Tuesday, 15 September 2020

How Do We Build Relationships In The Remote Environment?

My thoughts have turned this month to the challenge of building relationships in the remote environment. A global brand with whom I am working is worried about their sales teams. Big hitters, delivering big numbers and representing a big brand. They have built a great profile with the client and earned ‘floor walking’ rights through the quality of the relationships they have, and the value of their solutions to their clients’ businesses.

So what’s the problem?

Well, first and foremost, these big hitters can’t go to their client’s offices because no-one is there…. and many businesses have indicated that no-one is returning to the workplace anytime soon. There’s a vertical drop in high quality conversations with a common theme when of ‘when things get back to normal, I’ll be back in their offices’ from the sales teams, combined with a ‘we’ll reconnect once things have calmed down’ from the clients, and a general ‘we’re keeping in touch via email’, and ‘it’s all fine’ theme to the overall perspective on the situation.

If this was your sales organisation, would you worry?

My hand goes straight up and I am particularly worried about how we can support sales teams such as the one I’ve just described to be able to build their relationships if they are not physically and regularly present with their clients. How can we find out what’s going on through planned and ad hoc interactions? How do we gauge the mood, be spontaneous, smooth ruffled feathers, make connections, ask great questions, gather powerful client intelligence and identify possible future opportunities……….. if we’re not there in person?

Just talk to the client I hear you say.

The client is busy, distracted and challenged on a number of fronts, so the first stumbling block is getting their attention, securing their willingness to commit time to a conversation and then showing up as planned. After that we just need to ensure it is useful for them (not just us), and create momentum to keep talking.

You see? Not easy. And by the way, this challenge is one for any and all of us who need to influence others in order to get things done.

This is without question a rich, expansive topic, so for starters, let’s ensure that:

  1. We recognise that relationships don’t get built without planning. This means identifying SMART goals to inch forward progress in the quality of the connections we have. The quality of our relationships with others is represented by their willingness to make time to talk us, sharing useful information, and being willing to connect us with others inside or outside of their organisation.
  2. We do our homework to identify how a conversation might appeal to them. Brainstorm ideas with colleagues, talk to people in their team who are easier to get on the phone, think about sources of value for our audience that we could offer (and no I don’t mean bribe them!)
  3. We sell the value of having a meeting…for them – not us, and avoid the trap which sales professionals all to easily fall into of talking about their propositions. It’s too soon!
  4. We plan our questions. All too often we don’t; and then waste time flailing about. What we want to know can be discovered; what we need to do is plan to ask about it.
  5. Deliver a valuable conversation to build trust and credibility in the eyes of our audience.
Much more to say; but that’s for next time…..

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Why We Must Focus On Our Remote Presence

It is this month - August 2020 - in which I will finally publish my third book. After four years research, countless interviews and more than 70,000 edited words later, the topic of ‘Remote Presence - A Practical Guide To Communicating Effectively In The Remote Environment’ comes to life and it is this month that I am focusing on the ‘why’.

Why is ‘remote presence’ so critical now? Why should all professionals focus on developing it? And why has it never been harder to achieve?

Let’s start with the first question. Why is remote presence so critical now? Harvard Business Review published fascinating research which showed that trust reduces remotely across teams, scepticism increases remotely and that it is more challenging to influence remotely. Quite simply we are harder to convince, we are less likely to believe and we are more likely to disagree when working together at a distance. Communicating remotely isn’t something we do periodically - it is now - and for the foreseeable future - our sole means by which to build relationships, increase our reach within customers, drive our priorities both internally and externally, change the view of others and get support for what is important to us all requires remote presence. It’s not easy and quite simply we all need to up our game.

Why should all professionals focus on developing it? Because everything has changed now that we need to persuade at a distance. We’re not in the same room, we’re two dimensional not three, we’re about 5% of our normal size and we are at the behest of our internet connection when it comes to how others experience us. All of this impacts our ability to reach, engage and influence colleagues and clients alike.

Why has it never been harder to achieve? Because our normal working environment now is what I call the ‘distraction’ environment. We’re often trying to convince an invisible audience and a silent audience who can readily be absorbed by something else entirely, and no-one will have any idea to the contrary. It has never been easier for our audience to think ‘I don’t care, I’m not listening and I’m not going to engage with this.’ In addition, it’s never been easier for them to get away with it.

If our role means selling, coaching, managing, leading, engaging, delivering, driving, serving, supporting, motivating, persuading and challenging colleagues or customers in order to be successful, then we need to show up remotely like never before and we need to get really, really good at it.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

3 Words With Which All Leaders Need To Get Comfortable

Currently, governments and countries around the globe are either closing down or slowly opening up to experience that endlessly repeated and not at all understood phrase of ’the new normal’.

Businesses are adjusting at lightning speed, executive boards are making eye watering decisions and wherever possible, all companies are trying to entice customers back into the habit of spending money with them.

In addition, employees are returning to work (whilst wherever possible this is being done at home), and in so doing, there is still the requirement of schooling their children, taking care of loved ones and staying healthy and hopeful.

’Normal’ this most certainly is not. ’New’ it most definitely is.

So, what does all this mean for our communication as leaders who need to engage their people, drive results through others, keep teams focused on what they can control and build a culture of trust, connection and optimism? If the global pandemic that is Covid19 has taught us anything, it is that no team, no manager and no business had a pre-prepared playbook to successfully navigate the health and economic crisis that is sweeping around the world. This reality sits utterly at odds with the theory of what great leadership looks like. We have read and been told countless times that leadership is about conveying confidence, certainty, authority and leveraging our talent to find and secure the answers we need. We are trained to take the long term view, see around corners and be certain. However, the reality of our new Covid world, is that if our communication is to resonate, reach and reassure our people, we need to get comfortable with saying 3 words much more often that we have been used to doing in the past.

'I don’t know.’

Those are the 3 words which leaders need to embrace: 'I don’t know.’


Because we’re far more likely to build trust and respect if we show up as someone who doesn’t have all the answers, all of the time. Absolutely no-one does - anywhere - and to act in a way that suggests otherwise is na├»ve at best and dangerously delusional at worst. Saying these 3 words reveals our vulnerability as leaders, and it is in that space that we create connection with others. Our style and tone matter. This is not a simpering, unnecessarily apologetic ‘mea culpa’. Rather it is a statement of confident fact. Being immediate, crisp, positive and action oriented must combine with being reassuring, optimistic and calm.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The 3 Strengths All Great Leaders Need To Develop Now

What times we live in. As the global pandemic unfolds around the world, we continue to hold on, take care of ourselves and those we love and do our best at work given the circumstances we face. If the global economy is to recover, then it will be historic. Nothing on this scale has been attempted before, and undoubtedly there will be both success and failure, good days and bad ones, challenge and opportunity as we look ahead and look beyond this time of crisis.

But for here and now, during this period of lockdown in the United Kingdom, I have been talking with a lot of clients about leadership today versus the world pre-covid19 and ‘post-covid19’ (whatever that will be), and exploring the skills and strategies that great leaders need to harness in the coming days, weeks and months. What does being a great leader really mean now? What skills do leaders need to focus on strengthening moving forward? Where do we start when faced with rapidly changing and unpredictable government mandates, fragile supply chains, a decimated sales pipeline and an anxious workforce who are slowly returning to work? A long list is easily created to answer these questions; however I am reminded of a powerful, yet simple expression in which to group my response: great leaders lead with their head, their heart and their hands.

Leading with our head: means being skilled to see what a future could look like and what it will take to get there. This is not a naively optimistic perspective, but an informed and measured view which combines the art of the possible, with an ability to look around corners and have the courage to take decisions despite eye-watering levels of uncertainty. It’s not easy, but seeing a vision of something better, finding the wins now and believing that in the end, it will be all be worth it, is what leading with our head really means.

Leading with our heart: means being able to deeply and warmly engage a frightened and anxious team as they return to (a very different) way of working. Genuine care, empathy and making proper time for our people is what is needed to reach them. Being able to let go of control and build a culture based on transparency, openness, optimisim and trust is where engagement lives. It’s the ability to inspire our people to do more - willingly - for our customers than anyone thought possible.

Leading with our hands: means being able to empower others to take responsibility for delivering performance, being agile to transform entrenched processes and ways of working so that we can be more responsive, more efficient and more distinctive in creating a safe, customer centric environment and get things done. Taking away the barriers, leading by example and being visible is what leading with our hands really means.

Sounds like a lot to go at? Of course it is, but what underpins each strength is communication skills. Leadership is a relationship business and that means we are all in the business of communication. Any successful relationship is built on communicating clearly, listening wholeheartedly and influencing readily. Just because we learnt a language (or more than one), when we were younger, it doesn’t mean others understand us now. We have a lot to say, a lot of ways in which to say it and a lot of different needs, priorities and emotions to address. Oh, and by the way, we need to most of that remotely. It’s not easy but it’s not an option. So, as we all continue to learn and change and grow: which leadership strength do you want to work on strengthening now?

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Being Visible As A Leader

In the United Kingdom, our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has just returned to work having survived a frightening, personal battle with the Covid19 virus that took him to the intensive care unit of a well-known London NHS hospital. In his absence, the ability of the watching media and wider country to absorb and believe the messages of those who deputized for him over three weeks, began clearly and inexorably to ebb away.

Now this is not a political post about my views on the UK prime minister, nor is it a comment in any way on how trustworthy he has been since his return to work. However, it prompted me to revisit a theme about which I have written earlier this year – namely our challenge as leaders to be seen as trustworthy, and I am minded to revisit it in the context of being visible.

We’re not seen in the way that we used to be. The world is working online and from home. We remain separated by distance and time-zones from our colleagues, our challenge is to control and educate our children, attempt to exercise to stay healthy whilst also trying to manage the range of emotions that might overtake us at any moment. It’s easy to fall into the tried and tested trap of showing visibility by being excessively responsive to emails, social media posts and direct messages. However, how strategic is this? Does it really prove anything? Other than you’re sending a tsunami of emails? I remain unconvinced, and see the stress, anxiety and pressure of this strategy playing out time and again across my clients. So the question to explore is this: as leaders, how do we meaningfully build trust by increasing our visibility?

I offer a five point plan:
  1. Show up and turn your camera on. There is clear evidence which reinforces the simple fact that we are more likely to believe others if we can see them and have made a clear effort with our appearance. So for the myriad of remote meetings and calls that absorb our calendars each day – we should be seen…no matter how much in need of a barber or hairdresser we might be.
  2. Catch people doing things right and publicize it. We know how easy it is to focus on what isn’t working, however this will become an overwhelming and never-ending list of impossible problems to solve - especially as our people start returning to work. As leaders, our role is to find what Dan and Chip Heath call the ‘bright spots’, which are early glimmers of where something is working, and our job is to find ways to scale and replicate it for more success. We should publicize those small chinks of light and share our learning, because it helps us all when we do so.
  3. Offer help and mean it. It’s easy to criticize and focus on why new approaches, projects and priorities are doomed. A paraphrased quote from Brene Brown that I love is ‘roll up your sleeves, get in the game and quit whining from the cheap seats’. How can we help? What can we offer? How could we contribute in a positive, useful context? This is not about overloading your diary with ‘to dos’, it’s about being thoughtful, intentional and helpful, and boy, does this build credibility and trust.
  4. Make time and get to know to your colleagues. Invite them to speak at your remote meetings; get an invite to listen and learn at theirs. Understanding what’s on their minds, driving their activity and absorbing their energy as they grapple with the uncertainties in front of us all. Identifying what’s making them tick, and encouraging them to do the same for us creates a powerful win/win for all concerned.
  5. Listen more and talk less in general, and with your team in particular. How are they really? What do they need at this exact point in time? What’s changed since we last spoke? Genuine, uninterrupted attention is one of the most exquisite gifts we can give our people and they will appreciate and respect us for it. It’s also essential to enable others to identify more choice and take more control of their situation. If we ask brilliant questions, they will find it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Do We Understand The Magnetic Power Of Words In The Age Of COVID-19?

Who amongst us is tired of the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ to describe the world in which we all currently live? I know I am… because I have heard it used relentlessly and repeatedly across the UK media. As a result, it has caused me to pause and reflect on a concept which I call the ‘magnetic’ power of words in our language. As leaders and influencers, our role with our messaging is to engage, connect and ‘reach’ our audience. Our job is to secure a specific decision, action or commitment as a result of what we say.

So, what do I mean by the ‘magnetic’ power of words? Quite simply, as the audience we seek - and find - specific words or phrases in the language of others which have a special relevance to us. It is these words which elicit a unique reaction or connection for us with the message we have just heard, and it is these ‘magnetic’ words to which we are drawn, and around which we form our overall engagement with the message. It’s a classic example of what I call being skilled at ‘emotional leadership’.

Unfortunately if a word or phrase is over-used, such as ‘unprecedented times’, then it’s easy to start rolling our eyes, mocking the lack of originality in the message and - maybe - just maybe - become faintly irritated by a growing feeling of being patronized and not fully understood.

All governments in these coronavirus-ravaged times are struggling to communicate their messages effectively. Here in the UK, we have been in lockdown for only a couple of weeks and yet debate in our country grows around ‘the rules’ of lockdown, what is meant by ‘use common sense’ in relation to venturing out for daily exercise, and are we all on the same page with our understanding of government advice to ‘go shopping for food/medicine as infrequently as possible’? My point is that these words and phrases are magnetic. They act as the basis on which we justify our choices and our behaviours - and at the moment - there is a wide variety of interpretation. What is certain is that this ambiguity was not what the UK government intended.

As leaders, the precision of our language has never mattered more. We need to be crystal clear and unequivocal with our messaging and and so examples of ‘weasel words’ to be wary of include:
  • ‘Hopefully’ (yikes is that all we’ve got?)
  • ‘Try’ (as Yoda says, ‘do or don’t do – there is no try’)
  • ‘Ideally’ (according to whose ideal?)
  •  ‘Significant’ (in relation to what?)
The list is endless. Our language should be crystal clear, it should ‘reach’ us and we should be changed as a result of it. Our oratory should be filled with positive ‘magnetic’ words that resonate, are strategic and which linger in the memory. How will we know if we’ve been successful? It’s simple. There will be consistency and uniformity of response… and we won’t need to explain, then re-explain, then re-work what we said to be clearer.

So, as you consider your next all hands call, group-wide email, or remote meeting, what magnetic words do we need to use to make our message really land?

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Getting Your 'Ask' Right

Being a leader means driving change. Being influential means persuading colleagues, teams, suppliers, and senior stakeholders to do things large and small, risky and less risky, expensive and not so much, in order to drive results. This month I have been working with a business that is challenged with the concept of onboarding. Often new leaders joining this business complain about an insufficient onboarding process which leads to unnecessary duplication, lack of productivity, reduced employee engagement, and in a complex, high value sales environment, a disproportionately high number of people attending client meetings. In addition, many of those who attend these meetings are not effective, and missed sales opportunities and a sub-optimal customer experience are the result. Despite this painful reality, the problem has persisted and little has changed over the past few years.

So, why is it that no matter how concise our message, no matter how clear our slide deck and explicit our request, we don’t always drive the change that we seek?

My time with clients this month has caused me to reflect on the answer to this question by considering the concept of ’the ask’, one element of which is to be clear on whether we seek a decision, action or some sort of commitment (time, money, people etc.) However, we also need to have thought through our strategy around the ask, and there are a number of elements to this:

  • Doing our research to understand our audience’s current awareness and sense of urgency around the issue
  • Linking the ‘ask’ explicitly to an impact on the stakeholders’ key priorities
  • Pre-briefing certain people in advance to get them onside
  • Ensuring no ‘nasty surprises’, because that’s the quickest way to alienate others
  • Demonstrating alignment with communities most impacted by the ask
  • Garnering support from others to demonstrate how easy it would be to get started and make a difference
These matter - a lot. And there is something else too. We need to beware of asking too much, too soon. In other words, we have to get the scale of the request just right and it has caused me to evolve the concept of ‘the iterative ask.’ In the onboarding example I’ve cited, asking for a wholesale change to the onboarding process won’t work. It’s too big, too complicated, it involves too many stakeholders and will elicit the most common response - which is to do nothing. We need to break this down into a number of smaller asks which, one by one we get approval for, deliver a result against, prove the value to relevant commercial metrics, and then go back to ask for more.

The ‘iterative ask’ forces us to think through our strategy for what we want and the order in which we want it. It forces us to consider our audience, prove the concept, develop its application, reinforce its business value and over time, get the bigger scale change delivered.

So what’s change that you’ve been trying to lead which has stalled, or failed to get the traction you seek? How might your strategy be improved by focusing on the clarity of and strategy for a series of asks that you might need to iterate?