Monday, November 22, 2010

Business Design is a Contact Sport: Perfecting Failure

by Jean Brittingham

One of the biggest challenges out there for entrepreneurs is this idea that you have to get things right before you launch and that if you make mistakes, it will cost you big time.

If there is one thing I have learned over the years it’s that delay in getting your idea to market is not always good. That’s not to say you don’t have to have a plan, and a plan of action, and even a fallback plan. You absolutely do. But waiting too long is not going to help you and in fact can keep you from ever launching anything.
There are several places in the development of your business that you should be bold in putting your ideas out there and I’ll talk about that in a future post. 
But in the spirit of the “one-minute manager” for entrepreneurs, here’s my quick list!
  • Prototype, Test, Fail & Prototype
  • Ignore failure except to learn from it
  • Failing has no power of it’s own
  • Focus on what is working
  • Failure is success
These concepts seem to be particularly difficult for women entrepreneurs. It’s my opinion that this sense of needing to be “perfect” has deep roots in the conversation of our culture.  Dr. Alice Domar in her article on Why Do Women Need to Be Perfect, gets at some of the issues, but glosses over the fact that we live in a marketing bubble of male dominance that has consistently used perfection as a way to marginalize and minimize the impact and power of the feminine in our culture.
And while this fact is alarming, and it’s amazing to me that a clinical psychologist doesn’t see the link between Barbie Dolls, Beer commercials (with real life Barbie dolls free to the guy drinking the correctly branded beer), and the consistent marketing messages about how happy our families will be if only we get the right floor cleaner (and of course use it every time the dog comes in the house). That we seem to not have grasped how deeply and consistently we are marketed perfection is amazing to me.
But we’re really pragmatic here at The SmartGirl’s Way and we just want women entrepreneurs to succeed.  So here’s the truth about perfection. It will hold you back. It will keep you from starting and it will keep you from building the confidence you need to scale.
Here’s the truth about failure.  It’s your friend if you make it so. Thomas Edison is my person hero when it comes to failure. Some of his best quotes are here.
My favorite is “Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged.”
So here’s the thing to remember about design, improvement and failure:
  • Designing your business, product, service, world-changing breakthrough is a CONTACT SPORT.
  • Failure has no power of its own—only the power you give it.
  • You give failure power by the way you talk about it.
  • Focus on what worked.
  • Don’t spread fear of failure—your people will stop trying things and that is death for a start-up.
  • Create more experiments.
  • The more things fail, the more certain it is that something great will work.
Finally-keep those Edison quotes and a few others in front of you. One of the best things I learned from the male entrepreneurs I worked for before starting my own businesses was their great ability to tell a new story about a failure. Sometimes they went too far in my estimation and were manipulating others through the story they told. But for the most part, they were telling the story to themselves to force themselves to weave meaning from their learning, use it to expand their vision, build their network and stay on point with their business.
That’s a very good lesson.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Women Do Focus Differently

by Tracey Collins

When it comes to splitting one’s focus on many different activities, women are better than men at more accurately and efficiently completing the important tasks. So are women better able to focus on multiple tasks because of evolutionary practice and social expectations, or is it because of the way a woman’s brain is hardwired?

Here at The SmartGirls Way we’ve been exploring an emergent theory in gender brain chemistry related to the corpus collosum -- a little part of the brain that handles communication between the two hemispheres.  The corpus collosum is biologically more active in women than and in men and this is one theory as to why women can split their focus more efficiently.
When comparing women to men, it is believed that men think with ‘tunnel vision’ (using single cues to solve a problem) while women use their minds to synthesize multiple cues from the environment.   Perhaps this focus is what allows my husband to visually call-up obscure facts when consulting patients in his medical practice.  This same deep-dive focus may also explain why he has a more difficult time transitioning from one task to another in the midst of our domestic ‘background’ noise.

Two recent studies (one in the UK and another at the University of Missouri) found that women are better at honing in and keeping track of the details that matter because they are more spatially aware of their surroundings.  Unlike men who tend to focus their brains like a laser on a problem, a woman will direct her thinking like a spotlight that expands in a circle all around her.  When this spotlight is working effectively -- and with purpose -- women have been proven to posses the ability to better plan ahead or reflect upon a problem while simultaneously juggling other commitments, than men.

This is why - even when there is a lot happening around us– we can suddenly hone in with clarity on a business problem or make a snap connection to another solution, business connection or idea.

Spotlight scanning allows us to:

  • Think more broadly about an issue rather than getting stuck in one place.
  • Avoid becoming myopic and create a bigger sphere in which to operate.
  • Go beneath the surface of a challenge without excluding ideas that are on the periphery of our awareness. 
  • Act with purpose and prioritize the activities we need to devote our attention to.
  • Spend more time thinking about the things that make us more effective and/or bring us satisfaction.

This unique ability could lead to a rather protracted and uncomfortable debate about the relative capabilities and attributes of the genders and the different ways that men and women multi-task. Rather than debating or seeking to qualify or vindicate, why not just embrace our inner spotlight.  It’s about time for women to teach men the benefit of taking off the blinders and using the unique skills that women offer.

In particular just imagine how using this spotlight to look at a business (preferably your own) with a broad and “high” view can make a difference. You pass over the wide circle of your market, customers and competitors and suddenly your spotlight illuminates a unique opportunity.  Suddenly you have clarity of purpose.

Tracey Collins is guest-writer for The SmartGirls Way.  She is President and Founder of Mirror Group Consulting; a consultancy focused on content, executive coaching and change management.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Women Entrepreneurs: A World of Opportunity to Avoid "Group-Think"

By Tracey Collins

Something in Jean’s last post on Pride, Power and Prejudice really struck a chord with me: Men are three times more likely to receive a new business loan than women for the same business plan? Wow!  

After being at once discouraged and then curious, I wanted to find out: What is actually being done about this?  If more women were involved in the decision-making boards of our nation’s financial institutions, would this disparity still be true? 

Consumer Czar Elizabeth Warren and her newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau seems to believe it with her efforts and aggressive stance on credit card transparency.  A Harvard Law Professor, Warren was the ‘outsider’ when she was appointed to chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to investigate the U.S. banking bailout.  Last week she was featured by iVillage in the story: "We need women on Wall Street,” where she paid tribute to a core characteristic that what we at The SmartGirls way like to call “Fairness.” 

For Warren, the economic crisis may have been avoided if there were more women on Wall Street; “Women are especially good at fighting on behalf of others and are often outsiders.” 

When asked about the recent financial crisis she explained that the outsider status was missing: "There were a bunch of insiders talking to insiders and that's how they ended up blowing up the economic world.”  

Her solution: “I want to see a lot of women get involved, a lot of women."

On the same day, the President headed off for his trip to Asia.  I happened to check the White House White Board and watched the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Austan Goolsbee, give a pretty baseline summation driving the National Export Initiative – which has set the lofty goal of tripling our national exports from $1.57 trillion to $3.14 trillion by the year 2014.  This is a huge challenge given that in the last 10 years the US has actually fallen to an all-time low in exports and now lags behind Germany, India, China and Japan. 

The US Administration sees small business as a fundamental component to reaching this goal.  In fact, we are already contributing.  According to a 2006 International Monetary Fund Financial Survey, women business owners generate $1.9 trillion in sales each year; that is equal to the gross domestic product (GDP) of China.  

So it seems to me that there is a world of opportunity out there and while women owned businesses grapple with their own unique set of challenges, there is comfort in common travails, camaraderie and role models. 

When facing issues around gender bias, securing angel funding or even the implications of off-ramping my corporate career to take on a caretaking role, I’m going to take comfort in the fact that I am not alone.  There is a market need and we’re weaving together a very smart network to meet it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Weaving Trumps Networking for Women Entrepreneurs

by Jean Brittingham 

Last Tuesday, The Glass Hammer hosted an event on career management. The primary focus of the event was negotiating and networking—a skill that women entrepreneurs seem to have a stronger handle on than women in corporate settings.

Through my personal experience and interviews with women in corporate and entrepreneurial settings, the primary difference that sets women entrepreneurs apart is a sense of control over their own destiny. In the corporate world, even women who know how to play the game are often tired, tired, tired of playing it. As the Glass Hammer post explains—men never get tired of it. They know the game and they keep score. Even when women learn to do that, most of us don’t enjoy it —the feminine perspective on winning, and therefore our approach to competitive situations at work, is collaborative and seeks successful outcomes for all rather than winners and losers.

Further, as I discussed in "Pride, Power and Prejudice," what is seen as strength in men is often interpreted as aggressiveness in women.

While learning how to navigate tricky office politics and walking what Glass Hammer refers to as “the thin pink line” is appropriate for women professionals, when you have made the jump from working for others to leading your own company, there are many things about negotiating and networking that are unique.

For women entrepreneurs, our ability to use highly refined social sensitivity and engage with a broad range of people to effectively build networks and mature relationships is critical. We have to be committed and passionate about our ideas. We have to get our core concepts across quickly and succinctly to turn listeners and interested parties into potential supporters/collaborators and investors/customers.

This is where weaving comes in; it is a skill beyond networking. While networking puts you at the hub of a wheel in relationships with others, weaving happens when you listen to and connect the needs, desires and skills of others and begin to form new tapestries of relationships that create positive outcomes for many in the process.  In order to do this advanced networking effectively, you must listen to and understand what others need, want and are looking for beyond your business service, product offering or methodology.

A distinct differences between women and men entrepreneurs is the ability to stay engaged with people beyond the point that it is clear they are not going to help you with your business and build value added relationships where you didn’t think any would form.

The ability that women have to connect multiple ideas and concepts and not get overly distracted from it may have developed in the same way that other core female strengths have—through the necessity to understand a broad landscape of problems and issues, quickly prioritize and get everything done as needed, all while building a resilient community that is safe for children and future generations.

Here are some practical tips to help you increase your weaving skills.
  • Take notes of people’s ideas, dreams and the connections they need.
  •  If you can help, do it as soon as you can, especially if it is an introduction.
  • Whatever you are using to track relationships—even if it’s just a regular address book; make a few notes about what your new contact is working on.
  • As often as possible, follow-up with a short phone call rather than an e-mail. It’s more personal and even if you just leave a voice message, it will create a longer lasting impression
  • Don’t expect anything in return; do it because it’s the right thing to do and you can.
  • When it comes back, as it often will, be grateful and call again.
As an entrepreneur you are always setting the goals and standards for your organization. Creating positive connections for others is a great way to model commitment to customer service and strong partnership development. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pride, Power, Prejudice and the Woman Entrepreneur Part I

by Jean Brittingham

The Dilemma

As our research continues and our insight into women’s unique strengths in family, society and business deepens, I have become fonder of what I am calling in-born AND learned theory. Many scientific fields have studied the question of nature v. nurture attempting to answer it from a hypothesis of one ideology dominating the other. While typical of our current patriarchal cultural context, which requires a “winner” (and by default a “loser), this approach is not always useful or beneficial to the majority of those who live in society.

What is useful is to observe how in-born tendency and learned behaviors have worked together to shape our society and design our cultural reality. Ultimately, we need to shift to a culture that works better for more of society.

I’m in possession of a “secret study” given to me by a banking insider. I can’t link that document here because it was given to me confidentially. The singular question of the study was, “why do men entrepreneurs so often get the loans they need when women most often do not.” The results were stunning.

Over 100 loan officers across 70 or so banks were involved. The business plans used were the same in EVERY case.  Men received their loan approval 83% of the time. Women only 27% of the time!

The study was done in 1997 and I do believe that we are making progress—there is a growing appreciation that women business owners are going to be a significant part of a recovering economy and moreover women have proven to be very good bets in their ability to repay debt. It’s good business to do business with women.

Still, this more recent study in Australia gives pause.

The loan officers in the study were interviewed immediately after either approving or declining the loan. There were a number of interesting findings, but the ones that intrigued me the most focused on two areas—confidence and perception of power.  These results offer a peak into the culture we’ve created and currently live in. Fortunately, they also give us insights on how to begin the shift towards a more beneficial culture.

According to the interviews, women loan-seekers came across (to both male and female loan officers) as less “full of pride” about their ventures and when asked if they were confident about their ability to meet their business plans, the women waivered.  They said yes, but then they offered alternative ways that they would meet their obligations should something go wrong! This highly responsible attitude was seen as a lack of confidence on the part of these women.

Further, the women were not very forceful in their interviews. They did not push back against the questioning and did not seem adamant that they should get the loans. They were described variously as unsure, not confident and not committed.  They were perceived as not entrepreneurial enough.

Boldness is a Double-Edged Sword

The perception of personal power and pride required for entrepreneurial success is not insignificant. To the outside observer, entrepreneurs can seem audacious and over-confident. 

This is one of the primary areas where gender differences created by nature and nurture are producing challenges for women entrepreneurs. We must learn to be bold, confident--almost arrogant about our great ideas and in particular about the unique skills we possess to make our business succeed.

Yet, where do we learn to do this? Good question.  Our families are not typically the place. It is still very much the norm to expect girls to be quiet and cute. I am appalled by how often the young girls in my life are told they are cute and how infrequently they are told they are clever, creative and brave.

The traditional business setting has certainly not been the place to learn or practice these skills.  In the corporate world, most women who speak strongly for their ideas are seen as shrill, threatening and “bitchy.” As subtly illustrated in this Glass Hammer post, women are still being encouraged and trained in how to navigate a man’s world by playing the game by their rules.

I should admit here that I completely love the slogan, “they call me bitch like it’s a bad thing.” It seemed to me the best way to embrace the fact that your vocal intelligent opinion was going to get you branded no matter how nice you really are! 

But let’s be honest.  Women are generally going to be nicer, less arrogant and more focused on win-win than men. Historically, women have been and are the nurturers of society and somewhere along the way the natural propensity to nurture got branded as soft, weak and demure.  The tendency to nurture is “in-born.”  But for that, the survival of the species would be seriously at risk.

Labeling nurturing as a “soft skill,” putting most things that women do well in that category, and then making these skills seem silly or out of place in business, is a function of learned behavior; the result of a male dominated business context. It’s an example of how our conversations have shaped and created our culture.

The irony is that there is nothing soft about nurturing. Having babies, raising children, and bringing communities together; caring for the injured and dying and assuring that everyone is physically and emotionally cared for? That’s definitely the TOUGHEST job in the world.

And most men will not argue that point.

What they do argue about is the role these skills play at work. Yet, even there, evidence mounts that what women bring in terms of social intelligence, team leadership excellence, creative win-win ability and a deep understanding of how to create robust and interdependent networks is going to be deeply needed now and into the future.

So how do we stay true to our core abilities, our unique strengths, be ourselves, and be seen as powerfully capable entrepreneurs worthy of capital investment?

Stay tuned for Part II: The Solution. Coming soon!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Female Approach to Change

by Tracey Collins

Recently I've come to observe an interesting dichotomy between those that succeed and those that fail at change.  I'd like to call it the male vs. the female approach.  I was reminded of this as I watched last week’s midterm election – an election that was, once again, very much about “change.”

With the downfall of Pelosi, Whitman and Fiorina the buzz out there today is that women candidates on both sides of the table did dismally.  Yet at a local level, women were seated and unseated with less of a focus on gender -- with an exception perhaps in my own neck of the woods where Maine and New Hampshire will become the first neighboring states to be represented by four women in the Senate (Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte).

I’ve also observed that in most cases, women in the political or corporate world don male personas to compete and climb the political ladder.  This type of “kill or be killed” campaigning successfully contributed to a stress-based furor that caught a lot of people’s attention at the polls – but only time will tell if it has an impact. We’ve already seen this type of fear-based communication beginning to backfire in the today’s corporate cultures.

Fight or Nurture

The old school, "patriarchal" response to stress is to either stand and fight, or flee – the same can be said during stressful change.  But when it comes to organizational change, I've never seen either of these responses work out well.  In the long run, fighting a change most often leads to more stress.  I'm sure many of us can relate to an angry manager whose knee-jerk reaction to a change addressed a symptom but not the problem; often resulting in further heartache for everyone involved.  Or, we may also be familiar with the passive aggressive counterpart, who flees in the face of stress, becoming ineffective because he or she avoids a problem, only to have it grow bigger.

A  2000 UCLA study on women and friendship  suggests that women respond to stress differently with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause women to "nurture and tend" during times of stress.  I find this "matriarchal" approach to be very intriguing – especially when it comes to the stress of changing behaviors.  Take for example last spring’s reports of women in Kenya staging a week long Sex Strike in protest to what they viewed as a failure of leadership to curb the infighting and the chaos in the aftermath of war.  Now you may ask: What does a sex strike in Kenya have to do with the Tea Party elections?  Well nothing really except that both groups collectively created a community movement to get their message heard.

So perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in the nurturing intention behind the idea of a community movement.  After all, in both the healthcare and business environment, advocates of personal change have embraced a specific "nurture and tend" approach called the support group method to great effect.  From drug addiction to weight-loss and the management of diabetes, support groups are becoming a new tool for helping people change behaviors and attitudes with great results.

Now let me be clear, all men don't use the "patriarchal" approach and I can think of a number of female leaders who display a fight and flee mentality in the face of stress.  But for argument’s sake, how would this constructive "nurturing" approach to change look in a communications context?

Most "old school" organizations have come to realize the dominant push-and-tell communications styles are not effective.  A study by the Larkin Group: Communicating Big Change Using Small Communications advocates face-to- face communication as the most effective way to manage a change. The new manager sits down to talk about a change in a supportive, open and honest way.  President Obama used this style to great effect in the 2008 election and many corporate executives from 3M to Procter & Gamble are known for their ability to envision, communicate and enlist the support of their teams.

And that is what I believe the female approach to change is all about:

  1. Envision the change you want to see.
  2. Talk about it, talk about it…then talk about it some more.
  3. Instead of posturing and assigning blame, take accountability for the change and help one another to grow and nurture it.
So what if our political and corporate women leaders actually embraced their collective feminine strengths?  You see it happening in support circles all over the country like the Maine Women’s Fund.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the wake of this year’s elections.  And perhaps we will have to look outside our own borders to places like Kenya or to the female leaders in Germany, Canada, Ireland, Finland, Brazil, Argentina and Chile (where women all hold the highest leadership office)  to see how a female approach to change will influence and shape our world.

Tracey Collins is guest-writer for The SmartGirls Way.  She is President and Founder of Mirror Group Consulting; a consultancy focused on content, executive coaching and change management.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No Laughing Matter: Why You Should Be Listening to Women’s Intuition

by Jean Brittingham

In a discussion this morning with a senior executive in a large architectural and engineering firm (which by itself is something to say—women at the “real” executive or board level are still rare in the ranks of these consulting companies), I mentioned that intuition is one of the core attributes that we are looking at in women entrepreneurs.  She laughed and said, it would be great to have some validation of my “women’s intuition.” It takes a huge hit here.

It’s true. Intuition is a hard concept to understand and quantify. Women’s intuition is often ridiculed partly because women tend to discuss and qualify their intuitive insights as “feelings” whereas men most often refer to their intuition as having a  “sense.”  Everyone knows that sense is better than feelings in the current masculine dominant culture.

But there really is good reason to be excited about women’s intuition and to believe that women have a highly refined ability to use this skill—
As we’ve posted before, women have very high social sensitivity when it comes to many aspects of unspoken communication.  This matters because as Malcolm Gladwell explains in Blink, intuition is a way our mind processes information stored in ways and in places we don’t necessarily understand. If women are gathering more data that relates to peoples perceptions, feelings and the vast amount of unspoken information in facial expression and body language, their intuition about how something is going to be accepted, should be communicated and may be interpreted is invaluable. 
An area of the brain called the Corpus Callosum is where most connections between known and seemingly “unknown” data are made. It serves as the bridge between the creative and feeling centers of the brain and the logical and data collection sorting areas of the brain. There are distinct differences in metabolic levels, shape and function between women and men’s corpus callosum. While studies continue, evidence builds that women are using this part of their brain more effectively as it relates to connecting many modalities and loosely affiliated concepts. This turns out to be not only helpful in intuition, but a strong aspect of creativity. 
While the ability to connect and link information works well it does not always immediately help us articulate our concern. The best use of intuition comes in when someone can begin to help you understand what they are sensing, seeing or feeling. Women are generally extremely effective communicators and in fact most of us like the challenge of communicating complexity. 
Theses propensities taken together create perhaps the highest and best use of intuition.  The ability to interpret and extrapolate relevant meaning that your intuition is bringing to any given problem set. Intuition allows us to pull in forms of knowledge we don’t necessarily even know we have and establish the importance and priority of different pieces of hard and soft data.

The next time you have a hyper-intuitive response—a strong “hit” about a person, an idea or an opportunity, take note. The next time a woman you work with has such a hit—take notes.  My money says that women’s intuition is going to have a significant impact on how the next economy evolves, but more importantly, it will help you accomplish your goals and dreams right now.

It’s our least known and perhaps most important sense. Use it with gusto!