Observations from the War Room

IMG_7209I was recently involved in a project that spanned almost two years and culminated in a “big bang” kind of moment. People were gathered; additional resources brought in; the requisite food and caffeine provisions were on hand. The command center was established – and with it all the buzz that comes from excitement, anticipation, exhaustion, uncertainty, and ultimately, relief at the completion of a successful endeavor.

Knowing the kind of round-the-clock stress this event would bring to hundreds of staff and outside support personnel, leadership made a conscious decision to address the tension directly, offering team members some tips and strategies to expect and (more importantly) manage the situation. There was nothing earth-shattering about the advice. However, it continues to serve as a reminder that we need to take care of ourselves to take better care of each other – which can just as easily apply to our personal lives as it does in the workplace.

Here are the top five observations from the War Room:

  1. Take care of yourself.

It sounds silly to tell grown adults that they should get a good night’s rest, remember to eat (preferably the healthy stuff), and get some exercise. But these are often the very basic duties that we shirk when feeling overworked and stressed. How counterproductive is that?

Get outside, breathe fresh air, walk around, talk about anything other than work. You will return to the task at hand in a better mental state.

  1. Keep your sense of humor.

No matter how well planned and executed a project may be, there will be bumps in the road. You just can’t please all the people all the time. They may have project-related woes, or they may not like the selection of salad dressing options you’re offering for their free lunch.

You need to care and you need to take your job seriously – but if you fail to laugh – then the days will seem endless and the tension will grow to uncomfortable levels.

  1. Cut each other some slack.

Exercising patience will go a long way. We all react differently to stressful situations. It is important to keep in mind that everyone has the best of intentions when it comes to the success of the project. Approaching colleagues with an attitude of understanding and cooperation will be contagious and will break down many of the barriers that can be created in a high-stress environment.

  1. Communicate clearly and directly, but respectfully.

Reporting progress or asking for resources is best done without a lot of extra information. But using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ can go a long way. Making sure that colleagues or team members are feeling okay, getting breaks and taking care of themselves is still possible when you are trying to work toward a specific end. Appreciate the time that others are devoting to the project.

That said, group dialogue can often get off track quickly. One question or comment can take the conversation in a different (or wrong) direction. It is important to understand what your team is looking to accomplish with each meeting or report out.

If you see the conversation steering off course, or the larger conversation is being taken derailed by sidebar conversations, don’t hesitate to redirect. Encourage colleagues to take a sidebar conversation into another setting at a different time. Making sure the team is clear about meeting objectives and project status is paramount to keeping everyone in lock step.

  1. Celebrate success as a team.

It is never too soon to begin the recognition of team accomplishments, both large and small. Be sure to use every opportunity to celebrate and call out great work. Don’t just wait until the conclusion of a project. This can be as simple as offering some public thanks in a meeting; a hand-written note card (electronic notes are nice too if they are sent sincerely); or supplying your colleague with a favorite snack or drink are very simple ways to show appreciation.

Open a meeting with a couple minutes of upbeat music, capture some photos, and use these opportunities to decompress and celebrate. Finally, once the project reaches a successful conclusion or milestone, make sure to take the time to reflect, recognize, and celebrate the teamwork, long hours, and accomplishments.

And then, if you’re like most organizations, you pivot your focus and get to work on the next project. So, congratulations and good luck!

Contact me at kim@vanink.ink to talk about how VanInk can help you enhance your communication strategy.

sid cash collage
*Outtakes from our photo shoot…dogs are not always cooperative!


Observations from the War Room

The Story of My Life


I recently participated in a women’s leadership panel. I was honored to be among a group of esteemed women leaders who were committed to community service while in pursuit of various professional accomplishments. We were talking with a group of college students (all female) and we were asked to discuss what we studied in school and how that related (or not) to what we did professionally. In addition, we were asked to address our experience providing community service, both then and now.

I think it goes without saying that these kinds of experiences are often as educational for me as they are for the intended audience. Hearing the perspectives of so many people I admire, learning new things about each individual and collectively sharing our experiences and advice in that setting was stimulating and inspiring for me…and I hope for the college students as well.

And while this very bright group of students seemed eager to learn the secrets to success, I was struck by several recurring themes that serve as valuable reminders for people at any stage of their career.

With age comes wisdom.

I have officially entered middle age, which is not necessarily a fact that bothers me. Of course, I could do without the increasing aches and pains or laugh lines (sounds better than wrinkles) that accompany this current phase of life. But I now recognize that with age comes a wisdom that is hard to explain to the young. As the saying goes, hindsight really is 20/20. There are things I have learned as my life has been shaped by experience that I could never have understood when I was in college.

For example, I always knew I wanted a husband and family “someday,” but I had no idea how creating my family would alter almost everything about my younger self’s world view. How could I have understood the idea that the pursuit of professional dreams sometimes takes a backseat to the needs of your family? Or that life as a new mother – a time of balancing work and daycare and regulated schedules that I thought was stressful – seems vastly different from the worry I currently have raising pre-teen and teenage daughters.

I don’t know it all, but I do know that the phase of life I’m in now will ultimately be just another chapter in a story that is constantly being written and revised. If I can learn to pause and appreciate the now – a discipline that is very hard to develop – then I’m already doing better than my 20-something self.

It’s okay to change course.

I was not the one who made this point during the panel discussion, but boy, did it resonate strongly with me. The women in our audience were all high-achieving college students who, no doubt, strive for that next great grade; great internship; dream job. But what if they decide that the career path they set at 19 or 20 is not really everything they thought it would be? As I sat among women who had studied everything from business to sports management to architecture, only some of whom had found that line of study to be their ultimate calling; I felt so completely normal and validated that my own professional path was filled with twists, turns, and redirects.

Public relations sounded cool to me in college as I dreamed of working with high profile people negotiating national news stories. My actual professional experience – while still public relations – has been quite different. And when I encountered a boss who promised to convert me to health care, I simply thought he was crazy. That seemed too practical at the time. What did I know?

By stating – out loud – that there is nothing wrong with changing your mind or revising your dream, I hope the audience of college students felt some relief in the fact that no one is expecting them to have all the answers now. It’s okay to be unsure. That’s what makes life a great adventure. Trying to live without regret seems too lofty, but having permission to learn as you go is much easier to grasp.

Women really are the ultimate multitaskers.

So admittedly, this was a panel of women and we were talking to an audience of women. No matter what the career choice or volunteer commitments, as a group it was obvious that multitasking was a honed skill across the board. Life is not linear and the balancing act is real.

Multitasking is a skill that will translate well in life – from the Boardroom to the kitchen. Whether making time for family, travel, work priorities, community service, hobbies or passions, there will always be something else competing for your time, your talent, your resources. The need to control that ebb and flow will make you crazy (quick) if you aren’t able to prioritize and delegate based on what is most important right now. And once you think you’ve got it all figured out, life will present you with another curve ball…you can be sure of that.

It takes a village, and that’s okay.

Which leads to my final take away from this experience. In the pursuit of dreams, no one should feel like they have to do it alone. Having a support network is vital. You can find that in many different places – whether it comes from your family or friends, colleagues at work, advisors at school. You will need to develop relationships that can be tested and trusted.

Our life is our story. Some chapters are more interesting than others. But the storyline will continue to unfold, revealing more life lessons as we go. I was glad to be reminded through this experience that we’re all just at different stages of creating the ultimate work of art.

The Story of My Life

Making Connections and Connecting the Dots

I recently attended the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (or as the healthcare insiders affectionately refer to it: SHSMD – pron. shuss-med) 2015 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. I think it goes without saying that conferences of this magnitude (over 1,000 attendees, more than 70 concurrent sessions and 100 exhibitors) can be a bit difficult to summarize in any concise manner. That said, I picked up on several common themes that I think really encapsulate where healthcare Marketing, Strategy and Communications practices are headed.

Digital, digital, digital…

Who doesn’t know this, right? Life as we know it revolves around digital. As professionals, digital is no longer just a channel to be included on the distribution matrix. It needs to be the core of our thought process.

Digital is the new first impression for most companies. People see your online presence via social media or visit your website before ever entering the doors of your facility, so the need for a strong digital first impression is more important than ever before. Remember the days when your website was static content that rarely changed? Neither do I. Those days are (thankfully) long gone.

The name of the (digital) game today is engagement. And by engagement, that means talking about what the audience cares about; not simply pushing your own agenda. This kind of relationship building is never one and done. Like face to face relationships, customer relationship development requires a long term commitment. Show appreciation and be authentic, and be transparent with what you want. If there is an ask, make it clear.

Digital communication both requires and enables greater flexibility. Messages change and adapt with dizzying speed and the organizations that accept this new reality will have an advantage.

Data is king.

Data and analytics are no longer reserved exclusively for (ahem) “other” departments. The modern Communications/Marketing/Strategy practitioner needs to use data to plan, execute and demonstrate the value of any initiative. The tools are abundant and CRM is undoubtedly the cool kid on the block.

I’m no data geek, but even I understand that the science behind the art of communication should not be underestimated. Return on investment – a term once rarely uttered by any communication professional – is now part of the nomenclature and was discussed at length over the course of the conference.

The ability to reach people where they are in the digital space is a game changer. Big brother is big data and we experience this new reality every time we go online. Understanding the data tools for both planning and reporting a campaign is vital to win support from executives.

It’s time to knock the silos down.

Today’s Marketing/Communication/Strategy and even Operational departments need to cross pollinate. Job descriptions need to change in order to encourage collaboration. The free sharing of ideas, the explosion of new tools and comprehensive nature of great campaigns can only be achieved when everyone sits around one table with a clear understanding of the organization’s objectives.

Storytelling is a competency.

This recurring theme transcended just about every presentation and General Session during the conference and was, in fact, the theme of SHSMD’s Bridging Worlds for the Future of Healthcare. Storytelling is as old as time and it has tremendous power to advance a message.

Our employees and physicians can be our greatest assets when seeking and sharing stories. No one knows your organization better, and keeping them informed and engaged in the dialogue is step one.

That said, not all stories are created equal. Companies that cultivate authentic stories should focus less on telling customers how great they are, but instead illustrate for customers how great they can be through story. It can sometimes be more challenging to find them, but stories that are unique and offer some kind of twist to keep the audience interested/surprised/engaged make the greatest impact. You want to tell stories that people will remember.

Different is the new normal.

Whether approaching a new campaign, redesigning our systems of care, or customizing a message for five different audiences; we need to think differently about the approach we take and the ways that we measure success. We are writing the story of innovation with every new tool and tactic we employ.

This experimentation is made richer when we’re able to share, discuss and learn from one another. Perhaps this is the greatest value of a gathering like SHSMD 2015. Many thanks to the organizers for creating an informative and engaging conference.

Making Connections and Connecting the Dots

Stories can Illustrate, Teach and Keep us on Point

Whether helping my kids with homework or coaching a client on an upcoming speech, I am constantly reminded of the many applications for the art of storytelling.

My middle schooler began her U.S. History curriculum this year with a unit on the events that lead up to and have followed the September 11 attacks. Once complete, the class will go back in history and progress chronologically for the remainder of the year. So why start with 9/11?

While current seventh graders were not born at the time of 9/11, this event was so significant to the people surrounding those kids – parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc. – who all have a relatively vivid recollection of that time. Like so many sentinel life events, people can easily recall where they were, how they responded and the many milestones that have passed as a result.  Kids today, whether they were born and directly remember or not, continue to be impacted by the events of 9/11.

One of the class assignments involved interviewing people about their 9/11 experience. My daughter and I talked at length about the different people impacted and developed a long list of people with truly compelling stories to tell. Some narrowly missed the attack; some were so impacted it changed the course of their career into one of military service; some were present in New York City as the day’s events unfolded – bearing witness to unspeakable horror and true heroism. These individuals all have stories that are all the more powerful when told in the first person. I have to believe this seventh grade U.S. History teacher understood that when issuing this assignment.

How is this relevant as a business application?

Whether conveying data and analytics or trying to train a group of employees, creating a narrative can transform ‘information’ into a ‘memorable moment’ that applies to just about any professional setting.

Asking yourself why you are in business will help you nail down the desired result. The course you take to get accomplish your objectives may take many forms, but engaging through stories provides the kind of context that allows your audience to develop more of a connection to the message. Use the data and the business information to support the elements of your story that will draw a more emotional reaction.

I’m not suggesting that you need to make stories emotional. Examples from real life, humor, personal reflection, comparisons: they all represent different styles that can used to develop your story, and when done well, work across a variety of professional settings.

In addition, when you create a story you are more likely to stay on message. Memorizing points on a slide or a written speech is a challenge for the most polished presenters. Giving someone a story to tell will always have a more natural feel and flow and makes the presenter more comfortable.

One example: A tale of woe

Talking about customer service and sharing a list of tips for improvement can be helpful and informative, but wrapping those same elements into a narrative that illustrates an example of really good or really bad customer service can better demonstrate the real world application of customer service tips.

Telling employees to never be rude (ever) when face-to-face with customers seems like an elementary tip. Most of the audience is going to think, “Of course I would never be rude to the customer.”

Insert story here: If I retell my weekend experience from a favorite restaurant that let me down and why, then the audience can better grasp what I mean when I label something rude. In this case, I had a reservation discrepancy (I arrived before 7:00 p.m. believing that to be my scheduled reservation and they had me down for 7:30 p.m.). Honest mistakes happen and no one is perfect, so I accepted some culpability and was willing to patiently wait out the 30 minutes.

However – this being a small restaurant – I was able to see not one, but four open tables that would have accommodated my party of four. After 15 minutes of waiting, I asked the hostess about the open tables. I fully expected a logical explanation about why they were being held open. But what I received was a sigh and an answer that went something like, “I have your reservation for 7:30, so according to my watch we’re still ahead of schedule.” She did not seat my party early and all open tables remained so well past my recorded reservation time.

I’m not a squeaky wheel and I try in most cases to be as patient and understanding as possible, but I was prepared to (and eventually did) spend over $400 on this one meal. Food was excellent and our servers were attentive and helpful throughout the meal. That said, I will not be returning and I did let the management know of my experience in a letter that followed our visit.

What’s more is that I’m sure the hostess would not have interpreted her own behavior as rude, based on her belief that she was right and I was sat by 7:30 p.m. But if you build you business on going above and beyond for your customers (as this restaurant claims), then my experience represents a complete fail. Stories can help demonstrate some of these nuisances in a way that simple instructive lists cannot.

How can your business use storytelling to be more successful? I’d love to hear your story…

Stories can Illustrate, Teach and Keep us on Point

Create a Plan…then Work the Plan

All too often, I talk with someone in need of communication support and they are thinking very tactically. That is, they know they want social media posts or they know they want a video or blog post, but they are not stepping back to look at the bigger picture first.

Effective communication is so much more than just the message or just the medium for delivery. The best communication starts with a plan. Knowing what you want to say and to whom your message is directed are some of the most important considerations. Are you ultimately addressing several audiences with similar, but tailored messages? Is social media the only and/or best channel for the message? Or are there ways to incorporate several layers of communication to have even greater reach?

Beginning the process by considering the right questions will help to inform your best strategy and, from there, the tactics that will support a campaign’s success.

That is not to suggest that you shouldn’t experiment along the way. Some of the best examples of effective communication have come from brave professionals (or amateurs) who took a risk that paid off. But to try and synthesize the next great viral post should really not be the goal. Your time, talents and energy are best spent rooted in the fundamentals of a solid plan.

Think of it as the blueprints for a house. Considerations for quality materials and adherence to code come first. A solid foundation should support the structure. What color you paint the walls or what furniture you use to decorate are expressions of your personal taste and preferences – and they are the visible results (the tactics, if you will) – but your house actually started with a plan that specifically detailed how the materials would come together.

Define the goal

How will you know if your business objectives are being met if you haven’t defined them in a plan? Whether you’re trying to increase awareness, generate investor interest, inform a specific audience, or drive business, it’s important to be fully aware of the desired outcome.

Craft the message

I often find the process of discovery that is involved in planning is also where you begin to see a storyline come to life. The context of a project, especially when working as a consultant, helps to frame the message and gives a real sense of purpose to a plan. Deciding what to say and how to make content compelling for its intended purpose is equal parts science and art.

Know your audience

Who are the influencers and how do you reach them? Does your business rely on referrals, or is it a direct marketplace where consumers make the choice? Business communication can be inward facing or external and the message content and tactics need to take all these factors into consideration while building the plan.

Measure success

A blog post can be a really effective tool way to tell the story, but if your business objectives are to increase market share then one blog post may not be the best tactic in isolation. How will you know its reach? And how can you connect that tactic with your desired outcome?

It’s important to know what tactics worked or didn’t (and why) if your business is looking for long term success. When you think about measurement as part of the planning process, you are putting yourself in the best position to understand the return.

Work the plan

Staying the course is sometimes the hardest discipline once a communication plan has been created. Course corrections are expected, but you should not abandon the plan if its grounded in sound business logic.

A multifaceted plan that includes several supporting tactics and clearly defined milestones over time is much more likely to draw the results to support a business. It may take some time in development, but the rewards are often that much richer.



Create a Plan…then Work the Plan