Writing Clearly and Concisely

In my judgment, most books should be booklets, most booklets essays, most essays articles, most articles paragraphs, and most paragraphs should be statements.

It is far more important to write well than most folks realize. Writing not only communicates ideas, it also generates them—in the minds of both the author and the reader.

Effective Writing is a Lifelong Pursuit

One of my 2018 goals is to peruse two classic texts on writing clearly and concisely: William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style (1918) and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (1980.)

'The Elements of Style' by Strunk & White (ISBN 1940177480) Strunk and White affirm that brevity is the essence of good writing in these three sentences:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Succinctness, simplicity, and humanity are also dominant objectives in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.

'On Writing Well' by William Zinsser (ISBN 0060891548) On Writing Well is a celebrated guide to concise, unmistakable, and well-crafted writing. The book has sold several million copies worldwide, and is a required reading at many a university course.

Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does … Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

Zinsser’s central premise is that good writing is the result of hard work, not inborn talent. The book’s particular strength is in Zinsser’s selection of paragraphs by great writers, and his instruction on how to learn from those writers: “Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”

On Writing Well is a must-read for anyone who writes and desires to his or her prose. Read Derek Sivers’ helpful synopsis of the book.

Luck is So Much More Important Than We Acknowledge

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate how much of life is the product of chance—that invisible hand of life: when and where you were born, the age you live in, people you meet, the problems and opportunities you face, how you meet your spouse, and so forth.

Luck is So Much More Important Than We Acknowledge Much of these are largely outside of your control.

In this context, it’s interesting to think about how some people are born with a pair of aces, never realize it, and squander opportunities handed down to them. As the great philosophers (and Singapore’s Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew) have advised, life is what you make of the cards you’re dealt with—using some talent, courage, and wisdom.

But often, stuff just happens. Some things are simply beyond your control—you can only do your best by focusing on your effort and lowering your expectations of the outcomes of much of what you’ll do in life.

How to Hire and Promote the Best

Standardized tests, intelligence exams, and personality assessments have been in vogue for centuries for selecting job candidates and promoting employees. For instance,

  • In Plato’s Greece, civil service candidates were required to pass difficult physical and cognitive tests.
  • In China, the Han and Tang dynasties administered tests of literary style and the classics to hire the establishment bureaucrats. Aspirants were required to pass multiple three-day provincial exams and then take a final exam in the imperial capital.

Modern hiring practices have centered on the idea of competencies—specific behaviors, skills, knowledge, and pertinent experiences—identified for successful job performance.

Harvard psychologist David McClelland (Competency Modeling) Harvard psychologist David McClelland first proposed the idea of ‘competence’. In 1973, he introduced a then-revolutionary idea that transformed how companies hire and promote people. In his influential paper, titled “Testing for Competence Rather than for Intelligence,” McClelland made a case that a candidate’s GPA, IQ, or scores from intelligence or aptitude tests were not all as valid predictors of job success as was then imagined.

McClelland argued that another set of factors—“competences”—were better measures for explaining job success. To hire the best person for any job, McClelland recommended that organizations,

  • Begin by analyzing people who now have the job and people who held that job previously.
  • Classify the star performers—say the top 10%—by some logical and meaningful metric.
  • Compare the star performers to people who are merely average by a systematic method.
  • Identify the traits, characteristics, and behaviors in the star performers and not in the average performers.
  • Hire and promote people who have demonstrated the distinct traits and behaviors of the star performers.

Competency Modeling - How to Hire and Promote the Best Over the years, McClelland’s paper has evolved into “competency modeling,” a widespread methodology that is now at the heart of how many companies manage talent and achieve professional development for employees.

Not only are competencies often hard to define and understand, but testing for competencies through simulation or evidence is very difficult. Not to mention of how hard it is to assess employees quickly. Hence, at many “competency-driven” companies, human resources departments have dedicated teams to develop and implement competency models (see example from 3M, the Minnesota-based industrial and consumer products) to hire, train, evaluate, and promote employees.

Competency models form the baseline criteria for identifying high-potential employees, and succession management procedures.

How to Combat Burnout at Work

Employee burnout, the slow and steady physical and psychological fatigue and depletion caused by one’s work-life, reflects a fundamental challenge of working life.

How to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout Burnout is characterized by reduced personal accomplishment, physical exhaustion and unremitting weariness, feelings of despair and helplessness, and cynical attitudes toward work, life, and people.

Many people work in situations that are conducive to burnout. The prevalence of demanding job characteristics and the pressures of collegial and supervisory relationships, together with inadequate job resources and motivational job characteristics can trigger burnout.

If you’re feeling worn out, overwhelmed, even depressed at work, here’s how to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout:

  • Investigate ways to limit or disconnect exposure to stress-initiators. First, understand and rank all the triggers of stress. Reflect on your existing responsibilities and relationships at work, and identify any element that strains your enthusiasm or diminishes your energy.
  • Restructure your work. If you’re dealing with excessive job demands and are provided with inadequate job resources, try to discard low-gain and high-pain tasks and responsibilities. Ask for more resources, and reach out to people you find supportive and motivating. If all else fails, lower your standards.
  • Seek opportunities for psychological detachment from work. Stop thinking about work during your leisure time and disengage yourself mentally from work.
  • Nurture yourself. Your needs belong to the top. As you make your way through a busy life, don’t ignore prioritizing taking care of yourself. Don’t surrender, settle, or lose hope. Don’t compromise yourself and become what you can settle for.

Office Chitchat Isn’t Necessarily a Time Waster

When Employees are Happy, They Work Better

Office Chitchat Isn't Necessarily a Time Waster Managers who disapprove and clamp down on impromptu encounters that people have at their desks, in the hallways, by the elevators, in the lunchroom, or by the water coolers can create a work environment that’s unpleasant, even repressive.

If truth be told, what may seems like idle chitchat actually forges links between people and encourages a culture of openness that can help people work toward common goals.

Informal, spontaneous conversations between coworkers, especially between colleagues from different departments, will not only give people a chance to know each other better, but also create a feeling of collaboration. The camaraderie that grows from employees sharing a little fun can go a long way toward fostering a feeling that they’re part of a team.

Chitchat is About Building Relationships

During those inconsequential “idle moments” of office conversations, important information is being exchanged. You’re learning much about others and offering details about yourself.

  • Whom can you trust? Who possesses strong convictions? Who has a broad experience or in-depth knowledge?
  • Who is a stimulating brainstormer? Who has the wherewithal for workarounds to problems?
  • Who can open doors for you? Who can facilitate otherwise hard-to-get connections?
  • Who can influence the leadership decisions? Who can evangelize your project to the right people? Who can bend the leadership’s ear? Who can be your cheerleader?
  • Who can lend a consoling ear in moments of problems or crisis? Who sees the bright side of problems?
  • Who can help you with questions on software, help you decide health insurance plans, or fix the printer?

Casual Conversations are About Networking and Leaving Positive Impressions

Small talk and casual conversations are an important element of collegial workplaces. People like talking about themselves, so if you can remember a nugget of information from the last time you met (kids, pets, and travels are great topics) bring it up.

To be respectful of others’ time, remember this two-minute rule: unless you’re discussing a topic of some importance, try to wrap up your small talk and casual chats in two minutes. Pay attention to your listener’s non-verbal cues and adjust the extent of your conversation. You can always arrange to convene later, “I’d love to hear more, but I’m in a rush. Why don’t I call you afterhours? How about we meet up for coffee this weekend?”

Nevertheless, don’t let chatter go too far and negatively impact your productivity or those of others. If you’re considered as too chatty, others may to resent bumping into you. If you tend to talk too much about yourself, you’ll be judged self-absorbed and interpersonally clueless.

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace Cordiality is a significant persuasive technique because people are much more likely to feel warmly towards those they like. They’ll do things for you if you earnestly show interest in them, chat with them on a regular basis, and make them feel good about themselves.

Colleagues who don’t chat can come across as arrogant or abrupt. Highly competent but unpopular professionals don’t thrive as well as their moderately competent, but popular counterparts.

Small Talk is a Critical Tool for Creating a Personal Bond with Your Coworkers

Even though an office is primarily a place of business, chatting about non-work topics and establishing rapport with coworkers is important. People who know and like each other tend to have each other’s backs and help out when necessary.

Even if, eventually, you’ll be accepted or rejected based on the more tangible aspects of your work, the fact of the matter is that these interpersonal impressions matter a great deal along the way and can even shape how people judge your more actual work.

Idea for Impact: Balance your dedication to your workload with a cooperative nature, you will gain needed allies to get things done and to help your career progression in the company.

Seek Fame by Associating with the Famous?

Dale Carnegie (1888–1955,) the author of the perennial self-help best seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, wasn’t related to the Scottish-American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919.)

However, Dale Carnegie changed the spelling of his last name from “Carnagey” at a time when Andrew Carnegie was a widely recognized name.

Dale Carnegie was born Dale Carnagay on a Missouri farm. After trying his luck as a salesman and as a failed actor, Carnagay moved to New York and began teaching public speaking at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA.) His courses got popular and, in time, Carnagay opened his own office in the Carnegie House, adjacent to the famous Carnegie Hall, which is named after Andrew Carnegie, who funded its construction.

Shrewd marketing indeed!

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

Before Jumping Ship, Consider This

Don't Jump Ship in Frustration

Dissatisfied with your job? Considering jumping ship? There’s no guarantee your next job will be any better. Many people who jump ship in frustration run into the same problems that were an obstacle with previous employers.

Consider working on a solution before trying to jump ship. Try to discuss your future with your boss.

  • Examine your motivations. Insist on realism. Do you have clear goals and priorities? Step back and assess what’s happening in your career journey. Don’t have unrealistic assumptions.
  • Start with a plan. What specifically are you seeking to make your job better? How can you get it? If you feel your career has become stagnant, realize that people who stay in one function or one industry may move up quickly in the beginning of their careers but often reach a ceiling later when they become too specialized.
  • Be brutally candid with yourself. Make sure you’re capable of handling the roles and responsibilities you’re seeking. Determine if they’re available.
  • Meet formally with your boss to discuss your plan. Take the initiative to lead the discussion; unlike at a performance review, here you drive the discussion.
  • During the meeting, ask your boss to evaluate your skills and your potential. Hear him out. Use active listening—repeat what he said to make sure you understand each other.
  • Give the boss your perspectives after hearing his. Don’t be confrontational. Try to cooperate. Think before you respond: reacting too quickly will set your boss on the defensive and guarantee an argument.
  • Once you’ve agreed upon a solution, do everything to progress it. Example: One woman wanted to be reassigned to her company’s trade sales unit. At her own initiative, she attended her industry’s trade shows, developed contacts, and learned what was necessary to succeed in sales and marketing.
  • Don’t expect quick action: changes take a little time. Perhaps you may be happier with a lateral move: many people think that careers should follow an upward trajectory. In fact, most jobs transitions don’t entail a promotion. Most successful careers involve a mix of lateral and upward movement.

Idea for Impact: Try to ask for honest feedback about what’s holding you back from a promotion. You’ll find it easier to tackle career frustrations in a familiar environment at your current employer rather than at a new company where you’ll be under pressure to learn the ropes and produce results quickly.

Job-Hunting While Still Employed [Two-Minute Mentor #10]

Job-Hunting While Still Employed Searching for a new job without revealing that you aren’t very pleased at your current job or getting fired can be a challenge. Here are four ways to job-hunt with caution.

  • Examine your motivations before job-hunting. Many people who jump ship in frustration run into the same problems that were an obstacle with previous employers. Try to ask for honest feedback about how you’re perceived by your managers and what’s holding you back from a promotion. You’ll find it easier to tackle career progression frustrations in a familiar environment at your current employer rather than at a new company where you’ll be under pressure to learn the ropes and produce results quickly.
  • Respect your employer’s time and resources. Don’t job-search on company time—your current job responsibilities are your priority. Looking for another position typically involves having to be away from your office for interviews; use your vacation days—not sick days—for job-searching and interviewing. Be careful about using your work computer to look up jobs, contact recruiters, or update your social-media presence.
  • Be tactful about whom you tell that you’re looking for another job. Even if you trust your coworkers, you can’t limit what they may share with others. Some of your coworkers may be ethically obligated to keep your boss and your company informed about any prospective changes in staffing or anything that might affect the organization’s goals. Be cautious about how you promote yourself on LinkedIn and job-search websites.
  • If you are offered a new job, be straight with everyone. Inform your boss immediately. Give as much notice as required, plan to tie up loose ends, and offer to help transition your responsibilities to a successor. Don’t be unreasonable in leveraging your new job offer to negotiate a counteroffer from your employer. Do your best to leave on the right note. Be consistent in what you tell different people about why you’re leaving. Do not burn bridges in the job-transition process.

Bad Customers Are Bad for Your Business

Herb Kelleher: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you.”

Herb Kelleher of Southwest AirlinesSouthwest Airlines is a paragon of superlative customer service. Southwest’s happy and engaged employees routinely go out of their way to delight their customers. In spite of such remarkable devotion to customer satisfaction, there have been times when Southwest had to decide that some customers were just wrong for their business.

In the very entertaining and enlightening Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, authors Kevin and Jackie Freiberg narrate how Southwest had to let go of a customer who couldn’t be less satisfied with her travel experience. This customer relations-story is best appreciated in light of the fun-loving and gregarious nature of Southwest’s legendary founder and ex-Chairman/CEO Herb Kelleher.

'Nuts- Southwest Airlines' by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg (ISBN 0767901843) A woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Customers are the lifeblood of any business. Customer satisfaction begets loyalty, and loyalty begets revenues and profits. Businesses can therefore never place too much emphasis on their customers.

However, with slogans like “the customer is always right,” many businesses fall into the trap—and the slippery slope—of trying to satisfy every customer’s every wish.

Although your business may need all its customers—even the irksome ones—the reality is that some customers can actually be bad for your business. You can’t sustainably run a business without trying to satisfy every customer—particularly those cranky, annoying, or unreasonable ones.

Be wary of customers that fall into these categories:

  • Customers who require high maintenance but cannot be charged more
  • Customers whose demand for price destroys your profitability
  • Customers who want a lot more (better product, better service, better schedule) but are tightfisted
  • Customers who require supplementary services or products (especially those that are not part of your business’s core competencies) and tailored solutions that you don’t provide and can’t profitably offer to the rest of your customer base
  • Customers who don’t subscribe into the future vision of your business or your industry, which they’ll need to strategically commit to as some point in the future
  • Customers who tend to be aggressive and hostile, and disrespectful to your employees, regardless of how well they serve the customers

Strategic Customer Management Involves Being Tough Minded with Some Customers

Strategic Customer ManagementConsidering your long-term business goals, sifting through who should and who shouldn’t be your customers is an important element of strategic leadership.

With every product or service you offer, focus on who you want your customer to be, what expectations they have of you, and what you can profitably provide to them. Once you have figured that out, customers who don’t fit well need to be managed judiciously and decisively.

Without strategic customer management, you run a risk of disrupting your ability to converge around the needs of your principal customer base.

Remember the notion of opportunity costevery ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something important.

Idea for Impact: Let Go of Some of Your Troublesome Customers

Sometimes, it may be better to lose certain customers by turning them down than to dilute your ability to serve other valuable customers profitably. Stop trying to delight every customer. Take a hard look at the past, current, and future of every customer and prioritize whom you can going to serve better and more successfully.