Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life

JANUARY 30, 2013

Reimagining the words we use to define work--and ourselves--is a powerful exercise.

Words are powerful. The language we use influences how we think, feel, act, and interact with the world. That’s why I propose a new kind of dictionary. One founded on the belief that we do not have to live how the world expects us to.

Why? Because far too often I hear people say “yes” for the wrong reasons. I hear people say "I should" instead of "I want" and "I'll try" versus "I will." I hear people putting themselves down for “procrastinating” when they don’t understand the underlying reasons. I watch people approach “work” as if it’s a 9-to-5 job and “passion” like it’s a hobby that can never be taken seriously. I hear people say “I can’t” because of self-imposed “limitations” that inevitably lead to “boredom,” “anxiety” and the fear of “failure.”

Here are the first 12 words in what I call my “Unconventional Dictionary,” a guide to living on your own terms and rewriting the story that guides your life.

1. a word only to be used when it reflects your true desires. 
2. an expression used when you experience an overwhelming feeling of “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yes!“

1. your individual contribution to the world.
2. activities that exist beyond the hours of 9 to 5.
3. the intersection of our talents, desires, and what the world needs.

1. a powerful driving force existing inside every human being that, once unleashed, can make any vision and dream a reality.
2. something that fulfills you beyond the money you make.

1. outmoded beliefs that prevent you from taking action.

1. an indication you are heading in the right direction.
2. the gateway to personal growth.

1. a catalyst for inner strength. 
2. a sensation that manifests itself as evidence of progress.

1. the antithesis of happiness.
2. a lack of inner purpose and fulfillment.
3. an emotional state leading to the formation of negative habits.

1. experiencing failure in advance.

1. your body’s way of rebelling against what your mind says you “should be doing.”
2. an indication you are working on the wrong thing.

1. an opportunity for vulnerability, intimacy and depth in relationships.
2. the chance to check your ego and pride, and observe the emotions driving your reactions.

1. proof of movement.
2. an opportunity to experiment and create a stronger and smarter solution to a problem.

1. a way of being, living, feeling and achieving that is defined by you.

What words would you add to this list--and which expressions do you need to redefine for yourself? 

--Amber Rae is founder & CEO of The Bold Academy, a 10-day experience in San Francisco designed to accelerate your performance. If you're ready to take your game to the next level, two spots are available for the February program. Learn more and apply now. For more on Amber, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.

HBR: Sometimes Negative Feedback is Best

If I see one more article or blog post about how you should never be "critical" or "negative" when giving feedback to an employee or colleague (or, for that matter, your children), I think my head will explode. It's incredibly frustrating. This kind of advice is surely well meant, and it certainly soundsgood. After all, you probably don't relish the thought of having to tell someone else what they are doing wrong — at minimum, it's a little embarrassing for everyone involved.

But avoiding negative feedback is both wrong-headed and dangerous. Wrong-headed because, when delivered the right way, at the right time, criticism is in fact highly motivating. Dangerous because without awareness of the mistakes he or she is making, no one can possibly improve. Staying "positive" when doling out feedback will only get you so far.

Hang on, you say. Can't negative feedback be discouraging? Demotivating?

That's perfectly true.

And don't people need encouragement to feel confident? Doesn't that help them stay motivated?

In many cases, yes.

Confusing, isn't it? Thankfully, brilliant new research by Stacey Finkelstein (Columbia University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) sheds light on the seemingly paradoxical nature of feedback, by making it clear why, when, and for whom negative feedback is appropriate.

It's important to begin by understanding the function that positive and negative feedback serve. Positive feedback (e.g., Here's what you did really well....) increases commitment to the work you do, by enhancing both your experience and your confidence. Negative feedback (e.g., Here's where you went wrong....), on the other hand, is informative — it tells you where you need to spend your effort, and offers insight into how you might improve.

Given these two different functions, positive and negative feedback should be more effective (and more motivating) for different people at different times. For instance, when you don't really know what you are doing, positive feedback helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing — something novices tend to need. But when you are an expert, and you already more or less know what you are doing, it's negative feedback that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.

As Finkelstein and Fishbach show, novices and experts are indeed looking for, and motivated by, different kinds of information. In one of their studies, American students taking either beginner or advanced-level French classes were asked whether they would prefer an instructor who emphasized what they were doing right (focusing on their strengths) or what they were doing wrong (focusing on their mistakes and how to correct them). Beginners overwhelmingly preferred a cheerleading, strength-focused instructor. Advanced students, on the other hand, preferred a more critical instructor who would help them develop their weaker skills.

In a second study, the researchers looked at a very different behavior: engaging in environmentally friendly actions. Their "experts" were members of environmental organizations (e.g., Greenpeace), while their "novices" were non-members. Each participant in the study made a list of the actions they regulatory took that helped the environment — things like recycling, avoiding bottled water, and taking shorter showers. They were offered feedback from an environmental consultant on the effectiveness of their actions, and were given a choice: Would you prefer to know more about the actions you take that are effective, or about the actions you take that are not? Experts were much more likely to choose the negative feedback — about ineffective actions — than novices.

Taken together, these studies show that people who are experienced in a given domain — people who already have developed some knowledge and skills — don't actually live in fear of negative feedback. If anything, they seek it out. Intuitively they realize that negative feedback offers the key to getting ahead, while positive feedback merely tells them what they already know.

But what about motivation? What kind of feedback makes you want to take action? When participants in the environmental study were randomly given either positive or negative feedback about their actions, and were then asked how much of their $25 study compensation they would like to donate to Greenpeace, the type of feedback they received had a dramatic effect on their motivation to give. When negative feedback was given, experts gave more on average to Greenpeace ($8.53) than novices ($1.24). But when positive feedback was given, novices ($8.31) gave far more than experts ($2.92).

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that you never tell the rookie about his mistakes, or that you never praise the seasoned professional for her outstanding work. And of course negative feedback should always be accompanied by good advice, and given with tact.

But I am suggesting that piling on praise is a more effective motivator for the rookie than the pro. And I'm saying, point blank, that you shouldn't worry so much when it comes to pointing out mistakes to someone experienced. Negative feedback won't crush their confidence, but it just might give them the information they need to take their performance to the next level.

Client Kudos!

Great job Growthinkers Antonio Barzagli and Ishan Jetley !!  Check out this great testimonial from a current client.  Outstanding work!

"Thanks team!  I will read more carefully but I just want to thank you for a great job. The business plan looks great and it's very exciting and gratifying to see the great result from all the hard work you have put into this."

Ishan Jetley

What Really Motivates Employees? [Infographic]


It's no secret that happy, satisfied employees are a key ingredient to a successful company. But what really motivates people? Traditional thinking follows that the more you pay someone the more loyal and satisfied they are in their job.

But, the truth behind employee motivation is a more complicated mix including praise, autonomy, and leadership opportunities. Take a look at the infographic below for more on the many factors involved in motivating employees. 

What Really Motivates Employees?

Don’t Let Short-Termism Kill Your Business!

Probably the single most destructive characteristic of businesses today is that they over-emphasize short-term results, often completely ignoring the long-term consequences.

Short-termism is the “HIV” of modern business thinking. Difficult to cure, it eats steadily away at a company’s immune system, infecting its incentives and organizational structure, weakening its customer relationships and employee loyalty, undermining its ability to compete, threatening investor confidence, and ultimately endangering the firm’s prospects for survival.

The 2008 financial meltdown stemmed directly from rampant short-termism, as bankers did deals and packaged up bundles of securitized mortgages that many of them knew full well weren’t very sound in the long term, but would generate lucrative fees in the short term. There was even a text-messaging acronym associated with it: IBGYBG. If a banker doing some deal stopped to worry about its long-term consequences or stability, his colleagues would console him with the advice not to worry about the long term, because in the long term IBGYBG – “I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone.”

But short-termism infects much more than banking. Almost every senior manager at any public company has had the experience of attending a meeting called for the express purpose of hitting year-end numbers, or even quarter-end numbers. You’ve probably attended this kind of meeting yourself. Perhaps at this meeting you decided to put off an important but costly service improvement, or to reduce spending on a program that didn't generate immediate profits. In one 2005 study, four out of five CFOs said they are willing to destroy shareholder value when necessary to meet quarterly stock market expectations. And one manager at a magazine publisher, for instance, actually said that whenever his company faced a bad quarter they stopped their subscriber reactivation campaigns. (Excuse me, but this is just insane.)

Unfortunately, Generally Accepted Accounting Principles ("GAAP") aren't much help here. GAAP emphasizes tangible, “dirt world” assets like lease holdings, inventory, or equipment. If you carry a piece of depreciable equipment on your balance sheet and a fire renders it unusable, the write-down must appear in your current period’s income statement, according to GAAP. That's good. But GAAP leaves a whole heck of a lot to be desired when it comes to similar problems with intangibles, such as customer relationships.

Suppose a valuable customer, for instance, were to complain and for some reason you didn't resolve the issue satisfactorily. Didn't your business just lose some its value? In economic terms, your value as a going concern is equal to your discounted future cash flow, and after that mishandled complaint your likely future cash flow is a little bit lower, right? Moreover, because customers are increasingly connected with each other, sharing reviews and opinions about your business, losing one customer’s trust or confidence can have ramifications that go far beyond that customer’s patronage.

Since the most important assets at a firm are usually intangible, it would serve investors’ interests if accounting principles could hold management responsible for husbanding these assets. The traditional argument, of course, is that intangible assets are too economically squishy to value accurately. But this argument is based on 20th century thinking. With the kind of computer analysis and statistical modeling available today, for instance, customer lifetime values can be estimated and managed at many companies in a variety of industries, and not just for high-volume consumer marketing firms. The problem is, because they don’t figure in a company’s financial statements, at many firms it’s hard to get the CFO to pay attention.

But think about this: If you were to measure and track changes in your customers’ lifetime values, then you'd actually know whether your business is generating a profit today by cannibalizing its future or by building solid customer equity.

Customer relationships are the bridge between current profits and future shareholder value. Customers have memories. They remember you whether you remember them or not. If customers are well served today, your business will be more profitable tomorrow, irrespective of today’s numbers.

Companies can deal with the disease of short-termism with several tactics:

Use statistical modeling to measure and track changes in customer lifetime values, and devise a plan for sharing this information regularly with investors
Incorporate some plainly non-financial metrics that strongly correlate with creating long-term customer value (Net Promoter Score would be one example)
Change sales incentive programs to ensure that managers participate in the long-term outcomes of their actions (many banks now do more of this)
Reduce or eliminate incentives based on how well short-term stock-market expectations are met (use restricted stock rather than stock options, for instance)
Stop providing "market guidance" to analysts, to de-couple your firm's long-term performance from its quarterly numbers (Google and some others do this)

It won't be easy to defend your business from the HIV of short-termism, but if you act deliberately, you can minimize the damage.

What tactics has your own company used or considered to prevent short-term thinking?


If You Think You're Good At Multitasking, You Probably Aren't

Everybody complains that people shouldn't talk on cellphones while driving. And yet it seems pretty much everybody does it.

That may be because so many of us think we're multitasking ninjas, while the rest of the people nattering away while driving are idiots.

But scientists say that the better people think they are at multitasking, the worse they really are at juggling.

Researchers at the University of Utah wanted to find out which personalities were more likely to try to do two tasks at once. They're keenly interested in people who talk on the phone or text while driving, since there's plenty of data that even using a hands-free phone boosts the risks of accidents.

That bit isn't exactly breaking news.

For quite a few years, researchers have been making the case that people who drive while using phones drive as badly as people who are legally drunk. But we persist in thinking we can handle it.

How come? The Utah folks speculated that multitaskers would be more apt to test high for traits like risk-taking, sensation-seeking and impulsivity. Turns out the researchers were right.

They asked student volunteers whether they used cellphones while driving, and whether they were good at multitasking. Then they tested the students' multitasking ability by asking them to solve math problems while remembering random strings of letters.

They found that the people who multitasked the most in real life — the impulsive risk-takers — were actually much worse at juggling tasks than people who rarely drove while phoning.

Even worse, these demon multitaskers thought they were terrific at it, though the cold, hard data proved they weren't.

"People don't multitask because they're good at it," says David Sanbonmatsu, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah and lead author of the study, which was published online in the journal PLOS One. "They do it because they are more distracted. They have trouble inhibiting the impulse to do another activity."

Seventy percent of the study participants, all college undergraduates, said they thought they were better than average at multitasking. Of course, that's statistically impossible — a drivers' ed version of Lake Wobegon, with all multitasking drivers above average.Texting drivers aren't the only ones who think they're aces at jobs they're actually flubbing. There's plenty of other research showing that people tend to overestimate personal attributes like attractiveness and talent. That proved true in this study, too. It was the non-risk-taking non-texters who actually turned out to be better at multitasking.They could maintain focus and get the job done.

"People sometimes think multitasking means greater productivity," Sanbonmatsu told Shots. "That's not what the findings in the literature say at all. A lot of times people multitask because they can't focus on the task that's most important to them."

Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues are now going to look into why we keep driving while texting, even though we know it's dangerous. Maybe it's because we think that, unlike the other mopes on the highway, we're just darned good at it.


9 unusual, effective rules for successful meetings

I love Scott Kveton, the CEO of Urban Airship. He and his team are building an amazing company in Portland. If you do anything mobile-related and use push notifications of any sort, or real-time location targeting, you need to be talking to them. But even more impressive is how Scott leads his company.

The other day, I got an email from my partner Jason with a photo of the Urban Airship Meeting Rules posted on the wall. They are so logical as to be rules that should apply to every meeting at every startup from now until forever.

0. Do we really need to meet?

1. Schedule a start, not an end to your meeting – its over when its over, even if that’s just 5 minutes.

2. Be on time!

3. No multi-tasking … no device usage unless necessary for meeting

4. If you’re not getting anything out of the meeting, leave

5. Meetings are not for information sharing – that should be done before the meeting via email and/or agenda

6. Who really needs to be at this meeting?

7. Agree to action items, if any, at the conclusion of the meeting

8. Don’t feel bad about calling people out on any of the above; it’s the right thing to do.

I particularly love 0, 1, and 4. I rarely walk out of a meeting when I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to start paying more attention to this one.


Explaining Customer Centricity With a Diagram

What does it mean to be “customer-centric” as a business? Assuming that you start with a quality product and service, being customer-centric means understanding the customer’s point of view and respecting the customer’s interest. You fix problems, handle complaints, and remember individual customer preferences.

But customer centricity isn’t merely a matter of adding up these different components of quality, service, insight and responsiveness. You can introduce all these ideas into your business model, but if you don’t grapple with your company’s most basic strategic objective, then sooner or later your efforts will fail.

In the past I’ve found it helpful to explain the contrast between customer centricity and product centricity by using a diagram, illustrating visually that these two strategies actually represent different “dimensions” of competition. If you think about it, for a business to be competitively successful, it must meet two conditions:

  1. It must be able to satisfy a customer’s need, and
  2. It must have a customer who wants that need satisfied.

So first we should visualize a “marketing space” defined by the customer needs a business can satisfy (the vertical dimension) and by the number of customers it has (the horizontal dimension). Then we can map customer centricity and product centricity on the same diagram:

Product-centric competition is based on having a product that meets a certain customer need, and then trying to find as many customers as possible who want to have that need met. Success is measured by the length of the horizontal arrow (i.e., how many customers are reached). In competitive terms, this would represent your company’s market share.

But customer-centric competition starts with an individual customer and tries to meet as many of that customer’s needs as possible – across all the company’s divisions and business units, and through time (i.e., meeting a customer’s needs week after week, month after month). And the length of the vertical arrow represents your share of customer.

From this diagram it should be clear that customer centricity doesn’t actually conflict with product centricity, because they aren’t opposite in direction but orthogonal, so they have little or no effect on each other. That is, the strategies and tactics you follow to be more product centric will have little effect on your share of customer, while customer-centric strategies will have little effect on your market share.

By using the graph to contrast customer centricity and product centricity, the difference between these two competitive strategies is now obvious:

A product-centric competitor focuses on one product at a time and tries to sell that product to as many customers as possible.

A customer-centric competitor focuses on one customer at a time and tries to sell that customer as many products as possible.

But there are two more points worth explaining about the diagram:

First, on this two-dimensional marketing space, the vertical dimension isn’t defined by products, per se, but by customer needs. So when you think about your “share of customer” don’t just think about it in terms of wallet share. Instead, ask yourself what share of this customer’s needs are you actually meeting? What share of the customer’s life are you participating in? And what additional products or services might allow you to increase your participation in the customer’s life, overall?

Second, the financial objective for a product-centric competitor is to maximize the value created by each product, while the financial objective for a customer-centric competitor is to maximize the value created by each customer. But unlike products, customers have memories. This means that the business a customer generates for you tomorrow, either as a repeat customer or as a reference for other customers, is based largely on their memory of how well they were treated today.

The implications of this final distinction are very important, because customers are the link between the profit you make today and the profit you are likely to make tomorrow. The customer relationship directly connects today's profits and costs to your company's overall shareholder value.

Another way to think about it: Tracking a customer relationship is like watching a movie in progress, while tracking your product sales involves taking snapshots of the business situation at different times.