How Sport Is An Important Part Of Business

Image: Randy Chiu

What do baseball and football (or any other sport for that matter) have in common with business? They're fail-safe things you can talk to your colleagues and customers about.

Your work most likely takes you around this great country to various organizations where you no doubt meet and interact with people of all stripes. When you sit down with your clients or vendor partners for a meeting, in the first few minutes there will invariably be two types of people in the room: the ones who are talking and the ones who have nothing to say. Why? Because before you get down to the brass-tacks of business (and while you're waiting for stragglers to arrive) the ice-breaker is more often than not, sports. Some people feel that sports is beneath them and so don't deign to follow which means they can't participate in this important part of the business ritual.

According to this study, college educated women enjoy sports as much as their male counterparts but men watch more sports than women and have a greater grasp of sports trivia. Sadly, there are still more men than women in leadership positions in the U.S. (source: Catalyst research) but the chances are, for your client or colleague of either gender, sports is a great water-cooler topic to chat about. The same holds true for vendors, regardless of whether they have a college education or not. Plus, it's much safer ground than politics, or religion, or what kind of car you drive.

I'm not just talking about sports, really. Think communication, connection and preparation; all things you need to be good at to make it in business. If you really care about your various stakeholders and you want to forge a strong bond with them, or strengthen an existing relationship, demonstrate that you care what they care about, be prepared and spend some time reading up on their sports teams.

Go Giants!

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

Management Lessons From Healthcare

Image: Ezra Klein

I just finished reading Letting Go, the latest treatise by surgeon-cum-writer Atul Gawande, which explores the ambiguities of end-of-life care. There is a lot to be learned from the study of healthcare. It helps us gain “insider” information that can not only empower us as healthcare consumers, it can also be instructive as we think about our own work.

As Drs. Leonard Berry and Kent Seltman point out in their book, healthcare customers are unique in that they are usually sick or injured and under considerable stress; medicine requires them to bare themselves–emotionally and physically–to doctors and caregivers to a far greater degree than any other industry. Healthcare providers must continually perform well together in the face of vulnerable customers, known human error, system failure and vast amounts of technology to provide the intangible service called health and well-being. It goes without saying then, that there's much to be gleaned from the individuals that serve us in this unique–and often life altering–way.

More than 70% of Americans now earn a living in the service sector, which encompasses everything from health, law, telecommunications and entertainment to retail, finance and beyond. The chances are high that we will all work in a service job at some point in our career. And the notion of service has applications for all industries. Management guru Tom Peters believes the concept of "servant-leadership" is critical for success no matter what business you're in. At its core, service is inherently about performance so medicine is a great place for management to look for insight about how to improve service for both their internal and external customers.

Gawande has found a theme in trying to understand human failure and imperfection and studying how individuals, teamwork and process can be improved against a backdrop of dizzying technology and massive amounts of information. What he also shows us along the way is that excellence isn’t innate; it is an ingrained practice borne out of learning from mistakes.

In his first book, Complications, Gawande recognizes that medicine, even with all of the latest technology, is imperfect and asks how we become even remotely competent at something that’s inherently flawed. What he discovers time and time again, is a powerful truth applicable to all of our jobs: excellence in anything is never just about the science; and even with “perfect” science, or well-established process, or advanced levels of education and experience, fallibility is a constant. Excellence in service, whether it's for our customers, colleagues or business partners is about accepting failure when it happens and moving on from it quickly to improve. In Letting Go he teaches us that it’s also about artistry–the human touch, collaboration, generous acts, personal courage and core values that guide decision-making and inspire extra effort.

He is arguably one of the best healthcare essayists for the medical layperson to read.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

The Importance of Research and Good Infographics

Image: Neeta Lind

I had some routine blood work done yesterday to test, amongst other things, my cholesterol levels and whether or not I had diabetes. My results pleased me as much as if I had scored perfectly on the SATs (which, physiologically speaking, I had.) It took me a while to figure out that I was as healthy as can be though, because the numbers didn't mean anything and the information my healthcare provider had on their website explaining what the tests were looking for was confusing and sparse. I ended up having to do some searching around on the web to decode it.

Literacy levels in this country are going down and they are inextricably tied to two key demographics: the health and wealth of our population. The 2003 National Adult Literacy Survey found that adults with the lowest literacy levels (a number that has increased since the last time the survey was conducted in 1992) are more likely than those at the higher levels to be poor and to have a physical, mental, or other health condition. Older adults (who typically have more health concerns–such as diabetes and high cholesterol–to deal with) are more likely than middle-aged or younger adults to demonstrate limited literacy skills: 40% of seniors aged 65 or older read at or below the 5th grade level. Yet most health-related materials are written at the 10th grade level.

If I, as a college educated and web savvy individual, have a hard time understanding what my test results mean, I worry about what some people with less education must make of theirs.

I give major points to my healthcare provider (Kaiser Permanente) for the speed in which I received my results and how easy it was to access them. I had blood drawn at 10:30am and by 3:35pm I'd received email notification that the results were available on my password-protected user page. Within 24 hours I also got an email from my doctor telling me how great the results were, asking me if I had any questions, and to keep up the good work. Talk about fantastic customer service. But what about the people who can't get theirs if they can't read, don't have a computer or are not technologically comfortable?

In addition to being aware of the literacy constraints that many people face it’s important for healthcare communicators to understand other aspects of their audience demographic. How do healthcare providers give out test results for folks in poor rural areas, for example?

Whether the delivery mechanism is in person, an online message, or a printout received by mail, it's commonly accepted that more than 60 percent of individuals are visual learners yet my test results were all text and numbers. Couple a lack of graphic design with words that are hard to understand for most people and it's no wonder some healthcare communications (in this case test results) don't make sense. A 2000 Harvard literature review of medical and public health research addressing literacy issues offers little in the way of recommendations to improve communications beyond the written word, yet these communications are often critical to helping patients understand and manage their ongoing health. Good visual cues and clever use of iconography can help all healthcare customers, regardless of their reading level.

In my test results I would have liked to see symbols that represent what each test is for and some sort of chart that shows the scores on it. People are by nature, typically competitive, even with themselves, and this would be a great way to show a person visually how they rank, normatively. Since these tests are done regularly, it could also be customized to track a person’s improvement (or not) over time, which could be a useful teaching tool for docs to use, regardless of how they communicate it.

It's great that I got an email from my doc, with an open invitation to ask questions. It turns out that I was able to find what I needed and didn't need help, but here's yet another instance where doing the research to understand your audience is important. A lot of people who have problems with literacy hide this fact from family members, co-workers and, most likely, their doctors. Plus, people can be busy or lazy, or both. How many people are going to take the time to follow up on these test scores to make sure they really understand them, and wouldn't it be more efficient for everyone if that information could be gotten easily from the initial communication?

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

A New Approach To Board Recruitment

I attended a great workshop today called: “An Unconventional Look at Board Recruitment & Engagement.”  The workshop was put on by the wonderful East Bay Community Foundation and was led by Jan Masaoka, a non-profit management consultant. Jan was previously the Executive Director of CompassPoint in San Francisco. She's now the managing editor of Blue Avocado, an online magazine and resource for non-profit leaders.  

From my notes, here's Jan's patented method for recruiting new board members. 

Form a Blue Ribbon Nominating Committee
•    You will need about 15 people to be part of the committee. (Ask about 25 people to come, so you’ll end up with 15 people or so.) Comprise it of people that you think you’d want on your board but you are pretty sure they’d say no. Tell them this is a one- time commitment; this committee meets once, then disbands.

•    Hold the meeting at your organization's office, over lunch (be sure to serve lunch!) The Executive Director and board leadership should be present.

•    Give attendees a no more than 15 minute indoctrination of what your organization does, plus an overview of what needs to be done in the coming year. Then tell them: "What we need you to do is suggest 4 people for our board, based on what we do as an organization, and what we need to accomplish as a board this year. Tell us who they are and why they would be a good fit."

•    Then, have a roundtable discussion about all of the recommendations.

•    The goal is to end up with a list of about 25 recommended people.

•    Next, the
Executive Director and/or board leadership call them to set up an in-person meeting to recruit them.
What works so well about this approach is that when someone comes on a board as a result of this process it will be apparent why they are there and what they will accomplish. As board members we often recruit friends and acquaintances, then once they join the board we tell them: “Find something useful to do and organize yourself to do it." We hope that they will step up and get something done once they are engaged, when what we should do is make it clear to them from the outset what is needed from them.

Another great by-product of this nominating committee is that this is also an excellent way for non-profits to cultivate a major donor list.

Once I've fully digested Jan's talk, I'll be blogging in the coming weeks with my own thoughts about some of the other topics she touched on; she presented some really useful information that got me thinking about new ways that we can all approach our work as board members.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at