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The 7 habits of highly effective communicators.

May 12, 2015 11:53 AM
Chris Ward

Google the word “communications” and you get 675 million hits. This compares to 247 million for compensation, 78.4 million for strategic planning, and 13.9 million for executive coaching. All right, so it doesn’t compare too favourably to the 1,730 million hits you’ll get for sex, …what can I tell you!

By most measures, though, communications is a much talked about, written about and Googled word. And for good reason, …it presents a very large challenge to a great many people.

That’s the reason for the next few posts. Given the importance of this topic, I thought it would be useful to start a conversation about communication and what separates highly effective communicators – those who excel at making their point in a clear and engaging manner – from the rest of the pack.

Sorry, what did you say?

I’m sure we’ve all known someone who has a difficult time making their point. It can be embarrassing to have to ask the person to repeat him- or herself, hoping to get the gist of it the next time around. It’s even worse when the individual is your boss or a client.

Some companies also suffer from the same problem. I’ll bet we’ve all seen a print ad or a TV commercial and wondered what on earth they were trying to say. , ...or what the message has to do with the product they’re trying to sell. Of course, the issue is not really the company, is it. Companies don’t create ads. People create ads and some are clearly better at making their point than others.

What effective all about.

In a nutshell, effective comes down to being clear and persuasive. It means being able to understand what's being 'said', …without having to perform mental gymnastics to decipher and make sense of it. And since the ultimate objective is to cause others to want, do, act or in some other way respond, effective is often measured by behaviour or attitude.  

I’ve been involved in communications on both the agency and client sides for quite some time. In thinking back over the people I’ve come across, and what has separated those who are really good at making their point from others who are not, I’ve come up with seven habits of a highly effective communicator. They are:

  1. Familiarity. For the most part, what interests millennials is different from what interests seniors. Parents see things differently than their kids. The language groups of like-minded people respond to is different as well. Great communicators get to know their audience and what makes them tick. Far from breeding contempt, in this case familiarity breeds results!
  2. Relevancy. If the people you’re trying to communicate with don’t care about what you have to say, it really doesn’t matter how well you say it. Knowing what matters to your audience is a prerequisite and should influence not only what you have to say, but also how you say and present it.
  3. Creativity. This means changing it up, …doing the unexpected, …delivering your message with flair and an appropriate amount of pizzazz. Doing what takes to get attention and build interest, ...consistent with what a specific audience will accept and respond to. 
  4. Simplicity. The truth is, most people are inundated with requests, demands, expectations, and information. Each consumes time and brainpower. In this day and age, simple and straightforward beats complex and lengthy hands down.
  5. Brevity. It counts! Need I say more?
  6. Consistency. Effective communicators know that changing up the message before people have really grasped what they’re trying to say is a mistake. Repetition might bore some senders, but it’s absolutely necessary to drive the message home..
  7. Persistency. Tell them. Tell them again. Then repeat yourself to make sure they heard and understood what you want to communicate. This applies to public speaking; it also applies to advertising and most other types of communication.

So there you have them. I’ll get into more detail on each of these in the next few posts. In the meantime, the big question is: Are these really the 7 most important habits of a highly effective communicator? Let me know what you think.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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How to ensure your audience 'sees' what you've got to say.

May 5, 2015 12:18 PM
Chris Ward

Hint: It's about more than 20/20 vision!

Looking back over the last year, I was a little surprised to find that all but a few posts have contained some reference to communications. When I got to thinking about it, though, I realized I really shouldn’t have been.

The fact is communication is the oil that keeps the engine of business running smoothly. Whether the communication is internal – between people within an organization – or with outsiders, exchanging information regularly, and in a way that each party understands, is absolutely essential.

Like the dodo, effective communicators are rare.

In many companies, effective communicators are really quite rare. That goes for those who hang out in the executive suite as well as in marketing, accounting, production. It can even be said of some in the sales department.

Think about all the sales people you have known. Some were exceptional, right. Many were so-so. And I’ll bet you can think of a few who were largely unintelligible. When the best salespeople speak, you get it. They have a unique ability to “sell” you on their point of view. But there have likely been other salespeople who have left you shaking your head and wondering what on earth they were talking about. Some professionals are this way too. They might be brilliant at lawyering or accounting or something else, but they have the hardest time trying to get their point across to clients or prospects.

No, it’s not rocket science but, …

I’d love to tell you that communication really isn’t rocket science or too difficult, but that would be an untruth, ...or at least half an untruth. It is not rocket science, but communicating clearly – not to mention persuasively – is not easy. In fact it’s quite a challenge and one requiring planning and practice.

Here are four points to help ensure your message is delivered in a way your audience (whether that’s one person, 100 people or thousands) will understand and be able to respond to in a positive way:

  1. Be clear about what you are offering, and why the person or people you’re addressing should care about it. It doesn’t matter if your audience is other employees, customers, clients, members, donors or volunteers. People will resent being made to feel stupid, unable to comprehend your message, offer, or point of view. Plus, few of us are willing to take the time to interpret a message that is not coming across clearly.
  2. Be clear about your competitive advantage. What do you have to offer that no one else does? Why is your proposition better than someone else’s proposition? What is there about your offer that will make the person or people on the receiving end look or feel good about accepting or acting on it? Why should they pay more attention to you than to some other pundit?
  3. Be clear about your core and key messages. In driving home the information you really want prospective customers, volunteers and others to know about your organization or proposition, it’s absolutely essential to be selective about the information you provide. Offer too little and people are left wondering what it is and why they should care. Offer too much and people can just as easily be confused.
  4. Be clear about how best to present the points you want to make. What will it take to persuade and convince? Are there misconceptions you want to correct? You’ve likely heard the three rules of effective speaking: Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then repeat what you just told them. It might sound like overkill, but it’s one way of ensuring that your message will be heard loud and clear.

So there you have it. An essential ingredient in all effective communication – something that separates great salespeople from order takers and great orators from talkers – is clarity. Be clear about what you’re saying and present it in a manner your target audience will get, and you will increase your chances of a successful outcome many times over.

 


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Planning a change initiative? Watch out for the one thing that can derail any project.

Apr 28, 2015 2:04 PM
Chris Ward

As anyone who has ever lived through a major change initiative will attest, there are 101 things that can derail a project – unrealistic deadlines, demotivated employees, overly ambitious outcomes, bad implementation and poor planning to name a few. But the good news is, many otherwise sound change initiatives can be salvaged by paying greater attention to the one thing that is almost guaranteed to propel the change train off the tracks, ...poor communication.

The importance of being in the loop.

In times past, we working stiffs were expected to do what we were told by our supervisors and managers. Whether we wanted to or liked what was being asked of us was pretty much irrelevant. We either did it or found another way to put food on our tables.

Fortunately, this aspect of work has changed, ...and for the better. Today, it’s not uncommon for management to survey employees on major issues, or to draw upon their experience when developing new programs and initiatives. In return, employees want to know what’s going on.

They want to understand the reason they’re being asked to do something in a certain way. They expect management to listen when they offer sound suggestions for doing things better. And they don’t like feeling out of the loop and being blindsided by outsiders who seem to know more about what’s happening in their organization than they do.              

What’s this got to do with change?

Everything! To many people, change is threatening. There’s comfort in knowing that what you’ll be doing, or the way you’ll be doing it, will be more or less the same tomorrow as it was today.

So information can be very empowering. When a change initiative is afoot, and employees feel in the know, they are much more likely to support the initiative and do their possible to make it a success – even when that makes them feel a little uncomfortable at first.

When employees feel disconnected, …out of the loop, …uncertain about the why or the what, …or uncomfortable with the how, the word “stubborn” can assume a whole new meaning as employees dig in to do battle with this change initiative they don’t understand, don’t like and consequently don’t want.

The problem with information underload.

When members, customers, donors or other “outsiders” get wind of internal happenings before the insiders who are supposed to be in the know, the impact on employee morale and their willingness to support a change initiative can be significant. The fact is employees want to believe that what they are being asked to do will make a positive difference. That belief is hard to establish when they don’t get what they need to understand the whys and how, and enable them to do good work. Some call it information underload – the exact opposite of what many of us suffer from these days.

One firm’s experience.

Having invested considerable time and money in a rebranding initiative, management decided to implement a program that would engage employees in operationalizing the brand and position the business for greater success in the future.

An important part of the rebranding work involved the identification of six behaviours that, it was felt, once adopted by employees throughout the organization would have a big role in changing customer perceptions for the better.

What goes up,

Over the course of three years employees were exposed to a variety of workshops and materials to help them understand the why and how of these behaviours. Perceptions of the degree to which these behaviours were being embraced by coworkers were monitored. And, to the delight of management, all trended up for the first year and a half.

From the get-go employees were asked for suggestions on what would make adoption of the brand behaviours and implementation of new systems and procedures go more smoothly. One suggestion, put forward early in the process and frequently thereafter, was better communication. Many employees were concerned that those on the frontline were not getting what they needed to properly do their jobs. Stories of being blindsided by customers who got information on what the organization was or wasn’t doing before it reached employees were common. Not surprisingly, staff members not only found this embarrassing, the fact they were left out of the loop was having an adverse impact of the organization’s reputation with outside stakeholders.

…can just as easily fall back down.

Despite assurances that employees would get the information they needed, unfortunately little changed. The result was a growing indifference to the brand behaviours. By month 18 perceptions of the extent to which the brand behaviours were being embraced had peaked and were beginning to trend downward.

After several years, and several hundred thousand dollars, this change initiative had gone as far as it could, …which wasn’t nearly as far as management had intended.

The moral of this story is clear

Communication, or rather a lack of good communication, can derail even the best thought out programs and change initiatives. 


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Time to change your brand or corporate culture? Don’t leave it to chance.

Apr 21, 2015 10:56 AM
Chris Ward

As I’ve said in previous posts, a brand is defined by people – specifically, how they behave and interact with one another. 

Investopedia defines corporate culture as the beliefs and behaviours that determine how a company's employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. It goes on to suggest: Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. A company's culture will be reflected in its dress code, business hours, office setup, employee benefits, turnover, hiring decisions, treatment of clients, client satisfaction and every other aspect of operations.

Clearly, the way people think and behave has an enormous impact on both brand and culture.

Required: Perseverance and commitment.

Changing a corporate culture is not for the feint-hearted or impatient. It takes perseverance, and a commitment of time and energy. Just like revamping your brand, it comes down to changing attitudes and behaviours.

It means changing the way people relate to one another, ...how they approach the various tasks that make up their jobs, …the way they support one another and the lengths to which they will go to ensure their “customers” (buyers, members, donors or volunteers) are satisfied (better still, delighted!) with what they receive from the organization.

Shaking up the status quo. 

Because most cultures have developed organically, it is reasonable to assume that employees are fairly comfortable with the status quo. That doesn’t mean they necessarily like everything just the way it is or will be adamantly opposed to a different way of doing certain things. But it does suggest many are quite happy to continue operating – or behaving – the way they always have. So asking them to do things in a different way can be very challenging.

As most parents will attest, getting a son or daughter to change a behaviour can be about as easy as getting a rattlesnake to make nice at a tea party. None of these critters responds well to edicts laid down by those in authority. That doesn’t mean that changing a corporate culture is impossible or a task mere mortals should steer clear of. But human nature being what it is, it does suggest the need for a thoughtful approach tailored to the situation. Just as you can’t reason with a rattlesnake, the proverbial stick is absolutely not the way to get employees to embrace a new way of doing things.

Two essentials: Clarity and openness.  

So what’s the best way to affect a change in the way things are done in your organization? Remembering that corporate culture and a corporate brand are all about beliefs and behaviours, there are several must dos. These include:

  • Being clear about how you would like beliefs and behaviours to change.
  • Being equally clear about what these changing beliefs and behaviours will mean for employees, and how they approach their work and relate to each other.
  • Explaining the change in a way that makes sense to employees – there has to be a reason that employees understand and buy into.
  • Providing training to ensure that each employee understands what it means to change course, and what behaviours will ensure the change is properly introduced and takes hold.
  • Being open to feedback and suggestions for making the change process go more smoothly.

If the change has not been well defined in terms of what’s expected of employees, the whole initiative is pretty much over before it has begun.  In addition to clarity and openness, key success factors include engaged employees, communication and flexibility, ...a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances and outcomes.  

In next week’s post we’ll take a look at the one factor that is absolutely guaranteed to make or break the success of a culture change initiative. Stay tuned!


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Mobilizing people to build your brand: The Power of One.

Apr 14, 2015 9:54 AM
Chris Ward

Every employee, regardless of title or seniority, has the power to influence what people think of your organization. Each has the power to influence whether prospects buy, and customers return to buy again. Each can influence referrals as well as other employees’ job satisfaction. Some exert their considerable influence directly through their dealings with customers; others indirectly, through their interactions with other employees. This, in a nutshell, is The Power of One.

Strip everything else away and a brand is all about people. It’s about the people who buy, donate, join, or volunteer. It’s about the people who supply products and services. It’s about the people who hear things and pass them on to others. And, most importantly, it’s about the people who work for an organization. As we’ve often said, a brand is simply what clients, customers, members, or donors believe an organization and its products and services can do for them. And what these folks believe begins with something an employee has said or done, or didn’t say or didn’t do.

For the most part, employees want the organization that employs them to succeed. Each has a job to do, and knows when he or she has delivered what’s expected of them. However, there’s something else that impacts what people think of an organization and its ability to deliver the right products and services. And this can be traced back to the organization's core values and the way in which these have been communicated, interpreted and operationalized within the organization.

What it means to live a brand.

Core values are principals an organization prizes above all others. Many organizations have developed a list. It might include words like proactive, supportive, dynamic and empathetic. You can find these lists on corporate websites, in annual reports and on office walls. However, it’s one thing to have a list, quite another to have words that actually mean something to employees.

All too often, the words are just that, words. I’ll bet many of us have worked for companies that had a set of core values, …but did nothing to educate us about them and how they could make our job easier and our employer more successful.

Living the brand means, by definition, representing an organization in a specific way. It implies that the brand has been defined on a number of levels, including the way in which employees are expected to treat customers as well as their fellow employees. It encourages people to act in ways that help position a company to achieve its goals, and become a go-to supplier in its business category and market segment.

Bringing core values to life.

On their website, Northrop Grumman lists a number of values – Quality, Customer Satisfaction, Leadership, Integrity, People, and Suppliers. Each of these is defined in a way that employees can understand and operationalize. Take Integrity for example:

We act with INTEGRITY in all we do…

We are each personally accountable for the highest standards of behavior, including honesty and fairness in all aspects of our work. We fulfill our commitments as responsible citizens and employees. We will consistently treat customers and company resources with the respect they deserve.

While most companies would stop there, Northrop Grumman takes it one step further. They identify a set of behaviours to guide employees as they strive to live their brand. Here’s one of these:

Live the Company Values

We all have the company values listed on the back of our badges—Quality, Customer Satisfaction, Leadership, Integrity, People, Suppliers. Integrity must characterize everything we do. We want everyone who comes in contact with us to know that we do things the right way at Northrop Grumman. We don't take short cuts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this company has been recognized as a Top 50 Employer and a Top 50 Company for Diversity, amongst other things.

Engaging employees: The Power of One.

That’s what this is really about – mobilizing employees to help build a brand by living that brand. A solid set of core values, well defined in terms of expected behaviours, is not only a great starting point, it's the first step in harnessing The Power of One


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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The one thing every business needs to know about building a strong brand!

Apr 7, 2015 5:40 PM
Chris Ward

Hint: It involves ripples!

Let’s start by being crystal clear about what a brand is all about. Having spent years studying brands and advising clients on how to build the best brand possible, I have a very simple definition, …it’s a promise of performance. A brand is simply what customers, clients, members or donors believe an organization (a person, product or service too) can do for them.

Planned communications ­like advertising, brochures, websites, and so forth can help create a positive impression of what that brand is. But it’s really the impressions an organization is unable to plan that have the greatest impact on what people think about it and about buying, joining, or donating. And every one of these can be tied back to something an employee does or says, and the impact of these actions or words on customers.

Our employees know what’s expected, don’t they?

For the most part, employees know how their performance will be assessed and perhaps what objectives the company is striving to achieve. But when it comes to decisions on how to treat customers (and other employees for that matter) all too often it’s left up to each employee to make the call. And guess what, …in the absence of some idea about what constitutes ‘appropriate’ behaviour, they can only guess. Some will get it right; others won’t. And that’s just not good enough. It’s very much in an organization’s best interest to provide whatever information and training they can to ensure that every employee understands what to do, …and understands why it’s so important that business organizations adopt a shared approach to dealing with people both inside and outside the organization.

Bottom line…

A strong corporate brand is the ticket to the kind of success every business – for profit and not-for-profit – is striving to achieve. An inspiring vision, a focused mission statement, a winning corporate personality and a solid strategy for promoting your products or services in the marketplace are all essential. But their value is so much less without employees who are onside and working together to deliver on the organization's brand promise.

Building a Strong Corporate Brand: The Power of One.

As a former chair of ad agency J. Walter Thompson once said, consumers build an image of a brand as birds build nests, from the scraps and straws they chance upon. From music on hold, to the ease or difficulty of navigating your website, to comments passed form one customer to another, corporate brands are the composite of everything consumers hear, see, experience, read and so forth. And of real significance, each impression can be traced back to something an employee has said or done (or didn’t say or do).

Every employee, regardless of title or seniority, has it.

That’s what The Power of One is all about. Every employee, regardless of title or seniority, has the power to influence what clients think of your organization. Each has the power to influence whether prospects buy, and customers return to buy again. Each can influence referrals as well as other employees’ job satisfaction. Some exert their considerable influence directly through their dealings with customers; others indirectly, through their interactions with other employees.

Beware the uncontrollable ripples.

Let’s say two employees work in a department with no direct client contact. One does something to cause the other to miss a deadline, leading to a customer service representative being unable to deliver critical information to a client when it was promised.

Not only has the client been inconvenienced, she is unable to keep a promise she had made to one of her customers. Needless to say, this client is upset and, for the first time, is giving serious consideration to going with another supplier who has been aggressively pursuing her business.

To make matters worse, this disgruntled client shares her experience with several business associates, causing one who was about to select the same supplier to direct his business elsewhere. Due to the actions of an employee who is nowhere near the frontline, the organization’s promise of performance has been tarnished and business has been lost.

The moral of this little vignette is pretty obvious: When it comes to branding, the ripples can extend far beyond the department in which a problem originates.

In next week’s post we’ll look at what you can do to harness The Power of One.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Change: What to do about bad apples.

Mar 31, 2015 3:46 PM
Chris Ward

Of the many things that can scuttle a change initiative, few are as insidious as negative employees who seem to make it their life’s work to undermine all things new, ...by constantly complaining, doing their best to poison the barrel for others, or slow rolling assignments thereby doing as little as possible.

I know how damaging these individuals can be, having experienced one person’s vitriol soon after joining a professional services firm. Coffee klatches, chaired by our bad apple, were spent affirming the worthlessness of our employer. And then, one day, he was gone and our world was instantaneously a much calmer and better place to be.

So one way to deal with bad apples is to get rid of them. That might be the best, but it might also take some time. In the short term there are others. Many involve undermining a bad apple’s authority by creating a positive and highly charged working environment. Here are four ways of doing this:

1.   Break longer-term goals into shorter-term objectives.

Size matters when it comes to what’s being asked of employees. Make the goal too large, and the stretch too great, and some employees will have a hard time imagining success, leading to a loss of enthusiasm as individuals question whether or not, in the grand scheme of things, what they've been asked to do can make a difference.

The fact is, the outcome for which everyone is striving can be a long way in the future. That makes it more difficult for employees to see the results of their actions, …and provides fertile ground for anyone intent on sabotaging the project.

When big goals are divided into a number of smaller and measurable objectives, and individual milestones are clearly achieved, employees have reason to feel good about the difference their efforts can make. 

2.   Celebrate wins, small as well as large.

The path to major change is fraught with many obstacles, foreseen and otherwise. So, when a milestone has been reached, or something unplanned but significant achieved, it is cause for celebration.

Some achievements can be celebrated simply by ringing a bell to draw attention to a new customer or some other achievement. However, whether celebrating a win with a bell, a pizza lunch, or a glitzy soiree, the value lies in focusing attention on the successful outcome and the effort that has gone into making it happen.

3.   Recognize employees who go that extra mile.

Few things motivate more than recognition for a job well done. Recognition can be monetary, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, some people respond better to a public pat on the back, possibly accompanied by a small token of the company's appreciation, ... for example, dinner for two at a local restaurant.

While a strong work ethic and need to succeed are anathema to some, to others they are symptomatic of a condition with which they’ve been born and have learned to live. And it’s this very condition that makes it possible to undermine the influence of bad apples who are intent on maintaining the status quo and doing their very best to derail change.

When someone has gone that extra mile and made a real contribution to the success of a change project, recognizing that individual in meetings, the company newsletter, or some other way is a small but potentially highly motivating event.

4.     Immortalize success in stories that can be shared.

Some companies get employees together after important wins to share stories that recognize contributors while providing their colleagues with tips about what has worked and why.

Customers who have benefited from a new way of doing something can be invited to share their stories and affirm the importance of the changes the company is striving to make. These stories, which typically involve employees who have worked hard to make the change happen, can be recorded and published, enabling anyone not in attendance, as well as new employees, to benefit. The best find their way into company lore and can be used to highlight exemplary work long after the event.

Stories involving customers are particularly valuable for employees who are not on the front lines, and who have little opportunity to see, first hand, the difference a new way of doing things makes for customers and the organization on which they depend for their livelihood.

These are but a few ideas for combatting the adverse impact a bad apple can have on a change initiative. There are many others. Over the longer haul, however, there might be only one way of dealing with a persistently bad apple that can’t be changed – ejection from the barrel!


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Change: Recognizing effort and rewarding success.

Mar 24, 2015 9:32 AM
Chris Ward

In the next couple of posts we’ll discuss a few things that can make a big difference to the success of any change initiative: celebrating wins, story telling and rewarding and recognizing employees who go above and beyond.

These might seem like disconnected ideas. But they are really three pieces of the same challenge: motivating employees to get involved, take ownership and do their part to make the change initiative succeed.

The dreaded DNF.

When it comes to change, one of the biggest issues with which any management team has to deal is the DNF, …the Do Nothing Factor. That’s the tendency for some people to do nothing or as little as possible.

Let’s face it, some people find it very difficult to deal with change. It takes them out of their comfort zone and shakes things up. Some employees become expert at flying below the radar, doing their job and hoping that they can just get through another day, month or year without any calamitous happenings.

And truth be told, experience has taught them that they have a very good chance of getting through without having to get too involved. The reality is, all too often companies embark upon a change initiative only to abandon it before the finish line. Regardless of the reason, the net affect is to encourage change resisters to lie low and hope that the latest initiative will go away, …just like the last one did.

Why do employees resist change?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, ‘Why do employees resist change?’ author Paul Strebel says, “Top-level managers see change as an opportunity to strengthen the business by aligning operations with strategy, to take on new professional challenges and risks, and to advance their careers. For many employees, however, including middle managers, change is neither sought after nor welcomed. It is disruptive and intrusive. It upsets the balance.”

Strebel goes on to suggest that employees determine their commitment to their employer on the basis of a personal compact they have made. In doing so, they seek out answers to three questions:

  • How hard will I really have to work?
  • What recognition, financial reward, or other personal satisfaction will I get for my efforts?
  • Are the rewards worth it?

We’ve probably all come across situations where employees were expected to support a change initiative because, “They get paid to do that, don’t they?” Not surprisingly, the initiatives are seldom as successful as management would like.

Dealing with the DNF: Appreciation matters.

Appreciating employees who support and contribute to the success of a change initiative is essential. As Mary Kay Ash, doyenne of Mary Kay Cosmetics, once said, “Everyone wants to be appreciated, so if you appreciate someone, don’t keep it to yourself.”

Rewarding and recognizing employees for doing something in a different way—and doing it well—is not only motivational in the short term, it can lead to a real behavioural change. Rewards can range from bonuses and stock options to trips, dinners, relatively small cash payments, and so forth. Matching the reward to the company’s financial reality and employee expectations is important.

In a great many cases, and for cash-starved businesses, recognition might be all that’s needed or possible. Being recognized in the company newsletter, at a special awards ceremony or during a meeting can work wonders. But as Paul Strebel has noted, employees will judge whatever is done on the basis of the required effort. If what’s expected exceeds what’s being offered the net effect will probably be somewhat less than required. This suggests that a great place to start is with information on what those expectations might be. Get it right, and you’ll not only increase the prospects of success this time, you’ll be setting the stage for the success of future initiatives as well. 


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Change initiatives: Good communication and success go hand in hand.

Mar 17, 2015 1:30 PM
Chris Ward


Some corporate change initiatives are extremely complex. Much like the movement of a high-end Swiss watch with its intricate collection of wheels, springs, rotors and gears, because the initiative has implications for how things are done in many different parts of the organization, a change in one can send ripples through the entire organization. Other initiatives might be less complex and have fewer direct links to other parts of the business. Nevertheless, within a department or business unit, change can affect a great many people and tasks.

At the most basic level, business is all about people.

Regardless of complexity, there is one thing on which the success of every change initiative depends—people. From members of the leadership team to those working on the production line or in the field, the ultimate success of any change initiative is completely dependent on the willingness and ability of employees to do what’s required to make the change happen.

Many things influence the way employees think about and support a change initiative, including the organization’s culture, and the way they are recognized and rewarded. But few, if any, influences are more important than communication, …keeping people informed about progress in their area, and what’s happening in other parts of the business; and reiterating the need for the change and how it will benefit employees today and over the longer term.

Why change initiatives fail.

Over the years, I’ve seen more change initiatives fail due to infrequent or poor communication than for any other reason. The change might have been well thought out. It might be timely and absolutely necessary. It might have been introduced to employees at some glitzy launch event.

But if employees don’t really get why the change is necessary, or why they should be busting their collective butt and jumping through hoops to do things differently, there’s a very good chance that the whole thing will fall flat on its corporate face. If they don’t see any progress or understand how efforts impact those in other parts of the business, it’s an odds-on bet that the change will not take hold the way its architects had planned.

Drilling down to discover the specifics.

I know of one firm that was having very difficult time introducing some major changes in the way orders were processed and shipped. The firm’s suggestion box was stuffed with complaints, …so many in fact that management decided to survey employees to try and pinpoint the major stumbling blocks, …and by default, the greatest obstacles to success.

I’m sure you can guess what I’m going to tell you: communication topped the list of issues that were causing employees to be somewhat less than engaged and progress to be unacceptably slow. And not just because those on the frontline and elsewhere were looking for more words of encouragement and pats on the back (although both would have been nice). But as it turned out, employees by and large did not see how the change would benefit the company. All they could see was a lot of work for very little return. As many pointed out, management had been very good at telling them what to do, but not why doing it was so important or how the project was progressing.

Where there’s a will, …there’s most certainly a way.

In a complete about face the CEO took his management team away for a two-day retreat to discuss the issue and get buy-in for a much more inclusive communications program. Three months later, a follow up survey confirmed what was becoming quite apparent: The new way of doing things was beginning to pay off in markedly fewer employee (and customer) complaints and less internal noise.

For the nine months following the retreat, employees received bi-weekly updates. Small team meetings were scheduled every two or three weeks for the purpose of flagging issues and brainstorming solutions to specific problems. And each week individual employees were recognized for their contributions. I’ll have more to say on rewards and recognition in our next post.

From failure to A+ six months ahead of schedule.

Armed with much better information, and a real sense of the difference their individual efforts could make to the outcome, many employees pitched in to go above and beyond what had been expected. And the organization was able to complete 90 percent of the work required to make the changes six months ahead of schedule.

What a difference good communication can make.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Dealing with change: Is it time to wake the sleeping dog?

Mar 11, 2015 11:48 AM
Chris Ward

Doing things the way they’ve always been done is the default position for many people. As the saying goes, it’s the devil you know. That devil might not be terrific, but it’s a lot less scary—and possibly less risky— than doing something differently. Or doing a different something.

Avoidance is never a sound strategy.

We all know people who are pretty good at recognizing an amazing opportunity, or a real threat. But if you think of the status quo as a sleeping dog, there are many who subscribe to the view that it’s best to let it lie, …to not rock the boat or do something that might come back to bite them on the backside. In other words, to do their very best to avoid change. But quite frankly, given the speed with which things are changing these days, the choice can come down to waking the dog or suffering some adverse consequence.

Creating a sense of purpose and urgency.

Real change can never be mandated from the top. Let me correct that—it can be mandated but that doesn’t mean anything will change. If different ways of thinking or doing are going to take hold, you need the buy-in and support of employees from all departments throughout an organization. The more significant the change, the more intransigent some people will be. But if the required effort is a big one, it stands to reason that the downside risk of doing nothing is also big. So, the first order of business must be to create sense of purpose and urgency, …to convince employees the opportunity or threat is real, …that action is required.

In my experience, an organization's ability to effectively deal with change demands a champion at a very senior level, …ambassadors willing to offer help and encouragement throughout the organization, …a very sound reason for waking the corporate mascot, …and, ultimately, the active support of employees everywhere.

But there is something even more fundamental—a vision for the business and where it’s headed.

What? No vision!

I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised when I come across a business that doesn’t have a vision. Or at least doesn’t have one that has been shared with employees.

People choose to follow others because, in large part, they share that individual’s hopes and dreams for the future—in other words his or her vision.

One of my first jobs after graduating with an MBA was with a national retail chain. Shortly after joining I was promoted to head up the toy buying group for the Ontario market. I remember asking my boss what he saw for the department, …where he saw it going. His response was pretty simple, …make sure your ‘shrinkage’ is less than 1.5% this Christmas. Toys was not one of his favourite departments, and as long as I kept this number under control in the 17 stores for which I was responsible, he would be happy. As you might imagine, this was absolutely not the conversation I was hoping to have about the future of the department I’d been parachuted into.

No vision, …no future.

As a footnote, my employer was Eaton’s. Once a major factor on Canada's retail scene, it’s a company that is no longer with us. That’s no accident and, while this is not the place to analyze what happened or why, one thing has always been clear to me. A business without a vision that employees understand and buy into is pretty much doomed to hobble and ultimately to fail. 

So back to that sleeping dog. If you’ve got one lying around your business, give it a nudge. There will never be a better time to shake up your status quo and make plans for shaping the future you want. 


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Like the Chameleon, anticipating and adapting to change can save your (business) life.

Mar 4, 2015 11:30 AM
Chris Ward

Imagine the year is 1965. You’ve been invited to hear a well-known futurist expound on the future as he sees it. As the speaker takes flight, describing this crazy world that might exist four or five decades in the future, you find yourself looking around at your colleagues. One looks back and rolls his eyes; another makes a funny face. Interesting stuff but wow, you’re all thinking to yourselves, what is this guy on!

You thought the speaker was going to be one of those motivational guys, not some escapee from a Star Trek convention. I mean your world has been pretty predicable, so what’s with all this futuristic stuff, …

  • People connected to each other via transportable phones that require no wires like the ‘beam me up’ phone.
  • Every desk has a computer, and it’s small enough to fit in a briefcase—which is ridiculous since a computer is the size of an entire room.
  • Secretaries are all but unheard of—managers type their own letters (horrors!).
  • Instead of using the mail or a courier, you can insert a document in a machine, press a button and it will be on someone’s desk a block or country away—within minutes!
  • Even stranger, you type something into your computer, press a button, and that something shows up on another computer anywhere in the world—instantaneously!
  • Televisions are just a couple of inches thick and hang on walls like pictures!

It’s been quite a ride

Well, it turns out that this futurist was pretty good, although he did miss a few things. Like cars that drive themselves, social networks that connect millions of people, 3-D TVs, printers that can produce 3-D objects and, yes, even Dick Tracy 2-way wrist radios.

And we’re just getting started!

What we all have to accept is that change has become our constant companion, …our new normal. Because we’ve been proven wrong or shocked on more than one occasion, we’ve learned to stop rolling our eyes and smirking when presented with someone’s wild-ass view of what lies in store. I suspect that most of us have come to terms with the idea that the only thing we know for certain about the future is that it won’t be the way we think it will be.

Business planning is all about change

Anticipating it. Managing it. Capitalizing on it. From a business point of view, we’ve learned the only way to deal with the future is to be nimble, flexible and open to alternatives and different courses of action. To be cautiously optimistic about what’s on the horizon and to have a vision for the business that helps us channel and focus our energies and financial resources.

In our next post: What we can do to get out in front of change and harness its power to our own advantage.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Want to surprise, delight and keep your customers? Check out these 3 must-dos.

Feb 25, 2015 1:59 PM
Chris Ward

As I suggested in a previous post, go-to providers are always looking for ways to surprise and delight their customers, members, clients or donors. Business organizations that are really, really good at this each develop their own formula. Here are three principles that often find their way into that formula: responsive, creative, and curious.

And your response is?

In an era of instant gratification, it’s simply impossible to overstate the importance of being responsive. And that goes for businesses of all types—restaurants, airlines, print shops, banks, parts suppliers, …you name it.

Being responsive to a customer’s—or prospect's—question or complaint is, one might think, a no brainer. But sadly, many organizations seem to leave decisions around how to respond, how quickly and with what intent up to employees who are already feeling overworked and underloved, ...and are certainly undertrained, under coached and under supervised. When the approach is frosty, customers often respond, in kind, with a cold shoulder.

Our advice is very simple and can be stated in one word—don’t. Don’t leave it up to your employees to decide what responsive means in your organization. Does it mean getting back to a customer in an hour? A day? Two days? What does it say about the way your employees act and speak to customers? Or how you would like them to treat each other? Dodging a question or complaint, or handling it poorly, could save a few minutes and some work today, but it just might require a lot more time and effort tomorrow to make things right.

Inaction has the potential to cost you a customer who might have been saved had you demonstrated an interest in their business, by following up, acting, or acknowledging.

Surprise and delight with creativity.

Albert Einstein said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” 

Fact: It is getting harder to be totally original, …but that’s all right.

Creativity is largely about doing something unexpected, …something that will surprise and delight your customers by adding value to the relationship.

Creativity can take many forms. Here are two, …

  1. Let’s say you’ve put in a call to your credit card provider. Instead of having to provide your name and bone fides several times as you hunt for the person who can solve your problem, what if you merely had to provide it once. Would you be delighted! I know I would!
  2. For years, you’ve had your hair done by the same person at the same salon. One day, when you go to pay, you’re told, “Thanks for your business. We really appreciate it. This one’s on us!”  That’s the kind of creative appreciation that will not only keep a customer coming back, it will very likely encourage them to talk you up to their friends and associates.

Let your curiosity show.

Curiosity might have killed some cats, …but it has the ability to infuse any customer service effort with energy and direction.

Curiosity can range from a simple question at the checkout, “Did you find everything you were looking for today?” to a formal customer survey.

There is one downside to curiosity, however, and that’s the ‘do nothing’ factor. When customers take the time to comment on, say, some aspect of your service and these comments flag a problem, doing nothing is not an option. In fact, if by being curious you've given the impression that some sort of solution is on the horizon, and nothing happens, the perceived severity of the problem can be compounded by that inaction.

However, when your curiosity and their feedback are acknowledged and your customers understand that you’re doing everything you can to find that solution, you’ve bought yourself some time, a little goodwill and, possibly, a delighted and more committed customer.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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What’s the one thing all go-to providers have in common?

Feb 18, 2015 10:38 AM
Chris Ward

Hint: Shock and awe is a distant cousin!

First let’s be clear on what’s meant by a go-to provider. Quite simply, it’s an organization—an association, for-profit business, charity, government agency, … you name it—with which people enjoy interacting. And not because it’s just around the corner, has a lowest-price guarantee or does great things. But because whatever they do, and however they do it, work—for you and for many others.

We all have preferred restaurants, stores, service providers and charities. There are many reasons for our preferences. Many things about these organizations including their raisons d'être are very different. But all, most, have one thing in common—each is constantly looking for new ways to surprise and delight their customers—to keep them coming back.

Surprise and delight: The shock and awe of the business world

According to Wikipedia, shock and awe is a military doctrine based on the use of overwhelming power, dominant battlefield awareness and maneuvers, and spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy's perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight. 

Similarly, surprise and delight is a business doctrine based on the use of exceptional responsiveness and creativity, dominant marketplace awareness and initiatives, and spectacular displays of business acumen and customer service to destroy a ‘buyer’s’ interest in going elsewhere.

Of course, most of us already know that surprising and delighting our customers, members or donors doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of planning and hard work by a lot of people. And it takes a certain attitude, ...an attitude that must start at the top, and cascade down through the organization to the people who interact with customers, members and donors on a daily basis.

It’s all about having the right attitude

But just talking about having the right attitude, and actually having it, are two very different things. In fact, after having worked with dozens of business organizations over the last few years, we’ve identified a number of attributes that combine to produce the right kind of attitude.

Four that really stand out are responsive, creative, curious, and communicative.

Being responsive to a complaint, question or concern would be, one might think, a no brainer. But sadly, many organizations seem to leave decisions around how to respond, how quickly and with what intent up to employees who are already feeling overworked and underloved, ...and are, at least in this area, undertrained, under coached and under supervised.

Needless to say, the experience leaves a sour taste in many customers’ mouths. And the obvious solution seems to evade so many organizations.  Something similar can be said for each of the other attributes.

Fitbit surprises and delights: An actual experience

As most will know, Fitbit manufactures activity trackers that measure and record the number of steps and distance you walk, the number of calories you burn, and other things.

Looking to discourage lethargy and encourage more non-couch time, I bought my Fitbit a couple of years ago. Within days, I had hooked up with a several others who were intent on shedding a few inches and surviving a few more years.

To enable these matchups Fitbit provides a wireless sync dongle that accepts a signal from one of their wearable devices. A few months after purchasing it I mislaid this little device, with the result that my virtual ‘walkmates’ assumed I had yelled “uncle!”

But such was not the case. In an effort to get back in the game, I emailed Fitbit to find out where I could get a replacement. Imagine my surprise when I received a return email offering to either let me know where I could buy one for $19.95, or to send me a replacement at no charge. What? To send me a replacement at no charge?

I don’t know about you but this was a first for me, …and it’s gestures like these that separate an organization (more specifically, the people who work for rthe organization) that really understands surprise and delight and what it will take to discourage customers from going elsewhere.

There are lots of other activity trackers on the market. But, knowing I’ve supported a company that really cares about having—and keeping— me as a customer is priceless. I’m very happy with my Fitbit, …and I’m sure I’ll be a satisfied customer for a long time to come. 


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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40 questions to help you become a go-to provider

Feb 11, 2015 10:14 AM
Chris Ward

As anyone who has every aspired to this vaunted position will attest, becoming the go-to—or even a go-to­—provider of anything is no easy task.

Many aspire, …few succeed

The thing is, many business organizations, whether not-for-profit or for profit, aspire to the title. Some might not articulate it so succinctly, and there will be a few that don’t really think of it at all. But every business that aspires to sustainable success is looking for ways to encourage customers, members or donors to return again and again, ...ways of having people line up to make a purchase, join, volunteer, donate—whether in reality or in a metaphorical sense.

We’ve developed a tool that will help you identify what it will take to become a go-to provider. It’s built around one very simple question, “What will it take for your business to become the go-to provider of your product or service?” Consisting of 40 questions that can be answered with a simple one-word answer, it will help you to get a handle on where your business now stands, and where you should be focusing some attention.

Ask your senior team

There is value in asking a small group of senior managers to respond to the questions before rolling it out to a broader cross section of employees. Usually administered by telephone or in person, this gives the interviewer an opportunity to identify any areas that should be flagged for more in-depth exploration. Once the senior team has had a chance to weigh in on the various issues, the interviewer can recommend whether to include an open-ended question or two in the survey that goes out to other employees.

Our Go-To Survey explores five different areas:

  1. Communication
  2. Leadership & Training
  3. Marketing & Research
  4. Customer Service
  5. Operations

Exploring internal and external communication

By way of example, there are about seven questions that explore communications within the organization and between the organization and customers, members, or donors.

Some are quite specific and deal with things like how important it is to communicate good corporate citizenship (and, of course, how well you do it if it’s important to your organization’s future).

Others talk about how effectively you communicate your value proposition. Implicit in this question is the sub-text of “Do we have a clearly articulated value proposition” and “Are we effectively communicating it to each other and to our members, donors, or clients?”    

Test the waters at no charge

If you’d like to better understand what might be standing in the way of becoming a go-to provider, and what steps you could take to remove any obstacles, give me a call or shoot me an email. If it looks like it might have value, we’ll be happy to administer the survey to a few members of your senior team. Then you can decide if it makes sense to broaden the list of respondents and drill down a bit deeper on issues that your senior team has flagged.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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How to be the ‘go-to’ provider in your business category

Feb 4, 2015 10:09 AM
Chris Ward

Hint: Well-kept secrets need not apply!

Becoming a ‘go-to’ is no small task. In the first place, you have to be very good at what you do. By very good I don't necessarily mean having the very best products or services. (Although this helps!) But rather, having a very good understanding of what your customers value. And being able to deliver what they value each and every time.

But there's more to it than this. Corporate graveyards are littered with companies, large and small, that were very good at what they did. For many, the problem was simply that not enough people—read potential customers—were aware of what made them and their products and services so good.

Tell ‘em, repeat yourself, then tell ‘em again 

Building awareness of your products, services, company, people and/or yourself is one of the most important jobs any business owner or executive has. And it’s something that a great many do not spend enough time on.

Most of us know people who have had several careers. Long gone are the days when someone joined a company and retired from that same company 40 or so years later. These days, people tend to move around. Which makes it doubly important to let friends and associates know what you’re up to.

The same thing goes for business organizations like yours. Making assumptions seems to be part of the human condition. And many otherwise shrewd business leaders assume that people on the outside have a good understanding of what they do. Here’s a case in point.

The dreaded “I didn’t know that!” problem

I was working with a small 10-lawyer law firm. The lawyers were, without exception, experienced and well thought of by their clients. One day, at my behest, the senior partner was lunching with one of the firm’s best clients to review the previous 12 months and talk about the client’s plans for the upcoming year. During the course of the conversation the client mentioned that his company was in the process of acquiring a manufacturing facility about 20 miles from their head office. At the mention of this real estate transaction, my client’s ears perked up and he inquired what they were doing about the legal work and whether one of his partners, who just happened to be an expert in this type of deal, could give him a call. With some surprise, the client informed him that another firm had already been engaged. Worse, he didn't realize that my client’s law firm did this kind of work.

How many times have we missed an opportunity to get or be considered for work because a buyer was unaware of what we could do for them. I know I have, and I know there are many others in the same boat.

The make and tell solution

So here's my suggestion. Make a list of all those associates, former clients, referral sources and others you'd like to do business with and anyone else who might benefit from knowing what you do. And tell them! Far from forcing yourself on these folks, you’ll be doing them a favour. A favour you're saying to yourself? Absolutely! You have the ability to solve one or perhaps several problems some of these folks are going to have at some point in the future.  By not letting them know that you have the ability to help, you are doing them (and yourself) a disservice. You’re depriving them of the opportunity to benefit from what you can offer.

All too often, really qualified people and companies overlook the opportunity to tell their story in a way that really matters to their clients and prospects, referral sources, relatives and others who could spread the word…if only they knew what word they were supposed to be spreading.


Ask us about our Go-To Audit

We’ve developed a tool that will help you identify what it will take to become a go-to provider. It’s built around one magical question, “What will it take for your business to become the go-to provider of your product or service?” There is absolutely no charge or obligation. So if you’d like to better understand what might be standing in your way, and what steps you could take to remove obstacles, give me a call or shoot me an email. I'll send you the Audit so you can get a handle on what you can do to position your business and build your reputation as the go-to provider.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Ensuring the success of your next strategic retreat: 5 more essentials

Jan 28, 2015 12:56 PM
Chris Ward

Last week we discussed the importance of setting goals—of being clear about what victory will look like. This week we’ll turn our attention to five more things you can do to help ensure that your retreat is a big success.

1.   Choose attendees with care.

Every person invited to the retreat should have a meaningful role to play. Inviting a few colleagues from other functions or business units might look good on paper. But unless you believe each will be able to make a real contribution, he or she might be better left off the list. Political considerations should not play a role in whom you invite. On the other hand, inviting an outside expert to make a presentation on something that will help attendees make informed decisions might be a very good idea.

The point is, every participant should be able and expected to contribute to a positive outcome. Limiting the list of attendees to ‘must invites’ not only will help keep the number at a manageable level, it will contribute to the overall quality of the conversation.

2.   Be selective about what you expect attendees to read and digest.

Anyone who has the time to read and digest five or six reports, a slew of supporting articles, and sundry other materials prior to an offsite doesn’t have enough to do.

Yes, it’s important for attendees to come prepared to dive right into the topics on your agenda. But experience suggests that dumping scads of information on attendees will be counterproductive—few will give the materials the attention you had hoped for.

I’m not suggesting that participants get a pass on a little homework. Time is too valuable at the actual retreat to waste it on reviewing data or other information that can be reviewed beforehand.

I am suggesting that it makes sense to comb through these materials and select a few essentials. Or better still, to prepare a summary of relevant research, reports, data and so forth that each attendee can read and digest in a reasonable amount of time.

3.   Be very specific about your agenda.

This might go without saying, but preparing an agenda capable of achieving your objectives is an absolute must do. In fact there might well be two agendas—the one that's distributed to attendees and the one that guides the person facilitating the retreat.

The facilitator's agenda might allocate time to different parts of an agenda item, or specify when smaller breakout groups will be used. While it’s important to have the flexibility to increase or decrease time allocations if it is deemed that such changes will result in a better outcome, having a well-thought-out agenda will enable a fast assessment of what impact any change will have on the desired outcome.

4.   Select your facilitator with care.

Having a facilitator to ensure the meeting runs smoothly and accomplishes what it’s supposed to is always a good idea. The question is, should you look outside or choose someone from within your company?

As a general rule, and at risk of this appearing self-serving, there is a lot to be gained from recruiting an external facilitator.

  • In the first place, this individual should have no vested interest in the outcome. Their only concern should be achieving the results you’re after.
  • Second, an experienced outsider will have a greater chance of getting participants—particularly those with the title 'boss'—who are being a little too opinionated or forceful to appreciate the negative impact their behaviour is having on the quality of the conversation. That’s not something that many employee-facilitators concerned about their upward mobility feel comfortable doing.
  • Third, a professional facilitator will be a valuable resource when it comes to planning the retreat. If your facilitator has earned his spurs in business, he will be much better equipped to pull together an appropriate agenda, help clarify what can be expected from the retreat, break up log jams and (if requested) join in on a conversation to help keep it moving. And, following the retreat, a good facilitator will provide you with an unbiased summary of decisions and action items making it much easier to plan specific tasks and to track performance.  

5.   Consider taking your group off-site.

One question that invariably comes up concerns where to hold the retreat—in the office or at an off-site location.

While on-site meetings are generally less costly and perhaps more convenient for those attending, they do not always produce the best results. Among the reasons for choosing an off-site location are fewer distractions, next to no interruptions by co-workers and the opportunity to get to know colleagues on a more personal level.

Plus, when daily responsibilities are left at the office, people are freed to think more creatively. The result is often decisions and solutions that might never have surfaced in a different environment.

Need help organizing and facilitating your strategic retreat? Contact Chris Ward.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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Ensuring the success of your next strategic retreat: Essential ingredient #1

Jan 21, 2015 11:38 AM
Chris Ward

Be clear about victory and what it will look like.

As the executive in charge, you own the success of your strategic retreat. True, several others will play key roles as well, including a facilitator and whoever is handling the logistics.

But the buck stops at your desk.

Expectations will be high. You’ve asked members of your senior team to remove themselves from the firing line for a day or two. You know one or two feel a retreat is a waste of time. But there are important matters to discuss and resolve. So there is a lot at stake.

The fact is the success of your retreat depends, to a large extent, on the work that’s done before it gets underway. There can be no victory if what constitutes victory is unclear. Sure, participants might have had a good time socializing and on the links. There is value in this. But it’s hardly enough.

Establishing exactly what you expect the retreat to do for your business and your team is essential, and requires clarity on several levels:

  1. What the retreat is all about.
  2. What you expect to accomplish.
  3. How you will measure success.

What’s it about?

This might sound self-evident. But it’s surprising how often the overall purpose or theme is neglected, or poorly set out. Sometimes, participants know little about the retreat until the day they arrive. Sure, they might have some idea that they’re going to be discussing strategy, or a new product or business performance. But that’s it.

When the essential purpose is somewhat vague or incorrectly identified prior to the event, the organization misses out on an opportunity to get participants focused, thinking about the subject and ready to dive right into the conversation and contribute from the get-go.

By way of example…

One sales organization with which we’re familiar had scheduled a retreat to map out a strategy for getting more new business. The rate of sales growth was at an all-time low, and competitors were making inroads. However, an analysis of past sales data coupled with a recent customer survey revealed a significant problem with customer churn. More than that, the survey uncovered issues around the value attributed to the company’s products as well as after sale service.

Consequently, the overarching theme of the retreat was changed from 'growing our business' to ‘increasing customer value’ and attendees were encouraged to think about the problem and the role their department or unit could play in its resolution prior to the actual retreat.

Being clear about goals and objectives.

Being clear about the retreat’s overall theme is important. So too is being clear about goals and objectives...specifically what you expect to accomplish.

Goals describe, by definition, what you want to accomplish over a period of time. Objectives are typically much more tangible and concrete. By way of example, a goal for a strategic retreat might be…

  • To familiarize participants with our new corporate direction and identify and deal with any concerns about how it will affect their business unit.

And an objective could look like this…

  • To secure an appropriate budgetary commitment, from 100% of the departments represented, to actively support the new corporate direction.

As with so many other business initiatives, a more measureable outcome will generally lead to a more focused plan. 

And finally, what will success look like?

Clearly, success will be measured, in large part, by how well the retreat delivers on the stated goals and objectives. But other areas deserve consideration as well, including…

  1. How effective was the facilitator?
  2. What value did participants see in the discussions?
  3. How many participants actively participated?
  4. Was the retreat successful in building teamwork?
  5. Was this a good use of time and money?

Combining considerations like these with measureable goals and objectives will enable you to make a holistic assessment of the retreat and better understand what you might do differently (if anything) to make your next retreat an even greater success.

Need help organizing and facilitating your strategic retreat? Contact Chris Ward.

Next in Your Space Matters: Designing a successful strategic retreat: 4 more essentials.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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3 great reasons for having a strategic retreat, and holding it off-site

Jan 16, 2015 3:05 PM
Chris Ward

There can be something almost magical about taking your team off-site to think, share, make tough decisions and plan. It can be a great team building experience—a wonderful opportunity to get to know your colleagues in a more relaxed environment where the ground rules are a work in progress and not dictated by years of turf building. But more than that, it can be an extremely productive way of dealing with a complex issue, choosing between competing courses of action and prioritizing opportunities on which to focus over the next year or two.

Many larger companies do this as a matter of course. Once a year, if not more frequently, the senior team will get away for up to five days, free from constant interruptions and day-to-day responsibilities. Some mid-sized organizations do this as well, but the percentage is really much smaller.

I'm too busy to take the day off!

How many times have you heard this one? Perhaps even thought it or, horrors, said these words out loud?

If an off-site retreat is not something your organization is used to, the prospect of actually doing it can be somewhat intimidating. What if a major account had a pressing issue? Who will be around to troubleshoot problems on the production line? How will all those HR issues get resolved? The fact is few of us are as indispensable as we would like to believe. And, with a little advance planning, there is very little danger that your business will be jeopardized by the absence of you and your colleagues for a day or so.

Some executives and managers are surprised to find that members of their team are perfectly able to step up and handle situations in their absence. Key accounts can be asked to direct any requests through a particular individual. Arrangements can be made to cover off almost any responsibility. And, truth be told, in the case of a real emergency, there is almost always a way of getting in touch with those on retreat.

Benefits far outweigh the problems

There is one adjective that really captures what you get from a well-planned, well-organized and well-facilitated strategic off-site…GREATER:

  1. GREATER focus: Interruptions happen all the time when you meet in the office. Phone calls, emails, colleagues who need a quick word and a fast answer. It makes it very difficult to get the entire meeting focused on what you’re all there to discuss. Not so in an off-site retreat. Being off-site makes interruptions much less likely, which allows agenda items to get the attention—and focus—they deserve.
  2. GREATER creativity: There is something about getting away from the daily grind and clearing our minds of the associated clutter that’s both stimulating and liberating. It encourages people to really think about the matter at hand. And that often leads to different ways of looking at a problem and solutions that would otherwise have remained buried.
  3. GREATER alignment: Getting leaders from different functions, departments or divisions to agree on anything can be tough. Very often, each will see an issue from a different perspective and have a different outcome in mind. When there is no or very limited opportunity to drill down and search for common ground, the issue can fester and become a real thorn in the organization’s side. Off-site retreats enable all points of view to be shared, discussed and modified. Greater understanding of where others are coming from, and what’s negotiable, generally leads to greater alignment. And, perhaps best of all, decisions are owned by the group and all who participated in the outcome.

We’re on the same page!

When decision makers are freed to think about the bigger picture and consider issues in a more holistic way and from different perspectives, and the group is tasked with finding common ground, the result is invariably better decisions, and a very strong likelihood that the words, “We’re on the same page!” will get the attention they deserve.

Need help organizing and facilitating your strategic off-site? Contact Chris Ward.

Next in Your Space Matters: Successful off-sites won’t just happen. Our next post takes a closer look at some key success factors.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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3 New Year’s resolutions you might have overlooked!

Jan 6, 2015 10:05 PM
Chris Ward

It just wouldn’t be right to start the New Year without making a few resolutions. Not the resolutions we trot out every year…lose weight, get more exercise, save more, eat healthier, cut down on this, that or something else. You know, the ones few of us will be able to keep judging by past results. According to one source, 48% of people make resolutions like this; 8% keep them.


We can do better people!

Forget about 6-packs and hourglass figures. Let’s take a different approach here. Rather than focusing on losing, quitting or stopping—some personal behavioural change that’s unlikely to happen—let’s look at a few resolutions that will make your business more successful. Which in turn will benefit you and perhaps provide the wherewithal to fly off to one of those super deluxe desert spas where you can, at great comfort and expense, achieve that personal miracle that’s been so elusive over the past few years.

Here are three resolutions that you really should consider building into your 2015 plans.

1.  "Talk to my customers, clients members or donors."

And I do mean talk. Pick up the phone and check in with five or six. Make these calls about more than ‘happy talk.’ It’s heartwarming to find out that someone is in the pink of health and had a great trip to Antigua with the family. But you’ve got another agenda and that’s to get feedback on how they’re feeling about any interactions they’ve had with your organization. So have a few questions ready to go:

  • Is there one thing, positive or not, about doing business with us that really stands out for you?
  • Compared to other [suppliers], how would you rate our overall value to your organization on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 is exceptional)?

Candid conversations with people on whom your success depends can be very eye opening.

2.  "Talk to my employees."

Remember management by walking around? Popularized 30 or so years ago, this was all about getting managers out from behind their desks to make unscheduled—impromptu—visits to the office, warehouse or factory.  

In fairness, most business leaders are much more accessible and visible now than they were back in the day. But visibility by itself is not enough. Interacting with employees and having actual conversations is where you’ll find the gold. A little preparation will pay dividends here. Think of a few things you’d like feedback on, and have questions ready to go. Here are a couple you might want to consider.

  • If you were in charge for a day, and could do something that would make it easier for you and your fellow employees to do your jobs, what would it be?
  • Tell me one thing this organization does really well, and one where we come up short.

Answers to both questions will provide insights on how employees see your business and, most importantly, the answers you get will help reveal any issues around positioning, communications and your business’ general health.

Say, for example, that the six employees you speak to each have a different answer to the question about what your organization does well. This could indicate a problem with training or the way information is communicated to employees; or a more fundamental issue with your value proposition.

Regardless of what you ask, there is a wealth of information to be had from people on the front lines, in the warehouse, on the road and throughout your business.

3. "Hold a strategic corporate retreat."

Armed with insights from these conversations with insiders and outsiders, as you enter 2015 it makes good sense to review your progress over the past year, look at where your business is headed and revise your strategy in light of results to date, competitive activity and other factors.  

With so much to do and not enough time to do it, freeing up members of your leadership team to give this review the time it deserves can be a challenge. Consider getting your team together for a strategic corporate retreat. Usually held off-site to avoid interruptions and stimulate creative thinking, a professionally facilitated one or two-day retreat can be an ideal venue for reviewing performance, discussing mission-critical issues, sharing insights and collaborating on how best to deal with high-priority issues and opportunities.

Need help organizing and facilitating your strategic off-site? Contact Chris Ward.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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How to identify a professional services market you can own

Dec 31, 2014 12:59 PM
Chris Ward

Decisions on what market to go after are some of the most important any professional makes. In general, you want to choose a market where your expertise and/or process will stand out from the competition, and your offering can be tailored to fill a specific and unfilled (or poorly filled) market need.

4 steps to selecting an ownable market

  1. Start with an assumption. Be clear about the market you’d like to tackle. You could describe it by:
    • Industry. For example, financial services, hospitality or retail.
    • Industry sector. Credit unions, boutique hotels, fast-food restaurants to name a few.
    • Demographic group. Women 35 to 49, millennials, early baby boomers and so forth.
    • Socio-economic segment. Wealthy boomers, low-income families…the possibilities are endless.
    • Cultural or ethnic group. Hispanics, Chinese immigrants requiring a fundamental grasp of different customs.
    • Geographic area. A city, metropolitan area or specific zip or postal code
  2. Be clear about your offering. A lot is riding on what you think you can sell into this particular market.
    • Can you offer an existing service ‘as is’ or would you have to tailor a service you already offer to make it more marketable?
    • Would it be necessary to acquire a product, process or the required expertise?
  3. Research the opportunity. This step is absolutely critical. Without it you will be flying blind, and you could invest in a marketing initiative that doesn’t have a hope of succeeding. The more specific and focused your research, the more useful and reliable will be the results. For example, funeral directors in small to mid-sized funeral homes, senior partners in downtown law firms with more than 250 lawyers, business owners in the vicinity of a toxic spill, or owners of residential properties valued at more than $1 million and built 50+ years ago. Answers to the following questions will influence how you approach the opportunity:
    • Are prospective clients as enthusiastic about this service as you would like them to be?
    • Is there enough potential business to sustain a practice, or to justify a marketing campaign?
    • What makes you different from other professionals who are presently serving the market?
    • How price sensitive are buyers?
    • Is the business profitable?
  4. Reassess the opportunity. Based on the information you’ve collected, and your own gut feel, you should be in a position to determine whether the potential market makes sense:
    • Is it big enough to justify an investment of time and money?
    • Have you got the resources to stake out a position in this market?
    • Can you effectively handle the volume and/or type of work that prospective clients are likely to have?
    • Will you be a credible alternative? That is, have you got what it will take to attract business? If the answer to this question is “no,” but you find the market segment highly attractive, you might decide to invest some time and energy to develop (or acquire) the necessary expertise and establish a marketable track record. In a highly competitive environment, it is difficult to be successful without a track record. Plus, you could stand to jeopardize your practice by taking on work for which you are ill prepared.

Bottom line, if the demand is there, the investment is one you can handle, the competition is reasonable and you have what it takes to succeed, this might well be an opportunity worth pursuing. However, if your research determines that prospective clients have little interest in what you want to sell, the competition is firmly entrenched or margins are too low, this process could save you from investing time and money in an opportunity that is really no opportunity at all.

As a footnote to this discussion…

Trying to break into a lucrative and fast growing market does not always work. We know of several professional firms that have recruited a hotshot performer with a stellar track record, only to sever ties with the individual when the much-anticipated book of business did not materialize. What works in one setting will not necessarily work for that same person in a different setting. Personal chemistry, corporate culture and a host of other factors will determine the outcome.


Chris Ward is the founder and CEO of Riverhorse Strategic Advisors and a Principal with the facilitation specialists, StrategicRetreats (www.StrategicRetreats.net). He works with for and not-for-profit organizations to answer the question that's uppermost in every buyer's, member's or donor's mind, "What's in it for me?" and to build effective business, brand and marketing strategies to help these clients own their space.

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