How to Become a Better Leader Instantly

Whether building a career at a large company or starting your own, if you want to advance and grow, soft skills like leadership are just as important to develop as hard skills like programming languages and sales tactics. Despite being a species evolved to live and work in groups, most of us struggle to effectively communicate with and motivate others. This is unfortunate, given how important and helpful a skill it is to master.

I’ve been studying leadership for a while and there are many techniques for motivating and effectively working with others. Many take some practice and skill. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to very quickly develop your skills, which I was reminded of as I was recently reading the excellent book, “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and Life One Conversation at a Time.”

One tip in particular stood out as something I’d heard many times before and I realized it’s the single easiest, yet important tactic to learn:

Give specific praise regularly

Animal trainers around the world know the best way to train animals is through rewarding good behavior. Just think about the last time you were at Sea World and the seals and dolphins got fish and other treats after each trick they did.

While humans are much more complex creatures, we still like rewards, just often in a different form: praise. Because this praise is written or verbal, the key is to be specific.  Don’t just say, “Good Job.” Instead, you’ll want to pull out exactly what was good so they know to do it again. Some simple examples could be:

  • “Great work on the folder feature, Susan. I really like how you made your code clean and easy to follow with comments explaining each section of the code.”
  • “Your report on quarterly earnings was great, Tom. Your graphics were perfect for explaining to the board how we recovered from the rough month.”

After praise like that, I guarantee you that Susan will continue to comment her code and keep it clean and Tom is much more likely to keep investing time to make great graphics for his reports.

This type of praise is powerful for a few reasons:

1) People want to feel appreciated.

Assuming you like your job even a little bit, you want to do good work. There are parts where you’ll put in extra effort. People just want to be recognized for that hard work and that will motivate them to do more of it. Think back to a time someone thanked you for a great job on a project you slaved over for weeks. Give others that feeling.

2) The absence of praise will be felt.

When someone does subpar work and you give no praise, they will notice and want to work harder to seek your praise they previously enjoyed. On the other hand, if you don’t praise people regularly, they are less likely to continue to put in the extra effort on projects. We have all had those moments where we went the extra mile on something and were disappointed when no one noticed. Chances are, you didn’t do it again for that boss or coworker. Don’t be that kind of manager.

3) People want to be noticed.

Especially in the startup world, it’s easy to take great work from your team for granted. Everyone just ships feature after feature, marketing content over more content and keeps grinding. This is also why celebrating wins as a team matters; it’s an opportunity to recognize both the collective efforts of the team and specifically who made major efforts to help the team get there. This is the key to making people feel like they’re “part of something bigger” that draws so many to the lower pay and longer hours of startup life.

Can you remember the last time you praised each member of your team? Were you specific with them or just a vague, “Good job”?

This is just one of the awesome tactics you’ll learn in the book, Fierce Conversations. It covers many excellent topics and will help you understand how to have productive and often difficult conversations effectively with others in both your personal and professional life. I scored it a 9 out of 10 on my ratings scale and highly recommend it.

Book Review: Gary V’s Crush It

If entrepreneurship was a team and we had a big game coming up, I have no doubt that Gary V would lead the pep rally and carry the spirit stick.  If you need a book to jump start your passion for entrepreneurship, to remind you why you do what you do and give you some tips to better succeed at what you are passionately pursuing, then Crush It is is the book for you.

When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure I was going to buy into it. It felt like sort of fluff.  But Gary V’s enthusiasm is contagious. Before long I was really feeling charged up about his beliefs in pursuing your passions and thinking about how I’m already doing it and how I can do more.

Compared to some more academic entrepreneurial books, this is a quick, easy read (142 pages), but it still is filled with great ideas and concepts.  After feeling like Chris Brogan’s Trust Agents was a bit verbose, I was very happy to breeze through this book. Gary hit on a lot of great points and covered a reasonable number of topics, but never dwelled on any idea too long.

If you’re looking for a quick read to get you pumped up to pursue your life’s passion AND have a method for actually making money on that passion, this is well worth the time to read this book.  If you don’t like overly casual/conversational books, you may want to steer clear of this one.  If I had to boil the book down to one principle, I’d say that it’s “Discover your life’s passion and create interesting content about that in the form you want, then be patient and get paid.”

Next Book: Steve Blank’s 4 Steps to the Epiphany

On Deck: Open to recommendations…

In the hole: Open to recommendations…

MIT 100K Elevator Pitch Contest: A Lesson in Awesome

What has a roaring crowd complete with thunder sticks,  a set of hosts in costume, a dancing spaceman and people talking about everything from backless labels to prostate cancer?  No, it’s not the World Series and your average night of commercials. It’s the MIT 100k, where they set the gold standard for awesome.

When I arrived, the event was already in full swing.  As I walked into the auditorium I was hit with an incredible ball of energy; you could feel the excitement and enthusiasm of the crowd and participants. There was also a very entertaining host (dancing spaceman = good, microwave pitch = not so much) and tons of awesome elevator pitches. Where else can you go and hear someone talk about Indiana Jones, prostates and impotence and get multiple laughs, all in under a minute?

To me, the lesson in this is simple: be awesome.  MIT could have had a standard, bland event with limited sound production (sans the Star Trek sound effects), hosts in (regular, not space) suits and a reserved (thunderstick-less) audience.  That would have produced a solid event, with interesting pitches.  Instead, they dialed it  up to an “11″ and went all out to entertain and energize everyone in the room.  This is how you get people excited about entrepreneurship.  This is how you make people say “wow. I wish I had pitched” and realize that entrepreneurship can be as cool as sports.

Cheers, MIT100K team. Awesome event.  Looking forward to future events.

The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide, Part I: Starting from Scratch

Many people have written tips, guides and questions for aspiring entrepreneurs.  Many of them are excellent, but I don’t think anyone has captured the essence of the stages a young entrepreneur goes through and specific advice for what they should do at each stage.  As part of our efforts at GreenhornConnect.com, we want to create a central location that provides the information that an aspiring entrepreneur needs to go from starting out (Is this for me? What should I do?) to evaluating an idea (What goes into a business plan? How do I build a team?)  to being a real business (Do I need investment? What tools should I use?).

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing different sections of this guide in my blog, pulling from my experiences, what I’ve read and advice I’ve heard from others. If you read this and think something is missing or disagree with any of the advice, please comment; I want this to be the best guide possible and will gladly give you credit for your contribution. Thanks.

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PART I: Starting from Scratch
You recently had the epiphany you want to be an entrepreneur, but really haven’t gotten started yet.  Here’s what to do…

1) Is this for You?

When you first decide you are really interested in entrepreneurship, the key is to get informed.  It’s easy to say you love startups, but it’s another thing to truly understand what you’re saying.  The best way to determine if it is for you is to start reading.  Read inspirational articles written by entrepreneurs like Ken Morse, Paul Graham and Mark Cuban.  Still interested? Talk to family and friends and try to find people who are entrepreneurs that you can talk to about what it’s like.  After hearing about all the challenges, long hours and risk of failure, if you still want to be an entrepreneur, read on…

2) Try EVERYTHING…Be Curious

A key trait of being an entrepreneur is a desire to learn. When you’re getting started, you should try to take in everything you can to learn about different types of startups and roles you can fill in a startup.  Fill your Google Reader with industries you’re interested in and blogs in areas you want to learn more about.  You don’t have to read every article, just the ones that interest you; simply reading the headlines of the other articles can help you to grasp where different industries are technologically.  There are also great websites, magazines, books, and presentations you can check out.  Ask other entrepreneurs what they read.  Add what you like to your list and leave the rest.

3) Overwhelmed? Don’t know where to start?

If you really need a few starting points, here’s a few sites, blogs and items I personally like best (note: This is somewhat Boston biased, because that’s where I live. Find things in your area to get a view of your local entrepreneurship scene):

Websites:  TechCrunch, Venture Beat, Silicon Alley, Gizmodo, Xconomy
Blogs: OnStartups, Innovation Economy, Startup Lessons Learned
Magazines: Inc Magazine, Popular Science, Technology Review

The takeaway from this is not to copy me; instead, notice the diversity. There are newspapers, tech focused media, business sources and established entrepreneur blogs.  The idea is to get as many perspectives as you can. Try to build a similar list based on your passions and location.

4) Study those you Admire

As you immerse yourself in all of this entrepreneurial content, you’ll start to find certain personalities and businesses keep coming up.  Find the ones that resonate most with you and follow them more closely. If the founder of the company has a blog, read it. If they have a book, buy it. If they’re going to be speaking and you have a chance to see them live or on video, watch it. And if you are fortunate enough to have the chance to sit down with them, make the most of it.  Focus on how they got where they are. Learn from their mistakes and try to understand what made them successful and emulate that.

Still in love with entrepreneurship after starting the learning process?

Now Available: Part II: Getting Out There
See Also: Part III: Building a Reputation, Network and Following & Part IV: Working on Your Idea


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This is ongoing series to try to build a comprehensive, lasting guide for aspiring entrepreneurs. I would greatly appreciate any input in the comments below to make this the best it can be.  Thanks!

MassTLC unConference: Can We Build on the Momentum?

Across Twitter, the blogosphere and professional media, there is an obvious consensus: the MassTLC unConference was a resounding success.  Everyone has been talking and tweeting about the energy and enthusiasm that permeated the event.  I believe everyone left with a renewed feeling of optimism for entrepreneurship in New England and a new set of contacts that will be helpful in whatever ideas, ventures or initiatives they are pursuing.

I have no doubt that, on an individual basis, everyone will greatly benefit from the unConference.  However, the greater question is what larger goals may now be possible because of it. A list of action items were created during Scott Kirsner and Tim Rowe’s session called, “Turbocharging the Entrepreneurial Culture in MA.”  These items require a diverse group of people in the community to come together to address issues big and small.

Being a “greenhorn” in the community, I’m not sure how I can help in some cases, but I want to do my part.  I look forward to launching the site being built by myself and some colleagues to help young entrepreneurs  by providing a consolidated source and aggregate for events, resources and other pertinent information.  In addition, if anyone needs any young entrepreneurs to aide in any of the tasks through man power or just a different perspective, I am certainly willing and I believe I know quite a few others who would gladly get involved as well.

So, my question for you, reading this right now, is how, in any way big or small, are you able to help tackle these action items?

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I also wanted to use this entry to summarize and consolidate everything that happened at the unConference.  As I’ve been reading, listening and watching the reactions to the event, I’ve compiled those all into one place.  Below, you will find every piece of content I know of on the internet (sans individual tweets praising the event) that has been generated as a result of the awesome unConference.  If I missed anything, please comment with the link and I’ll update the list.

The Center of it:
Professional Media:
Bill Warner’s Blog/Photo essay of opening
Session Media:
Bill Warner’s discussion of “starting a company with no money”
Adam Zand’s Collection: http://www.utterli.com/AdamZand
PR Improv:
Music 2.0
SKirsner & TRowe:
My earlier entry w/ List
Picture of session: http://yfrog.com/2pzx9j
Lean Startups
Meetup Group organized by John Prendergast, who led the session: http://www.meetup.com/Lean-Startup-Circle-Boston/
Google Group: http://bit.ly/ewVJs
Steve Blank’s Blog: http://steveblank.com/
Build a Community, Not a Network
Quote of the day:
“Some of you are so smart that you take something that should be an instant failure & turn it into a 4-year failure.” -Bill Warner
“Why, @pistachio asks, are we going up against Silicon Valley as ‘Boston’ & ‘Providence,’ not New England?” -@ Pistachio

Links related to the event itself:
unConference website
MassTLC Website
The Pre-Event Session Wiki
The Sessions Listing Wall
MassTLC Blog

Pieces by the Professional Media:
Mass High Tech
Scott Kirsner’s Friday 5
NECN Coverage
NECN Reporter, Scott Montmimy

Blog Entries on the overall unConference:
Bill Warner’s Blog/Photo essay of opening of event
Bill Warner’s Video of the Event
Bill Warner’s collection of 83 Photos
Brough Turner’s Blog

Specific Session Contemt:

“Starting a Company with no Money”:
Session Audio

“PR Improv”:
Session SummarySession Audio Part 1 & Part 2

“Music 2.0″:
Session Audio

“TurboCharging the Entrepreneurial Culture”:
Session Summary,  “The List”, Photo 1, Photo 2

“Firing Founders is VC-101: How to Keep Your Founder Job”
Session Summary

“Build a Community, Not a Network”:
Session Summary, Photo

“Dodging Bullets that Kill Startups”
Session SummaryLean Startups Meetup Group, Lean Startups Google Group, Steve Blank’s Book & Blog, Eric Ries’s Blog & MIT Event, and another blog

Quote of the day:

Based on number of reTweets:
“Some of you are so smart that you take something that should be an instant failure & turn it into a 4-year failure.” -Bill Warner

Based on importance to improving our community:
“Why are we going up against Silicon Valley as ‘Boston’ & ‘Providence,’ not New England?” -@ Pistachio

Russ Wilcox, Mass High Tech All Star

As I was following my twitter stream today on TweetDeck, I noticed an announcement about “Mass High Tech All Stars”. What really caught my attention was the mention of Russ Wilcox receiving one of the awards.  Russ is very deserving of this and the other awards he and E Ink have been amassing recently.  I’ve had a number of great experiences with Russ, so I’d like to share a few here.

As you may recall from my first entry, there was a seminar my freshman year at Northeastern that included local entrepreneurs coming in to discuss their start-up experiences.  Russ was one of those entrepreneurs, and to this day, I remember his presentation.  He showed us his VC pitch and talked about his passion for changing the way we interact with books. The innovative nature of the technology and the passion he showed really stood out and definitely contributed to my growing interest in entrepreneurship at the time. From that day forward, I followed E Ink in the news to see how they were doing.

When I graduated 4 years later, it only seemed natural to apply for a position at E Ink; by working there I could learn more about a great local start-up firsthand.  Fortunately, they hired me for a summer job that got my foot in the door. During that time, Russ was constantly being taped in interviews, interacting with employees and talking about making E Ink a success. His passion seemed to spread to others and his demeanor made everyone feel confident and comfortable. After overhearing he got to talk to one of my all-time favorite entrepreneurs, Mark Cuban, on the phone as part of something Mark’s HDNet was reporting on, I decided I had to get a chance to talk to him too.

I won’t lie…I was scared. I thought to myself, “this is a man running a 100+ employee company that is just starting to gain traction…he has no time to talk to me.”  Luckily, I didn’t let those thoughts get the best of me,  so I emailed him explaining my passion for entrepreneurship and asked if I could talk to him about his experiences.  To my delight, he was more than happy to and we scheduled a meeting.

The meeting was everything I hoped it would be and more.  He started out by telling me the story of E Ink; how they almost went bankrupt and the extreme situation he was handed the day he was named CEO (6 weeks of cash left, no established product) and how they made it to 2008.  We then talked about his personal background and how he ended up at E Ink.  The discussion then turned towards me and I explained to him what I hoped to do and he gave me a lot of great advice.  He suggested a ton of reading and explained his philosophy for all that reading (essentially…there’s something to learn from all of them…the key is recognizing those key nuggets and combining it with the others).  The meeting was scheduled to be 45 minutes, but we ended up talking for an hour and a half. During that time, he never looked at his watch or hinted at all that he had anything to do but talk to me.

It’s experiences like these that inspire future generations of entrepreneurs.  I hope one day I can be the type of leader Russ is and hope he can continue to guide E Ink to a successful future.

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I’ll leave you with a quote from Russ that speaks deeply to his beliefs and what I think entrepreneurship is really all about:

“You live to your fullest potential when you pursue a challenging dream that builds lasting value for others. ” -Russ Wilcox, CEO E Ink