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The Fallacy of Win-Win Negotiations

Posted February 13, 2012

In the past ten years or so, any article, seminar or blog post on negotiations seems to focus on “kinder, gentler, negotiations”. It’s all “win-win” negotiations now, and nobody gets the better of anybody.  Planner and supplier discuss their needs, and work out a kumbaya-style agreement, after which they stroll arm and arm into the sunset.  It’s the equivalent of every kid on every team getting the same trophy in little league, regardless of whether they came in first place or last.  It sounds nice in theory, but it doesn’t reflect the realities of our world.

Or we hear “it’s about building relationships”, but in reality suppliers care a lot more about relationships when it’s a buyers’ market.  When demand is through the roof and the tables are turned, however, a venue sales manager will rarely give up a more lucrative piece of business in order to preserve a “relationship”.  Most of the time they couldn’t do so even if they wanted to; they’re under a mandate to maximize revenue.

As I sit here preparing for tomorrow’s webinar (Tuesday, Feb 14th, 1 pm EST) on “Negotiating With Venues“, I can’t help being struck by how nobody wants to talk about it, but here’s the ugly truth: there are winners and losers in the negotiation process.  The winners are those that enter the negotiations with the most information about market pricing, and the losers are the ones who go in with little more than the naive notion that because the other side does not want to take advantage of them, they’ll get a fair deal.

Planners, by and large, are neither skilled at, nor trained in, sales or negotiations.  Sourcing venues and vendors is only part of their jobs.  Their strengths are logistics management, creativity, and strategy, and they’re evaluated based on how well their events achieve the organization’s goals.

Most venue sales managers, by contrast, are trained in lead generation, client mapping, pricing mechanics and salesmanship.  They are intimately involved in their numbers, and diligently track and slice and dice the trends of every booking, even if informally.  They are evaluated based on their sales performance, not by how well the events go in their facilities. For the most part, they want to book the planner’s event at the highest possible revenue level.

The two sides, therefore, have vastly different agendas and bring totally different skills to the table.  To be sure, there are plenty of seasoned planners who know the value of their program and exactly what they should be paying.  Further, many large corporations have aggregated their event spend and negotiated very favorable terms with venue chains.  And there are plenty of venue managers who are asleep at the wheel and ignorant of the supply and demand dynamics affecting their calendars.  For the most part, however, it’s not a fair fight.  If the two sides were to have a contest on planning acumen, the planner would have the upper hand.  But when it comes to negotiation, the planner is competing with the supplier on the supplier’s territory.

The only way the planner can level the playing field is with hard data on what others are paying in that area for similar events.  She can start by getting a handle on how much competing venues will charge for the same program.  Knowledge is power, and this helps the planner negotiate from a position of strength.  Too many planners, unfortunately, don’t bother to do their homework, and under the false pretense of a “win-win” environment, are actually paying more than they should.

“Everyone Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth”

Posted January 30, 2012

Reporter:  “I hear your opponent has a clever plan for defensing your left hook.  How do you respond?”

(Heavyweight boxing champ) Mike Tyson:  “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Iron Mike Tyson

How great is that quote?  Tyson, of course, was known far more for his fierce punching power, intimidating stare, and occasional biting of an ear, than his gift of philosophy.  Yet the purity of his comment makes it a perfect analogy to the business world.

The premise is this: planning is done when it’s calm and quiet, but, like a boxing match, the business world is anything but calm.  It throws you unexpected curve balls that have the capacity to demolish your business.  It also tees up great opportunities, if you know how and when to seize them.

The point is, how well will your plan stand up if, and when, your business get punched in the mouth?  In his prime Tyson hit you so hard, you were lucky if you could even remember what your plan was, let alone execute it.  The worst thing you can do is assume you will have clear sailing the whole year.  Assuming that you WILL get that punch in the mouth at some point, SHOULD be part of your plan in the first place.

Let’s say, for example, you want to grow your business from five clients to eight clients in 2012.  Just build a sales plan to add three new clients, right?  Wrong.  The smart planning would assume you may lose one of your five core clients, and build a sales plan to add four new ones.  Even if your work product is great and your client relationships are awesome, things happen.  Events get cancelled, clients leave jobs, etc.

The list of random, unanticipated “punches in the mouth” that can impact your business is massive.  If I told you 20 years ago that the biggest unforeseen events to have dramatic impact on our industry would include bird flu, ash from a volcano in Iceland, the near collapse of the US financial system, and commercial airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, you’d think I was nuts.

On the micro level, what do you do if your key producer or account executive quits, or if your biggest client cuts their event spend in half?  I know several owners in our field whose businesses took a beating the years their mothers became seriously ill over a protracted period of time.  Not only could they not spend enough time on their companies, but when they could it was hard for them to focus.

So if you’re launching a new website, hiring more staff, or embarking on any other growth initiative, assume there will be some disruption to your business at some point, and plan around that.  Build in a cash cushion, allocate more time to accomplish things, etc.

It’s also important to retain some flexibility.  If business conditions don’t respond to your game plan, you may need to change tactics.  When the US financial crisis hit in 2008, the Treasury Department’s initial plan was to buy toxic assets from the banks.  When that didn’t work, they shifted to injecting capital directly into the banks, which ultimately pulled us back from the precipice.  If your business fails, you don’t get any points for having stuck with your plan.

Don’t get me wrong, planning is very important.  If you don’t make a business plan for hitting your goals this year, you won’t get there.  But to make a plan that relies on perfect business conditions is naive.  Think through scenarios that would result in a body blow to your company, and start formulating responses to them in advance.  And build as much fluidity as possible, giving you the maximum amount of flexibility to adapt.

When the punches come, let your competitors be the ones caught off guard.

Looking At Your Operation with Fresh Eyes

Posted December 23, 2011

Yahoo is in trouble.  This one-time colossus of the internet world, that was for many years the darling of investors, has lost its way.  After firing CEO Carol Bartz in September, the Board of Directors Business launched a strategic review of the company.  Business pundits say it has time for one more CEO change, and if it hasn’t turned around by then it’ll be sold off for scraps.  Ask ten columnists how the company can be saved, and you’ll get ten different answers.  From my perspective, if Yahoo tries to cling too much to what it was, it’s dead.

Whether you own a small, itty bitty business, or a one-time behemoth like Yahoo, it’s very easy to fall prey to your own success, and fight to preserve the methodology that got you there.  That mentality works great, if the rest of the world will oblige you and stand still indefinitely.  Unfortunately, time marches on and the business world continues to evolve, your customers evolve, and your competitors evolve.  As the landscape changes, unless you continually re-evaluate your formula for success, you’ll be supplying solutions to yesterday’s problems.

Businesses that succeed over the long term are led by executives who are willing to challenge the sacred cows of their own companies, and often that involves risk.  But it’s equally risky to stand pat in a changing world.  Take two compelling examples.

At one point, IBM was the leading computer software and hardware company in the country.  It’s nickname, “Big Blue” spoke to its dominance.   Then in the 1980’s and early 90’s, faced with stiff price competition from domestic and foreign manufacturers, it fell into a downward spiral.  In 1993 Lou Gerstner was hired by the board to turn the company around.  After analyzing the situation, he said IBM was getting out of the computer game, and focusing on service and consulting contracts for corporations. He pulled the plug on their development of the OS/2 operating system and sold off the PC division to Lenovo.

The ensuing turn around of the company is now the stuff of business school case studies and many books.  Gerstner says that only an outsider like him could have come in and taken a fresh look at the company, and make the hard decisions necessary for it to thrive in the future by gutting its past.

In 1997, Apple Computer was 90 days from bankruptcy, when it hired back founder Steve Jobs, who had been ousted years earlier by his own board.  At the time Apple had over 30 products and was stuck in a seemingly endless effort to cut costs.  Jobs eliminated all but 4 products, and re-oriented the company to focus on  the next new products that would change the landscape.  This new mindset would lead to the development of the iPod, and would place Apple squarely in the new world of digital music content delivery.

What both examples have in common is the leaders’ ability to make their companies be their own worst competitors.  They were able to bring a fresh perspective and ask themselves, “if we were to invent THIS company today, would we be in the businesses that we’re currently in, doing things the way we’re currently doing them?”  If not, then change can’t start soon enough. Entrenched management usually can’t engage in that conversation, because they think it’s an admission that they’ve failed at their current jobs.

Think about how your business or department runs.  If you could re-create it from scratch with a clean slate tomorrow, would it look and function like it does now?  If the answer is no, if you think it could produce better results if configured differently, then why are you still clinging to the old way?  At some point, if you don’t make the changes, someone else will do it for you, and the results may not be to your liking.

The Association is Dead. Long Live the Association.

Posted November 30, 2011

“Remind me why I should renew my membership again?” This is a phrase every association is grappling with, and how they respond now will determine whether they survive or slowly die out.

Twenty years ago if you wanted education and networking opportunities within your profession, associations were the place to go. In fact, they were the only game in town. Paying membership dues was a no-brainer.

Now, however, due to a confluence of factors, people can get quality industry-specific education and networking cheaper, faster, and in greater varieties without having to join an association at all.

  • Through blogs, for example, a broad range of ideas, opinions and best practices can be shared. For free.
  • From a networking standpoint, Linked-In allows users to self-select into trade groups that are far more specific than an association can provide. Whereas a publicist might join the Public Relations Society of America, for instance, now they can also join a Linked-In group tailored to PR for Pharma Companies, and zero in on their exact niche. For free.
  • From a news standpoint, Twitter hashtags enable people to aggregate & share updates under virtually any micro-topic you can think of. Again, for free.

Technology, and specifically social media, has flattened and democratized the flow of information, and fostered a wide range of education and networking in a friction-free environment. Ideas and connections now flow fast and furious across the web, and are not bothering to make a pit stop at the association office. People are “on” seven days a week now, checking emails and doing work at all hours of the day, and have come to expect lightning-fast delivery of information. By contrast, the traditional association lumbers along slowly, encumbered by various processes, bylaws, committees, and other legacy structures built in an era when business moved more slowly.

Not only do these structures hinder associations’ ability to move nimbly in a fast-paced world, they impact the economics as well. Most associations built vast bureaucracies over the years, and now have small armies of staff on the payroll who do nothing of value to the average member (e.g. ensuring chapter reports are filed in a timely manner). These organizations are groaning under their own weight and cost structures.

So is there a future for associations, or will they go the way of the milk delivery man? (Yes, just dated myself). That depends on whether they are willing to have a come-to-Jesus moment, and take a hard look at their value proposition to their members.

The Board of Directors needs to give themselves an intervention, and ask some very existential questions, such as: “If we were to start an association TODAY, what would it look like? What are the key benefits we could offer our members, that they can’t get elsewhere? Is our goal to seek ever-growing membership ranks, or do we want to narrow our focus? Do we want to have members at all, or just shift to being an advocacy group that is advertiser-supported?”

The key is not to be tied down in their thinking by existing infrastructure. Because too often, there are stake-holders (whether paid staffers or perennial volunteers) fighting to preserve their turf, whether it’s an event, newsletter, committee, etc. The worst thing an association can do, is to orient their focus to support structures from another era that may no longer be vibrant or in demand. In most cases, unfortunately, so much of that becomes encrusted in an association’s DNA, they simply can’t re-orient themselves in time. The ones that survive and thrive, will be the ones brave enough to ask the hard questions, make the necessary changes, and deal with the realities of today’s world, not yesterday’s.

NOTE: A version of this column appeared this week in BizBash’s Best of 2011 Series.  Click here for more.

Steve Jobs, Calligraphy & Crowd-Sourcing

Posted October 6, 2011

You know that game where you fantasize about whom you’d invite to a dinner party?  Well, Steve Jobs was always high on my list.  (Along with Winston Churchill).  When I heard that he died, I felt a tremendous sense of sadness and loss.  Jobs was someone who saw a better way to do things, a future none of us could envision, and fought like hell to take us there.

But though I’ve never met him, I sense he wouldn’t want us to wax rhapsodic on his passing, but rather to learn and be inspired from his life.  In that spirit, here are 3 lessons we can take away from his life and the impact he’s had on us all.

1) Inspiration Comes in Unusual Places In an industry whose products are brutally cost-competitive almost to the point of being commoditized, Apple’s products have always cost more than their competitors.  They got away with that by marrying superior technology to stylish industrial design.   And where did Jobs get his inspiration for Apple’s graceful minimalist aesthetic?  Calligraphy.

Jobs dropped out of Reed College after one semester, but returned later to audit a class in calligraphy, which he says influenced Apple’s sleek, polished, understated design.  Are you grasping the irony here?  Calligraphy is a slow, deliberate, old-school art form that on the surface seems the antithesis of modern technology.

Takeaway:              To truly tap your creative potential, expose yourself to areas completely outside your normal frame of reference.

2) Second Chances. If you’re under 25 years old, you probably don’t realize that in 1986 Jobs was actually fired from the company he founded.  Apple meandered through mediocrity for the next ten years.  It wasn’t until Jobs was given a second chance to run the company that he truly took Apple to the next level and transformed so many aspects of our every day lives.  Jobs later said that being fired was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

Bill Belichick, widely considered the smartest coach in football, has a similar story.  After being a brilliant defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, he was given his chance as a head coach of the Cleveland Browns where he failed miserably, compiling only one winning season in five years.  It was on his second chance, as head coach of the Patriots, that he truly made his mark, winning 3 Super Bowls.

Takeaway:              Sometimes failure is the missing ingredient to genius.

3) Crowd Sourcing is for Sissies.  Apple never held focus groups.  According to Jobs, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

That’s worth noting in today’s era of user-generated, crowd-sourced agendas, event locations, menus, themes, etc.  Crowd-sourcing has its uses, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.  The next time someone pushes you to incorporate it into your event and you want a reason to say no, just say, “Apple never holds focus groups.”  There’s really no response to that, except perhaps, “well, we’re not even going to pretend to be innovative.”

Takeaway:            Shackle innovation to group consensus at your own risk.

The list of incredible product innovations brought to us by Steve Jobs is long indeed.  But perhaps it is the life lessons we can glean from him that are even more impactful.

Telling Truth to Power (Clients)

Posted October 2, 2011

“The customer is always right,” is a mantra we hear so often that it’s become canonized as one of the first rules of business.  Alas, like most sweeping generalizations, it is also blindly misapplied.  For while it might make plenty of sense in retail, when it comes to consulting (or event planning), it can ruin your business or your career.  Here’s why.

In retail, stores sell products.  Retailing is simply about delivering those products to consumers through a pleasing, cost-effective experience.  If a consumer is unhappy with the experience they get at a retail store, the assumption is that they can always go somewhere else to buy the same product, so there’s almost no reason NOT to make the customer happy, even at the retailer’s short term detriment.  Keeping the customer as a continued shopper, in the long run, is the ultimate goal.

Service businesses, on the other hand, provide much more customized interactions.  The client comes to us for our specific, individual advice and expertise.  We take time to learn about them, their events, their goals, styles and desires, and then design and recommend solutions specifically tailored to their needs.  If the client wants to do something that is not going to work, it is not only in our best interest to push back, it’s in the client’s interest too.

If you’re meeting with your accountant to discuss your taxes, and you want to write off your massage treatments as a business expense, (because, hey, you come up with your best ideas on the massage table), would you want him to say, “whatever you want, you’re the customer”? No way.  You want him to look you hard in the eye and say, “Nice try.  Unless your client is the masseuse, that’s not going to work.”

Pamela Fields, CEO of Stetson

Sometimes pushing back to a demanding client can be difficult and awkward.  But that’s what they need, and that’s what will make you invaluable to them.  In the Business Section of today’s New York Times (Valuing Those Who Tell You the Bitter Truth), Pamela Fields, the CEO of Stetson, talks about the importance of hearing divergent opinions from people who feel comfortable disagreeing with her.

The phrase, ‘Speak Truth to Power’, is typically applied to politics, where too often our leaders surround themselves with sycophants who are more interested in sucking up than in telling the truth.  But the mantra applies everywhere.  In sports we often see star athletes get ruined because there is no one in their entourage who speaks up about what’s in the athletes best interest if it means disagreeing with him.  (think Mike Tyson)

And it certainly applies to working with our event clients, whether we are independents or agencies talking to paying clients, or in-house planners talking to our internal business unit clients.  Soften the blow as needed, but you have to deliver the news.  If the client’s really set on a lousy idea, try,

That’s a great idea.  Unfortunately I just don’t think it’s appropriate for this event because _______.  Believe me, I’d love to say we can do it, but it’s my professional responsibility to advise you why I don’t think it’s going to work.  The last thing I want is for you to come to me afterwards and say, ‘You’re the professional; why didn’t you warn me about this?!’  So this is me, officially warning you that I don’t think this will work.”

It’ll be difficult, no question.  But they will respect you more as an expert, and you will become indispensable to them.  And that, ultimately, is what you want.

Getting Your Business to that Elusive ‘Next Level’

Posted September 22, 2011

When you’re in school they make it pretty clear what it takes for you to move up to the next grade: do your homework, pass your finals and maintain a certain grade point average, and off you go.  Out in the workplace, it gets a little harder, but in most companies you can also find a rough road map on how to move up, what the next level is in terms of job titles and what you need to do to get there.

Alas, when it comes to running or owning a business, it ain’t so easy, which is why the most common complaint I hear from other business owners is about their inability to get to that elusive “next level”.

The first question I ask in response is, “describe what that next level looks like to you,” and you’d be surprised at how often that actually stumps people.  But it’s really important, because without knowing where you want to go, how will you know if you get there?  It’s like the old bicycle analogy: you can pedal as hard as you want on the back tire, but if the front tire is pointed in the wrong direction, you’re lost.

The “next level”, of course, means different things to different people.  Invariably, many answers include financial metrics such as increasing sales, increasing profits, improving margins, etc., or customer metrics such as landing bigger clients, or more high profile clients, etc.   Getting there, involves two exercises: a road-map exercise, and a skills assessment exercise.

Road Map Exercise

  1. The 1st step is to hone in on these factors, and attach some numerical and qualitative goals to each, so we know what that next level looks like.   Let’s say your event company has been at $1 million in sales for several years, and you want to get to $2 million.
  2. Next we would break this down.  Let’s say your $1 million business comes from doing 40 events at $25,000 each.  To get to $2 million, you can either look to double the number of events (e.g. 80 events x $25k ea.); or double the size of each event (e.g. 40 events x $50k ea.), or some combination of both.
  3. So what does your company need to look like to service that kind of income.  For example, from an execution standpoint, if the answer to #2 is to double the number of projects, we’d probably need to add account managers/event planners, or perhaps hire more assistants to support the ones you already have.  If the answer was instead to double the size of your projects, we might explore adding additional services to offer clients, or having planners with deeper skill sets to service these bigger clients.  The point is to visualize your company at this next level, then reverse-engineer a plan for getting there.
  4. This is an over-simplification of course, and only focuses on the execution aspect.  You’d have to extend this exercise into marketing, finance, management and other areas, figure out how fast you can afford to grow, etc.

Skills Assessment Exercise

Even if you can create a clear road map for getting to the next level in the above exercise, however, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to lead your business there.  The reason is that the skills required to start up a business are different from the skills needed to take an existing business to its second level.  And those skills are different from the skills needed to take a company to its third level, sell the company, take it public, etc.  At each phase the game changes, and the skills needed to excel change with it.  Much like a reptile sheds its skin as it grows, so a business needs a new infrastructure when it grows.

This is probably the single biggest reason companies struggle to get to the next level.  They assume simply doing more of the same, or doing it faster or bigger, will yield the desired results.  Big leaps forward, however, usually require substantial changes in how you operate.

For example, a $25,000 event usually has no written RFP.  The specs are delivered verbally, and your proposal can be done on Word.  To go after a$500,000 event, on the other hand, you’ll need to plow through a 20 page RFP and your proposal will likely need custom illustrations, professional quality copy writing, graphic design and possibly animations in order to win the job.  The event budget alone will take at least 10 hours to put together, and you’ll likely be asked for your company’s sustainability policy, detailed bios on your staff, an org chart of your production team, etc.  Plus, the selling process takes a while to even generate the RFP in the first place.  And there’s a good chance you’ll need to upgrade to a higher level of staff in order to land and produce an event of this caliber.

If it seems like a big investment is needed to get to the next level in this example, well, that’s because it probably is.  But at least now you know you can’t get there by simply “pushing harder” within your existing framework.

If the Events Industry Disappeared Tomorrow, Would It Matter?

Posted September 11, 2011

What we do in the events industry doesn’t matter in the world.  Well, not much anyway.  If you’re waiting for my typical sarcastic follow up line, it’s not coming.  Sorry.

That’s what the ten year anniversary of 9/11, or any truly sobering moment, does to me.  It makes me realize how little what we do truly matters in the world.  I get the same feeling when I hear someone I know has died, been diagnosed with a terrible illness, lost their job, etc.  In those moments of reflection, if someone came up to me and asked what I did for a living, I terribly wished I could have said something more useful to society than event planning.  Doctor, teacher, CIA counter-terrorist analyst, etc.

Make no mistake, we are not alone.  Probably 80% of the jobs people have in the world provide little benefit to society.  A hedge fund analyst trying to guess which way some random stock is going.  A marketing expert coming up with a zippy campaign to sell more hand lotion.  The person who designed the pleated drapes that hang in my living room which I hate.  If these jobs disappeared tomorrow, would society be much worse off?

I vividly remember one TV broadcaster reporting from ground zero shortly after the towers fell.  She was holding up a ream of paper she’d picked up from the debris, spread sheets with analysis on them.  “How important did this seem just hours ago?,” she said.  The camera zoomed in to see an endless parade of tiny numbers stacked in neat little columns.  It then pulled back for a wide angle shot of thousands of such dust-strewn papers blowing around all over the place.  A sea of detritus that seemed to mock us for having focused so intently on such minutiae.

Depressed?  Climb in back off the ledge of your building.  It gets better.

Andrea Michaels, owner of Extraordinary Events in LA, one of the most award-winning companies in the world, is one of the icons of our industry.  She was also born in a concentration camp during World War II.  This is one of the more touching revelations she shared with me in a video interview we conducted for the Event Leadership Institute’s Maverick Series.  She uses this experience to ground her, to put everything we do as planners in proper perspective.

Interview with Andrea Michaels, Extraordinary Events
Chapter 9 of 14: “On Being Born in a Concentration Camp
Running time: 02:56

To watch the full interview click here

And that, ultimately, is what I take away from these somber moments in life.  Perspective.  Because, my fellow planners, we can ALL, use a bit more perspective in our world.  To quote from Andrea, “A hurricane forces you to evacuate 300 multi millionaires, do I stress out? Do I care about a wilted flower?  If the drummer is 15 minutes late do I think the world changes?  Absolutely not.” These are all important to our events, to be sure, but they don’t quite measure up to removing the wrong kidney from a transplant patient, or misreading the water level during a shift at a nuclear plant.

    You get we’re I’m going with this?  I’m not saying what we do doesn’t matter.  It does.  Events inspire, educate, inform, recognize and celebrate so many facets of our personal and professional lives.  Whenever we come across a milestone occasion, we create an event to mark it in a special way.  Yes, we matter.  Just not in a life-or-death way.  And that recognition can empower us, liberate us, to give our work the perspective it needs, to help us focus on our craft without getting sidetracked by unnecessary anxiety over the little things.

    Socrates said “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” I take that to mean that when we get too busy, it’s easy for the truly important things in our life to get lost in the shuffle, and for us to lose our proper perspective.  On this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us pull back and inject some perspective back into our lives.

    Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

    Posted September 2, 2011

    If you’re like me, you’re constantly frustrated by not getting all the things done that are on your To Do list.  Figuring out what to do is the easy part for us, and we simply assume that putting it on that list is all it takes to ensure completion.  Bzzzzz!  Wrong answer!  Johnny, show our contestants what they win just for playing our game!

    Alas, our To Do lists are the fly paper of business; they’re so sticky they indiscriminately attract all kinds of things, and once something’s stuck there it’s hard to come off.  Peeling them off is so elusive, tons of productivity gurus have written books on how to get things done.

    One of the most insightful I’ve found is a book by Steven Covey called “First Things First”.  In my class on Prospecting for New Business, I talk about perhaps the most illuminating part of the book, the Four Quadrants.  (For more info on this see my earlier blog post).   The idea is to force yourself to schedule things that are important, but not necessarily time-sensitive.

    Not All Hours Are Created Equal

    However, as helpful as that is, some tasks require different amounts of creativity, energy, intelligence, etc. than others, and unfortunately our levels of those traits vary greatly throughout the day.  Some people are sluggish in the morning and are at their productive peak in the afternoon; for others it’s the reverse.  The key is knowing your own rhythms and scheduling your tasks to best suit them.

    Schedule your most important, complex, and creative tasks (proposals, blog posts, client meetings, etc.) for when you are the most energized and clear-headed.  Move the monotonous yet simple tasks (data entry, basic bookkeeping, expense reports, etc.) to your sluggish periods.

    For another example, in her class on Catering Creativity, Stella Ballarini suggests that if you’re hitting a creative wall when it comes to menu planning, shift gears and focus on drink options instead, which are invariably much simpler.

    Avoid ‘Switching Time’

    Jed Weinstein, of WCMG Events, turned me onto a great article by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in the Harvard Business Review called “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time”.   The authors identify a number of tactical suggestions for productivity improvements, and after tracking them through a group of loan officers at Wachovia, found that the group that implemented their methods improved performance by over 20% vs. the control group.

    One of their suggestions is to avoid distractions.  They found that “a temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance—increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time.” It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.”

    I’ll take this a step further, and suggest that once you get your head into a creative mode, for example, you stay there and bang out as many things requiring creative input as you can.  It takes a while to shift gears, so why not knock out a second blog post while you’re still in a creative writing mood, for instance?

    Replenish Productive Energy Levels

    You can also replenish your energy level during the day as well.  Simply taking a break to walk around the block without making calls or checking emails can renew your productive energy significantly.  It may seem paradoxical that you can be more productive by cutting out 20 minutes of work time to clear your head, but it’s true.

    If you take one thing away from this post, it should be to move away from the concept of managing your time during the day as a uniform commodity.  All your working hours are not equal, and by simply understanding that you have some parts of the day where you’re more productive than others, and then matching those hours to tasks requiring similar energy levels, you’ll both accomplish more, and feel better about it in the process.

    Failing Up: The Blessing of Mistakes

    Posted August 23, 2011

    Mistakes are part of the human condition.  By nature we are utterly imperfect beings.  Eventually, we screw up in everything we do: relationships, finances, business, you name it.  We can’t help it.

    What we can help, however, is how we react to these mistakes.  We can blame them on others, on circumstance, on getting a raw deal.  Or we can own up to them, and learn from them.  Few things in life are as powerful as the epiphany that comes from truly learning from a good mistake.

    Over the 20 years I ran my event firm, I made every mistake in the book, both in terms of event management, and in business management.  I was pretty determined, however, to not make the same mistake twice.  (OK, sometimes I made it twice, but definitely not three times.)

    Running events, by definition, entails glitches, things that don’t go according to plan. I used to tell prospective clients that anyone who tells you they’ll produce a flawless event is full of crap.  Events become fluid, moving things and take on a life of their own.  At some point, you simply have to pray to the event gods, regardless of how much planning you’ve done.

    What separates the men from the mice, so to speak, is how we react to these glitches.  Whether it’s your event, your business or your personal life, it can be incredibly liberating to own the reaction and response to whatever comes your way.  The jerk on the highway who cut you off didn’t make you mad; you made yourself mad.  You can’t control the highway jerk, but you CAN control how you react to him.

    Tavis Smiley, a talk show host on NPR, wrote a book with the absolutely coolest name, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Business Success From Failure”. The premise is to enlighten us on how useful and instructive failures can be.  Thomas Edison is famous for pointing out about the numerous failed attempts at creating the light bulb: I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

    George Santayana

    Stellar service-driven organizations in our industry are know for how they respond to problems.  Years ago I stayed at the Four Seasons hotel in Bali, and the final night of my stay, some genius in banquet sales decided to book a beach party for a pharmaceutical sales team, that ran into the wee hours of the night.  Needless to say I got no sleep, and my calls to the front desk were of limited utility.  The next morning, ready to storm the castle, I asked to speak to the manager.  He had a full write-up of the previous night’s problem, and began by apologizing profusely, and said, “Would you allow me to please comp your stay last night.”  This far exceeded anything I’d expected, and to this day I walked away raving about the hotel’s response, instead of their screw up.

    When the philosopher George Santayana said, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” clearly he’s referring to past mistakes.  Hitler invading Russia in the winter, and failing to learn the lessons of Napoleon’s blunder doing the same thing over a century earlier.  That kind of thing.

    The world is imperfect, and we are imperfect.  Yet every imperfection, every mistake, has an opportunity buried inside it.  It lies there, waiting for us to seize it.  Will you grasp it, use it, and grow from it?  Or will you be blinded by the mistake itself, and let it slip away?

    The Debrief From Hell

    Posted August 10, 2011

    Tips For Having A Successful Post-Event Debriefing.

    You’re sitting across the table from your client, pleasantly chatting about the event you produced for them two weeks ago.  You’ve got lots of ideas on how to make it even better next year, and are even thinking about whether you should raise your fee next time, when your lead client contact drops the bomb on you.

    “We need to talk about the sound.  It was unacceptable.”

    By the look on her face you know it’s bad, and in your head you can hear the sound effect of a prison cell door clanging shut with authority.   They’re really not happy.  All four of them.  That’s right, the debrief is that rare planning meeting that seems to draw the attendance of every person at the client’s organization remotely involved in the event.  There are only two other times you see this many people in the planning process: the initial meeting when they’re interviewing you, and the tasting.  So lucky you, you have a full house to watch you squirm.  It’s hide-under-the-table time.

    This scene should never happen to you.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have pissed off clients for as long as you run events; that’s the nature of the beast.  But you should never be blind-sided like this.

    The post-event debrief is a very useful planning tool.  It allows you to discuss, and record, what worked well and what can be improved.  In addition to generating ideas for a better event next time around, it becomes a detailed road-map you can bequeath to the next round of planners and clients, as invariably the players frequently change.

    Unfortunately, too often we phone it in.  We show up with our own lists and the client shows up with theirs, each of us seeing the other’s comments for the first time at the meeting.  Nobody is prepared to respond to anything.  Worse still, rarely are things properly stratified, and we can spend as much time dissecting a gift bag as we do whether the event’s goals were achieved.  But there is a better way.

    1. Exchange Notes Beforehand. Long ago, personnel reviews involved a boss giving feedback to his subordinate, without him/her having any idea what was coming.  HR departments have long since adopted the practice of employees being given their written reviews in advance of the review meeting, allowing them time to absorb the feedback, and prepare constructive responses.

    And so it should be with your debriefs.  You absolutely should ask your client for their list of topics they’d like to cover, in advance.  If they’ve got a problem with the sound, this gives you the time to do some research and find out what happened, so you can have a effective. meeting.  Likewise you should send the client your review ahead of time as well, so they can be prepared.  Look, whatever each side is going to say, they’re going to say.  Asking in advance is just going to make the process more civil and productive.

    1. 2. Prioritize Your Debrief Agenda. Not all issues are created equal.  It’s your job to properly frame how the event should be evaluated to your client.  When I ran Paint The Town Red, we broke our debriefing documents into two sections: “Big Picture” and “Production Details”.  Yes, that’s what we called them.  We wanted to remind the client to keep their eye on the ball.   The Big Picture section should address the event’s goals and to what extent they were achieved.  Everything else goes below. 

    1. 3. Itemize Everything, Especially Things That Went Right. As planners we’re in charge of lots of details and vendors for each event, yet typically only the glitches wind up on the debrief.  Why sell yourself short.  If the catering went well, put it down.  Same thing with a/v, lighting, décor, entertainment, registration, transportation, etc.  The more things you oversaw that went right, the less dramatic of an impact the errors will have.  Again, this helps put your work for the client into proper perspective. 

    1. 4. Don’t Sugar-Coat. If the debrief is total fluff, the client will see right through it and it’ll be useless.  For it to really have teeth, you’ve got to be honest, and that includes acknowledging mistakes.

    Simple enough, right?  It only takes a little advance preparation to insure a productive post-event debrief, and avoid getting blind-sided.

    The Day-Of Planning Dilemma

    Posted July 14, 2011

    Here’s an advance peek at my next In Business column for Event Solutions magazine.

    “I think I can plan the event myself.  I just want to hire you to be there the day of the event.  You know, just to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

    If I had a dollar every time an event planner was told this by a potential client, I’d be sipping cocktails on a beach in the Caribbean.  Forever.  Because I’d be able to own the island.  (Tell me I’m wrong).

    The Planner Wanna-Be

    For better or worse, this is reality, and complaining about it is like trying to hold back the tide.  These are the facts:

    1. There are lots of clients who are planner wanna-be’s,  That’s good, because it means we have cool jobs that people want to emulate.
    2. The wanna-be’s know that their event is too important to do it completely on their own, and know they need some level of professional support (even if it’s just day-of).  So let’s say there’s this final 15% of the planning process where they perceive enough value in what we do that they’re willing to pay for it.  That’s also good.
    3. But the wanna-be’s don’t perceive enough value in the other 85%.  And that’s not good.
    4. There will always be SOMEONE who’ll take a few bucks to show up ‘day of’ and try to be some kind of security blanket to the client.  That’s neither good nor bad; it just is.

    [One way to look at these wanna-be’s is not so much as full paying clients who now want to just pay for day of, and instead think of them as an entirely new market sector who never would have hired anyone at all.  The market for planner services has grown, and this kind of thing is an inevitable step.]

    That said, the biggest challenge planners face in showing up the ‘day of’ is that you’re literally walking into an event planning s**t storm.  It’s like being given a Stop sign, a whistle and a pair of white gloves and being asked to direct traffic at the roller derby.

    Option 1: Educate the Client on the Value of Full-Service Planning

    Odds are this is the crux of the problem.  Look, if you got arrested, you’d never think of saying to your attorney, “I think I can handle my defense myself (I was on the Debate Team, you know), but I’d like to hire you to just sit next to me the day of the trial.  To make sure things go smoothly.”

    Can an attorney provide SOME value showing up the day of the trial?  Yeah, but given what’s on the line, wouldn’t you prefer he look at the case files in advance?  Of course you would, because you’re smart enough to know that you don’t know law.  So your job here, is to educate the client on all that goes into the planning process to insure a successful event.

    Space constraints prohibit me from doing so here, but here’s a suggestion to help you out:  start keeping a journal and jot down all the things you do that a typical wanna-be doesn’t realize you do.  The list will grow quickly.

    This is part of the value you bring to the table, along with your experience, creativity, vendor relationships, etc.  Getting to the point where you realize the full value you offer, and being able to communicate that to a client and stand behind it, is the holy grail of running an event planning business.  It’s the key to everything.

    Option 2: Re-Think ‘Day-Of’ as ‘Planning Lite’

    Clients came up with the whole day-of idea, but that doesn’t mean we have to stick with it.  What they really want is very limited planning; that last 15%, as some kind of insurance policy against an event disaster.  So how about you re-frame your service offerings as ‘Planning Lite’, and give the client 8 hours the day of the event, plus let’s say 6 hours in advance, broken down into 1 hour calls or meetings with the client every month for the 6 months prior to the event.

    This accomplishes two things.  (1) It prevents you from walking in totally blind, and (2) More importantly, it gives you a chance to up-sell the client and convert them into Full-Service Planning along the way.  Each of these 1 hour planning discussions is an opportunity for you to show your stuff, and invariably the client will start to see all the important things you should be doing on their behalf, but can’t, given the limitations of Planning Lite.

    If you do go this route, be up front with the client about the limits of what you can accomplish with Planning Lite, and be sure to advise them you can’t be responsible for the event’s success, but you’ll do your best  to make things go as smoothly as you can.

    One benefit to this kind of service, is it really forces you to track your time.  When I teach my class on Planner Pricing, regardless of the pricing model people choose, I tell them it’s critical to know how many jobs you can do in a given year, which requires time tracking.

    Super Planner app now available in Android! Insights on Droid vs. iPhone Development Processes

    Posted June 26, 2011

    Well, it’s finally done.  The Droid version of my Super Planner app is now available.  Click here to check it out in the Android Marketplace.

    Developing in Android vs. iPhone

    First let me apologize for the delay in its release, as I’d initially promised it months earlier.  Here’s the story.  My assumption had been that after doing the heavy lifting last year in creating all the formulas, layouts, utilities, tips, etc. for the iPhone version, it would be fairly easy to show the app to an Android programmer, and say, “Make me one of these in Droid, please.” You know, like going into a store and saying, “See this shirt?  Get me one in medium.”  Alas, it was not so easy.  Not even close.  Developing an app for Google is a totally different process.

    1) Devices vs. the OS. Google controls the operating system (Android), but not the devices.  Whereas Apple controls both the operating system, AND the devices, Google’s Android OS runs on hundreds of different types of devices.  Apple’s got only three: iPod Touch; iPhone; and iPad, so its easy for them to make your app look pretty on those three devices.

    Google, on the other hand, has to enable your app to look the same, or pretty close, on hundreds of devices, so they’ve taken a different approach in the development process for apps.  Rather than place graphics and text in very specific places (like with Apple), the development code for Android includes ‘relational’ placement.  In other words, you tell it that a certain input box, for example, belongs just to the left of a certain line of text.  These instructions enable your app to scale across ump-teen different screen sizes, dimensions, resolutions, etc.

    That said, the Droid version does exactly every single thing the iPhone version does, and we even made some sections faster by removing unnecessary verbiage.

    2) No Home Screen. From a navigational standpoint, Android eliminates the need for a Home screen.  You click the app’s icon on your phone and it jumps you right into the app.  Super Planner is divided into 3 master sections: Food & Beverage, Audio Visual, and Room Capacity, each of which has multiple sub-sections.  If you want to go from one section to another in the iPhone version, you have to first go to Home, then into your new section.  In Android, the 3 section tabs are omnipresent at the top of your screen, so you can go from one to another more efficiently.

    3) The Menu Button.  Android also makes use of a Menu button, which allows additional sub-menu items to appear (and then disappear) on the screen, whereas Apple requires these sub-menu icons to be permanently anchored at the bottom of each screen.

    4) Turnaround Time. Apple turned around my app submission in around 2 weeks, which I thought was pretty fast.  Google approved my app and put it in their store in 5 minutes.

    Interesting experience.  Hope you Droid lovers enjoy the app, and I welcome your feedback!

    Event Leadership Institute Launches: Come Learn Something

    Posted June 20, 2011

    When do you use a glass vs. a metal gobo?  |  What’s the best way to charge for event planning?  |  What are the three biggest challenges to watch for when doing events in lofts?  |  What are the insider websites the top designers use to by their items wholesale?  |  What’s the exact verbiage you need on a certificate of insurance?  How do you get your business to the next level?  |  Whose responsibility is it to coordinate aspect ratios between presenters and a/v vendors?

    The list goes on.  And on.  Being an event planner encompasses a dozen different disciplines, such as food and beverage, venues, entertainment, audio visual, transportation, etc.  Nobody’s an expert at all of them, but we’re all responsible for them at some point, and a screw up on any of them can sink your event.  And your career.  Where do you turn to for quick answers, best practices, and guidance?

    Enter the Event Leadership Institute, a new venture I’ve been working on for the past year, which officially launched on June 1st.  The main thrust of it is online, on-demand top-flight education, training and insights for planners, all professionally produced and taught by subject matter experts.  Here are the key take-aways.

    1. Easy Access. Tapping a growing trend toward micro-learning, our classes average 40 minutes each, but are then broken into approximately 10 chapters of 4 minutes each by topic, so planners can jump right away to the section they need, when they need it.  You can return at a later date to finish the class, as the system remembers which chapters you’ve seen.

      Lighting 101

    2. Top Quality Content. We spend 7+ hours with every instructor (even experienced presenters), helping to develop and curate their presentations.  Our focus is to make the material well organized and easy to digest.  Over 90% of our classes have qualified for continuing education credits toward the CMP.

    Lighting 101: Ellipsoidals screen shot

      • Wide Range of Topics. Our Class Library covers categories from Business Ownership to Technical Production to R.O.I., we try to cover all the bases, with new classes added every month.
      • Interviews with Top Planners. The people who plan the biggest events in the country share their insights on everything, including how they run their events, what kind of employees they look for, how they got started, etc.

      • Flexible Payment Options. You can purchase classes in three ways:
          1. A la carte (they range from $35 to $55),
          2. Monthly Subscription:  $25 / month (Beta price) for unlimited access.
          3. Annual Subscription: $250 / year (Beta price) for unlimited access (2 months included free).

            For years, we’ve all fought to be treated like professionals.  This venture is an effort to help raise the overall level of education out there, and make it easy for planners to learn what they need, when they need it.  I thank all the instructors who have graciously given of their time and offered to share their hard-earned insights, in service of this cause.

            I invite you to take a look at our site, and explore our various classes.  Each one has a free preview chapter so you can sample it before committing, and new classes are added every month.  Help spread the word that there’s a new resource available to us all.

            Everyone Hates the MiddleMan

            Posted June 16, 2011

            Do You Just Markup Your Vendors or Do You Add Real Value?

            I’m sitting on the plane ride home from the BizBash West Expo, where I gave a 3 hour workshop called “The Business Accelerator for the Independent Planner: Best Practices for Building Your Event Company”.  (The next one is in Chicago on August 18th, then in NYC on October 19th).  I’m in the aisle seat and am having a bizarre episode with the man sitting in the middle seat next to me that is reminding me of an interesting discussion we had in our class on marking up vendors.

            Maybe “episode” is the wrong word.  Here’s the thing:  we’re in a row of three seats, and the window seat is empty, and for some bizarro reason, this guy refuses to move to the window and give us both an empty middle seat.  I gently give him more and more of my elbow on the shared armrest, but he’s dug in.  Now I’ve highlighted this paragraph and doubled the font size of it, hoping he’ll read it and take the hint.  But now he opens his smart phone and it’s all in Chinese, so I’m fighting the tide.  If there were someone sitting in the window seat we’d have no problem, but because it’s empty, it’s driving me crazy.

            What does this “middle man” have to do with my class?  Well, when we got to the section on pricing models, we had a whole discussion about how to prove value when you’re marking up your vendors.  One guy lamented that, “my resources are my biggest assets.  What happens when my client wants to book them directly?”

            That’s one of the biggest challenges of using the markup model.  But it goes much deeper.   I told him his first task is to really hone in on the value he brings to the table above and beyond just bringing in subcontractors, because if all the client thinks you’re doing is marking up a vendor, you’re just a middleman, and nobody likes a middleman.

            Why?  The middleman is perceived as an obstacle to efficient pricing and fluidity in the marketplace.  Why should goods and services have to make a pit stop at the middleman on their way to the end user?  Seems like a waste, which is why one of the best marketing slogans ever invented was “we eliminate the middleman.”

            So if you choose the general contractor business model, you need to counter this perception.  Here’s a few ideas we came up with that you can say to your client:

            • “I don’t just find my vendors, I manage them.  For every vendor proposal I forward you, there are 3 others I kick back to him because I know they’re not what you want.  I filter out everything that’s off base, saving you lots of time and aggravation.”
            • “I carefully evaluate and select each vendor for a specific job at a specific time.  The caterer I chose for your product launch might not be right for your gala dinner.  And they might not even be right for your next product launch in six months if I hear their chef left the company.  Some vendors work well in certain venues and not others.  Etc.”
            • “I know my vendors’ idiosyncrasies.  Some of them are always days late with their proposals, others leave key things out of their budgets, etc.  We compensate for that and isolate you from these headaches.”

            Of course they can’t be empty promises.  You’ve got to actually DO all that stuff, but if you do, you will in fact be making a solid case for why vendor services are being run through you on their way to the client.

            Do You Speak Client?

            Posted May 23, 2011

            YOU:             “Tell me what kind of event you’d like.  Do you want something classical and formal or modern and understated?”

            CLIENT:            “Um . . . I brought some pictures?”

            We are a super creative industry, but when it comes to understanding our clients, we can really be a bunch of dumb-asses sometimes.  We live in our own bubble, a bubble where the locals speak Eventese.  We know that “classical” means crystal chandeliers, tapestry table runners, oriental rugs, carved oak paneling, blah, blah, blah.  And “modern” means an open loft with white walls, hardwood floors, maybe some sleek couches, etc.Inspiration Board

            Or does it?  With so many designers of events, hotels and restaurants mixing modern and classical touches, even we’re not so sure anymore.  How then can we expect a client to know what these words mean?  Especially a client planning their first event, like a wedding, a company anniversary, or some other one-off event.  The truth is we can’t, and you can often drive a truck through the gap between what a client says they want, and what we think that means.

            So what do we do?

            1. We keep trying to make the client understand our Eventese language.  We think if we use even more Eventese terms, and gesture more with our hands when doing so, they’ll eventually get it. Like the stereotypical loud American tourist abroad who, when the local doesn’t understand their English, thinks that if they just speak the same words LOUDER, that’ll do the trick.
            2. We guess.  We’re so creatively gifted and stylish, we can just . . . tell.  WE know what the client wants.  We look at what they’re wearing, how they speak, what names they drop, and then categorize them in our heads and spit out a design we think they’ll like.  Or more likely, one we think they SHOULD like, (if they knew what was best for them).
            3. We learn to speak Client. We could actually, wait for it . . . learn to talk to the clients in a language they understand. Pretty radical, huh.

            Radical indeed.  Welcome to the world of Sasha Souza, wedding and event designer extraordinaire, who has cracked the code on speaking Client when it comes to event design.  Sasha’s come up with 10 simple non-event-related questions she asks all new clients.  The answers to each question give her specific insights into her client’s design preferences, which helps her produce Inspiration Boards that are spot-on.  She

            Sasha Souza

            Sasha Souza

            uses these boards to then implement specific event elements that reflect the client’s vision.

            Here’s a sample question:  “Where do you go on vacations?”  If the client says they go to spas and resorts, they’re far more likely to want to be in a ballroom; if they’re more the hiking and adventure type, they’re more likely to want a loft, barn, etc.

            I was so impressed with Sasha’s methodology that I invited her to fly out to NYC from her base in Napa to speak at the very first live event hosted by the Event Leadership Institute.  (If you’re interested in attending, it’s on June 7th at the incredible Gansevoort Park Avenue hotel rooftop.  Click here for more info.)

            Mind you, it’s not the questions themselves that are so special, though she will share those with the audience at our event.  It’s the concept of even coming up with them in the first place that I loved.  The idea of getting out of our own bubble and climbing into the client’s head to really understand what they want.

            What’s the Benefit?

            The impact is dramatic, and has several tangible benefits.

            1. The client feels like they’re getting a highly personalized design that is truly a reflection of what they want.
            2. The client feels more invested in the process because they’ve taken the time to fill out a detailed questionnaire.
            3. Sasha becomes known not just for great event design, but for really listening to her clients and knowing how to customize her work to meet their needs.
            4. Both parties save a great deal of time in going back and forth on concept development.  The questionnaire, when done right, is like taking the express elevator to getting a design that meets the client’s desires.

            The questions and the answers will only get you so far, however.  The heavy lifting comes in reading the tea leaves, in learning how to interpret the answers. Read them wrong, and you’ll get a client that’s frustrated that after all the insight they’ve given you, you still don’t “get it”.  Experience and intuition need to take you the rest of the way.

            So take some time and start learning to speak Client.  Get out of our Eventese bubble and get inside your client’s head, and you’ll be amazed at the results.

            When to Fire Someone: Toxic Employees & The Curse of Mediocrity

            Posted May 18, 2011

            [Author’s Note: Yes, I know it’s been almost two months since my last blog post.  Where have I been, you ask?  OK, I’ll just come right out with it: I’ve been sleeping with another audience.  There, I said it.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ve been great; I just needed something . . . new.  Actually, as many of you know, I’ve been buried in event training and education land, working to get the Event Leadership Institute ready for prime time.  If you haven’t been yet, take a peek; the site is live, though the official launch is coming soon.]

            Below is an advance peek at my next In Business Column for Event Solutions Magazine.

            In my last column I talked about becoming a boss and hiring your first employee, and outlined the process for effectively training and ramping up new hires.  Alas, not all employees work out.  One challenge small business owners face is the hassle of replacing underperforming workers.  Larger firms with dedicated HR departments can, and do, manage this process more efficiently.

            But with a small business, the owner typically has to do it all: fire the person and find his or her replacement.  Most people dread both tasks, the first because it’s wickedly uncomfortable; the second because it’s a huge, time-consuming pain in the ass.  So they end up ignoring the problem, rationalizing that the person’s performance is not THAT bad.

            The damage a problem employee can have to your company can range from moderate to catastrophic, but in any case it is usually far greater than you think.  Let’s look at two scenarios.

            The Toxic Employee

            This is the person (let’s call her Toxie) who is unhappy about something (their compensation, their boss, etc.) and develops a chip on their shoulder.  But Toxie isn’t content with keeping her irritation to herself; she’s got to share her misery with others.  She whispers in the ears of her co-workers, firing them up.  “Can you believe they want us to work on a weekend without paying us overtime!?”, or, “We shouldn’t be expected to do this task; let the interns do it!”

            Toxie’s frustrations aren’t validated until she gets others to join her cause and storm the castle.  She wants to bring others’ morale down to her level, and pretty soon her drama starts consuming more and more of everyone’s time. When that happens, she’s got to go.

            Toxic employees by definition spread their malcontent around the office, like a cancer.   And like a cancer, they need to be removed before the damage gets worse and more healthy employees get infected.  In sports we see examples all the time of athletes that “infect the locker room” and become a bad influence on others; rarely are those teams successful, no matter how good that athlete may be.

            The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

            Sometimes you’ve got a mediocre employee, however, with a great attitude.  Unlike Toxie, this person will be the first to admit when they fall short in their performance.  They don’t blame anyone but themselves, and they have the support and sympathy of their co-workers, and you, their boss.  This is the mediocre/low performer, so let’s call her Melo.

            Now, you might think, what’s the harm in keeping Melo around?  There’s no collateral damage to others like you’d have with Toxie, right?  Wrong.  The risk here is that by keeping Melo around, your A players might be tempted to measure themselves against her, and start settling for A- and B+ performance.  Worse, they may lose respect for you by continuing to allow someone to stay on who clearly is not meeting the job requirements.  Either way, they become a drag on your company’s mojo.

            In some ways, Melo is a much harder situation, because she’s likely to stick around longer.  Eventually Toxie wears out her welcome and pushes you to take action.  Firing Melo is like giving away a pet that you like but refuses to be house trained.  But if you want to grow a strong business instead of a half-way house, you know what you need to do.

            Firing Someone

            In my 20 years of running an event company I’ve probably fired 8 people, and the only thing worse than firing someone is firing someone who doesn’t see it coming.  That’s a sign that you haven’t clearly explained what you expect of the employee and/or given them proper feedback.  It’s a miserable feeling on both ends of the table.

            To avoid this, make sure you lay out, in writing, your job expectations, and give frequent and specific feedback at regular intervals.  If the performance problem doesn’t improve, be very clear about the consequences that will ensue if it’s not corrected.  If you do this right, nobody should be surprised when they get fired.

            Once you’ve bitten the bullet and terminated an under-performer, you’ll be amazed at the ancillary impact it has on everyone else’s performance.  It sends a message that not getting the job done will not be tolerated, and the other employees will begin stepping things up.  Plus, the replacement worker usually brings fresh energy and drive to the office and you’ll notice everyone’s productivity will receive a boost.

            These tangential benefits, however, are lost on your business if instead the problem worker quits before you fire them.  Please understand, I would never advocate taking away someone’s livelihood just to boost office productivity.  What I am saying is, if you’ve determined that a worker is no longer a good fit for your company and cannot turn things around, you’re better off taking the bull by the horns and proactively dealing with the issue directly.  It demonstrates strong leadership and your commitment to high standards for everyone you hire.

            Becoming A Boss

            Posted March 23, 2011

            NOTE:  Here is a sneak peak at my In Business column in the next issue of Event Solutions Magazine.

            @hgivner: Luv your ES column! My biz is jamming, am so busy I can’t handle all the work myself. Ready 2 hire my first employee.  Any advice? Candace, Independent Planner, LA

            I got this Twitter message last month (though Candace asked me not to list her Twitter handle).  My first response is, how great is it that people are so busy again!  Now, hopefully Candace has read my previous columns on how to calculate her fee structure so she’s profitable, and not just busy (because we all know they ain’t the same thing.)

            My second response is that hiring her first employee is not the only solution to being super busy.  Candace could instead use this as an opportunity to raise her rates, be more selective in the kinds of clients and events she takes on, etc.  The buzz she’d create by turning away clients because she’s so “in demand” will do wonders for her reputation.  Because make no mistake, hiring an employee will change the nature of her business in many ways, some of which she may not anticipate.  But if she still wants to move forward in becoming a boss, here are some tips to do it right.

            1.     Hire Someone To Replace the Lowest Paying Part of Your Job. You know the phrase “chief cook and bottle washer” which describes how entrepreneurs often have to do everything?  Well, in this case you want to start by hiring someone to do the bottle washing part, which presumably is the lowest paying.  Make a list of the main jobs you do in your business (sales, marketing, event operations, administration, etc.) and next to each one list approximately how many hours a week you spend on it, and what you think the market salary or hourly rate is for someone to do that task.  Your first hire should be the lowest one, because that’s the cheapest way for you to free up some of your time.  Your goal is to then shift that time toward the highest paying part of your job, which presumably is working with your clients.

            2.     Allocate Time to Manage Your Employee. Unfortunately, those low level hours your employee will take off your plate won’t all become available to you.  Why?  Because managing your employee takes time.  This is probably the biggest oversight people make when hiring someone.  You’ve got to factor in time to interview, train, coach and manage them.  And the more time you put in teaching someone how you want them to do something, the less time you’ll spend putting out fires if they mess it up later.

            3.     Create A Detailed Job Description. List as many of the tasks & responsibilities this person will have as you can think of.  This will not only help with accurate recruiting and interviewing, but will also serve as an outline for your training and a benchmark for performance evaluation later. And when you begin your training, start with the phrase, “Here’s what I expect of you.”

            4.     Document Your Training Process. When I ran my event company, I got a lot of things wrong, but one thing I got right fairly early on was to create written training materials.  This is an investment the first time around, but when you hire additional staff, it provides two great benefits: (a) It saves you a ton of time, and (b) it insures consistency in how your staff gets trained.  Here are some examples of the types of things I wrote down and would give to my new hires for us to review together:

            a.     Info About the Company. This is a no-brainer that too many people miss.  I wrote a short script for people to learn on how to explain what we do and what key points I wanted them to convey.  Your employees are ambassadors for your company; empower them to properly represent you.   I’d even give them an oral test on this before allowing them to answer the phone.

            This should include a list of Frequently Asked Questions by clients and suggested responses.

            b.     Instructions on Repeatable Tasks. This includes step-by-step procedures for things like running reports, doing inventory, creating a timeline, etc.  (My personal favorite was how to download postage to our Pitney Bowes machine.  I had one admin create that instruction sheet, and it was literally passed from one admin to the next over a fifteen year span.  To this day I never learned how to download postage.)

            c.      Info About Company Benefits & Policies. Candace probably isn’t thinking about this, but she can bet her new employee will.  How many vacation days do I get?  How many hours a week do I work?  What happens if I work all weekend on a job, do I get Monday off?  Is there health insurance?  What’s the travel reimbursement policy? It’s best to think these through and write them down.  They don’t have to be perfect; you can always change them.  (The first time an employee asked me this stuff 20 years ago I remember thinking:  “Benefits?  You mean working for me isn’t a joy unto itself?”)

            5. Provide Frequent & Clear Feedback. Most new bosses are reluctant to criticize their hires, and instead let things go.  They eventually either learn to tolerate mistakes, or it builds up and the only criticism that comes out is “you’re fired.”  This helps no one.  Employees need your feedback.  If they’re doing something wrong, tell them immediately.  Likewise, if they’re doing it right, give them a pat on the back acknowledging it.

            6. Be Their Boss, Not Their Friend. I’m sure this will be the one area I get the most hate mail on, but 8 out of 10 bosses in this industry I polled for this column are just that; they’re bosses.  The other two like to be buddy-buddy with their staff and like to think they’re all one big happy family.  I’m not saying you need to be a mean-ass boss, but rather that if you become too friendly with your staff it eventually compromises your ability (& backbone) to give disciplinary feedback and to push them to achieve superior results.

            It’s far more important that your employees respect you than like you.  It may make your stomach turn to see them clam up when you approach them at the water cooler, knowing that its you they were gossiping about, but in the end its what’s best for your business.

            *In my next column, I’ll talk about how to handle an employee that’s not working out.

            Confessions of A First Class Wannabe

            Posted March 20, 2011

            Many people who cannot normally afford to fly first class, like myself, sometimes get an opportunity to do so, courtesy of those great frequent flyer miles or the occasional corporate perk.  However, while I relish those rare occasions when I do fly first, it’s now virtually impossible to tolerate having to fly coach the rest of the time.  I’ve tasted the good life and I don’t want to go back.  I am a first class wanna-be.

            The first time I used miles to upgrade to first class was on a trip to Europe.  My wife and I got to the airport late, but it was no problem because first class passengers have their own check in line.  Mind you, there’s maybe 20 people in the whole section, which certainly did not justify a dedicated attendant.  But the airlines’ motto to first class passengers is ‘spoil ya rotten’ and that experience begins with check in.

            You also board the plane before anyone else, save perhaps small kids flying alone or people with wheelchairs.  We were given champagne and hot towels when we sat down.

            Then, in a clear fit of sadism, the airline attendants forced the coach passengers to board the plane by walking through the first class section.  I’ve done that walk, and it’s a cruel one.  It’s bad enough sitting in coach, merely knowing about the existence of a first class section.  But to have to walk through it, and see the Barca-loungers they sit in compared to the anatomically challenged seats in coach, that’s tough stuff.

            Here I experienced a brief identity crisis, for I used to be the one who resented the first class passengers.  But now I was on the other end, and, despite my humble coach roots, I was surprised at how easily I slipped into the mentality of a lifelong first classer.  I couldn’t wait for the endless parade of lowlifes to walk by so that the genteel calm of our section could return.

            And then there are those adorable little amenities kits they gave us.  Like giddy children we showed each other the razor with shaving cream in the handle, the blindfolds for sleeping, the mints, the moisturizer.  We glanced around and realized we were dead giveaways for upgraders.  The real first class passengers, the ones who pay for their tickets and fly first all the time, looked over at us with disdain.  We were given a free pass into an exclusive club, their club, and we had to get with the program.

            I won’t go into the vastly improved passenger-to-bathroom and passenger-to-flight attendant ratios, or the fact that the flight attendants in first are much nicer because they have fewer passengers to serve.  Or the wines offered with dinner.  We all know the night and day differences.  But whereas ‘upgraders’ marvel at every little pleasantry, true denizens of first class seem to barely notice them.  And that’s how you must behave if you want to pass yourself off as someone who truly belongs in first class.

            For starters, you must accept all the privileges of first class as though you are entitled to them, and under no circumstances can you widen your eyes in astonishment when your meal comes with real cutlery.  When, for example, the attendant takes the liberty of giving your drink a refill without your having asked for it, you may nod thanks, but should not look up from your newspaper.

            When the periodic brave passenger from coach boldly slinks through the curtain to use the first class bathroom, you must feel indignation.  You show the flight attendant a puzzled look, then glance back at the coach section.  Is somebody not manning their post?  Invariably the attendant will go back and firmly close the curtain as soon as the person returns to her seat, sending a message to all other would-be bathroom poachers: you are not welcome here.  Stay in your section; two toilets for the three hundred of you should be just fine

            When you sporadically stand to stretch your legs and can catch a peak into coach, you can come to no other conclusion than that it looks so . . . so . . . crowded!  And you realize that next time it could be you.  You could be the one without enough miles, the one in the cattle car.

            And therein lies the root of the problem: relativity.  Coach would be fine if there were no first class to compare it to.  In fact, if the people in coach only had a curtain behind them, a section even worse, even more cramped, in which passengers had to stand and hold onto railings like in a subway car, then they’d think coach was pretty darned good!  But alas, we know there’s nothing worse, and we also know that there’s a select few living the good life up front.

            By the same token, I was once inside a private corporate jet, not as a passenger mind you, but to pick up a client at the airport.  (Not the same airport the rest of us fly out of; they have their own airports, which you don’t know about).  And if you think first class is impressive, this was like a living room with wings.  Fortunately, there’s pretty much no chance in hell I’ll ever travel on one, so I don’t have to worry about comparing it to first class.  But there’s definitely a group of people who normally fly this way who view first class as steerage.

            The truth is, those few passengers paying exorbitant fees to fly first class pretty much underwrite the cost of coach for the rest of us; we just don’t realize it.  If the whole plane were coach, the cost of a ticket would at least double in price.  So what the airlines should do is simply offer passengers a choice.  You can fly coach from NY to LA for $900 on a plane with no first class section at all, or you can fly virtually the same flight for $450, but there’s going to be a small section of the plane in which people will be treated better than you.

            Far, far better than you.

            The Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights

            Posted March 5, 2011

            At the end of my last post I said I’d start putting together a Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights.  Having just finished speaking at several conferences, a handful of thoughts are fresh in my head.  Here are my first 5 Rights.  I invite you to submit your ideas to me as we compile this long overdue list.

            You, the meeting attendee, have the right to:

            1.    Blurt out “let’s move on” if one person in the audience engages the speaker in a back and forth discussion following their question.  The question asker is allowed only one rebuttal comment after the speaker answers their question, after which the speaker may add their final reply.  Yes, the speaker gets the last word, because that’s who the audience came to hear.  That’s just the way it goes.


            QUESTION ASKER:    “I disagree with your point because I don’t get it.  And besides, I don’t care if I learn anything here, I just like to hear myself talk in front of everyone.”

            SPEAKER:   “I’m sorry you don’t get what I’m saying.  Let me try again to explain it, but this time I’ll use smaller words.”

            QUESTION ASKER:   “Thanks for using smaller words, but I still don’t get it.  Plus, I’m enjoying this little time we’re having together at the expense of the rest of the audience.”

            SPEAKER:   “Hey, if you had it all figured out you’d be giving this class.  But you’re not, are you?  See this thing I’m standing on?  That’s called the stage.”

            GOOD SAMARITAN:   “Let’s move on.”

            2.    Hear an Overview of the session at the beginning, so you’ll know what will be covered when, and won’t ask a question that the speaker will get to eventually.

            3.    If the speaker is being ridiculously self-promotional about their company, stand up and say, “I’m concerned you won’t have enough sales brochures for the whole audience.  I hope we won’t have to share.”  Hey, if we don’t stand up to this, pretty soon all exit doors of meeting rooms will lead through the gift shop.

            4.    Walk out if you are not enjoying the session.  However, if you think the session is good, but have to leave for other reasons (to catch a flight, run to an appointment, donate a kidney, etc.) put your phone to your ear as you’re getting up, and put a finger in your other ear, as if to muffle the noise, the better to hear your fictitious call.  Speakers assume everyone who walks out of their class is doing so because they don’t like the session, so your fake phone call tells the speaker he/she is doing great, but you’ve got an urgent call.

            5.   Some kind of free gift if you registered for the conference before the Early Bird cutoff date, only to find that date suddenly extended two weeks.

            There you go, the first 5 of the Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights.  Pass around, share, and send me your best additions.