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As an independent consultant, there have been times when I’ve been asked to step into the role of an interim leader while the company tries to find a permanent person to fill the position. For the most part I’ve loved it; but there have been a challenge or two along the way.

Korean War - HD-SN-99-03031
Harry Truman via Compfight

At one interim position I was selected specifically because I was black; now there’s a switch. The top finance guy was a bully who did some unethical things that I’m not going to mention. He was fighting the union that represented the people who were reporting to me, and every employee except one was black. The union rep had told them not to help me in any way but to do their jobs; that was that.

At another position I ran into a situation where I got on well with the employees and one of the supervisors reporting to me, but two other supervisors were used to doing things their way and, when I was gone for a long period over the holidays, found a way to help get me dismissed from the gig, even though the contract had been signed and I thought all was well.

What you learn is that every situation is different and that some of the tactics and processes you develop and follow will work great in some places while not working so well at others. You learn those lessons faster than someone who moves into a permanent leadership position because you get many more opportunities, yet the lessons learned are the types of lessons most leaders should learn.

For instance, one of the first questions a new leader should ask before taking a position is how much and what kind of authority they’re going to have over the employees. That’s probably the biggest thing to get out of the way, even if you don’t get the answer you’re expecting.

However, sometimes you get the answer you want, only to learn that it’s not true. In both of the instances above it turned out that the person who was my main contact didn’t quite have the authority they thought they had, thus telling me I was the final voice wasn’t true.

In the first example the man had the position but the union was stronger than he was; that was something I’d never encountered.

In the second example it turned out that the person I was reporting to shouldn’t have been the person I was reporting to, as his only authority was bringing me in.

In both of those examples, that wasn’t a question that I could ask up front, and certain nothing I could prepare for. The first question is one a potential new leader can get away with asking; the second question can’t be asked because… well, you probably won’t get the job.

In every other instance I had the authority to do as I saw fit. At those times, I was able to achieve good things because I didn’t have to worry about anyone thwarting what needed to get done because I didn’t specifically need their cooperation to move forward.

I did work on getting it though, and like almost everywhere else I’d get 90% of the people on my side and get resistance from 10%; I could live with that. After all, no matter how much better things get, you can’t please everyone, and I’ll always go for the majority when things need to get done.

Whether you’re an interim leader or a full time leader, making sure you have the authority to get things done is a major criteria in determining how effective you can be… if you know what you’re doing. lol Getting people on your side… you can never succeed without that anyway.

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Last week the CEO of Mozilla, an open source software company that produces the Firefox browser along with many other products, resigned under pressure because of what’s now an unpopular stance he took back in 2008 in California when he supported Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that initially banned gay marriage in the state. He gave money to the cause, probably didn’t think anything about it, and it came back to bite him hard, as he was only CEO for 11 days.

This post isn’t to debate the merits of free speech versus consequences, although I did cover this topic on my I’m Just Sharing blog. Instead, it’s to talk about what employees “owe” employers, or whether they’re owed anything at all.

I’m going a much different route to get to my point. I’m going to use the examples of George O’Leary and Steve Masiello. Respectively these are the football coach of Central Florida and the basketball coach at Manhattan University. Both are top quality guys who know their sports really well. O’Leary was actually the head football coach at my high school for 3 years after I graduated and did a great job here.

The thing that both of these guys did was lie on their resumes, and it came back to bite both of them when they had shots at top flight college jobs. When the money is going to be a major deal you’re looked at with a lot more scrutiny, and no matter what your qualifications are, if they find a discrepancy that can only be explained by “you lied”, you’re not getting that job.

Many people are lucky to get jobs they’re either not qualified for or are qualified for but don’t have the credentials to back up. I know quite a few people who, over the years, have asked me to back them up when they put certain things on their resumes that aren’t quite truthful. I also know some who didn’t tell me they’d put something on their resume, only to have me inadvertently give them away because of their attempt at deception.

I understand why some folks will add something to the mix in order to get a job. When I first started my business I had the qualifications and the experience, but all of it was working for someone else, not on my own. I was lucky to still get work because I owned up to my background up front, and I worked hard to get small contracts so I could tell potential clients that I had some experience as an independent. I did have to take some gigs that didn’t pay as well as they do now for that experience, but I got what I needed.

What do you owe to any company you want to work with, or for? You owe them full disclosure of what you can do and anything else they may ask you about what your business qualifications are. There are legal protections for some things, but there are also liability issues that can come up if you’re not truthful. I think you life with your truths and deal with whatever comes up later on because of them.

if that means you need to think about your life and things you’ve done or shouldn’t do… well, that’s what growing up and being an adult is all about. :-)

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As this post goes live I’ve hit another milestone that I want to share. This makes the 3,500th blog post that I’ve written since February 2005. Actually that’s not totally true, but it’s evidentially true; that’s a real word believe it or not; anyway, let me explain.

When I first started blogging

For this blog, this is either post #1,136 or post #1150. The reason for that is I started the blog with a different hosting company and in April 2006 their servers crashed and everything was lost; gone, just like that. There was no recovery… or so it seemed.

I think I was on a site called Ryze at the time and I poured my lament out in one of the groups there. Someone then came along and suggested that I take a look on Google to see if I could find my posts there. Turns out that because of their caching feature, all my posts, including my most recent at the time, were there; yay! So I retrieved them all, but there were 14 that I didn’t think were worthy so I left them to disappear forever (or so I assume) because they wouldn’t be attached to anything and there wasn’t any relevance to them anymore.

So, I could say that made 3,514 posts, but on this blog there’s only the 1,136 now, although I’ve made many of them private over the years because they’re not pertinent anymore either. Short sales articles, advertising articles, or things that eventually didn’t exist anymore… no sense keeping those in the public eye. But they’re still on the blog, so they count towards the total.

It also seemed appropriate that #3,500 should be on this blog, since it started everything, although I just passed #1,500 on one of my other blogs, which I felt was a pretty big deal, even though I started it 19 months after that one; go figure. :-)

My early blog posts weren’t all that special most of the time. My first post introduced who I was, and my second post was a paragraph long, linking to one of my newsletters that I’d created as a pdf. Then I wrote about what happened to the blog as the third post, but it was the first post on the new hosting server so it shows for everyone as the first post on this blog, which it wasn’t. Is that confusing? lol

Many of those early posts were pretty short and, in comparing them to what I write now, pretty lame. Still, I did have one early nice post on the topic of mentoring that wasn’t bad. However, I took some years before I feel I hit my stride as a blogger on the topics I cover here, and the first article that I thought was pretty good and reminiscent of my present style was on the topic of customer service. A little bit of personal leading to a morality lesson; now that’s storytelling!

I’m not about to go through 9 years of blog posts to find some that I feel stand out for two reasons. One, not all of those posts were written here, since I now have 5 blogs. And two, that would drive me nuts! lol What I am going to do is give what I hope is kind of an inspirational lesson about the power of persistence, if not consistency.

Me now

I started this blog with the intention of highlighting my business proficiencies, with the intention of driving clients my way. It was all about me at the time, and I think most people who start blogs think that way. I did give out a lot of information, but early on, with the short posts, I don’t think I was delivering any value.

When the chips were down and I’d lost all those posts, I almost folded up the venture and moved on with life. It’s easy to quit when things get tough, or when it seems like the world is telling you to do something else. I’m not religious by any means but I do believe in karma in a way; if the signs are telling you to do or not do something, take them seriously.

In my case, other than losing all those posts, the signs weren’t telling me to stop. They were telling me that it was just a minor setback and to prove it that I should retrieve my posts and push on. They were telling me that some success with the blog was just around the corner, that I had things to share and offer, and that if I quit that I should quit everything, go back to working for “the man”, and be satisfied with whatever came my way.

I went and got those posts, put them on this blog, spaced some of them out so that 155 posts didn’t suddenly show up on one day, and plunged back into the blogging world, this time with a renewed focus and knowledge that I really hadn’t given it my best. Even now, with the traveling, I think I’ve slid back some, but at least when I do write something I know it’s better than it used to be, and that I still have lots to contribute.

The lesson here is to not give up just because you’ve encountered some difficulties along the way. If I hadn’t gone back to get those 155 posts, I wouldn’t be at 3,500 today, and that’s just on my blogs, since I presently write for 2 other blogs and have written for many other blogs over the past 5 years.

If I can take a moment to be proud of myself for continuing to blog, I just want to say that it’s not all about me anymore, and that I’ve benefited both monetarily and mentally from the journey, and every once in a while I touch someone else. That’s made it all worth it; I hope you feel the same about your ventures every day as well.

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I love listening to motivational recordings and I’ve been watching quite a few of them on YouTube lately. There are so many good ones out there, so many good speakers, that anyone who’s looking for a boost of positivity and energy should think about looking them up.

MERKEL brought out the animal in SARKOZY...
Roberto Rizzato via Compfight

As much as I love motivation, I also tend to think that there are times when some of the advice is a bit over the top. As a for instance there’s this sports related motivational video that tells people that there’s no excuse not to give 100% to everything that you do. That part I like.

However, it goes on to say that until you’re hurting everywhere, even if you injure yourself, until you feel close to dying, until you can’t do one more pushup or pull up or push that weight even once more that you don’t care enough and haven’t given enough and that when others quit you need to continue because if you don’t, then you’re not really trying, you don’t really want it enough.

Really? I don’t think so. When I was a kid and I’d get hurt, my dad told me to rub dirt on it, walk it off, and get back in there. That’s exactly what I did and you know what? I’ve reached my mid 50′s and I have back issues and leg issues and my joints hurt and sometimes my hands hurt.

I can remember some of those times when I hurt myself and never went to a doctor or even took pain killers for it. I remember as a kid playing sports and coming home every evening and rubbing Ben gay or Absorbine Jr into my body trying to find some relief and not really finding any because that stuff doesn’t work. But I never took any pain killers until I was in my 40′s, and sometimes they don’t work.

I’ve seen people get hurt by trying to do things that they shouldn’t, both physically and mentally. To me, that’s not motivation, that’s incompetence.

Urging someone to follow their dreams, to give what they can, to work hard while taking care of themselves… that’s motivation.

Giving praise where it’s warranted and helping someone reach their dreams and goals, which may even help you… that’s motivation.

Do I think there are times when you might need to push someone further than they may think they can go? Absolutely. But telling someone that it’s better to die trying, no matter what it is… nope, can’t support that.

But maybe I’m just too soft; how do you believe motivation should manifest itself?

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We live in a diverse country as well as a diverse world. Often we think that others should speak like us and understand us and know what we’re talking about and, unfortunately, that’s not really the case.

Child's Muffin Tin  Paint Palette
Creative Commons License D. Sharon Pruitt via Compfight

When you’re in a position of leadership it’s your responsibility to go that extra mile in trying to both understand your employees and their needs while making sure they understand yours. It can be even more critical when cultures are different and something you say that almost everyone understands is lost on one or a few other people who you’re responsible for.

Here are some valid tips you can follow to help you make sure you giving it your best shot when trying to smooth out communications between yourself and anyone, whether the audience is diverse or not:

1. Listen – Don’t think you know what someone is about to say and already be forming your response. Listen fully to what someone is saying and then think of your response to it. Way too often I hear people giving responses to their perception, not what someone said.

2. Watch – What someone says sometimes differs from their body language. If you’ve turned away, or if you’re not taking in all of a person, you may think you’re on the same page when you’re not.

3. Don’t be afraid to counsel employees – This is why you have the elevated position title. If you don’t embrace leadership don’t take the position. If someone isn’t pulling their weight or is messing up, you can’t act like it’s not happening if you don’t want total dissension.

4. Don’t treat everyone equally; treat everyone fairly – There’s a major difference between equality and fairness because it assumes everyone is at the same educational level, and that’s almost never the case.

5. Limit outside influences within the workplace as much as possible – While you need to be cognizant of other people’s beliefs and lifestyles, none of it can be allowed to disrupt the office. If there’s the possibility that someone might object, don’t allow it.

6. Talk to everyone – Reality says that there will be people you like and dislike more than others. Leadership means you treat everyone fairly, which means you communicate as much with those you like and dislike. If they’re disruptive get rid of them.

7. Learn not to be reactionary – Sometimes we react to what’s immediately going on without knowing what led up to the issue. It’s always possible that it was your fault or the fault of someone else that led to an incident. Always investigate and make decisions from an educated background unless there’s a blatant issue that warrants immediate action.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about someone else’s culture – There are stupid questions and then there’s genuine interest that can be shown in someone’s background that’s different from your own. People love talking about themselves and giving them the opportunities helps both of you get closer to a real understanding of each other.

9. Work on finding advancement opportunities for all people – Sure, most people never want to advance into management but many do, or want to advance in their careers. The better trained people are the better you look, no matter what happens, and the better the department runs. Always look out for the interest of others as much as yourself.

10. Let people see your “human” side – It’s okay to be happy and be sad every once in a while. It’s okay to share a touching story as long as it’s not indecent. It’s okay to greet people, no matter who they are. Be real; everyone appreciates it.

11. Remember who’s in charge – When all is said and done you’re the one with the title. If there’s no middle ground you make the decision and you stick by it. If you’re well reasoned and your topic is well researched, no one will ever fault you for your decision because it’s probably going to work.

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Today in the place where I’m presently consulting, myself and one of the full time employees were pondering an issue where we were trying to fully identify a specific item. The research I’d done yielded almost no information, but I was able to find a picture of the item. Unfortunately, it was insufficient for what we needed.

Boro Park (Paulie's) Camera Shop 1976 Boro Park Brooklyn
Anthony Catalano via Compfight

She decided she was going to call the company to get more information, since their phone number was on what I’d printed out. Two minutes later she came to my desk and said that she’d been transferred to a voice mail system and that the recording told her it was full. So much for that.

This is strange to me only because of how often I’ve seen it happen with businesses. It’s either that or you get a number that just rings and rings without anyone picking it up because either the answering machine doesn’t work or, if it’s a small business, they didn’t think it was important enough for their business to have a way to record messages they could return later.

The thing I find about companies that exhibit bad customer service is that it often translates into poor employee morale because the leaders can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and that’s usually the technical part of what it is their company does. It’s often these people who will gripe and complain at different times that business is poor or that they put a lot of work reaching out to a potential client and how that client never bothered to follow up with them. Sigh…

I’ve never understood why so many companies don’t understand how great customer service not only helps keep consistent business flowing, but can get customers to forgive them when something goes amiss, knowing that they’ll be taken care of then and in the future. After all, no one’s perfect.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post talking about how it seems that most restaurants get customer service right. They answer their phones, greet customers when they come in, are often very attentive to the needs of the consumers while they’re in the restaurant, offering ideas on foods and desserts without being pushy, and always thanking you for your business when they leave you the bill, sometimes even writing a nice message on the bill. If the meal was pretty good haven’t you found that how you were treated helps elevate your thoughts about the establishment?

How do you think the person I was working with today feels about the company we hoped to get information from? How do you think I felt about the company I’d taken my lawn mower to years ago who hadn’t contacted us in 3 or 4 weeks and, when I tried to call, didn’t answer the phone and didn’t have an answering machine? And, when I showed up there told me my mower had been fixed 3 weeks earlier but they had been too busy to call and let me know, meaning they must not have needed my money?

When you answer these things, then think about how people within your own organization feel when you treat them as less than worthy of your time and attention, especially if they report to you? Just something else to consider while you’re thinking about good customer service skills.

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It was hard to miss, even from my office. The words were unmistakable: “I’m sorry you feel that way sir; have a nice life!” Slam!

I got up slowly from my desk and walked into the other room. I recognized the voice, and I was surprised because she was usually one of the calmest people in the office. I walked over to her, and I could see that she was still upset. In my own way, I asked her if things were okay.

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Scott Beale via Compfight

“No, they’re not okay. This guy was just impossible. I tried to help him out, but he wasn’t listening to anything I had to say. He kept yelling and screaming at me, and I just lost it.”

The business of healthcare is the business of people. Just like retail, it takes many people to come through your doors in order for you to be successful. Unlike retail, most of the people who come through your doors aren’t necessarily coming willingly. They come because they’re not feeling well, or for testing to make sure they’re okay, or to be with someone who’s not doing well. Their emotions are already on high alert when they walk through our doors. When it comes to paying for healthcare services, their emotions kick into an even tenser mode.

My phone rang; I was expecting it. I walked back into my office and said hello. What came at me from the other end was a man screaming and cussing at me. I’ve always told my staff that they didn’t have to ever accept someone else’s bad behavior, whether it was over the phone or in person. I did what many have said you shouldn’t do; I hung up. A couple of minutes later, the phone rang again, and I picked up and said hello. The same man was on the phone, and he was screaming and cussing some more; I hung up again.

Another few minutes passed and the phone rang one more time. I picked it up and said hello. This time, there was a pause on the other end of the line. Finally, the man asked “Are you going to hang up on me again?” I answered “Depends; are you going to continue cussing at me, or are you going to talk to me so that I can help you?” He chose the latter, and five minutes later, he was thanking me for all the help I’d given him, and apologizing for his behavior.

What had I done that was so remarkable? I listened to what he had to say. When I was reviewing the account he was asking about, I saw that it was an inpatient claim, and his wife had passed away while being a patient in our hospital. It occurred 2 months earlier, and it was obvious that he was still dealing with the emotions of his loss. Receiving a hospital bill after such an event can sometimes trigger strong emotions in people when they’re still in the process of recovery; I have personal experience with this.

There are many healthcare entities who tell staff that handles patient calls to get them resolved in a very short period of time. But healthcare is something different; we can’t always afford to try to run our patients through the time mill, because we don’t always know the circumstances which brought them to our doors. We can’t always have our collectors hammering patients for outstanding balances without knowing the state of affairs.

There are five main points that I felt needed to be addressed:

1. When you get the name and account number of the account in question, try to look quickly to see if there are any extenuating compassion circumstances you should know. Many healthcare facilities have a place where they can notate when a patient is deceased. If not, you should look into creating a process where this information can be seen easily.

2. Listen fully to what the customer has to say before you try to answer their questions. Most people try to answer what they perceive the question is without fully understanding what the real issue is. Sometimes, what’s sitting in front of your face isn’t the problem.

3. If needed, express condolences before attempting to solve a patient’s issues. Healthcare personnel, no matter what position they have, should always try to put themselves in the position of being the patient or the family member; wouldn’t we all appreciate a little compassion coming our way in times of distress?

4. Be understanding, but never take abuse. Emotions can run high, but we set the standard for how we talk to our customers. We deserve to expect that same standard of courtesy, within reason based on circumstances, and when we don’t get it, we’re allowed to save ourselves from abuse. Never give it back; that’s not acceptable. But if you can’t get the other person to calm down, try to pass it on to a supervisor, or leave the conversation.

5. Don’t rush through a conversation until the issue has been solved. Trying to get through a call to meet time standards usually means someone’s getting the short end of the stick, and no one is left satisfied. Customers may not always be calling for our benefit, but often the information they impart can help us get claims paid.

I had a meeting with my patient representatives and collections staff, and discussed these points. I always felt that it helped our customer service efforts for our facility. The number of calls I used to receive from disgruntled patients drastically decreased. I know the mood of my personnel was uplifted, because they now had some tools to go along with their technical skills. And who among us doesn’t love working in harmony?

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