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The Flash Cons I don’t take

I referred someone out this morning.

She PMd me on Facebook and told me she needed a FlashCon, and when she told me what it was I told her I couldn’t do it. Which was a slight exaggeration: In theory I could have done it, but I really don’t feel comfortable with that area and I wouldn’t have been comfortable presenting my solution to her problem as the best one, because I just don’t know enough about it to be confident in what I’d come up with. Plus, I know someone who’s amazing at what the client was looking for, so I referred the client to her.

I was thinking about it later on, that there have been four cases since I started this that I’ve referred out to someone I know is better at whatever it was than I am. And one case I didn’t take because I had a bad feeling that it was unsolvable in the creepy way, not unsolvable in the #challengeaccepted kind of way. (Note: I have done two cases that I’d classify as “creepy,” but they were asking me to find a way for the client to act honorably and responsibly in the middle of the creepy situation, so I accepted them and found a clear, good path for each of those clients.)

Everything else has been a matter of listening to the case, telling them what I could offer in the situation, and then letting them decide if that’s the kind of solution they’re looking for, or not.

So what kind of cases have I had lately? Categorization (how to rearrange and think of things), messaging (how to explain the through line of a situation to the people who’ll be affected by it), motivation (you want to do it but can’t seem to make yourself do it), and fatigue (end of the school year is killing people).

 

Want to talk about a FlashCon with me? The details of how it works are at FlashCons.com and you can email me at magda @ flashcons dot com.

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Clarity around what’s next

(It’s been a long time since I updated here! In the fall leading into Christmas/New Year a lot of the Flash Consults I did had to do with navigating family boundaries and expectations. People have SO MUCH HURT around expectations, and a lot of what I did was help people refine both what they were willing to take on and what they wanted to be deliberate about passing on to kids and other family members.)

For the last couple of months I’ve been doing the usual assortment of career-changer Flash Consults, and some small business discipline-crossers (people who are great at what they do who need to know how to approach some aspect of running a business that isn’t their content area). But I’ve also been getting an interesting subset of people (women and men) looking for someone to give them a little structure around refining “what’s next” for them as their kids become more self-sufficient and they aren’t treading water at home and work anymore.

One thing I’ve noticed about this is that a lot of us seem to feel a little guilty that we have the “luxury” of a little space to make some decisions. After running on empty and just barely holding up all the various ends that need to be held up when you have little kids, you can start to feel like that’s normal. So then when you have a little bit of breathing room that can feel both scary and decadent.

Don’t feel guilty about being out of the Red Zone of parenting. Your feeling guilty about being in a new phase doesn’t help anyone else who’s still in the Red Zone with parenting, or who’s having job problems, or anything else. In fact, your feeling guilty can suck up that extra energy that you could use to get into an even better position and maybe pick up some of the slack for someone else.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that people are always the same people. Meaning, who you were at 16 is who you are now at 38 with two kids. I haven’t heard your story yet, but I’d bet cash money that some of the things that are causing you conflict right now have to do with thinking you’re supposed to be essentially different than you were then. You were aces then, and you’re aces now. Work with your strengths and desires, and everything else will fall in place.

What kinds of problems are people going to hand me coming into the summer? I’m hoping for some more small business problems (because I love cost accounting and product design and process), and am thinking the next thing on the personal problem front may be sequencing schedules. But hey, you tell me!

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The clients I can’t talk about

Back in the beginning of August, I had A LOT of people who were dissatisfied with their careers. Either they felt like they were in the wrong fields entirely, or they were in the right field but wrong position within that field. Those cases were all reasonably simple, because the crux of most of them was simply giving permission to want something different than what they’d spent all their time achieving, and then making a plan to get to that new thing as efficiently as possible.

For the last few weeks, though, I’ve had some clients that brought me complex, complicated personal problems that are outside the scope of therapy because they’re more interpersonal strategy than feelings. (Let’s remember that I love therapy, for myself and for everyone in the world. I think that if everyone spent six months with a good therapist about 80% of the world’s problems would just evaporate. Shirtless Putin, you go first.)

This recent chunk of clients had problems that were more interpersonal than about themselves, although their own feelings were important. A lot of the issues were negotiations, either overt or underlying, with another person or group or institution.

I had people trying to negotiate responsibilities inside relationships (both romantic relationships and familial relationships). Some were things that had come to a head because of work or health issues, but a few were long-standing blocks.

I helped two people decide if they should stay married or not, and another person make a plan to tell their kids that they were separating.

I helped two people (both men, incidentally) push past the one-dimensional pro/con list to decide between two life paths. (I mention that they were both men because I think men are trained to look at things as a balance sheet, so the magic in the consult was helping them find other ways to balance and evaluate absolute and relative value of the two paths they each had.)

I helped two people with convoluted and deeply painful situations that they’ve requested I not discuss, even vaguely.

I wonder what it is that’s making September the month people allow their own hurt and confusion to be valid? I mean, it takes having some faith in yourself and some hope that there can be a resolution to contact a stranger or near-stranger to help you untangle your problem. People only come to me because they think it’s possible not to be in pain. I wonder if maybe it’s the new beginnings aspect of September that’s giving people the kick to get out of limbo.

Now I’m wondering what’s going to happen next.

 

Find your own solution with me. See how it works at FlashCons.com.

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Introducing RISWS, the way to flash consult your own work team to engagement

Two things have been happening:

1. People have been reading all the case studies and telling me they wish they could hire me to come flash consult the teams they manage at work on an ongoing basis, because they’re on top of project milestones but feel like there’s a lot of stuff going on that they aren’t understanding that is causing problems or potential problems. Now, you can actually hire me to flash consult on an ongoing basis on retainer, but I’m not convinced that’s the most elegant solution because you shouldn’t really have to bring in someone from the outside to get a handle on your team. So I started thinking about a better way. (Flash consulting myself, as it were.)

2. Renewed discussion in business media about this Gallup State of the Global Workplace study from 2013 showing that employee engagement in the workplace is abysmal. (Note that engagement is better in the US and Canada than in other regions, but still, only 29% of employees in the US and Canada report being engaged in their jobs.) There was a ton of press when it first came out about how much money this was costing companies, because non-engaged employees are basically just sacks of meat sitting in cube farms (my paraphrase, obvs.) so this is a big problem.

The new round of writing about it is along the lines of the Inc. piece “Dear CEO: This Is Why Millennials Don’t Want to Work for You.” I liked this piece a lot, first because it didn’t denigrate the Millennials, but second because it basically laid out exactly what behaviors and structures were causing lack of engagement. And then also drawing a direct line between people being disengaged at work and leaving those jobs. (I do think that Millennials are more likely to leave than those of us in Generation X are, for the usual mortgage/family/we’re-just-so-so-tired Gen X reasons. Which means that we’re the big unengaged non-productive sacks of meat in the cube farms wishing we had the energy to go start our own things like the still-shiny Millennials are.)

I was thinking about these two things and realized that they’re the same problem. Employees aren’t engaged because there are all sorts of barriers to their being engaged in the workplace. Everything from stupid problems with clients, to problems with the systems they have to use every day, to politics with other people they work with, to not feeling aligned with whatever their department’s supposed to be doing right now, to a million other things. And the overriding reason they’re not engaged is because their managers don’t care (or don’t know) about all the challenges they’re facing, so it feels like tossing their energy into a bottomless pit. Plus, they don’t get any help eliminating these problems so they can just do the work they were hired to do in an engaged way. It’s basically Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s worst nightmare.

In the meantime, managers don’t have any idea what challenges their people are facing. They don’t even know what questions to ask or how to ask the questions to find out what’s making their people check out mentally. (When they do ask questions it probably sounds a lot like asking a 14-year-old “How was school today?”.) So they’re stuck trying to light a fire under people without knowing what’s preventing their people from caring. And when they try to figure out how to fix it, they don’t get any institutional support, plus they have too much other stuff to do, so they just go back to look at the project milestone tracker to try to feel better about things.

The popular lore is that workers are lazy jerks and managers are greedy jerks. I think in reality, we’re all just trying to make our days as productive and interesting as possible. If given the choice, every one of us would rather be engaged in what we’re doing. So I created a system that gives employees the opportunity to express what is preventing them from engaging–in a way that’s emotion-neutral so it just becomes an issue of operations and eliminating waste, not of blame or inadequacy. And then teaching managers to read the reporting they get from employees to figure out what the barriers to engagement and production are and how to determine who should/could solve them, and then solving them. I call it Reporting/Interpreting/Solving Workflow Solutions, or RISWS*. It’s based on a comically simple reporting process and then a layered, nuanced (but teachable) interpretation process that eventually becomes routine.

The training is in three stages:

one on-site group training in the reporting method and how to interpret likely results (based on your industry and type of team),

one intensive group follow-up training using your actual gathered reporting data several weeks later,

and then three monthly individual follow-up interpreting/solving mentoring sessions.

This works best with multiple managers in the same organization, but eventually I’ll be scheduling some sessions managers can come to individually.

Think about when you’re going to be ready to solve the engagement problem in your group by learning RISWS. And in the meantime, keep sending in your individual problems for me to Flash Consult.

 

*The other option was something totally esoteric like You Got Your Chi In My Peanut Butter Mindmeld Fantasia, so be happy with RISWS.

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Case Study: Valuing resources to be able to negotiate correctly

This case was one of my favorites of all time. People who know me know that I LOVE cost accounting. Like, adore it. I think it explains everything. I had no idea that cost accounting even existed until I went to business school, and that first day in my first cost accounting class was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. And this case was all about cost accounting.

The client is a lawyer in solo practice. She needed to negotiate terms and finances with someone she was considering a business relationship with. Since she’s a lawyer, negotiation is right in her wheelhouse, but she was stuck because she didn’t know how to determine the value of the things she was negotiating. So she didn’t even know her BATNA* let alone which outcome to negotiate toward. She thought there wasn’t a way to determine the value of some of the aspects of the relationship.

Now, I think that it’s possible to assign a financial value to almost everything, and it’s DEFINITELY possible to assign a financial value to everything involved in a business relationship. (I wouldn’t want to have to do the calculations, necessarily, but I know that it’s possible.) So I came up with a way to determine the value of every aspect of this relationship, and listed it for the client line by line, so she just had to fill in the numbers. (Note that I have no idea what those numbers are and our consulting relationship didn’t require that I know them to tell her how to calculate them.)

Then, once she had actual numbers, I told her several different ways she could use those numbers to determine bottom line values based on different possible scenarios for the relationship. Cost pools! So much fun. And I explained how I would look at which possible option to privilege based on risk and the likelihood that certain of the numbers going into the calculations would change or stay stable. We also talked a little bit about economies of scale and how the utilization rate is key so you can’t assume a linear change, so tracking that was important going ahead.

The client got back to me and was VERY happy, because now she was a professional negotiator going into a negotiation knowing exactly what everything was worth so she could make excellent decisions. Who doesn’t love that?

(I also have to say that she was my dream client because she’s really good at what she does, and her problem was simply something she didn’t have experience with, but when I explained how to do it she totally got it and loved the way it all fits together.)

 

* Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement. It’s what happens if you can’t make a deal in a negotiation. You have to know what your BATNA is before you start negotiating, so you know if you can walk away if you can’t make the deal you want. Read Getting To Yes by Fisher and Ury to see how this works.

 

Find your own solution with me. See how it works at FlashCons.com.

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Problems I see again and again

Magda straightWhen people find out about Flash Consulting, there are a few common questions they ask, so I’m going to address those. The first one is “Do you see repeats of problems?” The answer is YES. I see a lot of the same problems just wearing different outfits. I’ll break down some of the common ones.

Small business problems are, in some ways, the most fun for me because they usually involve crossing disciplines. Think about it: The small business owner is very good at what they do, but a small business has all kinds of tasks and issues and problems that don’t have anything to do with the core business or talents of the owner. It’s not even reasonable to think that a small business owner would have the slightest idea how to contextualize those issues, let alone solve them. I’ve seen a lot of different business areas, so I can see that a solo-practice lawyer’s problem is about cost accounting and organizational dynamics or that a marketing consultant’s problem is about strategy, or that a small ecommerce business’s problem is about marketing. I’m not inside the business, so I don’t have any blocks about what area of expertise the problem is in.

It’s different for people working in a corporate environment. Most of those external issues that stymie small business owners are performed by someone else, so, in theory, my clients could focus only on their content area and just be awesome. Except that then there are issues of butting up against The Machine (meaning the corporate environment itself) and that’s where the problems are as an individual employee (especially in law and any client-facing positions. Also academia.). And that can feel complicated, especially when you’re trying to account for home, too. The solution to that is to cut down the noise and focus on what your actual long-term priorities in all areas are, then find the intersection of those and just ignore everything else. (“Just”–ha!)

Managers have a different problem, which is doing their own jobs plus trying to figure out what’s going on with the teams they manage. The solution to that is to set up a system with a solid framework for keeping your people on track and in a good feedback loop so you’re not taking time away from your own job to put out management fires, and your people can start working together to help manage as a team. But again, it’s easier for me to see this from the outside and know where to start than it is for someone who’s caught in too much input and too many demands to be able to pull it apart to untangle it.

Another problem I see again and again is people who just can’t force themselves to do something, whether it’s work-related (academics, I’m looking at you) or personal. Even with heaps of motivation, they’re still blocked. The solution is different for each person, but it’s never “Just do it.” (Why would you pay me $250 to tell you just to do it, when you could tell yourself that or download any of 5,000 FB graphics with inspirational slogans for free?)  People (including you) are not stupid or weak or inherently losers. There’s always something behind an inability to act. This is when I listen and read very carefully, ask a lot of followup questions, and use my experience working with parents and kids and my own kids and just being a lover of people and their issues in general to help figure out what’s going on. I’m not a therapist, so I find something that will unstick people through reframing or action first. And then if I’m sensing a pattern that is preventing them from working toward what they want, I point out that pattern with the suggestion that they can learn to change their behavior with the help of a therapist to get what they want consistently. (I love good therapists. More than I love good wine, even.)

The easiest personal problem I get is too much input. I sort it out, find the patterns, present a few options for paths to walk through the noise calmly, and prioritize those paths. A subset of that is people who are doing the wrong job for them, helping them sort out what they want to do next and how to do it without going rogue suddenly.

The final category of problem that I see a lot (and that can cross over the ones I’ve already mentioned) is people feeling guilty about doing or wanting what they really secretly want to do. The solution to that is really easy: I think your ideas are great, ESPECIALLY if they’re not what everyone else is doing. I’ll come up with a plan for you to do this crazy thing you’re afraid to admit you want to do, and that will tell you how much effort is involved. If you’re willing to put in the effort, do it. If you’re not willing to put in the effort, then don’t do it, but know that your idea is valid and it was worth having.

Next time I’ll write about the case I didn’t crack, and the few that I’ve cracked that turned out to be way different from what the client and I thought they were going in.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at FlashCons.com.

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Testimonial: CareCartons.com

Here’s a testimonial I got from Gina Willner-Pardo, author of a dozen YA and children’s books, about her new project CareCartons.com:

“I know Magda Pecsenye by virtue of the fact that we went to the same college. (Of course, I went 13 years before she did, but that is neither here nor there.) When I learned that Magda was doing flash consulting, I knew I had to ask for her help.

As a traditionally published children’s book writer for many years, I haven’t had much experience with business per se. (And yeah, I know writing is a business, but whatever.) But a personal situation has required that I make some extra money, and I had an idea for an e-commerce site that I thought might prove profitable. I was able to launch the site myself but was stumped as to how to market it on a strict budget.

Magda understood immediately what I was trying to do. Within 24 hours, she had given me a roadmap, a way to begin to think about marketing and advertising in the digital age. She provided specifics, described in language that someone less comfortable with technology could readily understand.

She was encouraging, down-to-earth, and professional. She made me feel that the idea I’ve been toying with for months may, in fact, be a good one.

Highly recommended.”

I was so happy to hear that the experience was so good for her, because I was thrilled to work with her. I LOVE product/service/website ideas that are based on what the creator was looking for but couldn’t find anywhere else. (Be the change, etc.) Gina told me that when she’d tried to send care packages through the internet to her two adult children, the sites she found only offered pre-selected packages, and most of the things in the packages were candy. She wanted to be able to pick what she sent her kids, and have it be interesting stuff, not just cheap sugar her kids didn’t care about. (Candy’s not that exciting when you’re an adult and can buy it yourself whenever you want it. Except for Justin’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, which are always exciting.)

So she created CareCartons.com. A huge selection of interesting things to choose from (with new stuff added as it comes in and seasonally), all shipped for a flat fee of $5. It’s easy to market really good ideas that people need, so I just put together a plan for Gina to find those people and let them know it exists.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at FlashCons.com.

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Case study: Rubric for decision-making about divorce

Someone emailed me at FlashCons.com to ask if I could help her figure out whether or not to get a divorce.

For anyone who doesn’t know me already, I’ve been a blogger since 2003 and have written a parenting advice blog since 2005. I got a divorce in 2008. Since then, I’ve been a little like Wallis Simpson, in that I’m famous for being divorced*. That means that people who are considering divorce sometimes think of me as non-scary divorced person**. As I’m a generally happy person with a decent relationship with my ex-husband, I think sometimes I’m the only person people “know” who isn’t living some horrible post-divorce bitter regretful scenario***.

So I get a lot of questions from people that usually boil down to “Should I get a divorce?” Now, there’s no way for me to answer that. I’m biased toward NOT getting a divorce (divorce is a horrible process that teaches you things you might not want to know), but I’m more biased toward emotional and mental health for everyone. And I can’t see the future. If you’re in a bad relationship, maybe it can become good again. If you get divorced, maybe being free of the bonds of that bad relationship will let you work on all the other problems you have. There’s no way to know.

But I do think there are some constants, some things that are always true. About marriage and divorce, and kids inside marriage and divorce. So that’s what I laid out for the anonymous person who asked for my help. What she told me of her story: She and her husband had been married for ten years. They had two elementary-aged kids. She was happy in her job and so was he. For the past 3+ years things had been painful between them. Unresolvable fights, lack of common viewpoint, disconnection, lack of trust, lack of sexual interest. They’d done individual and couples counseling for several years, and had understood each other’s positions, but didn’t like each other any more than before counseling. She was clearly in pain in the relationship, but was afraid of splitting up her kids’ family when there wasn’t something obviously horrible in the marriage (addiction, cheating, abuse). And she was very concerned that the level of pain she was feeling was “normal” and that she didn’t have a right to complain about it or consider leaving her marriage, because what if everyone else had it just as bad and they stayed?

She was spinning and spinning, caught between the things she knew about herself, her husband, and her kids, and what she’d always thought was true about marriage and family, without knowing how much of that actually was true objectively or specifically to her. She was trying to fly without being able to see the horizon. And her husband wasn’t actively participating in making a decision. She asked if I could help.

I told her that I could tell her what decision to make, but that wouldn’t actually be a solution. So I proposed instead that I come up with a rubric of sorts that led her through questions to find a path that made sense.

I asked her questions, about what the relationship had been like, what made them get married, what her husband thought about their marriage, what her core values were, what relationships/marriages she admired, what she wanted her kids to know about marriage and family. And then I came up with questions to help her use those answers as yardsticks so she could measure how the marriage she could create realistically compared to her own values and needs as a mother and person. I prefaced those questions with several things that are true about marriage and divorce that we don’t always understand (but that Louis CK talks a lot about) but that frame the decision as creating healthy function and peace for everyone in the situation instead of as Bad vs. Good. I asked her to think about the work she’d need to do if she decided to get a divorce.

I sent her the write-up and she replied that the questions were “spot on” for her situation, and were a “valuable framework” for her to make decisions.

I don’t know what she’ll decide. It’s not my life and not my decision. I could only help her recognize things that were important to her and use those to help her sort through things. I hope she reports back in once she’s decided.

* I would NEVER have let Edward abdicate for me.
** As opposed to Wallis Simpson, who I think was a little scary.
*** Most of the people I know who are divorced are pretty happy and well-adjusted, and their problems are normal problems. But I don’t think regular, content people get a lot of media time.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at FlashCons.com.

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Testimonial!

I just got this testimonial in from Pooja Makhijani:

“When I approached Magda with a “harebrained” idea (my words), she said, “Nonsense! This is a very *good* idea!” And within 24 hours, as she promises, she sent me a detailed road-map for execution. It has served as a checklist — printed out and hanging in my workspace! — as I prepare for the launch of my product.

Not only did Magda provide concrete actionable advice and responses to several emails-worth of follow-up questions, she also provided encouragement and cheerleading to help me access the skills I need to make my idea a reality.”

Pooja’s idea is fantastic and when she’s ready to go public I’ll let everyone know what it is so you can all subscribe.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at FlashCons.com.

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Case study: Problems with small business cash flow

The first Flash Consulting problem I did was from a woman who runs a very successful small business. She initially phrased the question as an accounting question (cash vs. accrual, which I know enough about to be able to find problems in a financial statement but not enough to survive an audit, so don’t hire me as a bookkeeper). But as she explained it, it became apparent that the problem was really about cash flow and a need to reframe ideas about good service.

In brief: She’d booked over $250K in the previous month but had only seen actual cash payments of less that 10% of that. Her clients were on a net 60 (meaning the invoice she sent asked them to pay within 60 days), but she had an additional $300K outstanding that was past due from the 60 days.

OUCH.

Seriously, she was running a business that was doing so so well (and they’re great at what they do), but they were struggling because clients weren’t paying. Maddening.

I asked her if she’d built in a penalty for not paying at 60 days, like a 2% service charge for every 30 days past due the payment was. She said she hadn’t, because she wanted to give good customer service.

Aha! That was the core of the problem right there. She’d put herself into a position of weakness in an effort to be good to her clients. When, in reality, the best thing you can do for clients (and friends, and kids, and bosses, and vendors, and grandparents, and lovers, and pets, and ANYONE) is to create good boundaries and then enforce them.

Randi Buckley of Healthy Boundaries for Kind People always says that creating boundaries is a form of kindness. And it’s true. When you make good boundaries you’re being kind to your client by telling them what you expect (I bet some of those clients in the outstanding $300K had no idea my client was so annoyed at them for not paying), and you’re being kind to yourself by asking for what you need (she had a right to the money she was owed and it didn’t do anyone any good for her not to have received it). By creating healthy boundaries you get to put yourself AND the client on the same side of the line you draw, instead of making you adversaries.

So here’s what I suggested:

1. Offer the late $300K clients a percentage discount off what they owed if they got it in in 10 days.

2. For future transactions, create both a stick to prevent late payments (a percentage penalty for every 30 days late a payment was) and also a carrot for early payment (a percentage discount for payment within 10 days of receiving the invoice). Note: This is super-common in many industries already, in different configurations. (I didn’t create the idea out of my unicorn brain.) A big part of why it’s so common is that it’s great for both sides. It creates value for both of you—if the client can pay early, they save money and you get your payment faster. If the client can’t pay right away, they can still pay on time as per the original terms of the deal. If the client has to be late, they can pay a penalty which creates more value for you.

My client expressed trepidation about assessing anyone a penalty. “If you enact the standard penalty you will never once charge it, and that will be even better client service,” I said. Having that line in the terms of the contract means you can give them a call the day the payment was due and give them the chance to pay right away and offer to waive the penalty if they can get the payment in in three days. Setting up the terms like that means that you can make penalty exceptions for clients while still being paid in a reasonable amount of time, and make everyone happy at the same time. It frees you up to give great customer service while still being paid for your work.

My client was happy with the solution I gave her, and asked me to bill her. (I didn’t include either a stick or a carrot in my bill. She paid right away.)

I don’t know if she collected all $300K in ten days or not. Maybe if she reads this she’ll write in and tell me how it went. (I’d never ask about someone else’s business. But how awesome would it be to have given someone a 1,200,000% return on investment, if her $250 Flash Consult with me allowed her to collect $300K?)

tl;dr version:
Building in a penalty AND a discount when you bill clients lets you give fantastic customer service while still being paid.

Find your own solution with me. The how-to and details are at FlashCons.com.

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