Holla at the Ladies

“Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came. The present was only a bridge and on this bridge they are still groaning, as the world groans, and not one idiot ever thinks of blowing up the bridge.” – Henry Miller

Last week The Harvard Business Review’s Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic tweeted a terse treatise on the deficit of leadership in business.

Essentially Tomas believes that we often mistake confidence and charisma for competence.  Hubris is mistaken for courage and further, he believes this occurs more often in men, the sex more likely to demonstrate these “bold” characteristics.   Since “arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent,” many times our leaders aren’t just ineffective, they isolate and do harm in their positions, often at the detriment of their companies.  The blog makes a fairly compelling data-based argument for our collective failure to promote the types of characteristics that lead to transformational change.  Hiring manages should read this piece.

Good leaders can effect incremental, measurable change, win consensus and get people to accomplish an organization’s small, tactical elements that lead to successful execution of the vision.  I love the now oft quoted line from the movie “Lincoln” when the president stresses to Thaddeus Stevens the importance of focusing on the seemingly banal tactics for the sake of successfully arriving at the big goal.  He tells Stevens that being morally correct and strident in ideology is not enough if you are to accomplish the thing that will help get to the big goal, in this case the abolition of slavery.  Lincoln uses the metaphor of knowing true north on the compass.  A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and desert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way.  If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?

This isn’t to say that leaders can’t or shouldn’t be bold.   They don’t call it “vision” for nothing.  But having a grand idea and a sweeping plan will only get you so far if you fail to get the cogs in the machine moving in unison. Tomas states that “whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men. For example, women outperform men on emotional intelligence, which is a strong driver of modest behaviors.”

I think Tomas makes good points but I would not over-correct and get into gender-bashing.   I think a big idea here is that it is  important to avoid blindly subscribing to conventional wisdom.  Innovation requires deviance from established paradigms or better, more creative ways of affecting a paradigm.  We should question our most established assumptions about business management, client satisfaction, market demand and our models in general.  Tomas exposes a folly we’re all familiar with; the surprise that such a good interviewer can end up being a poor leader, a divisive figure.

Business networking best practices

Networking is a key component in the world of custom software consulting.  Businesses typically take months to determine whether or not they want to overhaul the systems that power their operations and workflow.  Custom software ain’t cheap.  Once business owners determine that the cost savings of efficient systems offset the investment, and after they’ve met with potential providers, they’re usually ready to partner up and engage in the project.  However, this process comes on the heels of months of discussion.  The sales cycle is long and a lot of things have to be in place for a successful project.  Who will take ownership at the client level for implementation?  How often will iteration meetings be held to ensure that the work mirrors the business need and stated intent?  What kind of maintenance may be required?

Lots going on here! Software projects are not typically won by going door to door and asking for business. Software consultants need to be top of mind in the business community and networking, especially in places like Omaha, is one of the most effective ways to win these types of projects.

There is a protocol to effective networking that is more often ignored than followed.  Below are a few tips that may help:

  1. Follow up with everyone. If you’re at an event, meet someone and exchange business cards, send a follow up e-mail as soon as you can, stating a specific point brought up in the conversation.  Contacts can be leads, influencers, potential friends or sources of information.  Don’t dismiss anybody out of hand that is not a potential sale.
  2. Don’t hand out business cards to anyone you have not met personally. Be judicious.  A card is to be exchanged when a meaningful interaction takes place and it is determined that some kind of follow up might be a good idea.  Don’t diminish your value by dispatching your business cards out like a Vegas blackjack dealer and don’t take anyone seriously that does the same.  It’s lazy.
  3. Be strategic where you go. Understand who your market is and position yourself at events that seem to have the most relevance.
  4. Be personal. The business world is filled with clichés, templates and the banal, obligatory language.  It’s refreshing to take and be taken out of this tradition and reminded that we’re humans with personal passions and interests.  Take time to find those in others and be confident enough to share yours.
  5. Proactively seek ways to help your contacts and partners. This is a slow burn and takes discipline but putting goodwill in the bank with partners who reciprocate is always a good thing.
  6. Don’t drink too much. Drunkards struggle for credibility at many events and become memorable in the worst way.  There is a time and place and cocktails can be a friend and an enemy.
  7. Drink too much. Sometimes alcohol is a necessary inhibitor of conversation and can break down walls between you and the client.  Know when to bob and when to weave.  See previous bullet point for timing.
  8. Make an effort to empathize with and understand others’ product, position in the market, industry and motivation. When you can draw parallels and relate, you gain trust.

Entrepreneur.com has some great tips as well http://www.entrepreneur.com/blog/223468, some of which I think go without saying but are worth repeating.  I was at an event recently and met a small business owner in the printing sector.  We sat together for 10-15 minutes and had a nice conversation.  We exchanged cards and agreed further discussion into each other’s models and potential partnerships was warranted.  I sent a nice follow up e-mail that afternoon and did not hear back from him.  I did however end up on his e-mail blast marketing list.  HUGE pet peeve.  I unsubscribed and labeled him in my CRM as a “poor” contact.  He may have a good business but his etiquette suggests that he’ll fail as a partner.

My best contacts are people with whom I like personally and am comfortable enough around where we can both exchange information that could help each other.  Ideal meetings become a mad caffeinated scramble of tablets, phones, business cards and “tell them I said you two should talk.”  Unapologetic interaction.  At times it may feel like an informant discussing observations with an FBI agent but that kinetic level of conversation is earned and can be very beneficial.

I have not touched on the social media networking etiquette, which is equally important.  Writing preachy blogs is probably breaking one of those rules but hopefully these tips will help.  I would be interested in hearing about your worst networking experiences.

Our intern Jordan grows up

On Friday Volano will bid farewell to Jordan White, one of the best interns to never fetch coffee or dry-cleaning for a company.  In the Spring we posted this in an effort to attract a good pool of potential interns who could do some light coding for us.  Our vision was to offer a meaningful opportunity for a college student interested in technology to put theory to the test.  Jordan came to us from Iowa State, a kid from across the river who more than exceeded our expectations.

Jordan wanted to get some real world experience and was a Computer Engineering major.

“I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to be so self-structured.  I really liked the freedom to work at my own pace and learn what I needed to learn for the internship.”

Jordan was happy to be in an office coding, not in a fast-food joint, flipping burgers for some spare school cash.  He hadn’t expected to be given as much responsibility and autonomy.  “I think my biggest takeaway is the exposure an experience I got to languages like C# and HTML.  I also got to work in Visual Studio and am more confident with this program.”

I spoke to Jordan today and he said that prior to working at Volano, he had no concept of workflow systems and processes from a business standpoint.  Since starting with us at the beginning of Summer, Jordan has worked on a new mobile application for auditing brand standards at franchise locations, lead iteration meetings with the Volano partners, participated in an on-site client demonstration, honed his dart-throwing skills and with Herculean resolve and little help from Volano, respected and adhered to the minimum drinking age laws at all times.  We’ll be eager to keep tabs on Jordan as he heads back to school and will miss him around the office.  He conducted himself professionally and was open to constructive feedback, always maintaining a positive attitude.  How do you not like a guy who washes Pop-Tarts down with Dr. Pepper while talking shop?

Straight Shot Logo

Volano has had the good fortune to work with local venture capital investor, Dundee VC this year and their technology start-up incubator program Straightshot (www.straightshot.co). The relationship has been overwhelmingly positive, positioning Volano, who serves as a software mentor, in front of promising entrepreneurs and like-minded metro area businesses. Dundee VC has garnered the support of well over 100 dynamic businesses who offer specialized consultation to the seven technology-focused start-ups who are leveraging their help to eventually present a full-blown business concept in October and possibly seek additional capital to realize their ideas. Over 300 aspiring entrepreneurs applied for Straightshot and seven were selected. All of the participating companies have very simple, innovative ideas and one in particular struck me as having a particularly simple but extremely relevant solution to an on-line retail problem.

Cosmic Cart Logo

Check out Cosmic Cart. This North Carolina based duo are making the experience of on-line shopping easier for people like me who refuse to go into a brick and mortar stores, especially over the Holiday season and more profitable for retailers and publishers. Imagine if all of the existing retail accounts you had set up on-line were consolidated into one account. Now imagine that you could click on an advertisement in an on-line news publication and immediately purchase an item without having to be redirected away from the site you’re on (bad for the publisher) from your universal shopping cart. Publishers retain readers and advertisers can more easily monetize and track their return on advertising dollars spent.

If you have time and are interested in following the growing movement in Omaha to embrace small business growth and entrepreneurialism, especially in the technology world or are simply interested in the current thinking on how to improve our daily lives through technology, Straightshot offers weekly “Speak Easies” and networking events that allow these companies to hone their pitch and share ideas. I believe that Omaha is a special place these days. Between the Silicon Prairie News, the Mastercraft businesses, Big Omaha and programs like Straight Shot, we are witnessing an exciting and progressive movement into the business of technology and innovation that truly compliment Omaha as a bastion of fortune 500 companies and home to more traditional, established industries.