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erika Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

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Archive for the ‘communicating’ Category


Step Aside For The New

I was talking to a wonderful, wise woman today: I learned a lot from her, and I hope she also learned useful things from me.  She told me a great quote that she has made part of her email signature line:

                People who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it.

When she said it to me, my first reaction was to laugh out loud, in that surprised way that happens when something strikes you as completely and unexpectedly true. I’ve seen that very thing happen in corporate life dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the past few decades.  While some people are pontificating at length about why something isn’t possible, someone else is quietly going about doing it.  For instance, I just found out that, even as Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing to complete their first successful trials of a manned, heavier-than-air flying machine, the New York Times published an article from which the following is an excerpt:

The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years—provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.

— ‘Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,’ published in theNew York Times, 9 October 1903.

It sounds really smart and well-reasoned (if somewhat smug and self-righteous), but it also turns out, as we all know, to have been complete and utter nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wright Brothers weren’t working for the New York Times, or any of the other thousands of people who were opining that what they were doing was impossible and foolish.  Where the quote above gets less funny, but even more true, is when the people doing the talking about what can’t be done are the bosses of the people who are able to do it.  That’s when innovation and creativity get torpedoed, and companies (if it gets bad enough and consistent enough) collapse.

For instance, I will bet you any amount of money that there were young people working for Barnes and Noble in 2005, who were trying to tell their bosses that e-readers were the wave of the future, and that they could build one of they just had the support, and those bosses rolled their eyes and dismissed the idea entirely, and blathered on about the strength of the B&N business model and how people will never give up the feel of a real book, or stop coming to bookstores, especially now that we have cafes and kids’ play areas and blah blah blah blah. And all the while Jeff Bezos and company were busy inventing the Kindle in a back room somewhere.

So the next time someone – especially someone who works for you – comes to you with an idea that you believe is just plain impossible, or impractical, or too expensive, or not how people want to do X….just shut up. Suspend your disbelief, and really listen.  Ask them to walk you through how they would do it, and what it would require.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to see how it could be done, and why it should be done…

And that could change everything.


A Baker’s Dozen of Holiday Inspirations

One thing I really like about the holidays: people are much more likely to say lovely and loving things about the world and each other.  It’s as though we somehow give ourselves permission to be more innocent and hopeful during the last two weeks of December.

I’d love to propose that, rather than seeing it (cynically) as an anomaly preparatory to reverting to our ordinary unlovely and unloving behavior, let’s assume that how we talk and act during the holidays is our aspiration for how we’d like to be year-round.  And here are some wonderful examples of that as our benchmark:

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. Wishing you happiness.”      – Helen Keller

“This is my wish for you: peace of mind, prosperity through the year, happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours, fun around every corner, energy to chase your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!”     – D.M. Dellinger

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”      – Hamilton Wright Mabie

“Every piece of the universe, even the tiniest little snow crystal, matters somehow. I have a place in the pattern, and so do you. Thinking of you this holiday season!”     – T.A. Barron

“As we struggle with shopping lists and invitations, compounded by December’s bad weather, it is good to be reminded that there are people in our lives who are worth this aggravation, and people to whom we are worth the same.”     – Donald E. Westlake

“May your walls know joy, may every room hold laughter, and every window open to great possibility.”      – Mary Anne Radmacher

“Sharing the holiday with other people, and feeling that you’re giving of yourself, gets you past all the commercialism.”      – Caroline Kennedy

“Come, woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humor, and like enough to consent.”     – William Shakespeare

“New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday.”      – Charles Lamb

“The joy of brightening other lives, bearing each others’ burdens, easing others’ loads and supplanting empty hearts and lives with generous gifts becomes for us the magic of the holidays.”       – W. C. Jones

“The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; The secret anniversaries of the heart.”      – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future.  It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal, and that every path may lead to peace.”      – Agnes M. Pharo

My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?”      – Bob Hope


Happy Holidays!


Too Much Of A Good Thing

Can you have too much of a good thing?  We humans have been debating this question since long before it first showed up in print (in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, around 1600).

Most of us would say yes, having experienced the after-effects of a mega-dose of great wine, wonderful food, high-quality chocolate, or even a fantastic party.

I’ve been experiencing it lately with work: I love it – and there’s simply a great deal of it lately.  I feel a somewhat conflicted about this.

First of all, I know I’m fortunate to consider work “a good thing” at a time when surveys show that roughly two-thirds of all American employees are unhappy with their jobs. Also, I take great pride in the fact that Proteus and the work we do has become so highly thought of and in demand.  And finally, for someone (me) who loves more than anything to support people and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for future – having so many opportunities to do just that is marvelous: the career equivalent of a pound of Godiva truffles.

But then there are the realities imposed by living in a physical body – and one that’s got some mileage on it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m healthy, strong and full of energy…but I can’t power through a month of not enough sleep and too much travel like I could in my 30’s, 40s, or even my 50s.  And there’s also the fact that, to my great good fortune, there are many other things in my life besides work that I also love – hanging out with my darling husband, kids and grandkids; spending time with friends; traveling – and a whole list of avocations as well (gardening, reading, knitting, sudoku, cooking, hiking, learning languages….the list goes on).

So what’s a work-lover to do?  I’m discovering that my approach to work needs to be very similar to my approach to good food (which I also love): keep the quality high, and be sensitive to the symptoms of overdoing it.

With food, what that looks like is: don’t waste my calories on stuff that’s not worth it (junk food, things I don’t really like, poor quality), and stay attentive to my body telling me when I’ve had enough.

With work, what that looks like is: don’t waste my time on stuff that’s not worth it (tasks that others in my company can do just as well or better than I can; clients who don’t really want to spend the effort or money needed to get results; ‘rabbit hole’ conversations that suck up valuable time and mental energy) , and stay attentive to my body (and brain) telling me when I’ve had enough – when I’m too tired to think well or focus properly, or when my usual enthusiasm and hopefulness start to wane.

And just as the solution when food threatens to become too much of a good thing is simply to stop eating, the too-much-work solution is the same: stop working. Now I (like you, I suspect) can’t just walk off the job when it gets to be too much – but I can create little respites.  A day, an hour, even a minute when I turn my attention to something else – or to nothing else.

Earlier today I was feeling particularly overworked.  Then suddenly I was presented with some “found time.”  A client session ended much earlier than expected, and I had the choice to dig into the pile of to-dos that were backlogged on my computer…or lay down on my hotel bed and take a nap.

I napped.

When I woke up, I felt like a different person. And I’m convinced that the work I did post-nap was both much higher in quality than it would have been pre-nap, and accomplished much more quickly. Plus I really enjoyed doing it.  And that’s the bottom line, really – if you consistently have too much of a good thing, then it stops being a good thing.  If you can figure out how to have just enough of a good thing – that’s really good.


Why Not?

I enjoy being in situations that defy common wisdom.  Recently my husband and I were vacationing in Italy, where we spent one day in Venice.  We traveled there by train, and simply walked off the train and started wandering around (fortunately, the places most people want to go are pretty well sign-posted, or you’d be irretrievably lost after about five minutes.)

Venice1At one point a sweet young Dutch woman asked us to take her picture, and then we asked her to return the favor.  It wasn’t until we were standing there, not moving, that I realized how quiet the city was.  I said as much to my husband, and he responded, “no cars.”

Of course!  How strange to be in an urban area completely devoid of traffic sounds and smells. The only motorized vehicles in Venice are the water taxis, which are pretty quiet.

Once we’d been reminded of this auto-less situation, we noticed all kinds of interesting adaptations: a cool little machine shaped kind of like the bottom of an army tank that some guys were using to take a refrigerator up a set of stairs; a dolly with a second smaller set of wheels to transport containers not only through the streets but up one side of the stepped bridges and down the other.

The experience immediately made me think about how we might do things differently in other cities to reduce or eliminate car traffic. I noticed how just one example of a non-car-based urban area shifted my thinking from “We couldn’t possibly do without cars” to “Why not?”

Now, don’t misunderstand me – I’m sure there are thousands of people infinitely more equipped to think about this question than I, who have been wrestling with it for many years.  I’m not really talking about how to create car-free cities; I’m talking about how to challenge your assumptions.  And this day in Venice reminded me that when I encounter something that pushes against what I believe is possible (it could be anything: a conservative Republican who’s concerned about social justice; a simple approach to income taxes that will actually work; a way to stay in shape that takes 15 minutes a day), it has – if I’m open to it – a wonderful effect of making me question my set-in-stone assumptions. And that’s always a good thing.

And to have my mind opened up in addition to simply being in Venice:  priceless.


Sharing The Planet

I read the most amazing article recently, about elephants’ ability to recognize and react appropriately to human voice and language.  In Kenya, elephants generally encounter people from one of two ethnic groups: Maasai or Kamba.  The Kamba tend not to pose a danger to the elephants – while the Maasai often clash with the elephants over land and water rights.

Researchers had elephants listen to recorded voices of adult Maasai or Kamba males saying, in their own language, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming!” They also recorded Maasai females and children saying the same thing. Then they played the recording for family group of 58 elephants.  Here’s what happened:

When researchers played a Maasai male voice, elephants immediately started sniffing the air for danger and retreated into a bunched, defensive formation. By contrast, the elephants were unfazed by the Kamba male voice. Further, elephants didn’t seem to mind the voices of Maasai women and children.

Even when researchers re-synthesized the Maasai male voice so it resembled a female’s, the elephants still recognized it was male and acted defensively. The results indicate that elephants can pick up even the subtlest vocal cues to assess the level of a threat.

Many studies besides this one have shown that elephants are extremely intelligent: among other things, it seems they experience a subtle and broad variety of emotions, including joy, playfulness, sadness and grief. They can learn new facts and behaviors, mimic sounds, self-medicate, demonstrate a sense of humor, create art (that is, do activities that seem to have only an artistic or expressive purpose), use tools to complete tasks, and display compassion and self-awareness.

This particular study caught my attention, though, because it demonstrates elephants’ ability to distinguish between humans who are likely to be a threat to them and those who are not. In other words, that they have the capability of trusting (or not trusting) humans based on previous experiences they’ve had with humans of various sorts.

Once I got past feeling sad that some humans  are a threat to these gentle, intelligent creatures, it made me think about how casually we assume our own superiority to all other intelligences on the planet.  And how, as we spend more time getting curious about highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and pigs, our assumptions about our superiority come into question.

Thank goodness that the scientific method, when properly applied, doesn’t allow us to remain in comfortable ignorance, our assumptions unchallenged.  I look forward to the day when scientists discover facts that demonstrate beyond doubt that these creatures with whom we share this orb have gifts and capabilities surpassing our own.

Until then, while I may not have proof, I suspect the elephants often pity us, and the dolphins find us amusing.


Thank you, St. Valentine

Yesterday, my wonderful husband gave me a beautiful custom-created card, complete with a romantic poem he’d written himself. Inside were tickets to an off-Broadway show (that he’d secretly worked with my assistant to schedule). I sent him poetry, and tomorrow I’m making him a carrot cake – his favorite. This morning, our granddaughter – proudly and with hugs – gave us a heart-studded card she and her mom had made for us.
From my point of view, Valentine’s Day is simply an excuse to express your love a little more extravagantly than usual. I get that some people don’t like it – that they see it as pure, cynical marketing and commercialization (US consumers, after all, will have bought almost $500 MILLION worth of candy this V-day week).  And I know there are thousands of other people who hate February 14th because it highlights the lack of love in their life: they feel especially lonely, unloved, and sad in stark contrast to the messages of love and romance they see all around them.

But, as with all holidays, it’s your choice – you can make Valentine’s Day whatever you want it to be: you can choose not to pay any attention to it at all; you can spend the whole day raging against cruel fate and/or the capitalist machine; or you can declare it a day of special care and lovingkindness to those who mean the most to you (including yourself).

I vote for the third option. I intend to keep using Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to do particularly sweet and thoughtful things; to be just a little more affectionate than usual; to look a little more kindly on my fellow humans; to be especially gentle with and supportive of myself.

Why not?

Happy Valentine’s Day.


Seeing Selling Differently

courtesy of nostalgiapassages.com

courtesy of nostalgiapassages.com

I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with the idea of selling.  For some reason, even from an early age, I had the idea that sales was simply about finding people who had a real need for what I had to offer. So, for instance, selling Camp Fire Girls candy in grade school held no terrors for me: I’d go around and ask people if they wanted to buy it, and if not, I’d ask the next person.  I figured there was no harm in asking, even if they didn’t want it – and them not wanting it didn’t have anything to do with me; maybe they didn’t like candy, or were on a diet, or had already bought some from somebody else.

And actually, that’s pretty much how I sell today, 50 years later.  I set up a conversation with someone; I listen to find out whether he or she could have a need for something Proteus offers.  If so, I explain the service or product I think they might find useful. I ask if they’re interested in exploring a possible fit between their need and our offer.  If not, I assume it’s because they 1) don’t see the need in the same way I do, or 2) they believe they have a better way of meeting that need that doesn’t involve Proteus.  Next!

I recently read a wonderful little book, Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human, that pretty much reinforced the positive ideas I’ve had about selling for all these years.

However, it also made it much clearer to me why most people don’t view sales in a positive light – why they have a ‘cringe’ relationship with the idea of selling. Rather than seeing it as a collaborative, mutually beneficial process of finding a fit between need and offer, they see it as manipulative, pushy, inauthentic, slightly sleazy.  Sales, for most people, evokes images of being glad-handed and lied to by some untrustworthy used car salesman in a shiny suit and bad toupee.  No wonder people think they don’t like to sell!

The problem with holding on to that old, outmoded conception of selling is that almost all of us need to be able to sell.  If you define selling, as Pink does, as ‘the art of moving others,’ we’re selling ideas, opinions, and proposed courses of action every day – to our kids, our boss, our spouses, our PTA group, our employees.

And for those of us who are entrepreneurs or freelancers, even more of our time is spent ‘moving others’ to see that fit between our business or ourselves and their need.

So it makes sense to shift our ideas about selling – and that means (you know this is favorite topic of mine) changing our self-talk.  Here’s a quick and simple exercise for doing just that:

1) Ask yourself: What words come to mind when I think of myself as a salesperson?

2) Listen to the response that arises inside your head:

2a) If you find you’re thinking words like helpful, partner, problem-solver, relationship builder, mutual benefit  – congratulations. You have the core mindset of a successful 21st century salesperson.

2b) If your thoughts are running more along the lines of words like rejection, pushiness, annoying, drudgery, scary – I suggest you continue on to step 3.

3) What could you say to yourself differently that’s more positive and hopeful about the idea of you selling – yet still feels true to you?  I asked my husband (whose self-talk about selling is quite negative) and his response was, “I have a great product that some people will find useful. If people don’t want to buy it, it’s no reflection on me.” Great, simple, positive, accurate.

4) Once you’ve come up up with more supportive (yet still believable) self-talk, you’ll need to remind yourself of it whenever your old, unhelpful self-talk muscles its way toward the front of your brain.

Changing your mindset in this way is key to feeling differently and then acting differently about selling. And as selling starts to occupy a new place in your brain and heart, you might feel comfortable enough to explore ways to get better and better at it.

Just in case, here are two articles to support your evolution: The Unexpected Secret to Being a Great Salesperson, a post on my Forbes blog from earlier this year, and Sales Tips: 4Ways to Avoid Cold Calling, a post I wrote for the Salesforce blog.


Why We Think Learning Is Boring

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about learning: how we learn, especially as adults; why the ability to learn well and easily is so important now; what gets in the way of our learning.

And one thing I’m noticing is that most people have a rather limited and not-very-positive view of the word “learning.”  For instance, I’ve noticed that if I put “learning” in the title of a post at Forbes, I get – at best – a couple of hundred page views. If I then go back and change the title, removing “learning” and substituting a phrase like “How to….” or “5 Ways You Can….”, the page views jump dramatically.

So I’ve started asking people what they think of when I say “learning.” Generally among the first few words out of their mouths:  “school,” “boring,” “classroom,” and “teachers.”  As a result, I’ve come to believe that for many (most?) of us, our associations with learning have been deeply tainted by our early, negative associations with schooling:  our memories of being scrunched into uncomfortable desks with a bunch of other bored 9-year-olds while some boring grown-up drones on about something that’s infinitely less interesting than whatever is going on outside the windows of our too-warm, over-crowded classroom.

And it’s really unfortunate, because – in the words of Arie De Geus – “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”  I’ve come to believe that this is true not only organizationally, but personally as well.  In this highly disruptive, fast-changing era, people who master the art of learning new things quickly and well have a tremendous advantage. Emerging technologies? Changed business models? Different employee expectations? New ways of working globally? Cultural mash-ups?

All doable if you’re a kick-ass learner.

To find out how to be a truly excellent learner, go back before you got stuck into school, and think about how you were as a little kid.  Since lots of people don’t have much memory of themselves at this age, I’ll remind you.  Little kids are driven to learn.  They want, deeply, to be like the bigger kids and grown-ups they see all around them. It’s aspiration in the simplest, most direct sense. It’s also a powerful survival mechanism – from the beginnings of humanity until a few hundred years ago, the children who most quickly became skillful, contributing members of the tribe were most likely to live and reproduce.

And the impulse that focuses this aspiration to learn, that catalyzes real change in understanding, is curiosity. Anyone who has ever been around a 4-year-old has experienced this firsthand:  Why?  How did that happen? Does that always happen? Is that a good thing? What if I did that? Can I do it? Why not? It can be exhausting to the adults involved, but it’s a remarkably effective way to figure out the world, how it works, and one’s place in it. Curiosity is the impulse to understand. It’s part of that survival mechanism – understanding our environment as deeply as possible is key, not only to not getting killed by some aspect of that environment, but also to using what’s available in that environment to increase the likelihood of our safety, comfort and health.

There are two other things that kids have (at least when they’re little) that we tend to lose as adults: they’re willing to admit when they don’t know something, and they don’t care about making mistakes.  We call those learning capabilities neutral self-awareness and willingness to be bad first.

Learning language is a great example: “What’s that?” my granddaughter asked me last summer, pointing at a radish I’d just pulled from the garden. “It’s a radish,” I replied, handing it to her. “Rabish,”  she said with satisfaction, inspecting it. “Radish,” I repeated.  But she couldn’t quite get that combination of letters – and didn’t really care. Her focus was on pure acquisition of understanding, and she wasn’t at all embarrassed about her difficulty with the pronunciation, as an adult would have been.

I’m deeply convinced that if we, as adults, can re-connect with those four childhood capabilities – aspiration, neutral self-awareness, endless curiosity and willingness to be bad first – we will be far more successful at navigating through this ever-changing world.

I’m planning on writing my next book about this whole arena, so I’d love to hear your stories of how you used any of these four capabilities to get better at something, to develop a completely new skill, or to find out about something you didn’t know.  I’ll also be writing about this at Forbes, so if the topic interests you, please join us over there as well.

And as always, thank you for reading…it inspires me to get as clear as I can about what I observe and experience, so I can share it with you as usefully as possible.


Caught By The Wind: When The Familiar Changes

Just this week we had our annual Proteus company meeting – something we’ve done every fall for many years.  I believe it was the best one so far: great energy; lots of fun; useful conversations and clarifications; really good connections among all of us.  But for me, the most wonderful thing was this: I didn’t make the arrangements; I didn’t manage getting everyone there; and I didn’t run most of the meeting.

My excellent team members did much of the heavy lifting, and I showed up with everyone else and participated.

My job as co-CEO of Proteus has changed dramatically over the past year or so, and I’m
very excited about it.  The metaphor I’ve been using in describing the change: for 20+ years, I felt like I was running with a kite, trying to get it up in the air.  Now, the wind has caught the kite, and my job consists of paying out the line, keeping the proper amount of tension on it so that the kite stays in the air and can go higher and higher.

The ‘wind’ is composed of a better-than-ever team of smart, well-intentioned, skilled people; better and better internal processes for doing our work; ever-more-clearly-developed and useful IP; and a wonderful momentum of satisfied and vocal clients who keep calling us back and referring us to others.

So even though I’ve had the same job on paper for 23 years, “Founding Partner and CEO” of Proteus is very different now than it was even a few years ago.

And I’m seeing that the most important way for me to make this shift is to talk less, listen more, and get very curious. In fact, I think that’s key to making any shift, but it’s especially important when something you think you know very well is shifting under you.

When we’re involved in learning something brand new to us, we tend to come in with a helpful “novice” mindset: e.g., “I don’t know know much about this; there’s a lot I need to find out.” That mindset moves us in the direction of listening and curiosity. Unfortunately, when it’s time to learn something in an area where we already think we’re experts (e.g., doing our job, running our company, raising our kids), we tend to be much less open and curious, much more focused on how it should be, on what we know (or think we do), and on telling others what we know and how it should be!

I suspect that, in today’s world, most people’s jobs change pretty significantly from one year to the next, and that no matter how long you’ve been in a particular job or company, it’s probably a good idea to come in every day with that learner’s mindset.

Michelangelo, arguably one of the most brilliant and productive people in Western history, had a stock response he used throughout his life whenever people complimented him on an achievement or an idea: he said, “Ancora imparo” – “I am still learning.”

If it’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me.


How Does Stuff Get Done Around Here?

As many of you know, I wrote a book called Growing Great Employees a few years back.  One chapter focuses on how to get new people started well in your organization. I proposed that, in general, people want three questions answered when they start a new job: Who do I need to know?,  How do things get done around here?, and What’s expected of me?

Not long ago a client of mine turned me on to an article published a few years ago in Business Week about the (then) emerging discipline of Social Network Analysis. I got very intrigued, and continued to research the subject.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is “the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people, groups, organizations, computers, URLs, and other connected information/knowledge entities. The nodes in the network are the people and groups, while the links show relationships or flows between the nodes.”  I got that definition from the website of orgnet.com, a company that’s been doing SNA and providing SNA software to clients for 15 years.

I find this both fascinating and useful: SNA is a way of making visible the answer to two of those three core questions –   “Who do I need to know?” and “How does stuff get done around here?

SNA provides critical insights into how information flows (and doesn’t); who is at the core of networks of people and who’s at the periphery; where there are silos and where interaction happens freely. If used well, it can help companies take best advantage of the employees who are “examplars” – those to whom others turn for advice, knowledge, insights.  It can also help organizations see “blockages” in work and information flow, and focus more usefully on how to get things unstuck.

This isn’t new – many of these concepts are at the core of Seth Godin’s latest books, for instance, and orgnet.com has a big client list – but I love the idea that this way of visualizing organizations is becoming more widespread.  It’s yet another indication to me that what has historically been thought of as “the soft stuff” in organizations is finally getting recognized as key to productivity and profit.

SNA demonstrates, in a very clear and 21st century way, that people really are our most important resource.