you have to either reschedule or book last minute (or for which you have to travel during a seasonal peak)
  • Look up hotels to the city according to the same process followed for flights; hotels usually have a little less variability, and with some smooth talking you can usually negotiate a corporate rate (or piggy back another company’s or your client’s) that will typically allow you to normalize the rate you get and avoid any peak increases due to seasonal or surge traffic to a given location
  • Do research on your destination to try and get a feel for seasonality or big events (Festivals, Sporting Events, Vacation Windows); this isn’t only helpful for the flight/hotel research mentioned previously, but also lets you plan ahead in case you can get the opportunity to enjoy any of the marquee events in a destination city (if you’re going to be there anyway – why not plan ahead and get good rates and enjoy your time there?)
  • Be sure to plan for rental cars; they can have great variability depending upon the city and traffic/time of year, and always be sure to check the mileage from your expected hotel(s) to the office(s) as gas and mileage can impact the budget greatly
  • Check out typical taxi or car service prices as you can expect to have these costs every once in a while either for airport transfers or nights out drinking (public service announcement: ALWAYS choose a designated driver, especially when cabs are cheap and easy in a city like New York)
  • Look for opportunities to use public transit; not because it saves money but because it generally saves LOADS of time (e.g. MARTA to the airport in Atlanta saves about an hour versus trying to drive from the city to the airport at 4 PM on a Thursday)
  • Identify ways, if more accessible, at your home base to park cheaply that gain you rewards because they 1) typically save money on the budget and 2) offer you flexibility and rewards that you may otherwise miss; I started driving myself to the airport several years ago and it has been not only more convenient upon my return, but has allowed me to accumulate airport “offsite parking” rewards that I can then use for personal travel

Yes, I realize that I am probably being entirely too cautious with most of these rules, but I’ve been burned too many times (e.g. traveling to Boston during the week of the World Series which the Red Sox were playing in) by unexpected surges in prices to random areas at random times to adjust my conservative estimating.

One last thing that I’m sure I’ll revisit in another post – if you’re traveling on expenses, ENJOY IT. Don’t let anyone try to force you into anything other than the expense policy of your company/client. You are the ones doing your company and your client a favor by putting yourself on a plane/train/automobile every week to go somewhere you don’t call “home”, so you owe it to yourself to maximize your opportunities to see new places. After all, that’s probably part of why you took the “traveling job”, right?

Til Next Time,