For someone who didn’t have a degree in technology, business expert and strategic coach Penny Zenker ended up going from being chief technology officer to taking her boss’s job and being responsible for a holding company across five different companies in three different countries. Penny shares that her experiences working for a market research firm taught her the most valuable lessons about time management and how to think and act strategically. She said that being presented with challenges pushed her to grow her expertise. She’s now focused on helping people regain focus, reset their priorities, and increase productivity with an innovative new system.
How To Think And Act Strategically with Penny Zenker
My guest is a business expert who has been a strategic coach for the last decade and we have some history together. She worked at Business Breakthroughs International under my Vice President of Coaching while I was the CEO. I knew her to be smart, tenacious and a solver of complex problems. Before she worked with me, she built her own technology company and sold it, giving her the practical experience and wisdom that comes from operating in the trenches. Now, she’s focused on helping people regain focus, reset their priorities and increase productivity with their innovative new system. Welcome, Penny Zenker, to the show.
Mitch, it’s so great to be here.
I’m glad to have you too. It’s nice to reconnect after all the years of not chatting.
It’s a small world, the way the universe works brought us back together again.
That is in fact how the universe works. We’re just in cycles that keep repeating. I’m pretty excited to have you on the show. I love what you’ve done and how you’ve accomplished so many things in your life. Let’s go back to the beginning and tell me how you got here. How did you get started?
How I got started was I was working in technology. I didn’t start out in technology, I don’t have a degree in technology, so I always had this belief system that I’d have to stay in a box because I didn’t have the degree. I didn’t have the credibility. This guy was sitting across from me, he was a contractor, he was making big bucks per hour, and I was managing him. I was better than he was, and that was the a-ha for me. It was like, “If he can do this, so can I.” What got me started on my own technology business was saying, “If he can do this, so can I,” and then taking the leap.
I had the same experience when I was working as a Field Applications Engineer for Mostec Corporation many years ago. It turns out the salespeople were making double or quadruple what I was. I said, “I could do this,” and that’s when I transitioned from being an engineer to being in sales. I totally relate to that. What did you do?
It didn’t take long for me to get together with some others who ended up dropping out, so it ended up being just me starting my own technology firm and taking it one step at a time, working my butt off, working 24-hour days. Somehow, it’s better when you’re doing it for yourself than when you’re doing it for someone else and getting paid a pittance for it.
What was your company and tell us about the product and services that you created?
My company was called SmartMoves. It was founded in Zurich, Switzerland because that’s where I was living at the time. If it’s not hard enough to build a company in your own country with your own language, why not just add a twist to it and move overseas.
They call that being a glutton for punishment.
I’ve been told that I’ve been a glutton time after time, but that’s what we entrepreneurs do. What can we say? It’s in our blood. SmartMoves was a technology company and we started out doing application development. As we got bigger and started to think bigger and looking at how we can get to those first thousand clients and beyond, we started to create software that we could sell time-and-time again. We sell fixed applications that could either be customized or used as they are. That then was the big opener for us, was being able to go to trade shows. At the time we were doing work with Lotus and IBM and so we were recognized and got awards with them. It just opened up and enabled us to create an even bigger brand and bigger impression of who we are, not just in our own country, Zurich in Switzerland, but also around the world.
When you started your company, you must have had a single product or a single concept. Tell us what that was?
When I started the company, it was just, “This other gentleman started as a contractor.” That’s how I started, as a contractor doing application development, bespoke application, consulting, and things like that. Shortly, it was clear to me that that wasn’t enough and that wasn’t going to be how I can create a business. I wasn’t just looking to create a lifestyle for myself, I was looking forward to create something bigger, and that’s where the idea of a software came in.
You must have identified a problem that you knew needed solving and you’re going to solve it. What was that problem?
Our first product line was around linking Lotus Notes and Microsoft Office together. We were working with a lot of big organizations that were using Lotus Notes for some of their process applications and they didn’t integrate well with Microsoft Office. We created a seamless toolset that enabled them to do that.
Once you decided on that product, you had a customer in mind or a customer type in mind. Did you also have a marketing channel in mind?
The marketing channel was we went to trade shows. We were using the Lotus Notes customer base as our channel.
I did exactly the same thing. When we built Timeslips Corporation, we wanted to get into Lotus World and be an exhibitor. They said, “You need to have a link to Lotus 1-2-3 if you’re going to do that.” All we did was add an export to a spreadsheet and they go, “That’s fine.” We were part of the Lotus marketing machine, which was great. These days there are lots of similar opportunities out there. If you’re marketing any application or any type of software, you could find a way to link it to Salesforce and be part of the Salesforce marketing machine as well. No matter what you’re doing, the lesson that Penny is trying to help us understand here is find the people who are already marketing in your space and discover a way to work with them so that you could take advantage of the reputation that they’ve already created for themselves and the marketplace that they’re building.
Just to tag team upon that, it’s not just for our software. At that time, it was software affiliates. If you look at affiliate marketing, anybody that’s got a big following that’s looking at the audience and interacting and has a relationship with the audience that you want to get in front of, partnering is the way to go. It’s leverage. You’re going to slog it out if you have to go and find those people yourself when somebody else already has a relationship with them.
After you sold your company, what was your next step?
My next step after I sold my company was I went back to work for a big company. I thought that I would be getting out of the rat race of these long hours and I would take it easy, which didn’t happen the way that I thought. As I went to become a CTO at a market research firm, they had a direct marketing arm and I was going to be the CTO of that organization. There was a huge reorganization taking place and I ended up going from being Chief Technology Officer to taking my boss’s job and being responsible for a holding company across five different companies in three different countries.
That’s quite a shift. You didn’t expect that, did you?
No, I didn’t expect that. I’m looking to take it easy and there was no way that that was going to happen. That’s why I said I’m a glutton in many ways. It’s taught me the most valuable lessons about time management and how to think in a different way. Even though I learned a lot having my own business, jumping into a different scenario like this, my greatest mentor was my boss there who taught me at the very onset how to think differently.
You were presented with challenges you never expected which only grew your expertise, which is exactly how life works sometimes. Tell us a little bit about what you are currently doing. I know that you have a productivity system. Maybe you could tell us or give us the story about how that came about and exactly what it does and who it’s for?
I came up with this productivity system while I was coaching together with you, with Business Breakthroughs with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes. I was thinking about how the challenges all around the world, regardless of culture or anything, is people were having the same challenges around time management. I wanted to be able to have a way to gauge where people stood and get them to redirect their priorities and to gain new focus on more strategic thinking than tactical thinking. After I had worked with people all over the world, I was able to come to some basic principles that were common across all the people that I worked with. It came down to these ten core drivers I would call success fundamentals, but here I call them productivity fundamentals. When we focus, think, and act more strategically, then we’re going to be a byproduct and be more productive.
You came up with these drivers as you call them. How did you test them out?
I tested them out with various different people that I was working with, whether it was one-on-one coaching or in a group workshop environment, and I ended up creating an assessment. First, I wrote my book, The Productivity Zone: Stop the Tug of War with Time, which includes these ten fundamentals. Then I thought, “I have this curse where I have to create software.” It’s just like something I have to do. I thought, “I’ve been doing this in an excel spreadsheet testing with people. Let’s put it into a more dynamic type of software program that people can guide themselves in the process as well.” I did that and then that gave me access to even more people being able to take it. The feedback that I got was a resounding, “Wow.”
From the first time that they take it, people have said things like, “That’s the first time that I realized all that goes into how we approach our time management and our productivity.” There are also things where people said it made them own it that much more to have to put a number and a rating behind each individual item and to look at what’s in the gap for them. Also, there’s an area to take action which is often missing in any type of assessment. It’s like, “Here’s your profile. Here’s what’s in the gap,” and then there are crickets. There is nothing to take you to the next step. I included that also to help to guide people into taking action.
Let’s go up 30,000 feet and tell me a little bit about what you observe from all the people who’ve taken your assessment and all the people you’ve worked with. What are the big problems with people being productive in managing their time?
As I said, the big view is these ten drivers. What I find to be the biggest is around our self-talking or limiting conversations. The reason it’s the biggest is because it’s where we sabotage our results. It’s the energy that we’re creating around whatever we’re doing that is how we’re showing up for the time that we have. We can have two days that have exactly the same amount of time, exactly the same tasks that we’re doing, but somehow one day just flows and everything works and the other day feels like death by a thousand paper cuts.
In the assessment of all the questions that you talked about, you mentioned mindset. How can people fix mindset if they understand that that’s the issue that they’re dealing with?
There are four fundamentals around mindset. The first one is understanding what motivates you and how to get the obstacles and the things away that are keeping you from your motivation. In some cases, they talk about connecting to your why, but it also goes deeper into understanding your values and your identity and how you define yourself. That’s one, motivation, and there’s our self-talk and looking at the conversations that we’re having, the words that we’re actually using either in the bubble in our head or what we’re communicating to others. Then there’s our mental focus. Are we focusing on what we don’t want or are we focusing on what we want? So many times you ask somebody what it is that they want and all they can think of is what they don’t want.
This is a deeper issue than just identifying that you have mindset issues. I was exposed to a book some years ago which I’ve recommended on the show before. It’s called You Too Can Be Prosperous by Robert A. Russell. I would tell you that very few people have ever heard of this book.
I haven’t heard of it.
It was written in the ‘50s and the perspective is very unique. Robert A. Russell takes you through a journey of what it’s like to locate and obliterate the negative thoughts and thinking that goes on inside your mind. The book is a series of mini lectures and then exercises as you go through the book. It shows you exactly how to change your thinking and how to you create mini programs. I found the book to be particularly useful. There are two parts to it, Penny. Part of it is identifying it, which your survey and your system would do easily, and then there’s the part of fixing it that’s harder, don’t you?
Absolutely, but you can’t fix it if you don’t take it from unconscious to being conscious, to being aware of it. I totally agree, fixing it requires more depth. Now that you’re aware of it, you have to have some strategies to do that. That’s either where coaching comes in with someone or like you said having some types of resources of where you can access that, so that you don’t have to go through the trials and tribulations of years of figuring out, “This is what works.”
I recommend coaching as well. I also recommend that if you’re going to work with somebody, get something like this, a book like this. Work individually one-on-one with somebody and go through the exercises because if you can get somebody to hold you accountable to what’s in this book, then you’ll get through a lot of the mindset issues. That’s my belief.
I’d love to share what I would consider one of the biggest and most profound and yet simplest tools that I use. One of the things that I find, and I didn’t realize that this was what I was doing until years and years later when Steve Linder introduced this to me and he was one of the top trainers from Tony Robbins, what we do in every moment is that we ask ourselves an unconscious question of, “What does this mean?” It remains unconscious for most people. What I realized that has served me in my life especially when I was going through a divorce process was that I didn’t listen to the first answer that came to me of, “What does this mean?” I have the ability to expand perspective in that moment by recognizing and asking, “What else could this mean?” Immediately by doing that, I opened up the opportunity to empower myself and to be the source for what meaning I give anything. I feel so empowered by having this simple tool, “What does that mean?” Then I can say, “What meaning did I give that? What else could this mean?” Then everything changes.
That’s a great tool. Thanks for sharing that. There’s something else that comes to mind when you say that. I guess what you’re asking people to do is to separate themselves from their thoughts. For me, that means instead of saying things like, “I’m angry, I’m upset,” it’s saying things like, “I feel angry and I feel upset,” without identifying with the emotion. Your question is a clearer and more concise way of separating yourself from potentially the feelings that come up behind a random thought. Instead of just accepting them as, “That’s who I am,” you’re saying, “What does this mean?” Tell me about listening for the first answer. How does that make a difference?
You can listen in different ways. You talked about anger. What happens in your body when you get angry? Anytime that you feel an emotion like anger, sadness, hurt, fear, guilt, or shame, you’re giving something a meaning that is probably not benefiting you.
What other things are there in terms of the way you built your assessment? What else are you looking for when you ask these questions?
I’m not sure I understand what you mean there. What else am I looking for?
What other elements of the person’s behavior are you looking for or trying to identify in the way you do your assessments?
I’m glad that you said behavior because that’s what this looks at, is these ten areas of behavior and how you’re showing up. The other thing that we look at is taking care of yourself. The last part of mindset is your self-care. Are you sleeping? Are you eating? Are you taking care of your body? That’s a key part of our energy, of how we bring to things. Then we go into strategies and how we approach things. In those areas, we have planning. How much time do we set aside? It doesn’t require a lot, but just to take a thought before we do something so that we’re clear on what our intention is and what result we want to create and that type of thing. What steps are we taking? What’s our process in making that happen? How are we prioritizing things? What decisions are we making to put things in that prioritization and deal with that urgency versus importance challenge that most people face?
Then lastly, it’s sustainability. It’s taking a look at how you are processing feedback. Are you celebrating when you’re making progress or are you pushing that down and not recognizing it, therefore pushing down momentum as well, not being able to tap into to natural momentum? How well are we measuring things that we’re in relationship with the results that we’re getting, and that we’re honest with ourselves and then can shift accordingly based on what feedback from the results? Then lastly, proactivity. Where are we being proactive and where could we be more proactive?
It sounds very comprehensive. What I like to do is shift into a more practical exercise. If you were working with a client and you wanted to understand what their blocks were to productivity, what was slowing them down or how they could be more productive, take me through what that would look like?
It always comes down to questions and just getting curious. My first step would be to understand if they were to have taken the assessment, I would see how they rate themselves in each of these areas and understand what’s not working for them and where their biggest challenges are. When we can identify our obstacles and we can get clear and specific around them, then we have the opportunity to solve them. What a lot of people do is they chunk up their problems and just say, “I’m overwhelmed.” Let’s get specific and clear, what’s overwhelming you specifically?
When you find that out and you discover that, do you teach your clients how to deal with that overwhelm or is there a process that you take them through? How does that look to you?
First of all, identify what the biggest obstacle is, and then we’ll take a look at a couple different parts. We’ll look at the emotional part of it and then we’ll also look at the part of the skills. They might have the skills but be sabotaging themselves emotionally, and so not really applying the skills. How many times do we know what to do but we don’t do what we know? I’d say a majority of what I do is helping people access their own resourcefulness by helping them to do what they know. Once we get to that place, then we can build additional skills on top of it. We take a look at what’s worked for them in the past that they might be able to access quickly and then move into what types of skills might be missing so that they can then take on those new skills.
It sounds like at some level you’re getting people to recognize what I would call their natural wisdom and trust it.
In the case of where you’d be working with someone one-on-one and trying to get them to a place where they could be far more productive than they are, what is it that you are going to do specifically? Are you going to get them to, for example, create some form of a list or are you going to get them to try a different tool for planning their day or for working with their clients? What would you describe as one of the mechanical solutions that you offer when you work with a client?
Some of the mechanical solutions would be the assessment that helps them to track their progress as they’re taking on different strategies down below. For instance, time blocking is something that I use a lot with people because a lot of people who are overwhelmed are not planning enough. They’re not able to set priorities and then schedule those priorities. They’re stuck in that emotional overwhelm so we get past that and then we start to build the skill of time blocking for instance, or we’re taking a look at where they’re spending their time. We’ll evaluate categories and see what might be missing. For instance, I had a customer who ended up spending zero time on customer loyalty. When we apply it to the business sense, we take a look at what percentage are you spending in each area whether it’s lead generation, customer loyalty, brand building, and so forth. We’ll take a look at those different categories and see, if it’s an entrepreneur, where’s their business spending the percentage of time and then to identify for the success that they want what percentage of time do they need to be spending?
This particular magazine owner, she had a turnover rate of 85% of advertisers leaving every year. She was spending a huge amount of effort on lead generation, which all she needed to do was to shift a little bit more into the customer loyalty so that she could keep 85% and then she wouldn’t have to work as hard on the lead generation. By doing that and just shifting her time a little bit to focus on the loyalty, which was a more important part, she immediately went from being in the red and losing money to being profitable. It totally changed her business.
It had made you a very satisfied client who could probably give you a great testimonial on top of that. We are talking to Penny Zenker, a productivity expert and specialist in understanding what keeps us from being as productive as we possibly can. One of the things that I love to do when I work with a client is I like to have them explain to me how they see their client, what they think their client is, and how they identify their client. What I like about that is that in that explanation, we are typically locating what I would think of as fixed ideas. What I mean by that is if somebody says, “I usually work with entrepreneurs of this type or that type in this particular area or that area,” without ever understanding what they are doing, that might be useful to others. Do you find that in your practice too?
I’m not sure I understand the question. They don’t understand their market clearly?
That’s right. They have specialized and narrowed themselves down to a target market that is so narrow that they don’t see the other potential that they have.
Absolutely or vice versa. They’re not able to speak to the target market because it’s too broad. They don’t understand that they can have multiple messages and they can hit different target markets. They just may have to modify the message a little bit because the challenges that each of those target markets facing might be slightly different.
By increasing their productivity or enhancing their productivity, you are giving them the opportunity to focus in on the areas that they’re not in particular when it comes to addressing their available market, is that right?
Absolutely, and helping them just think outside the box. A lot of entrepreneurs and business owners are caught up in the day-to-day and they’re stuck thinking tactically. A lot of what I help people to do and I’m sure that you do too is to help people to take a step back. It’s just like that, “What does this mean?” It’s just different areas to get perspective of their business and to see what they’re not seeing and think bigger. “What can I do that’s bigger?” What I love about helping people to think bigger is that all of a sudden, the way that they do things now is no longer possible. That opens up then the opportunity for them to think about different ways of doing things because you can’t achieve it with the way that you’re doing it now.
Penny, I know that you offer your assessment. Is it free for anybody who would like to take the assessment?
It’s not free but I could definitely offer a free trial for people who are coming onto the show and enjoying. I’m happy to make that as an offer for people.
Penny, I’ve got to tell you, it’s been great having this conversation with you. We both focus on so many of the core issues that help a lot of people. I have a question for you, and this is one of my favorite questions of the entire show. It’s all about you and it gives me perspective on who I am talking to when it comes to the way you think. Here’s the question. Who, in all of space and time, would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch, or an intense conversation with?
I can only have one person?
I want to have many people but I would choose Elon Musk.
Elon, he is popular, I’ll tell you that. I would choose him too. He is such a fascinating guy. I was reading over the weekend that he has tweeted about some people have labeled his bipolar condition where he swings from emotion to emotion. I thought to myself after reading that, I said, “Who wouldn’t?” Look at that guy? He has just so much weight on his shoulders and he has accomplished so much. He has a stressful life, wouldn’t you say?
Absolutely. When people want to achieve big things, there is a certain amount of stress that we put on ourselves in order to get there.
I appreciate him and I know you do too. That was a great answer.
I’m a big fan of the way he thinks outside the box. To be with somebody who thinks so completely differently than most of the people on this planet, what could that open up for me or for anybody who has to talk to somebody like that? That could just change the way you think completely.
His contribution to our society and to humanity is yet to be determined, but we already know it’s going to be big. Here’s the grand finale. It’s the change the world question. What is it that you are doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
There are so many ways that each one of us has the possibility to change the world, even if it’s one person at a time or an in whatever way. I want to say that because it sounds like a big question and I can imagine that a lot of people might get daunted by that question too. If everyone is thinking about it, that everybody has the potential to change the world with every step that we take in every day, we’re creating a legacy. That’s an important point. What I’m doing is all about creating a bigger impact. My passion is to help people to be their best self and to find the hero within themselves. I’m helping them to recognize their inner wisdom. It’s being our best selves. I do that through the software that I’ve created and I’ve got involved in some movie projects. How do you tell a story that touches people’s hearts and opens up their hearts and open up their thinking so that they can find that in themselves, that hero’s journey, wherever they’ve been to come in and to see that they can be their own hero? I’m exploring that in film. I do that on stage when I do exercises with people to help them to find ways to open up their perspective, open up possibility, and be the best version of themselves.
I don’t think I know anybody else in the movie business. It’s good to know you that if I ever need access to people in the movie industry, I’m going to call you, Penny.
I don’t claim to know everybody. I’m just getting my feet wet because just like I said why I started my business, someone else is doing it, so why not me?
It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, Penny. I appreciate your insights and I know that a lot of people listening to this will too. Once again, thank you for being on my show and I can’t wait until we get a chance to talk again soon.
Thank you so much, Mitch.
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