Business Articles

False Alarms and Other Considerations

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Regardless of where you work, false alarms have likely caused frustration. I remembered this one day as I searched for the source of an electronic alarm, warning me that something was awry in my house. Since the beeping was intermittent, finding the source was comedic.

With each alert I would move in the direction I thought it was originating from, come to a stop, cock my head, and attentively wait, scarcely breathing so that I could take in its next iteration. I darted around the house in a haphazard zigzag pattern, often overshooting my mark. It was as though I was playing the childhood game of “hot or cold” with the electronic gizmo taunting me with “you’re getting colder.”

Eventually, I found the culprit: a carbon monoxide detector. In addition to the beeping, the power light was flashing red – even though the only documented options were solid green and solid amber. Pressing reset didn’t help, so I unplugged it for a few minutes; that always worked in the past. After an hour of futile troubleshooting, I began to consider that maybe it was working correctly and there were actually unsafe carbon monoxide levels in my home.

What a novel thought. I never experienced a smoke, fire, or carbon monoxide alarm that signaled an actual problem. In fact, I was conditioned to assume that any alarm was the result of a malfunction. Smoke detectors were high on that list, with their low battery beeps and false alarms. When I would test them, no one ever left their office to evacuate the building; no one ever asked if there was a fire. The response was always one of irritation: “Make it stop so we can hear our callers.”

Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs) also seemed to do more harm than good. It’s confounding for a malfunctioning UPS to take down servers when perfectly good utility power is available. Yet it happens. For a while I kept track. The UPSs were actually causing more downtime then they prevented. Generators also fit that category. Regardless if there was an automatic transfer switch or a manual bypass – that is, initiated by technology or by people –inevitably something would go wrong. Despite employee training and trial runs, nothing seemed to prepared staff to deal with an actual power outage.

Spare parts and backup Internet connections were another cause for frustration. You have them in case of an emergency, periodically testing them to make sure they are functional. Unfortunately, it seems that efforts to do so invariably result in unexpected side effects and problems, including system crashes.

All these areas give one pause to consider if such efforts actually accomplish a net benefit or do more harm than good. Regardless, it would be irresponsible not to do all that can be done to keep staff safe and systems functioning. The frustrations and false alarms are merely a side effect that one must accept in the process.

As far as my issue at home, I ended up buying a new detector. The replacement unit did not alert; apparently it was a false alarm after all.

Business Articles

Five Tips for Successful Delegation

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Many years ago, as a first-time manager, I was green with much to learn. Management looked easy from the outside. I assured myself that, when given the opportunity to lead, I’d never make the same blunders I witnessed.

Yes, I would direct my future staff with enlightenment, never forgetting the negative examples I witnessed over the years. Quite simply, I pledged to do a better job as a manager. It was a commendable yet lofty goal; one I found much easier to say than do.

One day I walked down the hall with my boss, a man I respected, yet feared; loved, but occasionally detested. Publicly I defended him, yet privately his inexplicable demands and thoughtless pronouncements confounded me. He was the source of countless frustrations while offering little praise or encouragement. He had just given me yet one more assignment, a task I didn’t have time for.

I protested, insisting I already had too much on my plate. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Just delegate it.” I mentally reviewed the capabilities of my charges. Although a group of able young technologists, none were ready for a project of this magnitude or to meet my boss’s high standards.

“But there is no one I can delegate it to.”

“Do you want to know the secret of delegation?” There was a twinkle in his eye.

I moved closer, expecting the secret of managerial nirvana. I nodded.

“It’s simple. Just look for your busiest guy and give the project to him!”

I was dumbfounded at his “insight.” I said nothing, and he continued.

“You see, the busiest guy is the guy who gets things done; that’s always who you want to delegate to.”

Seething, I kept quiet. I flashed a comprehending look, a respectful nod, and a faint smile. His dissemination of knowledge now complete, he strode down the hallway to his next victim, while I ducted into my office and closed the door.

His words angered me on multiple levels. First, I had yet another project to do. Second, his advice was illogical and unfair; delegating to the busiest employee would only serve to make him or her more busy, setting them up to be the leading candidate for the next project. Lastly, I realized that as the busiest of those under his command, I was his “go to guy.”

There had to be a better way. It took a while, some research, and lots of trial and error, but I eventually understood the art of delegating. Delegation is something all managers need to do. Unfortunately it’s often hard. Many who attempt it are unhappy with the results, often accepting sub-par outcomes or giving up. Sadly, successful delegation requires an initial investment of time, often more time than for you to do the work yourself.

If that’s the case, why bother? Quite simply because once you teach your employees how to receive and complete delegated tasks, you can realize a huge savings of time as you empower them, allowing them to grow as individuals and to contribute to your organization’s success. As such, delegation is well worth the extra effort to do it right. A five-step procedure paves the way to successful delegation.

1) Select the Right People: A person who has proven themselves in small things can handle more responsibilities and enjoy greater latitude. However, until they prove their ability to effectively handle assignments, the scope of their tasks must remain small. For example, if they can’t arrive at work on time, is there any reason to assume they can accomplish something more challenging?

To give unproven employees a chance to substantiate themselves, start with small assignments such as sorting mail, stuffing envelopes, making copies, or simply arriving to work on time. Next, they can graduate to processing UPS shipments or placing an office supply order (you select the items and quantities, they call it in).

Each time they successfully complete a delegated assignment, reward them with additional responsibilities; each time they fail to complete a task, confront them. All employees should be trained to handle basic delegated projects. If they can’t, why are you still employing them. Some employees will advance to assignments of medium difficulty, while a few superstars can work independently. Therefore, match the task to the employee.

2) Ensure They Have the Proper Tools and Knowledge to Do the Job: If the work requires a computer, is one available? If it requires a program, do they know how to use it? Consider whether they have the background knowledge to complete the task. It’s easy to oversimplify a project or assume key details are common knowledge. Often, an employee needs instruction or training before they can successfully complete an assignment. Not only must you ensure you’ve given them this information but also to provide it in the ideal format for them. Some people learn best in written form, others need a demonstration, and some need to do it; occasionally a combination is appropriate. Regardless, asking an employee to start a project without the proper resources is setting them up to fail.

3) Give Them a Clear Timetable: Saying a project is “urgent” means different things to different people. Saying “when you have time” is open to misinterpretation. When giving a deadline, you cannot be too specific. Examples include, “I require your written overview on my desk every Monday by 5 p.m.,” or “I need your preliminary work by the end of the day on Thursday, the twelfth.”

4) Hold Them Accountable: Follow-up must be consistent and expected; let them know you’ll check on their progress. Assure them you’re available for questions. If they do unsatisfactory work or miss a deadline, there must be a reaction. This could be merely asking them to explain what happened. Perhaps, despite your best efforts, instructions were incomplete or training was insufficient; then shoulder the blame and correct the oversight. Sometimes, managers need to communicate the ramifications, such as, “Because you did not complete this on time, we lost the client, which will cost us X hundred dollars.” If you correctly follow step one, only in rare cases will disciplinary action be needed.

5) As They Prove Themselves in Small Things, Give Them Bigger Assignments: Now you can begin to phase out of the “accountability” step. Yes, accountability is still required, but it gradually becomes ancillary to delegation, instead of integral.

If you consistently follow these steps, all employees will become better at responding to delegation; some employees will even advance to the point of self-determination, where they take the initiative to do what needs to be done. That is delegation at its finest.

Business Articles

The Internet: Once a Curious Novelty Becomes an Essential Business Tool

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I first heard about the Internet over thirty years ago from one of my college friends. He landed a job with a computer mainframe manufacturer and was assigned to work at a university. He regaled me with tales of instantaneously sending text messages across the country at no cost. “That is fantastic,” I said. “How can I get in on this?”

“You can’t,” he replied matter-of-factly, “not unless you’re at a major university or work for a defense contractor.” I was disappointed. My visions of fast and free communications faded as quickly as they formed. With little more thought, I dismissed the Internet as a non-issue, one with limited utility and no future.

That was in 1981. Fast-forward a decade. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was talking about the Internet. I was perplexed. How could something so limited be treated as the next big thing? Had something changed to make the Internet a practical reality for the masses? Indeed, it had.

I signed up for a dial-up Internet account. Back then, using the Internet seemed like a waste of time. It took eons to be connected, a bit of luck to stay connected, and patience to accomplish anything useful – not that there was much to do from a business standpoint. When a colleague would get email, I would note their address, but would invariably pick up the phone for any future communication.

As more people became connected, I tried to check email once a day, while checking voicemail multiple times. However, it wasn’t long before I was checking email several times a day and voicemail only once or twice. Now I have dedicated Internet access and spend all day connected, receiving, and sending hundreds of messages. All too often, I forget to check voicemail.

I recently considered what my day would be like without email. Indeed, about 99 percent of my publishing work is accomplished via email. Articles are submitted electronically, then routed to our proofreaders, passed back to me, and finally forwarded to production. Design proofs are sent as PDF attachments, and communication with my printer is via email. Without email, we would play phone tag and rely on snail mail and overnight delivery services. This would increase costs and lengthen our production cycle. In fact, if I only had the phone and delivery services for communications, I would need to hire an assistant just to accomplish the same amount of work. Plus, I would not be nearly as effective or efficient. In short, the Internet is great!

Email is just one aspect of the Internet; the World Wide Web is another part. Once the realm of large companies with big budgets, websites are now expected for organizations of all sizes. In many cases, divisions, departments, and even projects within organizations boast their own website. Nowadays, an organization without a website is viewed as second rate or is ignored. Websites are also a great equalizer, leveling the playing field between major corporations, smaller competitors, and start-ups.

One seemingly obvious feature of websites is to provide a means for further communication. Therefore, a “contact us” page is a common element. Yet, it’s confounding when contact information can’t be found. These organizations should want to interact with customers and prospects, but visitors to these sites can’t call, write, or even email.

Of course sending a message to an email address found on a website isn’t any guarantee of dialogue. Once, when researching an article, I used a search engine and contacted the first ten companies listed via email. One site responded within five minutes with a personal response. Two more followed later that day, and a fourth, three days later. But six never responded or even acknowledged receipt of my message. Now it could be that a message or two got lost in cyberspace. That does happen, but certainly not 60 percent of the time.

In another instance, I sent out a targeted email to over 100 addresses gleaned from printed directories and listings. Again, the results were disconcerting. Six percent were returned because the mailbox was full, 8 percent were rejected because the domain name was “unknown,” 14 percent were refused because the user name “could not be found” and 61 percent did not respond, and only 11 percent replied.

This suggests some steps to take to achieve the best Internet results. The first is basic, but often overlooked: periodically verify that your website is up and running. True, there are software programs that can do this, but who is checking to make sure the programs are actually running? Plus, who is watching for error messages?

A second critical task is to periodically send out test email messages to important email addresses. If it bounces back or there is an error, the recipient or technical staff can be contacted to correct the problem. This is especially needed for generic email addresses, such as info@…, sales@…, customerservice@…, and so forth.

Don’t leave your online presence to chance. The risk is too great.

Business Articles

Under the Influence: Making a Difference for Those Around Us

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

My daughter’s a teacher. In her first year out of college, she taught first grade, influencing the next generation. I don’t recall too much about my own first grade teacher. I do know I really liked her. Many times, my parents said Mrs. Frank gave me a great start in school, a strong foundation on which future teachers could build.

Another stellar educator who was highly influential was Miss Robinson, my fourth grade teacher. Our class was a challenge to her – a good challenge. Many of us had been in a “split” room the year before, with half third graders and half fourth graders. Once our third grade assignments were complete, we could do fourth grade work. The result was that Miss Robinson inherited a batch of students who had already mastered much of the fourth grade curriculum. She worked hard to provide us with additional lessons to keep us challenged, without similarly handicapping our fifth grade teacher.

We moved that summer, and I started a new school. I quickly realized three things. I was far ahead in math, hopelessly behind in grammar, and placed in the wrong class by the school secretary. However, teachers often give more attention to students on the fringes, both those with great promise and those who struggle. My understanding of things unknown by my peers, catapulted me to a position of prominence. As a result, my teacher gave me extra attention, while my classmates viewed me with academic awe. Although I didn’t learn much that year, I underwent a metamorphous of self-perception. Put succinctly, I began fifth grade as an above average student who felt average and ended the year as an above average student convinced he was exceptional. That single change in attitude altered the trajectory of my education – and my life. Yes, Mrs. Wedel influenced me immensely.

In seventh grade, I had Mr. Snow for English. He loved to teach and he loved seventh graders. He invested extra effort in me during lunch and after school, getting me caught up on my grammar. Our class read and studied, Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. Mr. Snow helped us dig into this timeless tale and mine its many truths. The conclusion was inescapable for me and equally profound. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, we have a choice on how we live our life; it can be for selfish purposes or it can be for the joy of living and the benefit of others. I chose the latter.

That year I also had Mr. Binder for science. He was a strict educator with high expectations – and I feared him – at least in class. However, he also faithfully served as my track coach for five years, where he functioned in a much different role and with significant influence on me. It was on the track where I learned many of life’s important issues and where I experienced my happiest moments as a teen. Although I wasn’t an athlete, athletic opportunities – via a highly effective coach – helped to shape me more than anything learned in the classroom.

In high school it was Mr. Grosser who affected me greatly. With a passion for molding young minds, he was part educator and part entertainer. In his class, the unexpected became routine. Sometimes he addressed the course material; at other times, he digressed. Regardless, he pushed us to think. His influence was significant and helped me mature as an individual and prepare for adulthood.

The standout mentor of my college years was Professor Britten. Intellectual and insightful, he communicated profundity with ease. I hung on every word. Nothing he said was wasted; everything had significance. I took his classes, not because of the subject, but because of the instructor.

These are some of the teachers who influenced me; they are the best of the best. Aside from academia, I have had many “teachers” in the business world as well. Although not educators, per se, they guided me to become the person I am today.

If you are a teacher, be encouraged that you are influencing others – even if you don’t know it. You may never be affirmed by those in your class, but you are making a difference, to every student, every year.

If you’re not a teacher, know that you, too, influence others. Whether a business owner, a manager, a supervisor, or a front-line employee, you influence those around you by what you do, the things you say, and how you treat others.

Like Scrooge, we can influence negatively by pursuing a life of selfish greed, or we can influence positively by choosing to make a difference in the lives of others. Although they may seldom thank us for our influence in their lives, we are making a lasting impact.

Business Articles

The Write Stuff: Tips For Successful Publishing

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Consider this: “ABC Company, a strategic provider of advanced business technology applications to facilitate organizational utilization of gamechanging convergent networks, announced today the release of its unprecedented Widgetiser solution, which is guaranteed to revolutionize existing technological infrastructures overnight.”

This is a fictitious example of an all too common press release. On any given business day, I receive five to ten press releases and an article or two. Only a small percentage ever make it into print. Although the practical restriction of limited space in a printed medium is one reason, the reality is most submissions were doomed from the start – much like the above exercise in verbosity. When you seek publicity, understanding how publishing works is the first step towards successful placement.

Target Your Submissions: Submitting content to a periodical is not like shooting a shotgun, where pellets disperse in a general area with the hope that enough shot will strike the quarry to take it down. Rather, getting published is more like firing a rifle, where a single, carefully aimed bullet has a good chance for success. True, not every shot will result in a meal, but the chances are much greater than just blasting off a shotgun in all directions.

With email, the temptation is to fire off hundreds of missives at every angle. Doing so, however, reduces your thoughtfully composed prose to spam, earning it an acrimonious end. A carefully targeted approach is a better way to go.

Know Your Target: My first article submission, some three decades ago, was published. This gave me a false sense of success; I assumed getting published was easy. The reality was I knew the target publication, Radio Electronics. I’d been a subscriber for years; I faithfully read each issue and understood the content and style of the articles they used.

Tap Online Resources: Virtually all periodicals have websites, which often contain useful information for the aspiring writer. The first step is to check their website for direction. My publications’ websites, for example, contains guidelines for writing and submitting articles and press releases, including the preferred length, the method of submission, writing style, and so forth.

Limit Communication: In today’s publishing world, some editors will respond to emails about submissions, but most do not. Contacting them when you shouldn’t will just irritate them. Only reach out when needed and according to their online submission guidelines.

At best, hope for a brief response. Today’s editorial staff must do more, in less time, and with fewer resources. Don’t take it personally if your message is ignored or you receive a terse reply. Make the best of any communication and move forward.

Know Your Subject: My first article was, “All About Pagers.” I knew the subject well, working for a paging company and with several years of experience. One would think that my composition would have flowed easily. Not so. As I began to write, I quickly realized how much I didn’t know. Fortunately, I was in a position to find the missing pieces, thereby filling in the gaps. The result was an accurate and informative submission that resonated with the editors. Writing about things you don’t understand is quickly spotted and easily dismissed.

Follow Directions: The quickest way for your press release or article to be ignored is to assume the rules don’t apply to you. Editors more readily use material that complies with their guidelines and needs less editing. They don’t make rules because they can but to make the process easier for everyone.

If they request your submissions via an email attachment (my preferred method), then do it. Other publications avoid attachments and prefer the text be in the body of the email. Also, if a piece is too long, it will be edited for length.

The reality is, when an editor is nearing deadline or pushed for time, content requiring significant editing will often be delayed or deleted. Increase your chances of being published by simply following directions.

Don’t Miss Deadlines: Deadlines exist for a reason. Without them, a publication would never make it to the printer. Be aware and follow submission deadlines (they are usually posted online and may be printed in each issue). If you promise an article by a certain date, don’t miss it. If you desire your hot news item to be in a specific issue, get it in on time; sooner is better. Weekly papers and especially magazines have a much longer lead-time than most people imagine, so be aware of it and adhere to it.

Third Person is Preferred: Writing objectively in the third person gives your piece increased integrity; it’s more credible. First-person is never acceptable in news releases as it comes across as self-serving, bragging, or unnecessarily introspective. Always write press releases as an impartial third party. Articles generally work best in this same style. Notable exceptions are first-hand accounts and how-to pieces – such as this column. If you have any doubt about which style to use, don the hat of a reporter and write in the third person.

Proofread Carefully: Too often, I receive press releases and articles that contain serious errors. Some haven’t even been spell-checked. This is a sure way to lose credibility and frustrate an editor. Make their work easier by double-checking yours. It is nearly impossible to successfully proof your own work. After all, you know what you intended to write, so that is how you read it, easily overlooking errors and mistakes.

Expect to be Edited: It’s tough to work hard on a piece only to have someone else change it. Similarly, it’s easy to become enamored with what you wrote, desiring it to be published verbatim. This is unrealistic. Even the most experienced authors have their work edited. This can be for many reasons. A common one is length, another is style, and a third is content suitability. Sometimes a piece is given a different slant to make it better fit a publication’s focus or a section is removed because it doesn’t work well with the issue.

Although some publications have a reputation for twisting, manipulating, or even corrupting an author’s work, most make a good-faith effort to retain the writer’s intent and present their work in a positive way.

Avoid Hyperbole: The more spectacular the language, the less believable they become. Words such as “leveraged,” “solutions,” “unique,” “revolutionary,” “leading,” and “premier” are overused. Avoid them in your writing. Exaggerated copy and unsubstantiated claims only serve to push away readers and wary editors. Yes, clever wording has its place, but when it surpasses the message, something is wrong and communication doesn’t occur.

There’s no guaranteed way to get your news item or article published, but implementing these ideas will increase the chance of that happening – and decrease frustration when it does not.