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Business, War and Language

The recent horrible shooting in Tucson, Arizona and the subsequent questions asked by the media and public figures about language got me thinking about the words we use in our business conversatioBusiness, war and languagens. There are so many analogies and words we use to describe the competitive nature of business. There is a segment of business who see the practice of planning and strategizing as if they are planning to go to war with their competitors.

Is this true for small business? Is it really true for any size business? Let’s be very clear…if you are in business, you are in competition with someone. In some industries, this competition is fierce and other companies will exploit any weakness you may have. But is this war?

War includes carnage and destruction. Read books like On Killing by Dave Grossman or All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque to get a better picture of what war entails. When you talk about your market or your competitors, are you seeking to destroy them or just beat them? Leaving a trail of destruction seems to be antithetical to running an ethical business. Yes, I know not everyone has the same value system but destruction? This is a desired result?

Language makes a difference. Take for example, the word, target. If you look at most of the definitions for this word, it involves something to aim a weapon at or hunting something or someone. We often describe our most ideal clients as our target market. Are we really hunting them? Are we aiming and shooting something at them? Even the word, strategy, has military connotations primarily. So, if you are considering that business is really some masked war we wage upon each other, then the way you will implement your business plan is a series of attacks on your competitors and preferred clients.

There is a growing movement within business that is seeking an alternative. Instead of targeting their ideal customer as a form of prey, businesses are seeking to develop relationships. Recent sales training adaptations focus on listening to your prospect and answering their concerns. Even some businesses are seeking collaborative relationships (not mergers) with their colleagues. Dan Pink in Drive and his other work focuses on our desires for autonomy, meaning and purpose. Seth Godin is encouraging us to start our own Tribe. People are not willing to tolerate the old way of “command and control type” of leadership in business organizations. This style is  necessary in military organizations but they have a completely different mission than a business.

Language matters. I talk about this a lot and I have focused mainly on how we talk to ourselves. However, it is time to  think about how we talk about our businesses, our goals, how we want to achieve them and our competitors overall. What would happen if you changed your use of “target market” to “desired market”? Pay attention to how you talk about the position of your business, your competitors and your customers. Is your lanaguge action-oriented in a combative way or a competitive way? Are there words worth keeping?

There is nothing wrong with being highly competitive! If you want your business to be successful, it is important to get into action and work hard using highly effective practices and the best technology you can afford. Maybe it’s more of the idea of “playing hard and playing to win.” The trouble with taking a combative stance with your competitors and your customers is that you bring that style into every aspect of your life. Being on guard becomes a habit in speech and behavior.

What words do you find in your business vocabulary?

What happens if we reject the “business is war mentality” and think about competition in a different way?






Be Childlike to Run Your Business

 “It is the childlike mind that finds the kingdom.” -Charles Fillmore Girl Looking Up the RoadIn recent conversations about the economy with other businesspeople, there is a theme of overwhelm and fear. Understandable as we witness huge companies threaten bankruptcy, large numbers of layoffs, and credit is hard to obtain even with a good history. It is not clear how some of us are going to find funding and/or clients to keep our own business open. For some people, this triggers feelings of helplessness, confusion, and indecision. For entrepreneurs, these are destructive emotions. There is enough anxiety and excitement in starting or building up a venture. As we enter 2009, there is little to guide us into a stronger financial position. It is not reassuring to hear Alan Greenspan say he made a mistake. This economic mess is not simply a mistake by Mr. Greenspan or others. It is huge and affecting all sectors of the U.S. economy as well as having an impact globally. It may seem like you have to come up with a complicated business plan to handle the current challenges. And yet, a childlike approach may be the answer. My five year old is fascinating to watch as she navigates the family rules. Like most kids, she accepts that there are rules and parameters in a given situation. Somehow this does not limit her. Some of you who are parents may be familiar with the impressive debating powers children possess as they search for a solution to vexing problems such as how to have ice cream for breakfast or cleaning up the toys without touching them. Just because the circumstances have limitations does not seem to mean that there are no other choices. In a previous post, Hunker Down and Then What? , I wrote about how it seemed too easy to just stay in one spot and try to avoid doing any major damage to your business. However, the world can just pass you by if you reduce your marketing efforts, avoid enhancing your skills, or spending your networking time with the doom and gloom crowd. No one has a business plan for obsolescence. What does your kingdom look like?  Children often change storylines when it looks like the “bad guys” or the “monsters” are going to win. While we cannot change the bad economy by just wishing it so, we can change how we tell the story of “Our Business and the Economic Troll.”
  • Check your language. By using active, positive language, you are setting yourself up to stay open to opportunity. As an example, one of my clients is saying to himself, “I am scheduling 2-3 appointments with possible prospects to introduce myself.” By using an invitational approach, he believes there will be more conversations in the future.
  • Use your downtime wisely. If you are experiencing a slowdown in your particular business, read that professional book you have been saving or attend a training or teleseminar. There are a lot of free options online and in your community (check out the library, SCORE, SBA, and some networking groups offer free trainings.)
  • Review your business plan. This is a wonderful opportunity to make sure you are following your vision. Keep anything that supports the growth of your business and weed out anything that does not fit.  (If it almost fits, weed it out anyway.) Focus on what you and your business do well.
  • Take care of yourself. Your mind and body need sustenance. Include healthy, tasty foods in your diet. Children spend time coloring, playing with blocks and Legos, and napping as well as running and climbing. Take time to play.
The childlike approach has nothing to do with immaturity or waiting for Mommy or Daddy to fix things. It is about how you tell your story, how you re-think solutions, and allowing your creativity to keep your business viable. How do you find your kingdom?

The Power of Language

In the article, When Language Can Hold the Answer (The New York Times, April 22, 2008), Christine Kenneally writes about research done on language and perception. In a recent study at Cornell, Dr. Gary Lupyan added onto an experiment done with students at Carnegie Mellon in which he added words to describe pictures of “aliens” as friendly or unfriendly.  Dr. Lupyan discovered that all of the participants learned which label identified the “aliens.”  Most interestingly, the participants who used labels learned more quickly than participants who did not use labels.  Christine Kenneally sums up the debate with this question:  “Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways language carves up the world?” Research has demonstrated that language and thought do have a relationship.  Language can enhance thought as an add-on feature to more primitive mental behaviors.  This is a good and bad relationship as language can enhance or interfere with our thinking.  Dr. Lupyan notes that language enables us to learn and understand completely new material and facilitate abstract thinking but it can also get in the way of how we remember specific objects.  Basically, how we put words and objects together in categories can be an aid or a hindrance. In research done by Dr. Dedre Gentner of Northwestern, she discovered that language gives us a structure to organize our thoughts. Steven Pinker of Harvard posits that, while a connection between language and thought exists, it does not force a particular line of thinking, refuting the theory set forth by Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir. The debate may not have an answer yet but it is intriguing material as we consider how we use language in our businesses.  In business, we get advice about what to do in our elevator pitches, first impressions, and presenting a certain professional image. What do you do with this information? What words do you choose in your public messages? What words do you use privately with yourself? One client told me a story about how she was talking with a colleague about launching her business.  He jokingly told her to get some kind of counseling and reflected back to her that she frequently framed going out on her own as a negative. Give the same message consistently, it becomes believable. You can create a new reality for yourself, positive or negative. Self-fulfilling prophecies work both ways.  How do you want to be perceived?