Quit it!

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)
by Seth Godin

Seth Godin is a brilliant thinker who packs a lot in just a few words. Read his blog posts, and I almost guarantee he’ll reveal something fresh as a return on just a couple minutes of your time.  The Dip is no different:  in 76 pages — small pages, at that — he delivers insight that can change how you approach your goals

The idea behind The Dip is that there’s an initial reward for most anything you start.  You could call it excitement, beginner’s luck, or just the early, steep part of the learning curve.  But then there’s a long slog between beginning and mastery.  This is the dip, and most people never see the other side of it.  The few who persevere through the dip reach mastery, and our world rewards mystery because mastery is scarce.

Godin also describes the Cul-de-Sac, which represents the dead end projects, jobs, relationships, and so on.  You may make sideways moves or small advances, but no breakthrough is possible.  Instead of a blow-out success, the pinnacle of a cul-de-sac is mediocrity. Things won’t get much better or much worse.  If you’re in a cul-de-sac, you’re stuck.  No matter how diligently you work at it, there’s no significant upside.  Hello, status quo.

Godin argues that you must quit when you’re in a cul-de-sac so that you have sufficient resources to power through the dip. While we often regard diversification as a sensible approach, we become mediocre in a number of areas and excellent in none.  But mediocrity will never deliver the results you want.

So, how do you distinguish the cul-de-sac from the dip, and how do you know when to quit? When you consider quitting, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Are you panicking? If so, wait.  Don’t allow your panic to prompt you to quit.  If you quit, you must decide to quit.
  2. Who are you trying to influence? If you’re trying to influence a single person, you have only a few opportunities to succeed.  If you’re trying to influence a market, Godin argues, you can build your success slowly, since every success gets you more traction.
  3. What sort of measurable progress are you making? Look for milestones that show forward progress.  If you see none, or if you see that you’re actually backsliding, then it may be time to quit.

What’s in The Dip for lawyers? If you’ve ever heard me talk about business development tactics, you may have heard me urge you to identify your strengths and to improve those.  If you’re a natural speaker, speak.  If you’re a natural at building one-on-one relationships, do that.  That’s because you can put in energy in areas of natural skill (get through the dip, in other words) and become excellent at that skill, whereas putting in the same energy to shore up a weak skill will get you only to mediocrity.  That’s only one application, but it’s a critical one.

Since reading The Dip, I’ve taken a look at where I’m spending my time. Quitting isn’t easy  (especially for those of us who’ve always been encouraged to persist no matter what) but the payoff in energy to invest elsewhere makes that discomfort worthwhile.

Pick up a copy of The Dip.  It’ll take about an hour to read, but that hour can save you many hours that you would otherwise invest in activity that lacks the payoff.  It’s great investment.

Listen Up!

Business is the greatest personal development tool that exists. The moment you take responsibility for your work and for generating and serving clients, you become your own best asset.  That’s why you must invest in yourself.  If you don’t grow, your business won’t grow.  Give that some thought the next time you’re faced with an opportunity that will move you forward and you decide to let it pass because you “can’t afford” it.

To thrive in business you must master many different skills and attitudes, one of which is the ability to relate well with others. Communication skills are especially important in business development as well, because without knowing what a client is thinking about and what the client’s objectives are, it’s impossible to know whether and how your professional skills can help that client.  Rather than focusing on what you seek to communicate to that client, though, begin by letting the client speak.

Expansive questions allow the client to guide the conversation as she prefers, and asking follow-up questions will draw out the necessary information. Depending on the context, the following questions serve as good conversation-starting questions:

  • What are your ultimate objectives here?
  • How does this matter fit into the broader business context?
  • What are you most concerned about here?
  • How long has this problem been going on?
  • What do you need from this situation, and what would you like?
  • What are the biggest obstacles you see?
  • How will it impact your life and your business to solve this problem?

Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in asking a “brilliant” question or a question that reveals how much you know. Aim instead for open-ended questions that focus on the matter at hand and provide space for a client to move into broader business concerns.

Follow-up questions can be as simple as:

  • Tell me more?
  • What else should I know?
  • What’s an example of _______?

Your goal is to get the facts and concerns that the client holds and to draw out as much information as possible. Simple questions are usually best.

But asking simple, open-ended questions isn’t enough.

It’s human nature, especially when we want to appear knowledgeable, to listen, with half-attention while planning the next thing we might say. Half-listening is almost more dangerous than not asking questions, because if information is conveyed and you ignore it, the client will feel disregarded — poor grounding for any relationship.

Instead, listen deeply to your client. What is he really saying?  Do his words, tone of voice, and body language match?  If not, what question can you ask to clear up the conflict without putting the client on the defensive?  It’s important too to listen beyond what’s said, to gain an appreciation for what’s unsaid and what context is being shared.

Two exercises to strengthen client communications

Start by noticing how much you talk in a conversation. The goal when you talk with a potential client or are deepening your relationship with a current client is to talk for only 20-40% of a conversation.  To draw out your client, ask questions only for the first part of the conversation, until you understand the client’s concerns and goals.

To strengthen your listening skills, insert a few seconds’ pause before you speak. The pause shows that you are absorbing what’s been said, and it allows you just to listen without needing to plan a response until you’ve heard everything the other person intends to say.

Incidentally, although these skills are critical for client service, you can also use them to strengthen relationships with your colleagues and in your personal life. Once you start to notice the pattern of conversational give and take, you’ll probably notice how eager many people are to talk rather than to listen.  Notice the effect when you listen deeply and probe gently to find out what really matters to your conversational partner.

Your assignment this week: Listen to your clients and potential clients.  Deeply.  If you know listening without interrupting is a challenge for you, you might even train yourself by holding a pen between your lips while you’re on the telephone.  (I wouldn’t recommend this in a face-to-face meeting!)  When you go to remove the pen, be sure it’s time for you to speak.  If not, pat yourself on the back, and keep on listenin’.

What will it take for you?

I saw The King’s Speech on New Year’s Day. You’ll probably see the movie (about the efforts by King George VI, informally known as Bertie, to overcome a stutter around the time he ascended the throne following the abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII, who left to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson) described as one about stuttering, about royalty, about friendship, about conflicting and social status.  It’s all of that and, to this Anglophile, more besides — a must-see that’s apparently the front runner for multiple Oscars.

But beneath all of that, deeper lessons become apparent. Here are the top three that struck me.

Masks tend to reveal as much as they cover. In other words, if you pretend to be that which you aren’t, cracks will show.  Perhaps the real you won’t leak through the cracks, but fault lines will reveal all that is not as it appears to be.  Bertie’s speech therapist Lionel Logue opined that no child is born with a stutter and that a left-handed child forced to write with his right hand will never find that motion to be natural.

From the business angle… so what? I’ve had the opportunity to coach professionals who feel they must wear a mask to work with colleagues or to attract clients.  The “lucky” ones are unsuccessful, which prompts then to re-evaluate; lucky and unlucky alike are miserable.

Who are you in your business, or in your practice?
As Bob Burg has written, “All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust.”  People are sensitive to hints of in-authenticity and tend not to trust those who wear masks.  So, really, it’s often your choice:  would you prefer to lose some business because people sense you are not the person you’re pretending to be, or would you prefer to lose some business because you are who you are, knowing full well that others will be drawn to you because you are that person?

Breaking the rules may be precisely the thing that propels you forward. In The King’s Speech, one of Bertie’s breakthroughs comes with the freedom granted when Logue urges him to curse.  Bertie, a straight-laced royal, soon lets the expletives rip.  I won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, but letting loose plays a role later in the movie in an amusing way.

Some rules must not be broken – but those who are successful often find certain rules that don’t work for them, and shattering those restrictions also shatters the glass ceiling. What rules are holding you back?  Are they truly non-negotiable?  If you could break them, how would you do it?  And, most importantly, for the sake of what?  Don’t go breaking rules just to break them.

Opportunities may arise in the form of problems or defeat.  Take them anyway. Bertie was never supposed to be king.  His wife (the woman most of us knew as the Queen Mother) never wanted to be queen.  And yet, when King Edward VIII abdicated, Bertie and Queen Elizabeth stepped up at a crucial time in British history.  Bertie found his voice because he had to work for it.  England would likely have come through World War II and the Blitz regardless, but to hear English citizens of those years talk, the leadership shown by the “shouldn’t-have-been-royals” shaped the courage and determination of a generation.  Bertie did what was necessary to stand as a leader; his country modeled what he did.

What opportunities are in front of you?  Which have come in the guise of defeat? Perhaps you made a proposal to a potential client and lost.  What will you do?  One of my clients asked why, received valuable feedback, and proceeded to convert the prospect into a client within a matter of days for a parallel project created solely because the prospect wanted to work with her.  Perhaps you launched a program or a product and no one bought.  What opportunity can you spy when you take your eye off the failure?