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Agency Tenets

     

    Image provided by Getty Images (fanat79)Most of you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking, “Well, this ought to be interesting…” That’s exactly what I want you to think — because it proves my point that pageants and ambassador programs get a bad rap. I use the term loosely because some “pageants” deserve every ounce of criticism they receive — we have to look no further than some reality TV shows.

    That being said, I’m here to challenge your thinking on the quality and characteristics of young women who participate in such programs — on a local, regional or national level. In addition to these experiences providing lessons about the importance of community service, how to balance a busy schedule, being a positive role model, and the finer points of etiquette, I assert that there are valuable life lessons and business principles that can be garnered.

    I’ve been involved with an organization for more than 20 years because of an experience that changed my life when I was 18 years old. Here are few nuggets that I picked up along the way:

    1.  It’s OK if things don’t go as planned

    My experience has taught me that when things don’t happen according to your plan, there’s usually something better in store. Even with the best-laid plans, you have to be open to curve balls in life and accept them for what they are.

    My involvement with a local ambassador program required me to transfer colleges my sophomore year — just a few weeks before classes began. This was challenging and stressful, but it allowed me to graduate with a better degree and availed me of other opportunities that I wouldn’t have had at my original school. It also introduced me to some new lifelong friends, and I’ve been grateful for these things ever since.

    So if your plans take an unexpected turn — perhaps you didn’t land the job you wanted, or get that big promotion — take a moment to pause and reflect. Then make the best choices with what you’re given — trusting that the detour on your course arrived for a reason. Many times you may not even realize the value until you look back, but I guarantee you’ll learn something.

    1. The importance of a proper handshake

    This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve met who have a terrible handshake! Unfortunately, many of them are women.

    I credit my experience as an ambassador with learning how to make an effective and proper handshake — full contact, medium firmness and with direct eye contact. This also dispels the myth that a proper handshake has to be hard and masculine — it does not.

    Everyone needs to be confident when they make that critical first impression and introduction — no matter what industry you’re in, your job title or how old you are. A good, solid handshake is an invaluable gesture that garners immediate credibility.

    If I meet someone who gives me a lousy handshake, I call them on it and ask for another one. So, how’s your handshake?

    1. You never know when one decision will be a game-changer

    We make hundreds of decisions every day — some big, some small, some important, some mundane. But every once in a while you make a seemingly insignificant decision that rocks your world.

    My decision to participate in an ambassador program shortly after graduating high school was one of those decisions. It led me to another program later on that had a significant impact on me, including what I studied in college and my career in marketing. It led me to owning my own agency, and over 20 years of volunteer service and mentoring of young women.

    It provided a network of mentors and colleagues that I wouldn’t otherwise have the honor of knowing. Small decisions can deliver big impact!

    For every dozen risks you take a few may turn out to be winners, and if you’re really lucky, one might be a big winner. There’s no magic trick to knowing which ones will hit the jackpot, but some thoughtful reflection might lead you in the right direction.

    Questions you might ask yourself:

    What have I got to lose if I don’t try?

    What are the business, financial or emotional risks to myself, and those around me?

    Will I wonder “what if” later on? What’s the “Regret Factor?”

    Will I have the chance to do this again in the future?

    When was the last time I challenged myself to do something outside my comfort zone?

    Is someone else encouraging me to do this because they think I have the skills?

    You will learn to doubt yourself less if you understand how to take calculated risks. In the end you still have to take several risks to find that game changer, but the more you try, the quicker it will happen!

    1. The power of mentoring

    Lots of people have participated in mentoring programs, but for many professionals we can just add this to the list of “Things I Should Do Someday.”

    I’d probably be in this same camp if it weren’t for my experiences. As an ambassador, I was fortunate enough to make connections with wonderful coaches and mentors whom I still rely on to this day.

    I’m absolutely certain I wouldn’t be where I am — either personally or professionally — without them. They were there to guide me, answer questions and encourage me during my crucial college and early career years. I’ve never forgotten how important this was, and have been steadfast and passionate about giving back and guiding other young women through similar circumstances.

    Once I mentored a freshman foreign exchange student at the University of Minnesota. I expected our conversations to be about college coursework, looking for internships in her field and networking strategies.

    To my surprise, this young student from Africa had arrived at one of the largest universities in the United States (60,000+ students) and had no idea how to use the transportation system to get to her classes! She didn’t know how to contact her advisor or even how to find a job through her work-study program.

    I put myself in her shoes and realized how scary it must have been for her. I realized quickly that my role was to guide her on the very basics of college life — things most students already know and can do without second thought. I also looked for and found the opportunity to learn from her.

    She spoke fluent French, so I insisted that when we met we tried to speak in French so I could brush-up on my skills there. She was ever so grateful and we had a fabulous experience. I will never forget her.

    If you’ve had a great mentor in your life, it’s important to do two things: Tell them “thank you,” and pay it forward and give back to future leaders. Many times, my mentors saw potential in me, or opportunities that I wouldn’t have recognized or taken advantage of on my own.

    The wisdom they shared with me came from their own experiences and insights, which are invaluable tools to those you mentor. The ability (and honor) to help guide and advise other young professionals is extremely rewarding and doesn’t have to be a daunting task.

    Even if they aren’t in the same profession as you, it’s about making a connection and listening and advising from someone they can trust. You may not even realize the impact you could have on another person with simple and small acts. It’s powerful and worthwhile — go do it!

    1. Strong public speaking skills will set you apart

    Public speaking – everyone’s worst nightmare, right? Well it doesn’t have to be, and you can really use this skill to your advantage in various situations.

    This is something I’ve grown to appreciate as I ventured into the workforce, but I wasn’t always comfortable with public speaking. I was actually quite shy growing up. However, I was forced to do this often as an ambassador — and many times without the advantage of advance preparation (a.k.a winging it) in front of hundreds of people.

    Being at ease in front of people will help differentiate you and advance your career in many different ways. Of course, it gives you the confidence and experience to make killer presentations, the ability to speak off-the- cuff, and maybe even stand up in a room of people and make a fool of yourself once in a while (when in doubt, use self-deprecating humor!). But these skills will pay off in other ways too. It also gives you the confidence to walk into a room of strangers and make conversation. It gives you the courage to extend your hand and introduce yourself. It helps you find a connection with someone you just met. Trust me – people take notice of others who demonstrate these skills and are at ease with public speaking! It could very well be that little extra polish between you and another candidate vying for a promotion.

    1. Grace never goes out of style

    I often say you can never be too polite or too dressed up. In one word: Grace. It’s a big word that encompasses many qualities and means something different to everyone.

    Grace can mean impeccable manners, using proper grammar, being charming or having a polished style. It can also be used to describe how you handle various situations: With professionalism, kindness and poise. Think “grace under pressure.”

    All of these traits involve paying attention to the details, and all of these traits are widely recognized and highly respected in professional environments. Grace is a key component of your own personal brand and a pillar of your character.

    Often times it’s someone’s first impression of you — and it may happen without you even speaking a word.

    {This article was originally posted in the October 2014 Business Journals publication}

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    Greek life at most college campuses conjures up images of all-night parties and rowdy fraternity guys. But there’s a side of fraternity and sorority life that most people don’t see unless they’ve been part of it. At its core, Greek life — specifically being in a leadership role in the chapter — is hands-on training for many essential life and business skills.

    Most fraternities and sororities have an executive council of leadership (“Exec”) that runs the chapter, spearheading things like budgets, rushing new members, and philanthropic activities. Each member of Exec is responsible for his or her elected office plus the house as a whole. As an active Exec member— and eventual president of my chapter at the University of Minnesota — here are some of the incredible lessons I learned that still apply to my career today.

    1. The art of diplomacy

    When you lead a group of more than 100 women, you’re going to experience tension, especially when you have to live with them while leading them. You can’t go home at night and tell your spouse about your crazy co-worker and come back the next day with a fresh start — you also have to eat dinner, participate in events, study, and maybe share a room with other members who may not like the decisions you make.

    The art of diplomacy helped me understand that:

    • What you say is just as important as how you say it. People usually give the benefit of the doubt, but only if leaders are honest and straightforward — especially when it comes to difficult decisions.
    • You need to be empathetic. As a house, we were wired to work as a team, so when one person was impacted by something, it impacted everyone. Listen to what’s being said (and what’s not being said) in any situation, and seek to understand first — deal with facts first and emotions next. Both play a role in leadership and decision making.
    • It’s important to maintain positive and constructive relationships with people, whether you live with them or not. Believe it or not, you can be civil even if you disagree with someone! I’ve found that using candor, humor and authenticity usually yields good results.

     2. The basics of running a business

    Just like any business, Exec makes difficult decisions regarding expenses, staffing and house rules. The committee is responsible for the full operations of the house year-round — things like feeding the chapter members, paying house bills, budgeting for activities, and dealing with unforeseen expenses. If you didn’t do your job, you were going to hear from 100 angry girls who had to take cold showers!

    3. The right thing to do might be against the rules

    One of the other responsibilities of the Exec team is establishing and enforcing house rules — including taking action if chapter members needed to go on probation for not following the rules or meeting the sorority’s mandatory GPA. You can imagine how sensitive and difficult this was.

    Once we had a member who had to go on probation because she was behind on paying her bill for two semesters. It’s not because she couldn’t or didn’t want to pay: Her parents were going through a divorce, which tied up the family’s finances and hindered her ability to make payments. That’s a legitimate reason for missing a bill — after all, it wasn’t her fault — but we had to look her in the eye and tell her she was on probation because she was technically in violation of the rules.

    Nobody can prepare you for life’s gray areas, but you do the best with what you know. Being a rule-follower, I enforced the probation, which eventually led to her leaving the house. We lost a great gal who was very smart, contributed to our chapter, and otherwise followed the rules. We lost her for something that could have been addressed with some creative problem solving.

    I try to learn from this experience, knowing that sometimes you have to do the right thing at the sacrifice of the rules.

    4. How to have a difficult conversation

    Nobody likes awkward conversations. Most of us avoid them, dancing around issues or make someone else do the deed. But if you can learn how to have difficult conversations effectively, it can be tremendously valuable both personally and professionally.

    Remember lesson No. 1: you need to be candid, authentic and caring when you do it. But if a conversation needs to happen, you’re better off looking the person in the eye and being honest about the situation. Most of the time the other party knows it’s coming, so you’re not fooling anyone by avoiding the topic.

    In my case, it happened during our spring formal the year I was president. I learned that a chapter member (and good friend) who was on probation was planning to attend the event — despite knowing that her probation rules excluded her from attending. I was forced to ask her to leave the formal at risk of an awkward “scene” in front of everyone. But if I didn’t take action, it would send a very public message to the other chapter members that the rules don’t mean anything.

    I quietly pulled her aside and reminded her that she was not permitted to attend. She ignored me and stayed — when our other officers got involved, they were ignored, too. In the end, I did the best I could even though I didn’t get the results I wanted.

    I addressed the situation at our next chapter meeting, and we dealt with the individual the following week. Some two years later, that same person sent me a handwritten letter apologizing for her behavior that night. Apparently it had weighed on her, and she realized it was unfair of her to put me in that situation. I’ll never forget this lesson and the bravery she demonstrated in offering a proper apology.

    5. Appreciating individual contributions

    Not everyone wants to be a commander — some just want to be soldiers. Often times in our chapter, several people would raise their hands to participate in an initiative, but it took longer to find a captain.

    While leadership skills are important, in reality, you need more worker bees than queen bees, and every volunteer can contribute.

    In business, if you can understand each person’s strengths, you’re more likely to use those strengths in a capacity that helps everyone win. This understanding also helps when managing expectations for team members and setting them up for success — either in their current role or in future roles where you can see they have potential for advancement based on their skills.

    {This article was originally posted in the July 2014 Business Journals publication}

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    Service black bag imageWhen’s the last time you had really good service? An odd question you might think, but surprisingly most people are surprised by good service.  When did this cultural shift in expectations happen? I was thinking about this recently as I experienced three rather awful customer service engagements.

    I am certainly not the only person who has felt this, and I am certainly not the only person who has written about this. But something has to change, and if I can create some sort of dialogue around this, then my words aren’t for naught.  

    I’m passionate about this topic because I work in the service industry, and SERVICE is one of my agency tenets. Service, by definition, is a provision or amenity provided to the public. But I also submit that Service is a physical act or tangible demonstration of your brand. Service is an extension of Marketing. Marketing is the bringing of goods and services to the public.  Marketing is not merely an ad campaign, direct mail piece or promotion – it’s the gateway to the consumer and a touch point for them to experience your brand. And for many brands and companies, this all starts with service.

    If you choose to work in the service industry – retail stores and shops, delivery person, restaurants, or even the professional service industry, then you should be clear about what you’re signing up for – SERVICE. Serving others.  Others asking from you. Others expecting from you. Others taking from you with no obligation to give back. Service.  Get it? If you aren’t prepared for this, if you don’t have a thick skin, and if this makes your skin crawl – then don’t work in the SERVICE industry!  

    Since when is it OK to treat customers like you’re doing them a favor by helping them? Since when is it OK for the general public to accept this kind of treatment by those we are paying for goods and services – including retail merchants, physicians offices, and even bank tellers. And since when is it OK for those organizations to tolerate this behavior from their staff members? Is it because addressing the issue is awkward and uncomfortable? Is it because we are lazy? Is it because we don’t care anymore?

    So let’s talk ROI. Yes – things like service, quality and kindness have an ROI. If you provide good service to someone, is there any harm done? Does it cost extra? Does it take any extra time? At a very basic level, the answer to these questions is “no.” If you provide good service, you are likely bringing that customer back, creating discussion with their friends, family and colleagues, and perhaps even bringing in new customers. As a marketer, you cannot put a price tag on this.  Even if that person doesn’t mention the good service to another soul, you have upped the ante for them returning to your establishment by not giving them a reason NOT to return. Why would you want to do anything to risk their return to your place of business?  

    When a customer walks in your door, you usually start with an “A” grade. Each and every touch point with you and your service allows for points to be depleted and your overall grade to be reduced. Say you have a beautiful, impeccably clean restaurant with award winning food, but your hostess snubs a customer because they don’t have a reservation on a busy weekend night. Your A just dropped to a C in less than 10 minutes. Even if everything else goes well for the next hour, you still only get a C. And what do those customers tell their friends after that – I guarantee it’s not the food or the atmosphere or the server. Boom – your first customers walk away giving you a C, and your next potential customers (if they come) walk through the door and may only give you a B as a starting grade. The “domino effect” of bad service.  As a marketer, you also cannot put a price tag on this, but no doubt your ROI is declining.

    Even in bad or unusual circumstances, service can still win. Perhaps a staff person called in sick, so the whole team is short staffed during a busy time. Admittedly frustrating and we’ve all been there. Therefore, if you acknowledge the customer, greet them with kindness, and still manage to provide quality service, they will likely forgive you for waiting a few extra minutes or an error on your part. How do people not understand this concept??

    What’s shocking to me is that it’s shocking to most people when they do get good service. I’ve had this discussion with many friends over the past few weeks as I was writing this article. When you actually get good service, it’s treated as something out of the ordinary. People are shocked and surprised. People note the rarity that has occurred. This is appalling to me – a blatant example of how a simple concept like service has been eroded away.

    Service should be the new black. It never goes out of style, it makes you look good, and it works on everyone. Call me old-school if you want, but old-fashioned values like being nice to other human beings is “old-fashioned” for a reason – because it works.  

    Service is based on quality – just as black elevates anything you’re wearing. It’s the standard currency between humans as we co-exist. Its basic appeal appeals to everyone.  

    The definition of service may change and evolve over the years – just as black does in the fashion industry – but the common threads that weave them together are respect and kindness.

     

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