Monday, 11 November 2019

Why Talking About Your Weaknesses Makes You A Better Leader

I’ve been working with a global corporate client in the past month and had a fascinating conversation with a high potential talent leader regarding the concept of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Their challenge was a high level of discomfort around acknowledging to themselves - let alone others - the areas of their communication and influencing skills that needed to improve.

During an intensive skills development workshop that included a typical business simulation, their influencing skills were tested, and the experience revealed their strengths as well as their weaknesses. When given constructive insights around how to close these gaps, how did the leader respond? With a high degree of defensiveness, sprinkled with some misdirected frustration.

This response got me thinking. What is it that this leader was afraid of? Every successful and competent professional has weaknesses in relation to specific skills. Absolutely no-one in business - much like life - is perfect at everything. And, in breaking news, others in our organisation – and perhaps even our clients - already know this. How can I say this so confidently? Because we’ve already shown our weaknesses to them in different situations.

Leaders who demonstrate ‘executive presence’ are comfortable to talk about their gaps. In so doing they model the behaviour we want to encourage in our people – namely that we all have room to continually learn and grow. Company offices are filled with values that the organisation holds dear, and words like ‘integrity’, ‘clear’, ‘open’ and ‘trusted’ are amongst many that can adorn the walls.

However values live in daily behaviours. If we are to be credible, authentic, trusted, or respected, we need to be comfortable to ‘own’ our weaknesses. That is not to say that we do nothing about it; far from it. As leaders, when we talk about not only our weaknesses, but also what we are doing to improve them.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Signing Off On A High

In the 1970s and 80s in the UK, there was a famous comedy duo who had their own TV programme called ‘The Two Ronnies’. A family favourite, this hour long show ran on British television with two gentlemen – both named ‘Ronnie’ funnily enough, and it contained an amusing variety of skits, monologues, songs, jokes and sketches. As a duo, they were renowned at the end of every show for signing off with one Ronnie saying ‘and it’s goodnight from me’ with the other Ronnie replying ‘and it’s goodnight from him’.

Perhaps you may be wondering….so what has that got to do with me? Well, in the world of leadership communication, the short answer is ‘a lot’.

By way of a current example, one of my clients is a life sciences business with whom I am working, to help some of their technical leaders become more effective in their ability to influence their colleagues across the organisation. Whilst I work with professionals to hone their pitch, rehearse their opening line and handle the tricky question, we have spent a considerable amount of time in the past few days talking about the ‘sign off’. Quite simply the ‘sign off’ is the end of our message. It is our ‘parting shot’, our last impression; our verbal full stop.

In my experience, the ‘sign off’ is often extremely weak. Whether it’s the relief of getting to the end of what we wanted to say, or the prospect of not having to face the audience for much longer, all too often there is a weak ‘thank you’ or ‘that’s it’. Candidly, if we need to say ‘that’s it’, then our message isn’t sufficiently structured and obvious to our audience – and it should be.

So, quite simply we need to stop this. Instead, we need to ask the right question, or finish with the right statement, either of which signals to the audience a number of things: (a) we have finished (b) we have completed a compelling point (c) it is now the turn of the listener to speak. The possibilities are endless for what we can say, but it needs to be natural, impactful and an easy invitation which continues to move the conversation forward. ‘What do you think?’ ‘How can we do this?’ ‘I’m wondering how you’d like to move this forward…?’ Alternatively it could be a specific ‘ask’ of the audience (for a decision, action of some type of commitment).

It’s also important to mention the style of how we convey the message. I am not a fan of ‘pitching’ in the traditional sense of the word (slightly too forceful, slightly too polished, slightly too turbo charged). I’m talking about being natural, relaxed, articulate and composed in our delivery and in the way that we finish what our message.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Why Most Leaders’ Communication Fails To Hit The Mark

Got your attention? Spiked your interest? Curious to understand what that headline means? This is an example of a ‘hook’. A way to grab your attention and invite you to continue to read. In the world of the internet this phenomenon is known as ‘clickbait’ - a way to entice the reader in the midst of gazillions of megabytes of information. Frankly, I don’t like the phrase (and often times the examples of clickbait that I see), because they can deceive, distract and disappoint the reader. And yet, the part about clickbait that works so well is that it succeeds in getting people to look further, linger longer and become engaged with the message.

So what?

So leaders today need to take this concept and apply it far more effectively to our verbal communication. I call it a ‘hook’.

We open our mouths to do a number of things, including building rapport, asking questions, providing information, making jokes, challenging others, coaching and supporting our colleagues or team.

  • I'm talking about the moments in a conversation when the time has come to influence and persuade. When we need to shift the perspective, mindset, alignment of others in relation to an issue. Too often our commentary lacks a compelling, intriguing, interesting way of getting the audience’s attention right at the start, and as a result, we have already lost them. The audience has disconnected, disengaged and dismissed the value of continuing to pay attention.

Examples of a ‘hook’ include a powerful question, a statistic, a piece of customer verbatim, a quote, a soundbite, an irrefutable fact. The point of a hook is not to be so theatrical that we feel uncomfortable and something of a twit. Instead, it’s about using a natural, relaxed, conversational style to ease a ‘hook’ into the first words that come from our mouths when we need to deliver a structured message for impact.

So next time the moment comes during a discussion when you need to influence and persuade, how can you grab the attention of your audience right at the start?

Monday, 15 July 2019

Pitching To A Democracy

Decisions today are made in groups comprised of individuals who have vested interests, different priorities and often very little meaningful ‘positional power’ over each other. As leaders and influencers, we are tasked with the challenge of being persuasive in front of this audience, driving our agenda and elevating our priorities to get their attention, support and approval. When dialling into their calls or showing up at their meetings, we must share our story and ask clearly for what we want. I call this challenge ‘pitching to a democracy’.

In these difficult political times, whilst I hesitate to use the word democracy, the reality is that this is what we are faced with in business today. And it’s not easy.

I’ve talked many times before about the importance of a clear, concise and compelling message, combined with confident, articulate and engaging communication skills.

And that’s still not enough when faced with a team, because we have to flex to the dynamics which sit behind influencing a group of people, versus dealing with just one person.

So what do we do? Well for starters……

1. Understand the culture of the team

What are some of their behaviours? Language? Preferences that have evolved over time? What’s their ‘style’? Their approach? Their ‘mood’? How are they with each other and with those who sit outside of team? There is a richness and a subtlety to understanding the answers to these questions, which means we need to be able to ‘read the room’ and flex our style to convey that we ‘belong’.

2. Identify the (formal and informal) power structures within the group
These can be obvious and they can also be subtle. Who are the key influencers? Big hitters? Quiet assassins? Naysayers? Technical experts on whom they rely? We need to know ‘who’s who’ so that we can flex our approach in order to target our message at the right person, in the right way, to achieve the right response.

3. Know the quirks that make them unique
I have a client where there is a senior leadership team that talks a lot about the Times crossword. You’d better know the most difficult anagram that everyone is struggling over on that particular day. I have another team that talks about cooking. Yes, cooking. If you don’t know your Nigella from your Delia then you’re not coming in and by the way, some of you won’t understand what I’ve just written. This is exactly my point.

4. Stay On The Right Side Of The Line

Group dynamics by definition create ‘raised stakes’. Every single one of us is wired to save face and knowing how far (and with whom) we can push it is vital. If we get it wrong, we’ve alienated not just the individual, but also the whole team and they’re coming after us. Knowing when to step back, regroup offline and revisit another day is absolutely essential.

5. Get The Learning

Like democracy, groups evolve and nothing remains static. Every time we seek to influence a team it is vital that we learn from it. Good or bad, yes or no, fun or not fun, the absolute worst is not to learn from it. We have to reflect, reinforce and revisit our approach in order to be even more effective in the future.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Our Obligation To Dissent

It seems both timely and ironic that I find myself talking a great deal with clients this month on the topic of disagreement. I have been reminded of an article which I first read two years ago in Harvard Business Review which explored the leadership concept of having an obligation to dissent.

What a superb phrase.

Fundamentally, it means the responsibility of leaders to create a culture that encourages candour both within and across our teams, appreciates those who ‘speak truth to power’, welcomes the challenge from others because we believe it is fundamentally a positive force, and genuinely operating from a place where we lack the hubris to believe that ‘we’re almost always right’.

Now I think that this is really easy to write down, but much harder to 'do in practice’. Why?

Because on the one hand we worry about our leadership brand, we worry about showing vulnerability and we worry about being seen as credible, current and convincing to our peers, our colleagues, our customers and our board if we invite others to dissent. If that wasn’t enough, we also worry about challenging others - especially across our horizontal leadership team and also to those who are more senior than ourselves. We worry about appearing unsupportive, creating ‘enemies’ and damaging our relationship with others on whom we might need to rely to drive results, or support our next career move.

So, what can we do? 
  1. Firstly reframe what we’re talking about. The association of ‘dissent’ is negative, destructive, divisive. We’re not trying to deliberately do any of that in business. Instead we’re trying to be creative, curious, challenging and exacting of what our teams, our business and ourselves can do to move the needle.
  2. In addition, we need to delete the belief that because we may not know a great deal about the expertise of a colleague or another team, we cannot therefore add value to the discussion. Wrong. It is precisely because we don’t know the detail and do not have the expertise, that we are able - if we take the leap - to more easily cut to the essence of the discussion through the power of crisp, concise and compelling questions. These are asked to expand thinking, offer support, explore possibilities, challenge ‘group think’ and ensure we make the best decisions as a leadership team.
  3. Park our ‘ego’ at the door. All successful professionals have an ego (as do less successful professionals it has to be said). When we are asked questions we need to slow down, reflect, explore the question as a signal of interest and desire to help. We must resist the temptation to see it as a cue to defend our corner, become entrenched and vow to ‘get them back’ in some form later.
  4. Talk to our teams - continually - about the importance of their challenge. Great leaders hire people with more expertise than themselves. Our job is to harness it, expand it and leverage it fully. That means we need to welcome - if not demand - the challenge of those who work for us.
  5. Finally we should celebrate this kind of dissent, gather stories of the value of that challenge and share them around the organisation. What we talk about is what our teams will care about, so we need to do this - continually - if the behaviour is to become a positive aspect of the culture that we nurture.
My view of leadership and communication is simple: every human being comes into an interaction with the sole intent of leaving it with their self worth intact. It’s not an easy thing to do to encourage others to dissent, but we must - if we are to make the most of the talent across our business.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Why We All Need ‘Remote’ Presence

With the exception of actors, who started their career with the aim of want to live it on screen? Almost no-one. And yet for professional men and women this is where they are spending an increasing proportion of their professional lives. It’s all about being plugged in, camera on, staring at and talking to our computers. With this reality now in play, why should we care? Well, the short answer is: for a whole host of different reasons.

Firstly, as leaders and influencers, being remote from our audience makes our ability to have impact; to be seen, to be heard and to be influential – even more difficult. As if it wasn’t enough already.
  • Communicating at a distance takes away the connection made from being in the same space together. It removes that ‘hard to define but we know it if we see it’ sense that rapport exists, and it also makes makes ‘reading the room’ much harder because three dimensions has become two and sometimes we don’t even have visual with which to work.
  • For some occasions, the whole experience is based on one communication facet – your voice.
  • If that wasn’t enough, being successful in business today means influencing ‘horizontally’; being persuasive with others over whom we have no direct control; who may not be individuals who we see regularly face-to-face; who may not operate in the same time zone as us, nor work in the same department, vertical or organisation as us and who care much less about our priorities than they do their own. You see? I said it wasn’t easy.
  • Added to this challenge is the need to rely on the speed and quality of our internet connection which can delay, distract and deter even the most enthusiastic presenter.
  • Finally let’s add to the mix, our ability to be distracted by our phones continually, causing all of us to live in what is commonly known as the ‘attention deficit economy’, where most people aren’t listening most of the time. In fact, we are now blatant about it; talking to each other whilst staring at, typing into and scrolling on our devices.
So what do we need?

I call it ‘remote presence’. Quite simply this is: “The ability to effectively communicate, contribute and challenge remotely. Irrespective of the media, demonstrating the skills to ‘reach’ an audience by being persuasive, impactful and compelling with our contributions."

Who amongst us needs to hone our ability to do that?

Monday, 8 April 2019

Relationships Don't Get Built On Email

My clients this month have focused the mind on the importance of relationships. I have the pleasure and privilege of working across a wide range of industries, cultures and countries, and discussions this month have focused on the challenges to building effective relationships around the business. This ranges from connecting with colleagues who are based in the same building, to creating meaningful connections with leaders in different countries, on different time zones and with very different priorities to our own.

Here’s what I notice: relationships don’t get built on email.

We all understand the advantages of technology to enabling greater efficiency, managing a heavier workload and simply maintaining the pace of business today. However it can be an enormous distraction from the critical task of building effective, mutually beneficial relationships around our organisation, which is a critical differentiator for leaders in fast paced, flat, global, matrix organisations. I have been working with several leaders lately who are classical keyboard warriors; massively responsive and efficient, they manage a phenomenal workload and all of them are seen as an asset to their teams. However, their individual challenges include dealing with conflict, pushing back constructively and getting their priorities supported by colleagues whose focus is on something else entirely. Better relationships would undoubtedly help and in the absence of doing this, my clients simply try to run faster, work harder and ‘just get through it’.

Timing is everything. As I write, we are approaching the end of the month and the end of the first quarter of this year; and this is a particularly busy time for one of my clients in the retail sector. Clearly, inviting them to take time out to ‘build relationships’ now would not be met with a printable response. However what it highlights is that if we don’t make regular time to strategically, intentionally and consistently focus on doing this, it is incredibly difficult to get meaningful support when the going gets tough.

Leaders with executive presence make time to:

  • Lift their heads up from the screen
  • Identify and plan who are critical stakeholders to their business
  • Set relationship goals (not task goals) for their key influencers
  • Defend time to talk/meet to understand their issues/priorities/challenges
  • Ask ‘how can my team help with that?’
  • And do so regularly, iteratively, intentionally.

As leaders we are all in a relationship business, irrespective of the industry, country or function in which we work. That means we need to make time to build relationships, using the best asset at our disposal – ourselves – not our email.