Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Are You In Danger Of Conveying ‘Ruinous Empathy’?

Delivering results through others means getting the balance right between challenge and support. My time this month has been focused on how to practically get this right - which is hard enough to do anyway, without the sixteen months and counting of a global health crisis which has challenged us all as never before. As leaders who drive results through others:
  • How do we conduct those more difficult discussions about below par performance?
  • How do we constructively challenge those who’ve had a lot on their plate and where we’ve been both supportive and sympathetic, but now they really need to step it up?
  • How do we encourage, enthuse and engage our teams to lean in, dig deep and deliver more when we fear that they are a flight risk and ready to leave our business?
  • How do we help our team see the value of returning to the office environment positively, rather than as a veiled threat to future career prospects if they insist on staying at home?
The list of scenarios is endless, and the challenge around getting it right is great, so where precisely we start? Endless behavioural science research confirms that distance builds distrust, and that the remote environment can have a damaging impact on the quality of our professional relationships across teams and time zones. These conversations would be hard enough if we were face to face, but now we need to do this remotely. How on earth do we get this right?

I have found myself returning to the power of Kim Scott’s work, who wrote a superb book called ‘Radical Candour: How To Be A Kick Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity’. If you’ve not read it; then buy a copy and do so now. It’s on audio, so grab it that way if this is your preference. It is simply exquisite. Scott talks about a simple concept with profound impact: how to care personally whilst challenging directly. As leaders she is straightforward and practical in how to get started and offers a simple and effective framework to critique where we might tend to operate at the moment. The area within the four box quadrant that has taken my time and attention this month is the spectacularly labelled ‘ruinous empathy’. This month, I have been working with sales leaders at a global brand who need to challenge their teams to change their behaviour, learn more quickly and adapt faster to deliver better performance. Tenure, expertise, skill set is no protection against this requirement and whilst caring personally is in abundance; challenging directly is not. This is ‘ruinous empathy’ because we don’t want to damage the relationship or cause offence and yet leaders everywhere must fight against it. Why? Because ultimately, it’s not fair or helpful to the other person to fail to tell them things which they would be better off knowing.

Are you guilty of ‘ruinous empathy’? Who in your professional world is overdue ‘radical candour’ for which they, the team, their customers and the business would all benefit if you took your communication skills up to the next level? If our relationships are as strong with our team as we like to think they are then now is the time to step up. Care personally, and challenge directly.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Why Turning On Your Camera (Still) Matters

Sixteen months into a global health crisis which is far from over means for all of us that we’re still spending a lot of our working day on remote video calls.

Whilst the clamour to travel to visit clients or get back to the office may be overwhelming for some - and non-existent for others - for now at least, we’re still largely working from home.

I’ve been working with several global law firms this month and I have noticed the resurgence of the ‘I’m not camera ready’ expression….with the preference to remain off camera for a meeting.

It has prompted my curiosity and also my constructive challenge.

What’s going on here? What does this expression mean? And why do we think that it is an acceptable working practice to join remote meetings with lots of black squares and/or out of date photographs are at play?

To be clear, there’s a big difference between needing to go off camera because a child we’re home schooling is having a meltdown, or we need to answer the door to the delivery man. That’s a totally valid reason, and it is not what I’m talking about.

As leaders and influencers, our job is to show up. Being visible by turning our cameras on still matters for a wide variety of reasons:

  1. It sets the tone. Being on camera shows the world that ‘this is how we do things around here’. Linguists will tell us that 80% of our communication is non-verbal and being able to see and read facial expressions, posture and hand gestures all help create connection and improve the quality of the interaction. The ‘illusion’ of communication actually occurring was first observed by George Bernard Shaw. Working remotely has made the task significantly harder and so everything that we can do to counteract this challenge is helpful.
  2. It shows responsibility. By conveying to your team that you’re ready to work. I’m not talking about being fully suited and booted, or spending a lot of time grooming (however much that is), but putting on a clean shirt/top, brushing our teeth and putting a comb through our hair isn’t a lot to ask is it?
  3. It builds connection. As human beings we crave it; and after so long being separated from each other in so many different ways, being visible creates a powerful opportunity to do just that – connect. How we spend our time and how we spend our money tells the world what we care about, and by turning our camera on and our attention to the audience, we’re saying we care… about each other. If we show others we can about them; we encourage the same reciprocity.
  4. It makes us memorable. Expressions such as ‘out of sight is out of mind’ and ‘in one ear and out the other’ reflect what a significant amount of scientific research has already shown, namely that our auditory modality is not as good as our visual modality for remembering the message. Who wants to be forgettable? We jump on calls to talk to each other and influence each other and not to crank through a million emails and messages.
  5. It builds trust. Distance builds distrust. Harvard Business Review found that we’re 2.5 times more likely to perceive incompetence, poor decision making and mistrust our remote colleagues, versus those whom we see regularly at the office. The myriad of rituals that bind us in person are missing remotely, and so we have to work so much harder to that precious commodity which is the cornerstone of any successful relationship.
  6. We’re all in a relationship business, first and foremost. And we lose sight of that at our peril.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Dealing With Challenge In The Remote Environment


Research has repeatedly shown that distance builds distrust. We are more likely to perceive incompetence, poor decision making and mistrust amongst our colleagues with whom we do not engage regularly, face to face. As a result, trust drops. We are contradicted. Our requests for help, support or action are met with a ‘no’. We are challenged directly about something which is inaccurate, unfair, untrue or unworkable. So, what are we to do?

My conversations this month have been centred around high potential talent who are being exposed to more robust conversations across their businesses.

Our focus has been to repeatedly practice this skill set, and whilst I call it demonstrating ‘grace under pressure’, like everything in relation to communication, the theory is easy… the doing it is much more difficult. Our immediate challenge is to retain poise and control in these situations, even as our emotions are racing.

Here are strategies to strengthen to convey remote presence:

  1. Slow the conversation down. Whilst this is counter intuitive because we want to justify, explain, push back, be emotional, what we need to do is give ourselves time to think first.
  2. Clarify and confirm the challenge. Let the other person do the talking; to put all their concerns on the table so that we have the full picture before we formulate our response.
  3. Pause… use ‘holding phrases’ like ‘I need to think about this’ or ‘I don’t know what to say to that right now’ to signal your surprise and give yourself the opportunity to reflect and gather your thoughts.
  4. Ask questions. Where do we need more information before answering the challenge?
  5. Concede specific points and focus on the facts. Facts are hard to contest.
  6. Avoid too much information in reply. Lengthy answers with lots of detail do not persuade.
  7. Convey your answer confidently.
  8. Watch your tone. I recall an instance of eye watering arrogance, ill-informed challenge and breath-taking stupidity when challenged. However, the person has the right to challenge and we need to be able to handle it graciously.
  9. Follow up with a note if necessary to appreciate the challenge, explain the facts and move forward positively. That’s the goal…to retain our grace, defend our position and importantly – to continue to have a positive, collaborative relationship.
  10. Learn from it and adapt where necessary. How do we need to be more effective? More impactful? More persuasive in our communication?

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Beware Of Prioritizing Tasks Over Relationships

How many of us view certain remote meetings as a great opportunity to catch up on emails or other work? That joyful satisfaction of clearing nine million emails whilst being dialed in to a boring, weekly account review sounds good, right?

Wrong.

I’ve been working with my clients this month exploring the consequence of being efficient versus being effective as leaders and influencers at work. Yes, I’m efficient if I can respond immediately to emails and finish my day with an empty inbox; however I’m effective if I can persuade others to support my ideas, give me their time, people or budget to support my priorities because they see the value of it.

The rituals of building relationships are strained in the remote environment because our calendars are over booked, we move from meeting to meeting with barely a break, we’ve been talking about ‘dodgy internet connections’ for over a year or more now and so can get away with not being on camera. Result!!!

No, it’s not.

In the remote environment we need to work harder than ever to build our impact and strengthen our relationships; otherwise we will become less effective over time.

Here are five, highly effective habits which help strengthen our relationships in the remote environment and which need to be part of our operational rhythm, if we are to be influential in our roles and successful with our professional relationships:

  • Regularly review the effectiveness and enjoyment around how we spend our time. Where are we less effective? What is not a good use of our time? Where can we add more value? Or, remove the activity from our calendar? All of us should regularly scrutinize and adjust our diaries to maximize the value we contribute to the business. Don’t ‘wait’ until things get less busy. Here’s a prediction – they won’t.
  • Shorten all your meetings by 15 minutes so that that start and finish times allow for a short break between meetings. Ask those who invite you to meetings to do the same. We all need a break, state change and chance to clear those blessed emails so that we can focus on the remote conversation.
  • Turn your camera on for all remote meetings. The ‘my wifi connection is poor’ argument is no longer tenable. We’ve all been working remotely for at least a year and should be getting to grips with some of the fundamentals. Buy a ‘booster’ to improve connection, plug in our ethernet cable directly to the router….if we don’t do this, we can convey an impression of out of touch, disinterested and lacking the agility and energy to be more virtually literate. Ask for help; get it; and demonstrate more credibility as a result.
  • Dial in a minute early….reliability is conveyed by being on time…or even early. It also allows you to connect with colleagues ahead of the meeting start. The use of the word ‘connect’ is deliberate; we can change our relationship with others through mere moments of small talk, and we ignore this at our peril.
  • Be generous; with your attention, questions, ideas, resources, contacts to colleagues and clients alike. I’m not talking about acquiring lots of actions; I’m talking about offering a rich array of practical help progress priorities, projects and performance.
All of us work in the business of communication, influence and relationships, so where can you focus your efforts to strengthen your remote presence today?

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

The Power Of Plain Speaking

The brand association with the phrase ‘plain speaking’ is not great. It is linked to being brutally direct, without thought or care for how the audience might feel in response to it. However, the real intent behind such a communication strategy is an entirely positive one, and I’ve been talking with my clients this month about the real power (and explanation) of what ‘plain speaking’ actually means.

But first, a true story and direct quote. Someone has said the following to me in the past month: “Sarah, what we really need is a strategic staircase”.

I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about and enquiring further, I discovered that what they actually meant was… a business plan. My reaction was to suppress hearty laughter and swiftly move to explore the power of speaking plainly.

Great leaders are clear communicators and use memorable, compelling language. It is engaging and memorable because it is clear, simple and easy to understand. That’s the power of plain speaking.

Unnecessarily elaborate, pretentious, complicated phrases and words are absolutely not impactful. Whilst I understand the fundamental human condition to fit in, be impressive and feel like we belong, this is not the way to do it. Please, let’s stop this awful ‘management speak’, which we hear and then start to repeat because we labour under the belief that it makes us sound intelligent.

It does not.

We work across borders, cultures and time zones, as well as working at distance in this challenging remote environment. We are working in the middle of a global health pandemic, with kids at home being home schooled in some cases, we're working harder, for longer and with greater intensity. So, why on earth would we want to make it even more complicated for ourselves through the language we use?

And whilst we’re at it, please can we remove the following linguistic bad habits:

Rubbish words’ - any word or phrase that is overused, fills our sentences with no purpose and said repeatedly must go.

Weasel words’ - ‘yes…but’ (means ‘no’), ‘try’ (but won’t succeed just to let you know) and ‘we’ll see’ (which means ‘no’) need to be removed.

Reductive language’ - ‘small point’, ‘quick question’, ‘tiny observation’ are all examples of how we can diminish and downplay our contribution. It sounds apologetic, submissive and weak. We have a point, a question or an observation. That’s it.

Speaking plainly, we may use one or more languages in our business life, so make it work powerfully and memorably for - not against - you. Be curious about your bad habits, take them in turn and work to remove them. It takes 21 days to build a new habit. Slow down the pace at which we speak and pause…both of which help enormously with our confidence to speak plainly, memorably and with impact.

Enough is enough. And it needs to stop.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

My Top Ten Tips For Pitching In The Remote World

What was the last memorable pitch you experienced since we’ve all been working remotely? Exactly.

I’ve been working this month with global clients in healthcare, professional services and telecoms where our focus has been the topic of pitching in the remote world.

Most pitches are entirely forgettable. They were when we could meet face-to-face; but it’s getting worse now that we’re all working at distance.

The reasons for this are many and varied, but fundamentally the inability of the presenter to adapt to the needs of the remote environment is the number one cause. McKinsey reported that 67% of B2B professionals are ostensibly using the same pitch decks that they used when they could be on site.

That’s mistake number 1. The second is to fail to recognize that the goal is to create a memorable and engaging experience for the audience. The behavioural science behind this is clear. If we don’t adapt; they won’t call back.

So how do we do this now? How do we create a fantastic customer experience, where we are memorable, persuasive and effective as we orchestrate a compelling interaction with our clients remotely? And how do we avoid the utterly tedious information overload with an accompanying sense of dread as complicated slides flash past in a blur, as we run out of time and our audience runs out of patience and interest?

Here are my top ten tips:

  1. Get the right tools for the job. We are now almost 12 months in to a global pandemic and too many professionals still don't know have the right kit. I’m not talking about spending a lot of money at all. This is about professional remote presence, which means, a decent camera, microphone, headphones and second screen.
  2. ‘All the gear; no idea’….having the right kit doesn’t mean that professionals know how to use it properly. So learn how to set the correct angle for the camera, organize the lighting effectively, decide on your background, turn off notifications and manage WIFI/broadband speeds to enable cameras to stay turned on.
  3. Understand that it’s our responsibility to create an engaging experience versus ‘present slides in a remote meeting’. These two activities are completely different and we don’t understand this fundamentally, then we will fail.
  4. Plan interaction with the audience – early and often – and plan the time needed for this properly. Forget the ‘questions at the end’ strategy. The group won’t be listening by that time if we don't get them involved regularly. Use technology properly: so polling, annotation, whiteboards, quizzes, breakout rooms, gamification with purpose and poise.
  5. Keep learning about how to make the platform work for you. All major platforms are going through warp speed upgrades; so regularly make time to explore the nuances. A simple one on MS Teams which is spectacular is the ‘spotlight’ function, which allows for a far more engaging way to engage and introduce the audience than using a slide with stretched, old photos of the group. It’s also fantastic for discussion activities to maximize the contributor on the screen.
  6. Understand the behavioural science which drives our memory of experience. Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Peak End’ rule says that we’ll reflect on a memory based on the intensity of feeling (‘peak’), whether positive or negative, and how we felt at the end. If we don’t demonstrate that we understand this; we will be forgettable.
  7. Whatever the number of slides you have (a) there are probably too many (b) reduce their density…we can’t read and listen at the same time.
  8. Videos are great – in small doses and as long as we’ve done the technology check. Too many videos have died on the altar of ‘hey Bob, I’ve just got a spinning wheel here…..’. The best audio in the room should be us.
  9. Technology regularly fails; we need a back-up plan to seamlessly switch to at a moment’s notice.
  10. Ditch the dense slides….think of the concept of ‘glance media’…in other words, we can read the slide in 3 seconds or less.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Reduce Complexity To Go Faster

Happy New Year to you all. Whilst this past festive season will probably go down in history as one of our least favourite, the new year brings a focus on what we want to achieve as we look to a - hopefully - much better future for us all.

In terms of that future, some of these things will be simple - to see our loved ones, go out for dinner, host friends in our homes or go on holiday. Isn’t it interesting how these all seem - right now at the time of writing and reading - almost impossible to imagine?

Even so, and in terms of our professionals lives, if 2020 was the year to ‘slow and grow’ and 2021 is the year to ‘go’, then the question at the front of my mind is simply this: how can we ‘go faster’ this year? Whether that is to go faster to grow our business, go faster to get a promotion, go faster to acquire additional skills, or go faster to achieve the performance we want?

As leaders and influencers, the answer has to be built around two words: reduce complexity. Whether it’s in a process, a communication, a strategy, a task, an answer to a question, a pitch, a story, a suggestion, an idea, an approach, an activity.

Reduce complexity. Increase agility. Reduce costs. In that spirit and for this first post of 2021, I have aimed to reflect that approach. For us all, I encourage a focus on one simple question with whatever we are doing at work: ‘how can I reduce complexity to go faster?’

Here’s to a much better year…..