Are You a Step-Up or Step-Down Transformer?

This article was originally published in the Maryland Association of CPA’s quarterly magazine, The Statement

Anxiety and creativity are always inversely proportional to each other. The more anxious you are, the less creative you can be. Therefore, trying to increase your creativity only makes you more anxious. Thinking, “I need to be creative, now!” is unlikely to work.

If you want to increase your creativity, you must focus on lowering your level of anxiety. Note that anxiety is different from stress. You can be in a stressful situation but be non- (or at least less) anxious about the situation. Stress is the circumstances you are in, whereas anxiety is the emotion you feel.

Most people I speak with about this concept are very accepting of the idea, at least for themselves. However, I have found that while people resonate internally with the idea, their leadership style does not reflect it in how they approach others. In leading people, they tend to increase the anxiety of a situation by their behavior. They are “step-up anxiety transformers.”

Transformers are amazing

An electrical device that transfers electrical energy between two or more circuits through electromagnetic induction is known as a transformer and are used to increase or decrease the voltage of electric power of the power grid.

These amazing devices work by wrapping wires around a piece of metal at different densities. If the density of the wrapped wires is lower on the incoming side than the outgoing side, then the voltage is stepped up. If the density of the wrapped wires is higher on the incoming side than the outgoing side, then the voltage is stepped down.

A great example of this is the A/C to USB adapter on your iPhone. One hundred and twenty volts (standard US electrical outlet) would instantly fry your phone. The adapter reduces the voltage to the needed 5 volts for the phone. The little gizmo is a step-down transformer.

In their ground-breaking book, Healing Leadership, Howard Hansen and Steve Geske, postulate that like electrical transformers, leaders can be one of two different types of transformers. They can either step-up the level of anxious energy in an organization or step it down. Sadly, many people are step-up transformers. They write:

The least mature in any group, including families, tie up energy resources.  They are eager to create a negative presence.  We have come to call these people, ‘step-up transformers.’ Neutrally anxious energy goes in. Highly anxious energy comes out.  The net outcome is that leaders’ energy levels are reduced along with the capacity to focus on creative work. They are… skilled at making mountains out of every mole hill.

Far too many leaders fail to recognize this trait in themselves. They think they are helping by “creating a sense of urgency” or “getting people to be accountable.” This is nonsense as it is not only unhelpful, but instead sows the seeds of the leader’s own destruction. They are smothering the ability of their people to develop new and creative alternatives to the problems faced by the organization. Instead, fear takes root as the basic emotion of the group and after fear toxicity quickly follows.

What can be done?

Simply put, nothing, except for the leader to recognize that they are step-up transformers and make a conscious choice to become step-down transformers. Like their metaphorically electrical cousins, step-down transformers attempt to lower the level of anxiety by being a non-anxious presence themselves. They do this by becoming a self-differentiated person – someone who is aware of and acknowledges the anxiety of the group, but does not get enmeshed in the anxiety themselves.

In times of crisis, a self-differentiated leader seeks out a balance between being responsible for what they are in fact responsible for and being labeled as obstreperous, that is difficult to work with. This is not an easy task for many leaders, even leaders who we have traditionally viewed as “good.” Many “good” leaders all too often step in and save the day. In many cases, this behavior is out of benevolence, they truly care and want to help. Curiously, this ultimately leads to a) people thinking they need the leader in more and more situations rather than relying on themselves and b) the leader thinking they must continue to save the day and thus it becomes a vicious circle that sucks the creative energy from the group and replaces it with anxious energy.

Characteristics of step-down transformers

One of the key tools of the step-down transformer leader is humor. (Note not sarcasm.) Humor, especially if a bit self-deprecating and well timed can significantly defuse the anxiety of situations. The reason is that our human limbic (emotional) systems are open to the influence of others, they are not closed. This is why you might laugh at a comedian while in a comedy club, but barely chuckle at the same jokes if they are listening to them on TV while you are alone in a hotel room. Great comedians have the ability to actually link up an audience’s limbic systems.

A step-down transformer leader also knows to make a decision when the same questions keep getting asked over and over again. Alternatively, they sometimes reframe the question in a new way that allows the conversation to take a new less anxious direction. Reframing questions is a learned skill that can be practiced, however, recognizing when to do so is an art form in step-down transformer leaders.

Lastly, step-down transformer leaders know how and when to confront people with their own freedom. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of any leader because it takes not only the ability to recognize the situation, but the courage to act upon it. Often, people who are confronted with their own freedom recoil at the thought. They would rather view themselves as being imposed upon by others. “I have no choice,” is a frequent reply. Great step-down transformer leaders demonstrate by their own actions that human freedom, especially of one’s own feelings, is a choice.

They are not Perfect

Lastly, the most interesting aspect of this type of leadership is that those who practice it are often flawed in the ability to put it into practice. I have studied and struggled with these ideas for a decade. I believe I am better than most people at recognizing the rising level of anxiety of a group, yet still I think I only succeed in putting it into practice about once in three times.

My advice to those of you intrigued by these ideas and want to put them in practice is to learn how to be self-forgiving for not putting them into practice. Ironically, in trying too hard, you will more likely increase your own anxiety. In other words, you will become a step-up transformer of yourself.

Yeah, don’t do that.

Speaking at Sage Summit in Melbourne, Australia

I am thrilled to announce that I will be speaking at Sage Summit in Melbourne, Australia which takes place on Thursday, March 2 and Friday, March 3 at the Crown Melbourne, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank VIC 3006.

Check back here for specific session times, but I know that I will be speaking on two of my favorite topics – Healing Leadership and Innovating Beyond Technology.

I am so excited, I decided to do a trailer video. Enjoy!

Innovation Beyond Technology

This session is dedicated to the possibility that innovation goes beyond just technological developments. Technology is important, but it is only a small part of innovation. For innovation to be more fully complete we must look at other areas including the internal processes of the organization and most importantly the very language we use. Innovating like this is hard work and not for everyone because it requires deeper thinking than is most often thought. If you believe you can attain this level of thinking, you are invited to attend this session facilitated by Ed Kless, Sage senior director of partner development and strategy.

Healing Leadership

This session is dedicated to the possibility that the majority of leadership thinking is wrong as it is ultimate based on manipulation – trying to “get someone to do something.” Coming to terms with this idea is difficult and not for everyone because it requires us to examine some of our most deeply held beliefs and either dismiss them or at least think differently about them. If you are interesting in having a conversation about healing leadership, you are invited to attend this session facilitated by Ed Kless, Sage senior director of partner development and strategy. This material is based on the work of Howard Hansen and Steve Geske, who have presented at previous Sage Summits.

Tim Williams’ Landscaper Story

I hope you enjoy this video I recorded late last year recalling a story I was told by the great Tim Williams of  Ignition Group. Below the video is a slightly edited transcript if you prefer to read it.

The Video

The Story

About a year ago, I heard this great story from a fellow VeraSage Institute colleague, Tim Williams.

Tm is a brilliant strategic mind and he shared this story with myself and a group of VeraSage folks and I’ve been meaning to put this down on video now for quite some time but finally got around to it after a year. (So yes, I have stuff on my to-do list for a year.)

But here’s the story. Tim owns a rental property and one of the things that is always concerning about a rental property is the maintenance of the yard. It has got a small little yard in front of it – perhaps a goat could really take care of it – but what he wanted was a landscaper and he called up, of course, three people to come out and take a look and give them him an estimate or price on what it was going to take to take care of the property.

I need a landscaper

The first guy comes out and says, “Hey listen, I’m gonna be 50 bucks an hour and will probably take me somewhere between two and three hours a week, sometimes longer, if I’ve got to do something else that’s {not in scope]. That’s what I’m going to charge you. Tim was like, “Okay.”

The next guy came out and instead of giving an hourly price, he gave a list of things that he was going to do. He’s gonna mow the grass and he was going to take care of the bushes and edging and you know throw down some fertilizer and whatever was needed to take care of the property in yard.  He listed out the services he was going to do and he said, “That’s going to be a hundred and fifty dollars a week for me to do that.” Tim said, “Okay.”

The third guy came out and he actually asked Tim some questions. “So tell me a little bit about this property?” Tim replied, “Well it’s a rental property I’m not here very often just want to make sure that it’s nice for people who are coming and staying here.”

The guy said, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make sure that your property here has the best curb appeal in the neighborhood. I’m going to charge two hundred dollars and it includes absolutely everything. You’re gonna have the best curb appeal in the neighborhood. If I have to change out the bushes or the flowers. Bush dies, I’ll fix it. Change the flowers seasonally. Best curb appeal in the neighborhood. Two hundred bucks a week.”

Tim’s Decision

Which one do you think Tim went with? He had us all waiting with bated breath and most of the folks in the room clearly the third and he said, “Actually I went with the second.”

We’re like, “Well why is that”

He said, “Because the third one doesn’t exist. It was what I had hoped for, but nobody would give that to me, so I had to go with somebody who ended up giving me the second one.”

When you think about this, what Tim is describing here is three different ways of viewing delivery of stuff to a consumer – in this case someone who’s got a rental property. One is by charging for the inputs. The first guy was going to charge for the inputs at 50 bucks an hour. The second was going to charge for the outputs and there was a list of outputs. This is what you’re going to get. This is more menu-type pricing. He was charging for a series of outputs. This is the output that you’re going to get from whatever it is that I have to do.

The third guy, who of course only exists in Tim’s mind, was going to charge for an outcome – the best curb appeal in the neighborhood.

The point

I think that is precisely what professional organizations across the board: lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects, media, bookkeepers, all people who offer professional work should be looking to position themselves as selling and providing an outcome.

Not outputs, and not certainly not inputs, but an outcome. As a professional you are responsible for delivering an outcome, not outputs. but an outcome and that’s what your customers want from you.

My advice is charge for the outcome.

Without the Conversation, There is no Value Pricing

For over ten years I have been on a quest – along with Ron Baker and the Fellows at the VeraSage Institute – to assist professionals in implementing value pricing in their organizations. In working with firms of all shapes, sizes and sectors, one of the most common challenges I hear about is that of professionals’ ability to engage with a customer or prospect in what we call “The Value Conversation.”

The trouble is that without the ability to have this conversation, value pricing is dead on arrival. This may be obvious, but let me explain why.

We define value pricing as “a price wherein the primary, but not sole determining influence in the development of that price is the perceived value to the customer.” If one accepts this definition, then it is clear that without knowing what the perceived value is, there is no way to use it as the primary influence in the setting of that price. Without the value conversation, there can be NO value pricing.

So why do professionals not engage in the value conversation? The answer is simple – it is difficult to do. There is no question that the value conversation requires a high level of skill, the ability to focus deeply, and lots of practice.

Dan Morris, one of the co-founders of VeraSage – and someone I consider to be at a Jedi Master level in regard to the value conversation – says he does an adequate job only 30 percent to 40 percent of the time. It would seem then that, like a Major League Baseball hitter, a .300 lifetime batting average is grounds for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Like the .300 hitter, the skill of the value conversation is within reach of all professionals.

To conduct an effective value conversation one has to hone one’s skills in the following three areas: inquiry, moving off the solution, and getting to value. The rest of this article will consider the first two.

Inquiry

First, let me define inquiry as the skill of balancing one’s ability to deeply listen and ask effective questions. It is beyond a mindset. Rather, it is a state of being. One must be relaxed and genuinely curious. One’s motivation must not be about getting the sale, but a true and intense curiosity about the prospect’s or customer’s situation. One’s intention must be to develop questions that will help the person make the best possible decision for them, even if that decision is notto continue the relationship with you.

Deep listening, or what psychoanalysts call active listening, requires an enormous amount of concentration. We must try to dial down our own thinking about what the customer is saying and instead be more attuned to understanding and clarifying what he or she is saying. As both Stephen Covey and St. Francis have said, we should, “seek first to understand before we seek to be understood.”

Value Pricing

The key skill in inquiry is the ability to think about, and process in one’s mind, the best next question to ask as the customer is speaking, instead of allowing ourselves to think about how we will go about solving the customer’s problems at this time.

If you can’t ask good questions, you have nothing to listen to. If you can’t truly listen, you can’t ask good questions.

Move Off the Solution

Second, one must be able to deftly “move off the solution,” as Mahan Khalsa says in his great book, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play: Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship. In many cases, this requires professionals to fight their inner desire to talk about and even solve the customer’s problem during the initial conversation about the problem.

The idea of moving off the solution is to gain insight into the true nature, and eventually the perceived value, of the problem. Solutions have no inherent value – instead they derive their value from the problems that they solve. The trouble is, professionals really like to solve problems, even though the problems might have low or no value to the customer. Professionals tend to have the “disease” of solutionism.

Solutionism is very much akin to a substance abuse problem. In fact, the brain function is almost identical. Professionals get a “high” – a rush of the hormones oxytocin and dopamine – when they solve a customer’s problems. We become addicted to it. The trouble is this interferes with our ability to have the value conversation. Like any addiction it comes at a significant price.

Moving off the solution is the antidote to this disease.

Moving off the solution has three elements:

  1. Assuaging – the professional must make the customer feel good about the question that is being asked.
  2. Pivoting – the professional must pivot the conversation away from talking about the solution.
  3. Closing – the professional must ask the customer permission to have a conversation about the problem and not the solution.

This is often done in just a few sentences. For example, a customer emails saying, “We are interested in adding CRM capabilities to our system. How much will that cost?”

A successful move would sound something like this: “Thanks for your email. As you know we have a number of customers using CRM. However, what we have found is that CRM means something a little bit different in every organization. Would it be okay with you if I scheduled a call to talk a little bit about what CRM means to you?”

Notice that all three elements are addressed.

  1. Assuaging – “Thanks for your email. As you know, we do have a number of customers using CRM.”
  2. Pivoting – “However, what we have found is that CRM means something a little bit different in every organization.”
  3. Closing – “Would it be okay with you if I scheduled a call to talk a little bit about what CRM means to you?”

Of these three, I cannot over emphasize the importance of the third, and that it be formed as a closed probe question. A closed probe question is one designed to solicit a “Yes” or “No” answer. Too often, I have heard professionals immediately jump to asking an open probe question such as, “Why do you think you need CRM?”

More often than not the customer feels slighted, at best, or intruded upon at worst. This shuts down even the possibility of a value conversation. The closing is important because the professional is asking permission to not answer the prospect’s question, “How much does it cost?” Please note that we are not doing this to be manipulative, but rather because we truly seek to help the customer make the best possible decision.

What’s Next?

After the successful move off the solution, the professional must then gain an understanding of the perceived value to the customer. The methods needed to do this are beyond the scope of this article, so I will instead recommend again that you read Mahan Khalsa’s Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play.

Having the value conversation with a prospect or customer is a non-negotiable step in the path to value pricing. It is not easy to do because if requires us to change our way of thinking about how we listen and what we say in the earliest conversations we have with them.

That said, it is not beyond the ability of any professional to learn these skills. As demonstrated here, they are simple, but they are just not easy. It takes patience with oneself and practice, but once one gets comfortable with these skills, value pricing will be within your reach.

Shut up and eat your french fries: Asking Effective Questions

I suck at marketing. There I said it.

One of the best received sessions I have delivered in the last two years has been one about asking better questions. The trouble was, few people attended. It sounded way to boring. I tried a few different titles:

  • Asking Better Questions
  • Asking Effective Questions
  • How to ask better more effective questions

IMG_3966Then I came across a comedy routine performed by Louis CK about his daughter asking him, as daughters are want to do, over and over again, “Why?” The routine ends with him muttering, “Shut up and eat your french fries.” It is hysterical, but also makes some great points. Inspired, I renamed the session, Shut up and eat your french fries. Voila! People started showing up!

A few months back I had the honor of presenting it at the Los Angeles Accounting and Finance show at the LAX Hilton. Coincidently, my daughter, Éirinn, happened to be in LA at the time and was able to see me deliver this.

Abstract

This session is dedicated to the possibility that professionals can greatly increase the value they provide to their customers if they hone their skills at asking better, more effective questions. Developing an enhancing this skill is not easy because it requires us to rethink the paradigms and prejudices of the past. If you would like to contribute to a conversation about this topic, please join Ed Kless, Sage senior director of partner development and strategy.

Video

Slides

Video: Creating Strategy in a Small Business

Earlier this week I had the honor to deliver a session at AccountEX in the UK. Here is the video:

And below are the slides:

Some random thoughts on the trip:

  • I was on the ground in London for 30 hours total. As a result, the jet lag was not so bad. I think I caught up with it on the way home.
  • Of the 30 hours on the ground, three of them were spent going from/to Heathrow and the ExCeL Centre. London is not set up for automobile traffic. The 26 mile trip took 90+ minutes each way. That included one half a leg via the Heathrow Express train to the centre of London.
  • On the way back to the airport I passed by Buckingham Palace. My Über driver informed me that the Queen was not at home. Good for her.
  • I am sure the is not reflective of the country in general, but I can honestly say that the best meals I had were on the plane coming and going.
  • I had about 45 people attend the session. I think they liked it. The English are a tough crowd.

New eBook Available (with a chapter by moi)

I am honored to have a chapter in this new free eBook. Here is more from the press release:

Entrepreneurs starting their own businesses now have a little more help. Start with a Profit: Best-Practice Tips for New Entrepreneurs from Top Accounting Industry Leaders is the latest guide to helping new business owners become successful. 

Editor Sandi Leyva, CPA, asked fellow accounting industry thought leaders one question:  “For someone who wants to start a new business from scratch today, what is the most important strategy or tactic you’d tell them about to help them succeed?” One dozen thought leaders along with Sandi provided their answers.  Co-authors include:

  • Alison Ball, Senior Manager of the Global Influencer Program of Intuit, Inc.
  • Sharada Bhansali, Co-Founder of AccountantsWorld
  • Randy Johnston, CEO of Network Management Group, Inc.
  • Ed Kless, Senior Director of Partner Development and Strategy of Sage
  • Sandi Leyva, Founder of Accountant’s Accelerator
  • Monika Miles, President of Miles Consulting Group, Inc.
  • Clayton Oates, Chief Solutions Officer of QA Business Pty Ltd.
  • Edi Osborne, CEO of MentorPlus
  • Leslie Shiner, Owner of the ShinerGroup
  • Doug Sleeter, Founder of the Sleeter Group
  • Sandra Wiley, COO and Shareholder of Boomer Consulting
  • Geni Whitehouse, Countess of Communication of Even a Nerd Can Be Heard
  • Scott Zarret, President of CPA Academy

“To my knowledge, it’s the first collaborative work of thought leaders in the accounting industry,” says Sandi Leyva.  This is Sandi’s 30th book and her first collaboration as editor. 

Although each author’s contribution is quite unique, a few client-centric themes emerged, including how to market most effectively, how to build customer relationships, and how to interact with clients.  Others focused on business models and pricing.  Still others urged the entrepreneur to embrace their passion and their “why.”

 

New Member of Ed’s List

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAVuAAAAJGQ0OTQ5ZDAwLTgyZmEtNGE0Yy05N2FjLTM5YzM0NmM3NTUwYgThis weekend I received a message from an attendee of one of my early Sage Consulting Academy classes. He has recently started his own company and wrote to ask that he be included on Ed’s List.

Here is the message:

I’d be honored if you add my software consulting and development firm, Monkeys Amok Software Consulting, to Ed’s List. Your conversations on fixed-price engagements and service guarantees still ring in my ears from when I first heard you speak at the Sage Consulting Academy years ago.

When I started my own company a few months ago, two things were obvious. For one, I’ve never had the illusion that hours spent has any relationship to the value I deliver to a customer; hence, I have no interest in doing time-based billing. Secondly, I expect my customers to hold me accountable so, of course, I offer an unconditional money-back guarantee on my services.

These things should be common sense, right? Keep the posts coming!

All the best,

Chris Burriss

I am thrilled to add Chris and Monkeys Amok to Ed’s List. Welcome!

If you are aware of any other organizations that meet the criteria, please let me know.