The Business Side of Volunteering

volunteer-1326758_1280I recently spoke on a panel regarding my career and how living overseas has impacted my options. During my preparation, and referenced in my speech, I thought about how volunteering is a big aspect of my life. The idea of giving back is a core value of mine that was instilled in me from a young age by my parents and was further solidified as a lifelong obligation once I became a member of Sigma Nu Fraternity. While giving to others and the community is an important aspect of life, personal benefits can and should be taken away from those experiences. Following the panel discussion, I spoke with several individuals about leveraging that volunteer experience to specifically add value to one’s career.

There are tangible benefits that come with volunteering. I have written about this idea before, but now I want to get into greater detail. Below is a breakdown of the business/career related benefits I have witnessed and/or received through volunteering:

  • Interpersonal skills: With each new organization and event, volunteering exposes you to a variety of people along all measures of diversity. Being able to effectively communication and build relationships in this capacity is excellent practice for speaking to customers and coworkers.
  • Networking: Along with interpersonal skills, the same people you come into contact with offer a great opportunity to share what you do and learn about them. These are connections that you would not have otherwise made and likely vary from your current network.
  • Time management: Adding time commitments to your schedule forces you to review how you spend that time. This is great practice for when work becomes more hectic due to increased responsibilities. Managing your time effectively requires practice.
  • Leadership: This is one of the best potential benefits from volunteering. Overall, I think leading a volunteer group can often times be more difficult than a work group because many of the same incentives for individuals to follow through are not there; such as not receiving a paycheck.
    • Management: Effectively managing and organizing is a great takeaway and helpful because it is often done with a limited budget.
    • Motivation: With no pay, new ways to motivate people must be found. Positivity and enthusiasm can go a long way, but the small things like recognizing others and creating small wins can help keep the ball rolling.
    • Delegation: Being able to delegate and follow-up with people on different projects or aspects of projects is great practice for the workplace. It is about finding the balance between allowing someone the freedom to own their work and not letting deadlines fall by the wayside.
  • Recruitment: Bringing in new people is an important aspect of volunteering, especially when looking for leaders. Seeking out the right people with the right skills at the right time is an important aspect of both the work world and for volunteers.
  • Business Development: Whenever someone has had to do fundraising as a volunteer, it is quite similar to conducting business development for a company. You have to try to find individuals and companies with a connection and lead them down a path towards “making a sale.” There are clear differences in the two ideas, but the strategy behind them is quite similar.
  • Problem solving: When volunteering, problem solving is often one of the most important skills to have across all levels of involvement because the solutions usually require a high level of creativity.

These are real benefits that can be taken away from volunteering. Taking on a leadership role only increases the opportunities. Using one’s skills when volunteering is a great way to give back and learn something new along the way.

Please share a time where you were able to use volunteer experience to benefit your career in a comment below.

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Make Their Day – FISH! Philosophy

make their day2Of the four elements of the FISH! Philosophy, I saved this topic to write about last – make their day. The reason is because it took me the most amount of time to truly wrap my head around the concept in terms of applying it to my everyday work life. As part of my personality, I tend to help others and take time to create a positive work environment. The concept of making their day, however, can come very close to working against a leader if they overdo it with the need for affiliation with coworkers (McClelland’s Need Theory). What I have found is that there is a happy medium.

Below are the things I try to do for those around me. These are not necessary over-the-top actions, but I find that it is often the smallest actions that have the greatest impact.

  • Take time to say hello to everyone in the morning and stop to ask how they are doing.
  • Reference an earlier conversation on an important subject to them.
  • Offer to help with tasks that are not my normal responsibilities.
  • Ask follow-up questions when someone is obviously having a noticeably good or bad day.
  • Noticing something new or different, such as a haircut.
  • Share positive feedback with them in front of the team.

What I have found is that making someone’s day has to be part of who and what you are. People have to understand that you are doing something nice with no expectation of a return. When that is not the case, people question the motives and usually will not accept the action as intended.

For many years I considered myself a “nice guy,” but that didn’t really evoke the right feeling. I now like to describe myself as a good person. That is what allows me to show kindness and make people’s day because they trust who I am and what I am about.

There are wonderful payoffs when making someone’s day. While that is not the objective, it can certainly be an outcome. Last November, I was walking to class and stopped to help a student who was having trouble carrying some boxes. We were headed in the same direction and struck up a conversation. It ended up that she was an intern in the office I was applying for a job (my current position). While she was not in a position to help get me the job, it was a coincidence that helped buy me credibility before I even started.

You never know who or what is around the corner, so it is always a good idea to be kind and choose to make their day.

What is the best example from your own professional career of someone making your day? Please share in a comment below.

Related Posts:

FISH! – Be Present

FISH! – Play

FISH! – Choose Your Attitude

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Born to Blog

BornToBlogAs a new blogger, I am constantly looking for ways to make improvements and reach a larger audience. I have reviewed a number of resources and my goal is to take away at least one new element from each. I recently read Born to Blog, by Mark W. Schaefer and Stanford A. Smith. Written for those who are just getting started, this book provides excellent information to help newcomers find success. My greatest takeaways are laid out below.

  • Blogs are a noninvasive, trust-building, relationship booster: This stood out to me because, when done right, I have seen how powerful a blog can be.
  • There are five elements to writing a successful post: 1. Create a captivating headline. 2. Give a unique personal viewpoint. 3. Take a personal risk. 4. Create an entertaining spin. 5. Use words that sing.
  • Blogs offer the most potential value for businesses. The benefits include brand awareness, direct and indirect sales, sales support, R&D, PR, crisis management and expanding search engine traffic.
  • There are specific traits of a successful blogger; tenacity, focus on passion, flexibility, consistency and courage.
    • Tenacity in blogging comes down to working for years to start to build something; there is almost never instant success.
    • Without passion, failure is likely just a short time away. The true passion has to shine through in each post. It can’t be “all business.” People want to find out what you have to say.
    • Consistency in blogging means new posts at least once a month; there are many reasons for this and daily can become even easier over time. Every post doesn’t have to be profound, but does have to give some value.
    • Courage is likely the single most important element; sometimes just to hit the publish button.
  • There are three areas where blogging goes wrong; the wrong purpose, the wrong content and the wrong people.
    • Blogging must be done to tell you or your company’s story and share the core values.
    • The content must be real and connected to what you or your company are all about.
    • The people must be authentic and likely working for the company itself; not outsiders.
  • There are eight ways listed to develop readership for your blog. 1. Give away your best. 2. Add your blog to your current marketing efforts. 3. Contribute to other publications. 4. Get active on your reader’s social channels. 5. Use savvy, simple SEO; research keywords, optimize blog titles and post content. 6. Use guest bloggers. 7. Join and sponsor conversations, such as Twitter chats and discussion forums. 8. Reward your readers.
  • Bloggers for a company should come from every level, ranging from entry to C-suite, and training and support should be given to ensure quality and consistency.

These few items are just a portion of the pages of notes I wrote down, but were the ones I felt most applied to what I am doing with my own blog.

If you are looking to start blogging or would like to get a fresh perspective to improve your current blog, I would encourage you to check out the book.

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Purpose: The Foundation for an Organization

pillars-purposeOver the last decade, I have been surrounded by the idea of using a vision, mission, values and purpose to define an organization. I read and heard about what each element represented and the reason it existed. However, it wasn’t until a class last semester that the idea of using them all together really sunk in for me. It was definitely an “ah, ha” moment that helped to clarify how to better use them as a whole.

  • Vision: The vision of an organization should clearly define where that organization is going. This is subject to change over time as realities change with the organization and its surrounding.
  • Mission: The mission is the who, when and how for getting to where the vision has set out. These are similarly subject to change over time and as the direction of the organization shifts.
  • Values: The values of an organization are the “rules of engagement” or norms of behavior. While these can change with time, they should be more steadfast than the mission and vision.
  • Purpose: Purpose is the “why” for the organization; why they do what they do. Unlike the other elements, purpose should never change. The purpose should be the single pillar to guide decisions when conflicts arise. If a newly developed mission doesn’t fit within the purpose, then the mission should change.

In the past, I have looked at each of these elements as individual pieces, not a single flow of items to help guide an organization’s direction and employee behavior. The several posts I have made about Vision and Mission still hold true, but should be looked at within a greater context. The purpose of the organization is the baseline in which everything else should be generated.

For an organization to be truly successful, especially in the startup phase, there must be a shared purpose. A great example of purpose that was used in my class is from the University of TexasTo transform lives for the benefit of society. This purpose clearly describes the basis for everything that goes on at UT and should guide the behavior of those charged with fulfilling it.

When thinking about where you work or your own company, is there a concrete purpose? If you have trouble finding or thinking of one, try to develop one. If you want to take it a step further, if it is where you work, bring it up to your boss for discussion. If you are the boss, then discuss with those you work with to see if a shared purpose can be developed.

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Family, Faith and Work: Prioritizing the Work/Life Balance

balanceThis is going to be a particularly busy week for me. I have three summer courses running simultaneously, several work projects are coming together at once, my fiancé is graduating from her residency program, one of my best friends is getting married and I am traveling 4 out of 8 days. However, this is what I live for. Nothing makes me happier than being busy and having so many wonderful things going on at the same time. The only way I am able to find a perfect balance is through a well-developed set of priorities.

Over the course of my life, I have been taught, and learned on my own, what elements are most important. Some people share these same items, and in the same order, but there are also many who do not. In ranked order, from most important, I value family, faith and work. That has come to mean some very specific things as I have continued through my career. I have also learned it is much easier to say this than implement it.

Family, as well as friends, is what drives me to succeed more than anything else. While I want to help as many people as possible, the motivation to do so is based upon the energy generated through my interactions with those who I love. For the most part, it is not about giving anything up to put family first, but about making shifts to what will allow for both to happen. The only instances when one is above another is when opportunities come along where only one event can be put in one slot of time. That is the test of the prioritization. And, it should be noted that it is not about what happens when as the outcome, but that first moment when you realize there is an issue.

Faith comes next, but also includes my personal values. This, too, is what drives me to do what I do and gives me the strength to push on and find success. I am extremely proud of the moments when I made the tough choice to stand up for something I believe in, not compromising my values, and put my faith first, however, there have also been lessons learned when that was not the case. My goal is always to use those moments where I fell short as a learning experience as it is a feeling I do not wish to have again.

Finally, there is work, which is one of the most time-intensive and important elements of my life. The opportunities I have had in my career have only served to help me define my prioritizes, learn and develop as an individual, and create value that impacts my personal life. My current position with the NSBDC is an excellent example of being able to develop a great passion for what I am doing. Doing this only pushes me closer to my first two prioritizes.

There are so many wonderful things going on in life and I can barely stop to think about it all at the same time. This next week is going to be very exciting and I can’t wait to learn from what transpires, continue to push to become the best version of myself and help as many people as possible along the way.

Think about your own priorities and how you make decisions. Then, think about the ones that went well and those that didn’t. Finally, think about what you learned and how to push yourself to be the best version of yourself.

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Being a Catalyst: Fresh Ideas and Positive Change

Catalyst_ImageOver the years, many people have described me as a catalyst; I spark ideas, promote action and encourage change. This is, in my opinion, my greatest asset and strength. After someone brought it up to me earlier in the week, I wrote down a few ideas about what elements go into being a catalyst. These are the items I felt contribute to my own process.

Creativity:

I believe creativity comes from two approaches – systematic thinking and organic development. It does not have to be something an individual is born with, but I feel having it from a young age makes the process easier. The skill can certainly be developed with understanding how to specifically focus one’s thought process. The essence of creativity, in my opinion, comes from the ability to open your thoughts to multiple categories of information at once; meaning you can draw information from everything you have learned in different areas at one time. When needing to be creative on the fly, I will usually try to merge past experience and the current context to create an idea. When there is additional time to really think and develop, I focus in on different topics and projects I have worked on; systematically going through relevant and non-relevant comparisons. This allows you to connect elements in your mind that spark creation. It is the ability to be creative and generate ideas that is the first element to being a catalyst as it can prompt desired change.

Collaboration:

The secret element for creativity is collaboration, in my opinion, because it uses crowdsourcing to bounce ideas off others in the group, rather than placing the requirement on a single individual. Sitting around a room with others and sharing ideas is when the real magic happens. I think back to my first engineering class in college when I was introduced to the idea of the “deep-dive,” which came from IDEO and has since been sold to Deloitte. My favorite story was the birth of the ATM. It went something like this: bank leaders were sitting around a table and one says, in frustration, “I wish we could just put a box of money in front of the bank with paper and a pen to leave a note.” While that idea wouldn’t work out well, the comment prompted someone else to think about taking the idea one step further. Poof! The birth of the modern ATM. Now, I am not sure if that story is true, but I love it. Someone taking an infeasible idea from another and making it applicable, that is what collaboration does; it provides a venue and opportunity to bring about new ideas. This is an extension of how creativity can prompt desired change.

Courage:

One of the most important, and sometimes the most important, elements of being a catalyst is courage. Change can be one of the largest hurdles to overcome, especially if you are not the decision maker. The difficultly comes from individuals not understanding that change is needed, don’t want change or if suggesting change comes with negative consequences. Simply sharing an idea that is outside of the norm can be stressful because there is no knowing how others will react.

However, sharing ideas can be one of the best decisions when it is done consistently. It shows others that you are using your intelligence and are working to help make improvements, but also shows leaders that you have courage to be vulnerable. Courage is the final step that allows a catalyst to share their creativity. It takes extreme courage the go against the status quo. If there are current policies, practices or events that go against the purpose or values of a company, then courage is the element that will allow for positive change. It doesn’t come easy, but this is the most important element of a catalyst.

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Being told that I am a catalyst is one of the best compliments I have ever received. It comes down to two situations where being a catalyst comes into play; when a fresh idea is needed or a reminder to take actions in line with one’s values. There have certainly been times where I have fallen short on the courage, but I get genuinely excited about positive change and using my creativity to fuel that process. Anyone can be a catalyst when they focus their actions and develop their own process.

Push yourself to improve your own creativity, work in a team to generate ideas and practice sharing to develop your courage. That is how change will happen.

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Elements of a Top-Notch Culture

Startup Stock PhotosAs I was writing about how cultures can be established, I began to think about the cultures I have experienced throughout my career. Thankfully, I have been a part of many very positive cultures, which is what I will discuss here. However, negative cultures exist in many companies, but I will save my thoughts on that subject for another post. I look back at what I have experienced in order to build a framework for any future company a work for or build myself. Below are the ideas and practices that I feel make the largest impact on a company’s culture (in no particular order).

Unlimited Days Off: A practice from a former employer that meant a lot to me was not having a set number of days off for the year. This was an incredible amount of trust placed on individual employees and allowed for an excellent level of work/life balance. Studies have shown that these policies end up yielding fewer days off taken, on average, per year compared to individuals with a set number, but the job satisfaction in those with no limit is higher. I believe the reason for this is the comfort of knowing those days are always there if you need them. For me, I ended up taking about 15-20 days off over a six-year period. That’s not to say I didn’t take a lot of half days, but I was also highly productive and never worried about the time I spent working or taking off. I found a great article that lays out reasons this can and cannot work with different companies.

Autonomy: Trust is a major factor when it comes to job satisfaction. One of the aspects that has allowed me to be the most engaged is autonomy to completely control the work that I am responsible for. This really does take an incredible amount of trust, especially for a new employee. It comes down to making sure your hiring process is excellent. However, the results prove, at least to me, that the effects of autonomy allow for higher-level results. That is not to say that mistakes are never made, because I have certainly made them, however it is about the learning experience that comes as a result. By having to find solutions myself, I am put into a position where I will continue to grow and enhance my skills. Daniel Pink discusses autonomy and how it relates to intrinsic motivation in an excellent Ted Talk.

Setting, Knowing and Living Your Values: At the heart of what builds a culture are the values a company is built upon. It isn’t enough to simply have them, but they have to be established as the fundamentals upon which all decisions are based. The way this is done is by living those values. In a previous job, my employer paid special attention to holding regular discussions on the topic of values, as well as discussing how we made decisions based on them. This had a tremendous impact on me regarding what we did and, more importantly, why we did it. This is probably the most important aspect of creating a culture that I would want in every employer I work for.

Creating a Team: Working to ensure everyone in the company (or everyone in some work unit depending on the size of the company) is integrated and understands they are part of a singular unit with a common purpose is vitally important. Unless there is a negative culture built-in, I will choose to be part of a team, rather than work alone, 100% of the time.

Transparency: Knowing what is going on and how your work is contributing to that of the success of the entire company helps to create a real connection between the employee and the company.  Free flowing information about how things are going and where work needs to be focused has made me a more engaged part of the team. While this doesn’t have to mean that every detail is announced to everyone, knowing the big picture creates an atmosphere of trust. However, this does not need to go as far as sending all emails to the “all staff” email group.

In every aspect of work I have experienced, the items above are the ones that have stood out the most as having contributed to creating a positive culture. It is the culmination of these experiences that has guided me in how I have and will choose to manage and lead in the future. Culture has become one of the most important leadership and management responsibilities that I have learned during my career and I will continue to absorb as many ideas as possible.

To read about establishing a culture, click over to my previous blog post – Company Culture: Setting the Tone.

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Company Culture: Setting the Tone

Business_MeetingThe basis for everything that happens in the work environment, good or bad, can be traced back to a single major factor – the company culture. The culture of a company is the sum total of the group behaviors within the organization. I have seen and lived in very positive and also negative company cultures, which has given me a very particular belief on the subject. Culture has also been a major topic within the coursework of my MBA program. There are several key lessons I have learned about creating and changing culture.

Like most everything else in life, starting with a clean slate is the easiest way to create a company culture. With no baggage, past practices or status quos, there is a unique ability to set the tone for what the culture will become following the startup phase. It is vitally important that specific decisions are made, early on, to determine what type of culture is desired and will be carried into the future. This topic could easily be pushed aside as not important, but like a mission statement or values, establishing the culture of a company is another crucial element for setting a strong foundation. As a leader, setting the tone by deliberately creating policies and practices that fall in line with the company’s mission will start down the desired path. These practices then need to become what is lived every day.

There are fewer opportunities to create a culture from scratch. It is more likely that a culture will be in need of change. This doesn’t mean that a culture was started off on the wrong foot, but it does mean that there is a desire to change current beliefs or practices. In order for this to happen successfully, and truly take hold, it must come from the top. A lead is entirely responsible for setting the tone and establishing any change in culture. It is very difficult for an entire organization to change without initial adoption from the man or woman in charge. And, it can’t be for show, only authentic adoption will lead to the desired results.

The most difficult cultural process is attempting to make a change the leader has not, or will not, adopt. This is, in my opinion, an effort in futility. Should you try to establish a, slightly, different culture in a department you oversee, then that is possible. The reason is because you are the leader and have the power and influence over those in the department. However, it cannot be radical enough to interfere with the culture established for the greater company. Even if using your department’s unique culture to find success, the company leadership must buy in for any other department to be able to mirror that success. The reason for this is coming up next.

Finally, the least effective means of changing culture is simply benchmarking, copying, another successful company’s practices and assuming the new culture will come as a result. By simply imitating the practices without understanding the underlying basis for how a culture started will lead to undesired outcomes. When United attempted to copy the success of Southwest Airline’s customer satisfaction and aircraft turnaround times, it wasn’t able to achieve the same outcomes. The reason? United’s efforts only copied was they were able to see on the outside, and weren’t able to copy Southwest’s heart and soul.

Culture is the basis of everything that happens in a company. It can’t be forced and any changes that happen can only come from those in charge. It has to be organic and connect to the values at the core of what a company is based upon. Anything less will fail to take hold and be brushed aside. This does not have to be the end-all-be-all, but are needs to be considered if you are planning an attempted culture change.

To read about best cultural practices from my own experience, read my next blog post.

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Encouraging the Heart

photo 1Leadership and leading account for a high percentage of the educational areas I have focused on in my adult life. My first real leadership experience came during college through involvement in extracurricular actives. Since then, it seems that every interaction I have in leading and being led gives me new insight on how to do it better in the future. Throughout this time, I have developed my own leadership style, which I believe is simply an extension of my personality.

One of the key ingredients in my style has been to encourage the heart – a statement I first learned while participating in Sigma Nu’s LEAD Program, which draws from The Leadership Challenge. I have always known the power of encouragement, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that I truly understood the impact. Someone who I worked for, respected and admired, gave me a coin with the words “Good Job” imprinted on the front and more specific words of encouragement on the back. This coin was something he was given and passed along to me. The act of giving me an item of significance to recognize my efforts still affects me today; the coin sits on my desk as a reminder and source of motivation.

What did this do for me? It made me continue to give 100% in my work and individual projects. The second impact it had on me was redefining how I could encourage the heart of others. This is not simply saying “good job” to someone on the team – it is so much more. I have laid out what I feel encouraging the heart really means – in action.

  1. Be specific. Don’t just say “good job,” but actually tell him or her what was good about it and how their contribution affected the outcome of the project.
  2. Refer back to it. When similar work is needed again, ask the person who did well for their advice and support. However, be careful not to make give a negative consequence by assigning them more work or forcing them outside their comfort zone.
  3. Give credit where credit is due. When giving a report, especially in public, be sure you recognize the individual(s) for their contribution.

Without being given that coin, would I have made encouraging the heart such an important part of my leadership style? Probably. However, I use that experience of someone encouraging me and try to pay it forward to others who I feel do good work. My hope is that cycle will continue.

Please share your own example of being encouraged with a comment below.

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5 Important Questions for Building a Strong Business Foundation

BusinessAs I have stated several times, how you get started often has a direct relationship with your level of business success. Putting your best foot forward drastically increases your chances for success over the long-term. I see this all the time working in the Nevada Small Business Development Center. No matter the type of business or organization, I believe there are several key building blocks within a strong foundation. Below is a list of questions I ask each client when they are getting started.

  1. What makes your idea different from everything else out there? And, is it profitable?

There needs to be something that sets you apart from everyone else. This can certainly be small in nature, but it needs to be distinct. Why would I buy your product or service, when I can get the same thing down the street? And, it may be a good idea, but will anyone actually buy it?

Doing your homework and talking to the right people is crucial. There is a fantastic network of Small Business Development Centers around the country and free quality advice is hard to find these days. If there is not an SBDC office to assist you, then let me know through a comment below and I will help you find resources.

  1. Have you started to create a foundation for your business – your mission and values?

I have written about both mission statements and values in other blogs, so click over to learn more about creating each. The important thing to remember is these are key foundational elements that are meant to help you make decisions about how you do business – both the easy ones and the tough ones.

  1. Have you created a business plan and used applicable research to form your conclusions?

A business plan (or organizational plan) is the framework that is built off of the foundation you place with a mission and values. Using a template off of the internet is easy and a great place to learn what needs to be included. Search for examples to compare from within the same industry to get additional ideas – perhaps things you haven’t thought of before.

  1. How many points are listed out on your action item list?

First, have you started an action item list? If you have, it is likely that your list will need to double. I wouldn’t be surprised if each point requires something else to get you to where you want to be. What does this mean for you? You will probably need to do more research and estimate more time in the process of starting up. Never hold yourself back by putting off your launch date, but spending several hours or an entire day getting critical information is not a delay or a waste of time.

  1. Were your financial projects constructed from real-world estimates?

Even if you are creating a non-profit organization, finances must be accounted for. In business, finances are what make the difference between profitability and closing the doors. The projections created for the business plan must be based on relevant and timely information. If you haven’t had experience with finances or accounting, it is very important someone with that experience is helping you out.

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This list is not everything that must be done, but it is where I think that everyone should start. They are all basic items I believe must be accomplished and separate the line between success and failure.

Once you have completed these initial steps, there are even more items that must be considered. The Small Business Administration has a helpful list. Now don’t put it off any longer. Follow me on Twitter to get helpful insights from others in the industry on finding and continuing success.

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