All posts by Smith Communication Partners

What We're Reading.

Here’s what’s under our reading lamps in 2021.

Allison Artnak

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Conversations about biases, racism and how they infect nearly every aspect of life.

Presence by Amy Cuddy

How to bring your boldest, most authentic self to challenging situations.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

A memoir about growing up as the daughter of Steve Jobs.

Norine Cannon

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

He’s a great storyteller and his reflections on his presidency and his life confirm what I’ve always thought—he’s a good man.

Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld

A compilation of his favorite material over his long career. I also admire his dedication to his craft, choosing to return to stand up vs. retiring on a beach (on his own island, probably).

Mary Cohen

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Such a hopeful book. It’s only recently that neuroscientists have confirmed the plasticity of the brain. Reminiscent of the late Oliver Sacks, Doidge presents the latest research and case studies to bolster research findings. As he says, “the true marvel is … the way … the brain has evolved, with sophisticated and neuroplastic abilities and a mind that can direct its own unique restorative process of growth.

The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past by Meave Leakey

Yes. Meave is part of “that” Leakey family. The daughter-in-law of Louis and Mary Leakey and part of three generations of paleoanthropological royalty, she tells her story along with her youngest daughter, Samira. Her discoveries have changed how we think about our origins. Instead of straight-line, ape-to-human progression, her work suggests human species living simultaneously.

What It’s Like to be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing —What Birds Are Doing, and Why by David Allen Sibley

During the early days of the pandemic, so many commentators marveled at their ability to hear the birds singing. It was finally quiet enough to hear birdsong. Birdsong. Is there anything more beautiful or hopeful? This encyclopedia of bird behavior contains a whopping 330 illustrations, many of them life size. Browsing through this volume, it is exciting to learn as much as possible about the creatures that we share this planet with—creatures we can finally hear. 

Rick Cole

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Modern man has forgotten how to breath properly, says James Nestor. I had no idea that breathing with the proper tempo, depth and even orifice has a such powerful impact on health, emotional wellbeing and even disease vectors. Who knew breathing would be such a big deal in 2020?

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade

No matter how many Lululemons and Whole Foods are in your neighborhood, you are only a short drive away from a much harsher America. A successful Wall Street banker, Arnade took long walks to clear his mind. On one walk he stumbled into a surprising community⏤poor, drug addicted, hopeless, dispossessed and forgotten New Yorkers living where Manhattan meets the Bronx. Over time he befriended and then photographed the residents of Hunts Point in a remarkably respectful manner. After discovering “back row America” is everywhere, Arnade left his job on Wall Street to introduce them to us. This book touched me deeply.   

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief by Jordan B. Petersen

Imagine Moses, Fredrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Joseph Campbell, Malcolm Gladwell and Dr. Laura coming together to help us understand how our universe, biology, psychology, history and more create a framework for the ways we see and believe “reality.” Fascinating!

Amy Crowell

Empathy: Why It Matters, And How to Get It by Roman Krznaric

This book inspired the A Mile in My Shoes traveling museum, a collection of curated  personal stories in the form of short podcasts where the listener also walks around in the author’s shoes. 

Standoff: Race, Policing and a Deadly Assault that Gripped a Nation by Jamie Thompson 

Jamie was my college roommate. Its timeliness is apparent. Included on a short list of books recommended to read about this issue. Plus, I always love giving her a plug.

Also, The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington (see below). The latest by another contemporary of mine at Furman University. I enjoyed his first novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Homeland Elegies: A Novel by Ayad Akhtar

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic by Eric Eyre.

Eric Eyre and Ayad Akhtar were on a list of 2020 books recommended by the New York Times Book Review and given to me at Christmas. Hope to make it through before next Christmas.

Michael Garcia

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington

This is the second novel from an old college buddy who everyone knew would always write amazing novels. As predicted, it’s really good.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Inspiring and disturbing, this alt-history page-turner will keep you thinking.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

When you just want to read something fun.

Glen Gonzalez

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Because I’m craving a classic.

How to Read the Constitution and Why by Kim Wehle

Because it feels necessary.

A Village Life by Louise Gluck

Because this is a score for American poets. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 27 years.

Pity the Reader by Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell 

Because Vonnegut has a distinct and quirky literary voice and I’m curious to hear his perspective on the craft.

Don Sanford

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

His second novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It is a fascinating glimpse into a dark time in American history seen through the eyes of a young black man in a segregated reform school in the South just one generation removed.

The Stand by Stephen King

I have always been a fan of King and, so far, I think this might be his finest work. Also, while the book was written decades ago, it is so relevant to what we are seeing in the world as the subject of the novel is a global pandemic. Wonderful character development and a real pager tuner. I can’t put it down.

Julia Wolf

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book is about how choices made without thinking aren’t actually as simple as they may seem. 

America Was Hard to Find: A Novel by Kathleen Alcott. 

The story, beginning in the late fifties, of a brief love affair and the child who resulted.   

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. 

The book traces the known history of our “most feared ailment” from its earliest appearances over five thousand years ago to the present, and the war that is still being waged.

Trey Wood

A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the 20th Century by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Among Buckley’s many talents was an ability to see promise in most people regardless of their politics. This collection of that most challenging of the written arts – the eulogy – demonstrates both Buckley’s talent and his gift for seeing the best in people. Here, he shares final thoughts concerning 52 souls, including figures some readers might be surprised to see this famous political conservative comment upon in such fashion, such as John Lennon, Jerry Garcia and John Kenneth Galbraith. 

Let’s Connect

If you’ve read one of these or have a great suggestion of your own, we’d love to hear from you. 

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Great Work

Awards for Excellence

We believe doing great work isn’t a selling point. It’s a starting point. 

Smith is proud of the work our consultants do for our clients. We’re especially proud when that work earns well-deserved recognition. This year, we were honored to receive the following awards.

Well done, everyone.  

1st Place, Pension & Investments 2020 Eddy Award, Financial Wellness (Corporate over 5000) 
Platinum Winner, Hermes Creative Awards, Public Relations/Communications | Strategic Programs  
Gold Winner, Hermes Creative Awards, Public Relations/Communications/Strategic Programs
Communicator AwardIndividual-Training
Communicator Award, Employee Publication-Benefits
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@home with Smith

Our remote working hacks

Smith’s beautiful lounge area is very quiet these days. To maximize social distancing we only have one person in the office each day. It’s a sad (hopefully brief) new reality. Fortunately, Smith’s ability to serve our clients has not being disrupted at all.

Since our inception in 2005, every Smith employee has been set up to work remotely. Some of us do it all of the time. Some of us choose a hybrid model, where we both go to an office and work from home. 

We know a lot of you have been thrust into working from home and you’re figuring things out. Over the years we’ve learned a few tricks. Here are a some tips that might help you navigate this stressful time, with sanity, humor and success.

Set the Stage

Jennifer Needham

My grandfather was a professor of theology who often worked from home and sometimes conducted classes in his home office. The office had two doors. His eight children — eight! –understood that if the first office door was open, they were allowed to knock on the second office door. If both doors were closed, they were to keep on walking. 

So when we built our house, and I knew I wanted to work from home, I had French doors installed on my office, and tried to teach my twin girls roughly the same system. It worked some of the time. The most notable failure was the time they got into a screaming fight right outside my door while I was on a conference call with a client. I had to go on mute, scramble with my laptop upstairs, and finish the call from the master bathroom with the door locked. 

Sara Levinson

I have a standing desk and try to stand for at least a 1/3 of my day. Helps my back!  

Glen Gonzalez 

Maximize your shared drive. At Smith, we’ve been using Google Drive for a few years. This service lets you access files from any device, online or offline. It makes it easy to collaborate with others (at a distance), retrieve deleted documents and restore earlier versions of documents.

Don Sanford

When I need to laser focus on a topic, I close the door to my office and turn off all electronics.  I have a couple chairs in my office and when I am really busy I put a backpack and a box on them to prevent visitors from sitting down!  Mean … but effective.  🙂

Mary Cohen

My desk faces the window. So my back is to the door into the room. If I don’t turn around, Jay knows not to venture in. Lastly, I’m trying to Marie Kondo my desk so it won’t look overwhelming in the morning.

Gina Walker

I work in different areas of the house to change up the scenery. Helps with my creativity. If it’s nice out, I work on the front or back porch, or on the deck. I’m typically home alone. But if someone is home with me and I can’t be bothered, I lock myself in my office. 

If there’s a storm coming, I work while my laptop is plugged in. If I lose power, I can continue to work with a full charge. Best to do this on a surge protector. 

I also never answer the front door during my work hours. It sets a standard for neighbors, friends and/or solicitors that I don’t want to be bothered. Those that really need/want something would text first. 

Pat Dodd

At the end of each day, I aspire (don’t always succeed) to straighten my desk and make a to-do list for the next day, including work and personal items. This way, I walk into the office the next morning and can immediately begin work.

Rick Cole

My wife and I both work from home. We placed our offices on opposite ends of the home—cuts out noise and distraction. Another thing we do is hang a hotel’s “privacy” sign on our door when we can’t be interrupted. 

Create Healthy Habits

Allison Artnak

A couple of years ago, Allison gave everyone “Dammit Dolls” for Christmas. They come in handy sometimes. Make a little room for frustration. It’s going to happen and it isn’t the end of the world.

You’re gonna need this.

Mary Cohen

I try (emphasis on the try) to maintain a normal eating schedule. In other words a regular lunch and not snack every hour. 

I don’t know if others struggle with this but because I am home, people will call wanting to “ask a quick question” or come into my office “to visit.” That just irritates me to no end!

Trey Wood

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been wearing a smart watch that, among other things, reminds me to pause my work and walk for just a couple of minutes each hour. Inevitably, when at the office, I often find it difficult to break away from my work at hand. However, when working from home, I have numerous more interesting quick destinations available to me — our mailbox, our garden, our bird feeder, etc. — that make taking 2-5 minute health breaks more inviting during my day. 

Pat Dodd

I am in a rather unique situation. Last year, I moved to an active adult community, age 55+. This is important for two primary reasons:

Most of my neighbors are in the danger zone, age-wise if not health wise. So, we are having parties in the street in the early afternoon, remaining safely distant from each other, to sing happy birthday to our friends … including champagne toasts. Later this evening, we are having a block party … from our driveways, wishing passers-by well from a distance, and air-toasting each other with beverages of choice. 

Sara Levinson 

Our yard has never looked better — and is free of doggie presents. With compulsory outdoor time every day…we have picked up all the sticks, raked all the leaves, planted 300+ bulbs that were sitting in the mudroom for the last year (but will they grow?!), uncovered an old brick path, and last — but certainly not least — for the first time ever picked up dog droppings every single day. 

Add Children and Stir

Gretchen Vaught

Mothers of a bygone era taught their children to identify plants that would help them survive in the wild, if necessary. This knowledge has been largely undervalued in recent times, but my mother did convey one key piece of wisdom that I’m especially glad I follow. She said, “Toilet paper will never go to waste,” so I’ve always kept a case on hand!

Jennifer Needham

Summers working from home with little kids were always the most challenging. One idea that worked well was rolling a bar cart outside of my office door and filling it with crafts and games. When they wandered in my office to say they were bored, I could point them back out to the cart.

Catherine Sturges

Now that my kids are going to school from home and husband is working from home, it has been a learning period for all of us. Most of the time, we are all on separate calls, in separate areas of the house. I mostly stay on mute when I am not speaking, but have had to exercise strategic use of the mute button to help with interruptions. 

My daughter figured this out the hard way during one of her virtual classroom sessions. She was talking and accidentally stepped on a Santa Claus stuffed doll and it began playing Christmas music. She apologized for the disruption in the chat feature of her Google Meet call. A classmate responded in the chat, “Why do you still have your Christmas toys out?” Which raises a good question.

Amy Crowell

From my children’s online class meetings to ducking under the camera as I walk by Jeff’s Zoom calls, everyone in my house is becoming more comfortable with video conferencing. This is something many have resisted but can truly be uplifting, motivating, sanity saving in times of isolation. While there are many tips about how to feel better about being on video from using your app’s preview feature to inserting custom backgrounds as on Zoom, the bottom line is the more you do it the more comfortable you become.

Also blackjack with candy is good for math fluency.

She’s counting cards!

Gina Walker

My workday has changed now that I have my 7 year old who needs constant help with her schoolwork and is hungry every hour. We are both out of routine and trapped indoors which has caused us a lot of frustration. I sent her outside in the backyard to get fresh air in which she said, “That’s boring” and sat on the deck with her arms crossed pouting. I was forced to go outside and help her think outside the box. We explored areas of the yard we haven’t before, looked at new sprouting plants and blooms…along with many weeds. We collected sticks and looked under rocks, logs and plants for bugs. She even found a cocoon! As we went back indoors, she said, “That was FUN!” That fresh air really changed our moods!

Pat Dodd

I downsized into a two-bedroom home when I moved here. Shortly thereafter, my son and his wife moved in to live with me while their new home is being built. So, my daughter-in-law has all her computer equipment in the dining room, my son is floating from their room to my room to the living room with his laptop and phone, and I am primarily in my office. I am enjoying having them here, and we are having fun cooking, etc. My daughter-in-law is a gourmet cook so I am learning from her, and I am a “Southern” cook so we have a variety.

Pet Sounds 

Norine Cannon 

Before getting on conference calls I’ve learned to check on our dog, Charlie, to make sure he’s occupied and happy. Otherwise, invariably, he contributes his thoughts to the discussion!

Rick Cole

We use to freak out whenever the dog barked. Now, even before the coronavirus crisis, it isn’t so much an issue because so many people work remotely.

Gina Walker

Like Norine, I make sure the cat is happy. She has walked in on me during a conference call screaming that her food bowl is empty. Another reason to lock the office door. 

I’m here for you.

Michael Garcia

I’ve heard it said that 2020 will be the worst year many of us have ever experienced. If you’re a dog, though, these are the best of times. My dog, Trooper, is loving a full house of people ALL day EVERY day; not to mention the seemingly constant parade of walkers (and other dogs) strolling past our house. He’s never received, nor given, more attention.

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Building Trust: Keys to Client Relationships

Last month, several of Smith’s partners gathered to discuss how we do our work. We landed on three qualities that we believe are key to good client relationships.

Participating in the discussion:

Trey Wood                    CEO, Managing Partner

Glen Gonzalez             Senior Consultant, Partner

Jennifer Needham    Senior Consultant, Partner

Dea McKenzie              Senior Consultant, Partner

Michael Garcia             Senior Consultant, Partner

Rick Cole                        Moderating

RC: We’ve agreed that a consultant needs to be relatable, capable and reliable to earn the confidence of our clients. Let’s dig a little deeper into how each of those qualities comes into play.

 Relatability: Connecting with the client and providing reassurance that you understand the demands on them and the larger enterprise and that you are genuinely interested in accomplishing important work with them.

TW: After almost 30 years in this field, I believe there are usually two aspects of relatability that the prospective client looks for before they will hire a consultant.

First, experience. They need a consultant to be experienced enough in a given area to be understood as a reasonable risk for the conduct of a project.

Second, an interesting and engaging person. Consciously or unconsciously, clients ask themselves, “Would I want to have lunch with this person?” For the clients to answer “yes,” sometimes requires the consultant to show an ability to relate to the buyer on issues beyond the immediate business issue at hand. “Oh! I, love classic movies too!” Or, “Yoga has changed my life.”

GG: I’ve been working with a great client for 12 years, as she has worked in senior leadership at two different organizations. The other day, she said to me, “You know, you’re very highly regarded here.” I felt like she had just handed me a gold plaque.

I think more common signs that you’re really building trust come in off-the-cuff moments. When a client calls out of the blue and says they just want to run something by you or that they recommended you to a colleague or that they caught wind of a new initiative and immediately thought of you, then you know they think of you as part of their team, their network, their brain trust.

JN: I’m reading a book now called The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. It focuses on seven open-ended questions to ask (coaching) clients. I see a lot of application between this technique and how we might conduct a get-to-know-you meeting or a kick-off meeting. Our clients often know the way in which they need to solve their problems. They just don’t know how to get started—or, maybe, how to execute it well. When they find a partner who listens and cares, and who they like spending an intense amount of time with, that’s a project that can succeed.

DM: It may sound sort of silly, but my clients appreciate that I’m a “real person” with real solutions coming out of my consulting and corporate experience. I have one client who is working with another consultant (to use up a monetary credit) and I know the other consultant pretty well. She’s a tough person to connect with. She’s pleasant, and I imagine her work is fine, but it’s difficult to follow her thought process. Whereas, my client and I are to the point that we sometimes finish each other’s sentences. When we may not immediately understand each other, I can probe and ask coaching-type questions to draw out what she’s trying to communicate. And then we get to work.

MG: To me, this comes down to one simple tenet: Consultants are not “better” than their clients. We must check our egos at the door. Our clients are smart people who usually know what they want and where they want to go. As Jennifer said, our job is to help them get there.

Our clients’ desires and objectives for their work are more important than our desires and objectives for their work. I’ve seen many consultants fail—and earn the disdain of their clients—because it was apparent that a given project was a vehicle for the consultant to do what they wanted to do rather than the other way around.

Capability: Demonstrating that you possess the expertise and experience to consult on and deliver against the client’s goals, standards and objectives.

TW: I believe we demonstrate capability during the course of an assignment. Yes, the buyer has attempted an evaluation by review of previous work and through client references. However, all knowledgeable buyers attempt to confirm their earlier decision in the first days and actions of a project.

GG: A firm can make all kinds of claims on their website, but firms don’t work on projects. People do. I think one gets a much clearer sense of the kind of work you’re going to get by talking to the people who will actually be doing the work.

JN: This is where Smith’s promise that “we don’t just show up for meetings, we actually do the work” matters. Probably the most frequent question I hear from prospective clients is, “Have you done X before? What’s the best practice?” If we can tell a story and show a work sample from another engagement that is closely related to their issue (and better yet, also in their industry) that immediately makes the prospect feel more confident in our ability to lead them to a solution.

DM: Thinking of “best practices” as plug-and-play solutions is dangerous. We can draw from past experiences and “best practices,” but it’s long-term experience and deep knowledge that helps us create and deliver the best solution for our client’s immediate need. Tailored, specific solutions—rather than just “best practice” solutions—bring the most value and deepen the relationship.

Reliability: Earning the client’s trust that you will deliver what you’ve promised according to stated and unstated needs.

TW: Only after we successfully complete more than one assignment are we given the opportunity to be considered reliable.

JN: Last week, I called a long-term client to outline a scope change on a project. He was fine with the related fee increase, told me to move forward and then pivoted to “When should we schedule our enrollment kick-off meeting?” That sentence was our proposal process. There is nothing like past success to build trust and the sense that the consultant is part of the extended team.

With a prospective client, I think the trust organically emerges from the relatability and capability factors that we touched on earlier. If a prospect feels you are genuinely excited about doing the work, that you’re eager to try the proposed solution, and they are excited about applying the quality of our past work to their new situation, we’ve become reliable.

DM: I recently had a client say to me, “I know that when I need you, you’ll respond; some of our consultants don’t.” I was floored. Responding is the easiest step in getting the work! And hey, if we’re known for being responsive, I’ll take that!

Like Jennifer said, it’s wonderful when the new business process is streamlined to “It’s time to renew our Master Services Agreement—can you update the date so I can sign” or “Let’s get our next kick-off meeting on the calendar.” Your past work is earning new work.

MG: Another way you earn trust with a client is by always being honest, especially when things go bad.

I remember a meeting early in my career at another firm. We were brought in to explain to a client how and why things had gone so poorly on a project. I was an underling. My job in the meeting was to sit there, be quiet and take notes. So the meeting started badly and only got worse as my superiors attempted to explain how and why our failure occurred, attempting to displace blame.

It sounded like we were making excuses. And, to my astonishment, no one apologized. Our client was fuming. Finally, against my better judgment, I spoke up and simply said we were sorry that this happened, it shouldn’t have happened, and we will not let it happen again. I owned the mistake—all our client really wanted. Within three months, I was leading the account. That was an important lesson for me.

RC: What really jumps out at me, as the person with least direct client contact, is the personal nature of consulting. And how “relationship” is more than jargon, it’s a foundational principle. Thank you, all.

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