Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

5 Steps to Better Conversations

There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

In today’s fast paced world, we may have many virtual conversations, but, we are losing the ability to sit across a person or a group of people and have a real conversation. We are pre-occupied with the myriad of things happening in our life, or are constantly being beeped by one of the many gadgets we carry. This does not bode well for our generation, because a breakdown in the ability to communicate in the real world can have disastrous repercussions. We see that today in the increase in divorces, suicides and depression related illnesses. Somewhere along this rapid technological progress, we are losing touch with the fundamental bonds which hold us all together. The art of conversation is one such bond, it has been pivotal in our development. Listed below are five steps, to assist and benchmark conversational and communication skills.

1. Knowledge: When it comes to being a good communicator, knowledge is a defining aspect. Without it, we can talk without actually saying very much. When an individual is knowledgeable, it comes across even when you talk to them about the most trivial of subjects. One must constantly keep learning and growing. With the proliferation of information today, there are so many ways we can keep ourselves abreast on current affairs as also increase our knowledge on subjects we are interested in. To learn specific tips on how to increase your knowledge base, please click here.

2. Confidence: Being confident about oneself is an integral part of being a good communicator. Without this characteristic, knowledge will not help you to communicate in an effective manner. To assess our confidence, we have to identify instances where we lack the confidence to take a stand or share an opinion. Watch the best communicators in the world and visualize yourself communicating in similar manners. We have to get rid of negative thoughts which give rise to self doubt. At the same time, we have to keep a fine balance between being confident and over confident. To learn specific tips on how to increase your level of confidence, please click here.

3. Clarity: Without clarity, the message we want to communicate can get lost somewhere in translation. This will result in both the speaker and audience getting frustrated and tune out. There needs to be substantial and adequate thought put into the organization of our ideas. At the same time, we need to make sure that the language we use is not too convoluted that it confuses rather than impresses the audience. Lastly and most importantly, pronunciation is of critical importance. These factors put together, form the basic foundation of clarity of speech. To learn about each component in greater detail, please click here.

4. Enthusiasm: No one really wants to talk to someone who is sick of life and has lost the passion for living. Individuals who attract us are those whose body language, tone and words express their zest for life. They have a certain type of energy around them which makes just about anything they say a lot more enjoyable. Since 93% of all conversation is based on non verbal cues which include your body language and tone, it is essential that we pay more attention to them to ensure that our conversations are an accurate reflection of our persona and the message we want to convey. To learn more about these three factors, which determine the enthusiasm level in your conversations, please click here.

5. Listening: The art of listening is a dying art in our world today. Conversations are constantly and rudely interrupted, or the audience distracted, either due to information overload in their minds, or one of the many gadgets on them, which keep beeping or ringing. In order to become better listeners there are three areas we should focus our attention towards. Firstly, are we actively listening to the conversations we are part of? Secondly, do we have internal filters which are impeding our listening to the entire message. Lastly, are we paying attention to the subtle clues in each conversation conveyed through tone, body language and choice of words? To learn more about each of these three areas, please click here.

As an entrepreneur we have to work towards making great first impressions to colleagues, investors and customers. Our conversational skills are a large component of the overall impression we project. We have to ensure that we are conveying the impression we wish to. The steps provided above should assist in evaluating your present conversational skills and subsequently used to benchmark how we measure up on each one . Better conversational skills and abilities will not only increase the quality of your professional relationships, it will do wonders for your personal relationships too. I wish you the best of luck in all your future endeveours.

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Are you listening?

“We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.” Anonymous

The art of listening is a dying art in our world today. Conversations are constantly and rudely interrupted, or the audience distracted, either due to information overload in their minds, or one of the many gadgets on them, which keep beeping or ringing. Somehow no one seems to be listening anymore, yet, everyone seems to be talking a lot more. The fact of the matter is, listening is not the easiest of exercises. It requires large amounts of patience, a willingness to learn from the other person and most importantly, to have respect for the other person’s point of view. However, in the fast paced world we live in today, everyone seems to want to get their two bits in, and has frankly stopped caring about what the other person is saying or feeling. Conversations structured like this are the worst sort of one-way monologues one is part of. Developing skills to be a better listener takes years to master, listed below are some steps to assess one’s current level, and then work on them further.

1. Active Listening: Have you ever spoken to someone and the other person appeared to be distracted or not really there? This creates a level of frustration in the speaker, and eventually they lose interest in sharing their opinion because they are not being heard. When an individual is listening actively they are constantly either reaffirming the thoughts of the speaker with nods or the occasional “uh-huh”, when unclear they are paraphrasing what is being said and getting clarification. Taking an active interest in what is being said, helps the speaker to communicate their thoughts more actively. How active a listener are you?

2. Filters: All of us have interests and hobbies that we like to talk about and get other opinions on. We also know which subjects are not of interest to us, and chances are we will tune out when someone starts speaking about them. When put into the context of listening, this is extremely selfish behaviour, and we end up only talking and listening to people who interest us. In the real world this is difficult as we do have to listen to people who talk about their interests. We have to closely monitor these filters and do our best to eradicate as many of them as possible. Remain committed to keeping an open mind and avoid making judgments based on personal filters. Are you filtering too many conversations?

3. Clues: As mentioned in the last post, non verbal communication constitutes a large part of overall conversation. We have to train ourselves, not only to listen to the words the speaker is using, but also take note of the tone of voice and body language. We have to know when to empathize and when to give constructive feedback. Chances are, if we have not really been listening to the conversation as a whole, we would have missed these cues, which result in miscommunication. There will be times when  speakers get frustrated that the individual is not listening to what they are saying, and the listener is clueless about why the person is so angry (Happens a lot between men and women). Are you paying attention to all the clues?

I have a mentor who does a great job at listening. I can sit in front of him for hours, and somehow thoughts come easier and communication is a lot more fluid. Even though there is minimal input on his part I ‘know’ he is listening. Imagine if you could have such conversations with your colleagues, investors and customers. As an entrepreneur, we have to keep our ears peeled all the time to ensure that we are staying on top of the game. If you are listening, the probability of success is a lot higher.

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How Enthusiastic are you?

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have all had that one professor or lecturer in school or college, who put everyone to sleep. His/her monotonous delivery, made it impossible to pay attention to the material being taught. There are also many individuals who have a strained manner of speaking. They have either lost interest in life, or have sunk into a routine which impacts their passion for life negatively. When we come into contact with such individuals, they tend to drain our energy too.  Were an entrepreneur to ever get stuck in such a rut, the impact for his/her business could be disastrous. I mention passion repeatedly in most of my series, as being critical for success in any aspect for life. We have to avoid getting bogged down when difficult situations arise, to keep our chin up is essential. Keeping a positive outlook is vital to keep enthusiasm levels high. Some factors by which we can measure levels of enthusiasm in a conversation are:

1. Body Language: If you pay attention to great communicators such as Steve Jobs,  notice their gestures and overall body language when they are communicating. It is a known fact, that using gestures when speaking helps the brain connect thoughts faster. Our overall body posture is an integral part of the total message we want to deliver. For example, if one were to stand with drooping shoulders and speak in a non expressive manner when pitching to a VC,  we will send a  wrong subliminal message. Pay attention to your body language when speaking, it is a major component of your overall communication delivery.

2. Tonality: I did a NLP (Neuro Linguisitic Programming) course a couple of years ago where a large chunk was dedicated to the importance of tonality. A variety of tones can be used to communicate the same message, in many different ways. If you have ever heard or watched Anthony Robbins, notice how he uses tonality to communicate with the audience at different levels. Sometimes, his pitch is fast and highly charged to get the audience fired up to his level,  other times, he drops the level of his voice to communicate at a different level when he wants to appeal to your subconscious. Pay attention to your tone when you next communicate with someone. Are you mixing it up enough?

3. Words: Extraordinary, Amazing, Revolutionary these are just some of the words that Steve Jobs uses in his keynote addresses when he introduces new products. With the correct choice of words, one is able to flavor communication in a manner that helps the audience relate to what you are saying. Imagine John F. Kennedy saying “Do good things for your country,” instead of “Ask not what your
country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” The choice of words and how they are put together in a sentence, impact greatly on the intensity and meaning of what you are saying.

When I was with toastmasters we were taught the 55% 38% 7% rule. The rule simply says that 55% of communication is through body language, 38% through our tone and 7% through the words we use. Unfortunately we pay too much attention to the 7% and forget about the importance of the 93%. To become a great communicator, we have ensure that we pay attention to the entire 100% and deliver it with enthusiasm and passion.

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5 Components to build Trust

“Self-trust is the first secret of success.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

This series started with a post regarding how the trust I had in PayPal was shaken when my account got compromised. In life, our trust in people and businesses will often be tested. That is life, and we have to accept it. The fact of the matter is, without trust, we would not get far in life. The trust building process comprises of several components. Each of them plays a vital role in the process, and provides us with  benchmarks to help achieve the level of trust required. 

1. Integrity: Integrity is based purely on the actions and decisions we make in life. They reflect who we are and what we stand for. Three measures to use to benchmark our own level of integrity are ; firstly, are we congruent in our thoughts, words and actions? The second one is, do we honor our promises and commitments to ourselves and others? The last one, do we possess the courage to stand up for our values and beliefs in the face of resistance? These questions can serve as a guide to learn more about personal and business integrity levels. To read more about trust and integrity please click here.

2. Competence: Competence is a pre-requisite for the process of trust building. An individual or business is deemed competent in a particular skill set when they have proved themselves adequately. However, for a new startup, without a track record, this is a challenging task. Competence needs to be communicated through actions in a younger team. Using academic credentials, talents and skill sets or references can be used to help prove a younger team’s ability and capability. To read more about trust and competence please click here.

3. Consistent Communication: We have all come across businesses where senior management says one thing, middle management says another and the customer service representative says something completely different. When there is inconsistency in communication, building trust will be an arduous task. As younger startup companies, we have to instill the importance of consistent communication, from the beginning of our operations. This includes the alignment of senior management’s agenda, marketing strategies as well as how customer service representatives are supposed to interact with clients. To read more about the importance of consistent communication and trust please click here.

4. Genuine Concern: An individual or business can have high levels of integrity, be competent and communicate with consistency, yet, a lack of genuine concern for others or your customers, will dramatically slow down the trust building process. I believe a genuine concern for your customer with honest intention is the ‘x-factor’ in the trust building process. It is important that we get a deep understanding of our clients needs and wants and craft our strategies around them. It is only when we are able to communicate the importance of this component to the rest of the team in the form of actions will we actually notice results. To read more about trust and genuine concern please click here.

5. Results: Results and past performance speak louder than any number of words. The world today benchmarks each and everyone of us to what we have achieved. Therefore, as young entrepreneurs, we must pay a great deal of attention to proving ourselves and showing tangible results. These can be in the form of academic achievements, extra curricular achievements or projects where we have documented results. It is important to become result and action oriented. When an individual has a reputation of getting the job done well, the ability to gain the trust and confidence of peers, investors and customers is enhanced. To read more about trust and results please click here.

Building and maintaining trust is a challenging task. It requires constant attention, and the slightest of slips in our behavior has severe negative impact on the level of trust. As we all know, once a vase is broken it can be put back together, but it will never be the same. The components talked about in this post are foundational elements in the trust building process. When we have the trust of a customer or friend it dramatically changes the dynamics of the relationship, to one where a lot more can be achieved. As entrepreneurs, we must strive to develop a reputation of one who can be trusted. This will have a phenomenal positive impact on the level of business as well as your life. 

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Results

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” Henry Ford

As a young entrepreneur, some questions you hear repeatedly from prospective customers are, “Who is currently using your product/service?” or “How many users do you currently have on your system?”  These questions are asked with the aim to establish whether the prospect can trust your business to deliver what you are pitching, and whether the team has the appropriate capabilities and skill sets. Not many individuals want to be the first customer to test a brand new product/service, it is hence up to the entrepreneur to convince the customer why they should use their product/service. The question that arises is “How does an entrepreneur convince a customer to trust him to deliver on his word?”. I believe the fastest way to do this, is to reference past performance and results, and use them as benchmarks to make a convincing argument. 

Results and past performance speak louder than any number of words. The world today benchmarks each and everyone of us to what we have achieved. For example, take an individual with high levels of integrity, extremely competent, communicates consistently and has a genuine concern for what he/she is doing. However, if this individual does not have a track record of delivering when given a task, chances are that they are not going to be given a chance to step up to the plate. Therefore, as entrepreneurs, we have to constantly look for ways to prove to customers, stakeholders, investors, employees and the media that we have what it takes to succeed. We cannot wait around for things to happen or wait for the ‘right’ opportunity. Action needs to be taken, and positive results need to follow. Will we always get the results we want? Unfortunately not. However, if we persevere and pursue what we want to achieve relentlessly results will follow.

Some areas where younger entrepreneurs can display results they have achieved are:

1. Academics: This works well when you are raising early stage angel or venture funding. If one has achieved success in the form of honor rolls, awards or other recognition for academic pursuits, they should be included in some way in your pitch. From a customer’s point of view, having someone with deep theoretical knowledge about your product/service adds great value.

2. Extra Curricular: Including any information about areas such as sports, debate societies, student unions or charitable efforts one has been part of, also adds value.  A personal example is,  when I co-founded an entrepreneurship society at university, which has since grown from 10 members in Singapore, to over 2500 spread across all of Asia today. It was through this platform that I gained a valuable network, and built trust with many of my mentors today. Other examples could be contributions to charitable organizations and events, and funds you may have raised for them.

3. Projects & Initiatives: Results can only be achieved when you take initiatives and actions. Highlight areas where you took an initiative, such as, starting a blog, a website, a store on ebay, freelance projects or any other example where you have documented results. Such projects go to show that you are willing to go the extra mile to reach you goals. 

Once the business has established customers, continue to track results through all business processes. Take responsibility for all the results you get, be they positive or negative. I have found that the learning process is specially instructive when we do not get the results we want. I have repeated this many a time, there is no failure, only feedback. Once you have established a solid track record, and have been identified as a result oriented team member, the level of trust your peers will have in you, will sky rocket. 

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Genuine Concern

“If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.” Buddha

An individual or business can have high levels of integrity, be competent and communicate with consistency, yet, a lack of genuine concern for others or your customers, will dramatically slow down the trust building process. I believe a genuine concern for your customer with honest intention is the ‘x-factor’ in the trust building process. We have all encountered situations where a business, restaurant, hotel or individual went out of their way to assist you and remember the impact it had. This could be something as small as having your laundry picked and dropped to your house free of charge or giving you a complimentary meal when your food did not arrive in time. These gestures communicate genuine concern for the customer, and an honest aim to make sure they are completely satisfied. 

When a business puts making X amounts of money in a calender year or achieving a certain amount of ROI every quarter as the only aim, they tend to miss out on this factor. Therefore, to build an organization which takes into account the aim and will to ensure that each customer is looked after to the best of the company’s abilities is a challenging task. It has to begin with senior management, they must lead by example. A couple of days ago, I had a prospective customer email me regarding taking some psychometrics courses. Unfortunately, his email got buried and I completely forgot to respond. When I uncovered his email a week later, I promptly sent him the information along with a free test to apologize for the delay. We must always remain vigilant of our intentions, attitude and actions from the customers point of view. 

As a startup it is important that a culture for genuine concern is developed from the onset. Listed below are a few steps to help you get started in the right direction.

1. Listen: Understand your customers in as much detail as possible. Learn what their goals, objectives, threats and concerns are when dealing with vendors, who may be providing similar services to yours. Armed with a thorough understanding of their needs and wants, we will be better equipped to cater to them.

2. Communicate: This needs to start internally in the business, the team must be made aware of the focus, agenda and achievement targets of the company. How the company plans to achieve targets as well as the necessary actions that need to be taken. Such information empowers the workforce as can be seen at Southwest Airlines, the company has the best service standards by far in the industry. We also need to communicate our agenda to the customers. This helps create transparency and removes suspicion from the customer’s mind.

3. Actions: We have to lead with examples and empower our workforce to go beyond the call of duty to help a customer. Ritz Carlton gives employees a discretionary budget in case of an emergency or incident with a customer. At my local Starbucks, the servers know me by name as well as my daily order. When a customer receives such service they are bound to let everyone know, and this will not only help create goodwill but also secure a loyal customer base. 

Financial goals are important metrics for any business. However, I believe that businesses should have metrics for the softer side of the business as well. How many satisfied customers did we serve this year as compared to last year? How many customer complaints were received this year as compared to last year? Benchmarks must be created for quality of service too. Genuine concern for your customers is positively correlated to better quality of service, this results in more customers and higher levels of trust.

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Consistent Communication

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” Anthony Robbins

We have all come across businesses where senior management says one thing, middle management says another and the customer service representative says something completely different. Another example, marketing slogans promote 24/7 customer support yet, there is no one to answer the phones at 3 am in the morning. When there is inconsistency in communication, building trust will be an arduous task. As younger startup companies, we have to instill the importance of consistent communication, from the beginning of our operations. Such a culture will act as a catalyst in the development of trust and creating a level of loyalty to your product/service. Failure to do so will have a detrimental impact on your business as a whole, and it will be very difficult to retain and nurture existing customers. 

Several key areas where consistency of communication is of utmost importance are:

1. Senior Management: This group of individuals is responsible for the creation of a culture where candor is promoted through the ranks. They need to lead by example by keeping their word, and being upfront and honest with all employees, vendors and customers. This is manifested in the little things, how many times have you told your secretary or colleague to make up an excuse when you don’t want to speak to someone on the phone? If one promotes honesty and consistency in the organization such actions clearly conflict with the message that you are sending to your employees and colleagues. Inconsistency of communication is usually the result of a breakdown from senior management. This group needs to be extremely vigilant of their actions and words. 

2. Customer Service: How many times have you called a support department and felt like slamming the phone down because of the level of service you received? I know I have wanted to do so many times. This is the result of the gap in communication between middle and senior management. When this level is not clear about the level of communication the organization stands for, what their role is, or why it is important that they act and behave in accordance with the principles of the organization, they will not be able to communicate this messages to the end customer. I understand that in todays world, doing this while outsourcing these activities to third party vendors is going to be a difficult task. However, it is of vital importance that creative solutions to this problem be developed to facilitate the trust building process.

3. Marketing: Seth Godin wrote an interesting book called “All Marketers are Liars”. It uses various examples to drive home the point that the most successful corporations are the ones who have consistent and honest marketing. Today, we are bombarded by millions of advertisements, many of them use deceptive tactics to stir curiosity. I am sure many people click the pop up banner which says you have won a million dollars. Often a company will promise features and capabilities which they may not possess. Most of these companies will never be able to develop any trust with their target customers. As a startup, use marketing as a tool to tell a compelling story, which is rooted in honesty. 

Consistency of communication must be developed through the entire business. When mistakes are made do not attempt to cover them up and embellish the truth. It only takes a single act of inconsistency in your message to destroy any trust which may have been developed between your partners, vendors or customers. 

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Competence

“A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.” John J. Pershing

Competence is a pre-requisite for the process of trust building. An individual or business is deemed competent in a particular skill set when they have proved themselves adequately. However, for a new startup, without a track record, this is often a very challenging task. Competence needs to be communicated through actions in a younger team. For example, take two startups, both aiming to develop similar ebay replicas in a virgin market. Both teams have identical skill sets in terms of technical capabilities. One of the team, actively looks for individuals with prior experience in this sector, and adds them to their advisory body. Along with this, they get a major courier company to sign up with them as well as a reputable payment processor. A customer evaluating which website to use, will clearly choose the team which has put in extra effort in developing weaker areas of expertise. 

This example goes to show that younger startups need to think creatively about areas of competence and work pro-actively on weaker aspects. Areas of competence must be clearly communicated to their target audience. Some areas which can be emphasized for younger startups are:

1. Education: Many startups comprise of young team members who may still be at university or have recently graduated. Emphasis on your team’s specialized educational background to show they have adequate technical, managerial or marketing skills required by the business is an asset. Any other certifications or external program qualifications of team members can also be added when relevant. 

2. References: References from established members of your target industry whom you or other team members have worked with, can be very helpful. This serves as a validation of your skill sets and capabilities. This is particularly handy when a team is involved in raising seed funding at an early stage of the venture, from angels, friends or even family. 

3. Talent: All of us have some particular talent which makes us unique. Some may be good at public speaking, sales, programming, art, writing, sports or another talent. When your talent pool adds direct value to the business you are embarking on, it is advisable to highlight them. They add depth to your overall profile and provide keen insights into team member’s skill sets. For example if you were a swimming champion throughout university, it shows that you have discipline, and thrive on competition and high endurance levels. Many valuable characteristics can be extrapolated from that one talent.

Once credibility has been established, the display of competence becomes a lot easier to communicate. We all know that google is by the far the best search engine today and that it’s team is highly competent at creating algorithms which continually improve the product. A new startup wanting to challenge google will have a very difficult and challenging task to communicate that level of competence. Developing competence levels within your business is a constant work in progress. Set goals, and keep developing the team’s capabilities in strategic areas, to ensure that long term trust can be built with your customers.

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Integrity

“Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity.” W. Clement Stone

Integrity is a foundation block of building trust, in both life and business. Our integrity levels are built upon our value and belief systems. It is these systems which define us as individuals and businesses. Ensuring that the core values which define us as individuals, are in congruence with the values we want our business to be defined by, is vital. A mismatch between these two creates substantial friction. Therefore, it is essential when building your team, to get individuals who have similar values and beliefs. Integrity however is not something which is developed overnight. An individual or organization needs to work hard and consistently to develop an image of integrity. 

Our integrity is based purely on actions and decisions we make in life. They reflect who we are and what we stand for. Listed below are a couple of integrity benchmarks to help gauge integrity levels:

1. Congruence: This is an essential sub component when evaluating integrity levels. Complete congruence is when we think, speak and act in an identical fashion. However in this day and age, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Organizations want to make money, to achieve this they embellish their services with words which are not actual representations of what they provide, finally, they provide customers with sub par services to achieve their primary goal. Such an organization will find it impossible to build a loyal customer base, and will probably not be around for very long. We have to ensure that are actions are in congruence with our thoughts and words both as individuals and organizations.

2. Commitment: Promises made by individual or business must be honored. If your business guarantee’s 99% uptime of your services, make sure that there is an adequate infrastructure in place to support that commitment. I am sure we have all come across individuals who promise us the world, but when it comes down to getting things done, they rarely deliver. Such individuals get labelled as big talkers and cannot be depended on. Therefore, be very careful when making bold statements and promises to customers. 

3. Courage: In life, at some point or other, most of us will find ourselves at a crossroads of opportunities where taking the easy way out goes against all our principles and beliefs. It is at moments such as these that an individual’s integrity is truly tested. This is specially true where money is concerned, and we have seen many public cases where senior management compromised their values for short term monetary gains. Many businesses turn a blind eye to sweat shops, below quality products and poor service.  Not standing up for your principles and beliefs makes developing a reputation for integrity a very challenging task. 

I hope these benchmarks will get one thinking about personal integrity as well as that of the business. Without this crucial element, we could have the next killer product, service or idea, and yet not succeed. One needs to be constantly vigilant about what our thoughts, words and actions are communicating. An immediate exercise one can do with our teams is value identification. This will help clarify the team’s and businesses common value systems as a whole. This list can help measure actions against them, to gauge the sort of image being projected.

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