Get Out of Your Seat!

Day after day, I talk to lots of folks who are looking to improve any number of work place issues.  Whether its resolving a dispute, gaining performance out of others, understanding what people are thinking, or simply building relationships, people are looking for the good ‘how to’ answers.

While there are no silver bullets, I do believe that there is one simple way to solve the above issues (and more).

Simply, get out of your seat.  Go ask.  Go listen.  Go talk.  Go engage!

It’s amazing what a little direct interaction can do to solve your ills.  Back in the day, we didn’t have email, instant messenger, text, or other digital mediums to communicate through (or hide behind).  We actually had to talk face to face with each other.

While that may sound archaic, it’s extremely effective.  And those that do it well reap successful rewards.

So what can ‘getting out of your seat’ do for you?  Check out these three benefits.

Improve your health.  Really!  Instead of sitting and typing an email, get up and go talk!  I was recently reading an article by Michael Hyatt that highlighted the dangers of sitting in your seat for prolonged periods.  There was an infographic that stated that sitting 6+ hours per day increases your likelihood of death by 40% as compared to others that sit far less.  That’s a pretty compelling reason in and of itself to NOT rest on your laurels all day.   Make sure to read through the infographic  – it’s pretty interesting!

Solve issues faster.  More than once today, I talked with colleagues and was asked, “How should I deal with this person?”  My response each time?  Go talk with them.  Stop speculating, trying to interpret emails, and/or listening to the scuttlebutt dished by other people.  Take the initiative, be proactive, and go get face to face with the source.  If approached correctly, you will get to the root issue much faster and gain resolution much faster.

Expand your influence.  One of my favorite leadership tenets at my company is that of Coaching By Walking Around (CBWA).  This is an intentional activity where the leader engages with the troops where they are.  But more important than coaching, is listening.  A leader will learn far more about what is going on in the business, how employees feel, and what’s concerning them by getting out from behind the desk and asking.  The added benefits of this critical exercise, if done sincerely, are that you become more approachable, more appreciated, and more influential – which makes your coaching (when necessary) more readily accepted.

As with all things, you have to use common sense and know when to communicate in the right manner.  Learn to use your tools appropriately.  But when it comes to those issues listed in the first paragraph – get up and go!

So what are you waiting for?  Get out there!

5 Ways to Listen Better

Listening is a critical skill.

I don’t think anyone reading this post would deny it.

As I watch the great leaders around me, I notice one thing that they have in common.  They listen.

Rarely are they the first to talk.  They listen, contemplate, and then ask questions.

And then, when they are ready to make a statement, those around them almost lean forward in anticipation of what is about to be said because they know that it will be important.

But why?

Because the leader’s words were built upon a foundation of first listening to others.

So, how do you become a better listener?

The first method of course is to simply close your own mouth, which many of us often find to be a challenge.  I’m the first to admit that I sometimes struggle in this area.  However, when I get it right, it’s amazing what happens.  I find myself listening more intently to those around me and understanding much more than I did before.

The path to improved listening, however, is more of a journey than a sudden magnificent change.  There are many methods, but each of them takes focus, practice, and conscious repetitious effort.

This weekend, I stumbled across a TED video by Julian Treasure that talks about 5 Ways to Listen Better.  So, I thought that I would share with you here to put more tools into your leader’s locker.

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So, what’d you think?  Pretty interesting!

Personally, I found the fifth exercise to be the best.  However, all are great tools to enhance your ability to listen to the environment around you.  And hopefully to not only enhance your ability to listen, but your enjoyment of it as well.

What exercises, tools, or tips have you found to help improve your listening skill?

5 Reasons to Take a Breath Before Responding

I’ve been reminded of a very valuable lesson in my current role.  It seems so easy when you think about it, but in observation, few people seem to practice it.

Every day (for the great majority of us) we communicate with others. 

In communicating, there are a number of elements involved in order to be successful.  For example, you need to listen, use proper tone, and use the right words to clearly convey your message.  While these elements (and others) are all important, I want to focus in on one today:  “taking a breath”.

What am I talking about?  Taking a proverbial breath amounts to nothing more than pausing before you respond to someone.

Why is this important?  Taking a breath will:

  • Ensure you heard the whole message.  If you respond to someone without taking a breath, chances are that your mind was formulating your response while they were talking, which means you may not have heard their full message.
  • Formulate a better response.  By understanding the full message and giving yourself a moment to think, your response will likely be more thoughtful, clear, and pertinent, which in turn will be more readily accepted, which will lead to a better overall conversation.
  • Help you not say stupid things.  Pausing to formulate a better response keeps you from filling the empty space with rambling or stupid comments.  Don’t say dumb things.
  • Demonstrate maturity.  Having a thoughtful response and not saying dumb things helps others see you as a more mature communicator and thinker.  It also demonstrates respect to the person that you are communicating with in showing that you are really giving thought and consideration to your response.
  • Calm you down.  Pausing and taking a real breath will help you physiologically.  Taking a breath introduces oxygen in to your body and brain, which will help you stay calm and improve your thinking processes.

The interesting thing about this ‘proverbial breath’ is that it applies not only to face to face verbal communications, but to just about any form of communications.

Email is a good example.  While it definitely depends on the situation, email is generally not an urgent form of communication.

So, why is it that people feel the need to respond urgently to an email?  This is a topic that we could spend an entire blog series on, but for the purpose of this post we’ll say that you can apply the same “breath” here.   Take the time to think through your response.  It may be that your “pause” lasts several hours and you don’t respond until the next business day.  Be thoughtful and avoid the urge to always reply immediatley. 

Now, if you are worried about the “sun down rule” you can always respond with an acknowledgement of their communication followed by expectation setting.  Example, “Thank you for your email.  I will get back with you on this tomorrow.”

Two bonus points –

If you’ve paused, thought and still don’t know what to say, don’t be afraid to say, “Let me think about that and get back with you.” Or “Let me take that back and look in to it.” Or some variation thereof.  This gives you additional time to formulate a proper, educated response, which is usually appreciated more than an immediate half-formulated, somewhat coherent answer.

If your communication is heated or emotionally charged, don’t respond until you’ve calmed down.  If you’re face to face, try to separate from the situation as politely as possible.  If you’re on email, don’t respond.  This is a really good time to “sleep on it” or talk with someone first to gain perspective.  Nothing good comes from emotionally charged responses that perpetuate a situation.

Granted, there are exceptions to all of the above concepts, but as rules of thumb, they’re pretty solid.

Learning to take a breath before responding will definitely help you as a leader and will improve people’s perception of you as a leader.

What stories or examples do you have of “taking a breath” or “not taking a breath”?

Inspire With Why

People don’t buy what you do.  They buy why you do it.

In my down time, I really enjoy listening to people that inspire me with intriguing ideas.  TED.com is one of those places where I can always seem to find great inspiring content.

The other night, I came across a presentation by Simon Sinek (author, educator) titled How Great Leaders Inspire Action.  I found his comments to not only be logical and profound, but applicable to inspiring any audience (e.g., direct reports, team members, customers, etc.).

Sinek believes that if you explain and share why you do something, there is greater loyalty, buy-in, and inspiration as compared to simply communicating what you do.

My favorite statement in the presentation was, “There are leaders and there are those that lead.  Leaders hold a position of power and authority, but those that lead inspire us……we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to.”

The video is 18 minutes long.  I encourage you to listen to the entire presentation as he does a great job communicating his message.  I believe it will change the way that you think about communicating as a leader.

It did for me.

Learning the Power of Language

Do you want to be a good leader? Then learn to be an effective communicator.

We could fill up many blogs full of posts about how important good communication skills are to being a good leader. And while we may explore some of the other areas of communication in later posts, I’d like to focus our attention on learning the power of language.

So what does this all mean? Why is language important? How does this apply to leadership?

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” – Angela Carter

Language is a systemic means of communication by the use of sounds and symbols. It’s the primary vessel of engaging, leading, and interacting with others.

So how do you become a more effective communicator? Here are three tips:

  • Master your primary language.
  • Learn a foreign language.
  • Learn to say ‘hello’ in multiple languages.

Master Your Primary Language

You may be thinking to yourself, “What are you talking about? I speak English just fine. What do I need to learn?”

There is plenty to learn. Rare are those that are true masters of their language. To master your own primary language means to have a command and understanding of the language well beyond the basics. You need not only understand the meaning of the words, but how and when to use and apply them appropriately.

This is especially true in the work place. In more casual settings (with friends and family), people tend to overlook and forgive poor grammar, spelling, word use, and lack of formality. In the work place, people tend to be less forgiving. Especially in today’s society where documents (including email, texts, and IMs) are legally discoverable, every word used means something, and people tend to be less forgiving if you speak or write incorrectly.

In the last few years, my personal observation has been that devolution of my primary language (English) in the work place has occurred. What is causing this? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Too much reliance on spell check, which leads to misspellings or improper word use.
  • Bleeding over of casual language (e.g., text/IM language) in to formal business communication.
  • Improper word usage, because people are just trying to sound smart.

Now, it may be appropriate at times to use more casual language at work (e.g., on the company IM system or in a more trendy work environment). However, the key is knowing when to use the proper level of formality in a given situation (e.g., contracts – more formal; IM – less formal).

Why is this important to us as leaders? Using the right words properly (written or oral) conveys confidence, poise and intelligence. This doesn’t mean that you need to spout off 5 and 6 syllable words in every sentence. Good leaders know their audience and speak so that their audience can understand them and relate to them. Good communication skills allow leaders to communicate their thoughts effectively, efficiently, and in a way that inspires confidence and trust.

How can you improve your mastery of your primary language? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Identify those areas that you may be challenged (e.g., written communication, verbal communication) and work to refine and improve those areas.
  • Have people proof your communications (e.g., documents, emails, etc.). Learn from what they say.
  • Expand your vocabulary. This doesn’t mean you have to use all the big words you know, just know more words and how to use them.
  • Try not to rely on spell/grammar check. Try to spell correctly the first time. But use spell check before you send written communications.
  • When you speak in front of others (whether one on one or in front of a group) seek feedback afterwards to ensure you were clear.
  • Practice extemporaneous or impromptu speaking. This helps your brain and mouth work better together and faster.
  • Practice being succinct in your speech. Ask someone to ask you questions and have them tell you if you provided enough or not enough information.
  • Learn to speak without verbal pauses (um, uh, like, ah)
  • Read. A lot. The more you consume, the more you know, the easier it is to speak.

You can find many more methods online if you search. The key is to work to improve the way in which you master your primary language to become a more effective communicator.

Learn a Foreign Language

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” -Nelson Mandela

I am a firm believer that speaking in another’s native tongue opens many doors that may otherwise be shut.

Recently, a friend and colleague of mine accepted a senior job in a state government agency. The first piece of advice that I gave him (and the one I hope he follows the most) was to learn Spanish. He serves a population that is highly Hispanic. While I am sure he will be successful, he will be even more successful if he can speak to his constituents in their native tongue. It will endear him to them. It will open many doors.

When I talk to people about other languages, I hear a variety of reasons as to why they don’t know another language ranging from “I’ve forgotten what I learned in high school” to “I just don’t have time to learn.” The fact is, in our multi-cultural, rapidly shrinking world the likelihood of you encountering others that primarily speak another language is very high. And your ability to communicate with them may be critical to your success. You are never too old, too young or too busy to learn another language.

The beauty of learning another language is that you are often not just learning the technical language itself, but you are learning about the cultures that utilize that language, which broadens your perspective and understanding of others.

As a businessperson, speaking, reading, and writing another language (or two, or three) may open many doors of opportunity. Perhaps more trips abroad, an expat assignment, a promotional opportunity or a new job altogether. Often times it is the extras (like language skill) that make the difference between the person that gets the job and the one who doesn’t. I’ve never been in an interview setting or personnel review where language was considered a negative quality.

Working for a multi-national company, I know that I have personally had many opportunities to use my language skills in the work place, both locally and in other countries.

As a leader, the ability to communicate in another language only broadens the dimensions of your leadership skill.

There are many sources to learn from. As an example:

  • Find a friend at work and ask them to teach you
  • Take a college class or local community class
  • Check to see if your workplace offers courses
  • Self-paced courses like Rosetta Stone
  • Podcasts (typically free on iTunes or similar providers)

Then once you learn, practice. Find someone to talk to at work or in the community. Stay brushed up and continue to deepen your knowledge of the language.

Learn to Say ‘Hello’ in Multiple Languages

Hello. Such a simple word, but spoken differently around the globe. This is one of my favorite tips because I find it personally useful and gratifying.

In my travels, I have found that people often appreciate it when you make an attempt to speak in their native language; even if it’s only ‘hello’.

When I used to travel more globally with my company, I made it a point to memorize the words for hello, goodbye, yes, no, and thank you. This was enough to get me by whether in the Czech Republic, Brazil, Germany or China. Similar to ‘learning a foreign language’, it often endeared me to people rather quickly because I was making an attempt.

So why is this important? If you are able to endear yourself to people, you’ll find that barriers are lowered and people are more likely to communicate with you. From a leadership (and business) perspective, this allows you to lead more effectively.

There are tons of great translation resources and applications today (even on your smart phone) that can help you learn these words. However, I usually keep a website saved in my favorites like Freelang.net that give me the full list of ‘hellos’.

One suggestion that I will make is to really try to learn the proper intonation of the word. This really helps with credibility. If you do it right, you may get back a “Ohhh…that sounds really good” from the person you are talking to, which then leads to a much more friendly conversation afterwards.

One of my favorite uses of the ‘multi-language hello’ is at our annual shareholders meeting. Associates from all over the globe come to this event and you can recognize them easily because they are usually all dressed in team shirts and have their country flags with them. I am quick to yell out a “Hola! Bienvenidos!” or “Ohayho Gozaimasu!” or “Bom Dia!” or “Nǐ Hăo!” as they walk by and immediately I get the same in return along with a big smile, hand shake, high five, or sometimes even a hug.

It takes relatively no time at all to learn a few ‘hellos’ and you’ll have them in your locker for when they are needed (and make many friends along the way).

As you can see, there is power in language. So, what can you do to become a more effective communicator?

Enjoy!

~Jason

47 Minutes Well Spent: Part Deux

Following on to the original post 47 Minutes Well Spent, I wanted to accomplish two things.

First, provide you with the lessons from the handout that were shared with us during this leadership session.

Second, use the words “Part Deux” in a blog post.

Now that I have satisifed both, I hope that you find the below information helpful.  There are great nuggets of information in here on how to improve your communication skills.  The bullet pointed list is by no means all inclusive, but is good information to absorb and share.

What communication practices do you find work well for you?

Enjoy!

~Jason

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General Comments on Good Communication

  • What do I know and Who needs to know it?  (especially when in crisis)
  • Be proactive, brief, honest with information.
  • Think before you speak – know your impact
  • Translate the technical to the appropriate level when you are communicating.
  • Best information comes directly from the top of your team, division, organization – don’t let it be filtered.
  • Bad news does not improve with age!
  • If you think you are being micromanaged – it might be because you aren’t communicating – Avoid micro-management by informing your boss what you are up to.  Beat them to it and they will know you are taking care of business.
  • The Sundown Rule should apply when someone asks you for support – respond by the end of the day – even if it’s “I’m on it.”  Acknowledge the request.
  • Talk to your team about integrity and be sure you don’t assume they know what it is.

Email Communications

  • Tell them what they need to know, not what you know. (brief, concise)
  • Write it so it can be read quickly on a Blackberry.    (spaces between bullets, and just a few brief bullet points)
  • Write it, shorten it, and then shorten it again – then think about it one more time before you send it.
  • Make it easy for your boss to forward it to his/her boss without having to translate or rewrite it (just pass it on – giving the information/initiative and the organization speed) – and giving you credit
  • Write only what you would be proud to share in a court of law or in the Wall Street Journal (otherwise, pick up the phone instead)
  • CC your boss if sending an e-mail to his/her boss (confidential N/A).
  • If your boss’s boss e-mails you directly, when replying…include your boss.
  • If your boss is Cc’d on action/customer issues, include them on reply.
  • When writing e-mails,  don’t “think out loud”…get to the point
  • If you need action from someone, assign ownership (no us, we, they)
  • Although 100% of e-mails make it, respond with “will do” or “got it” (imagine that you are in the same room asking someone a question)
  • Close the loop/ follow-up.  If you’re working on it, let them know.  Don’t leave them hanging.

Be a Great Listener!

  • The #1 technique of communication is listening.
  • What your hear and how you respond is more important than what you come up with yourself, and means a lot more to your associates.
  • The #1 threat to good communication and good leadership is Ego.  Ego stops listening.  Ego stops respecting.

Again, not all inclusive, but great bullet points on communication.

Enjoy!

~Jason

47 Minutes Well Spent

I love great leaders.

Even more, I love great leaders that are also great story tellers.

Hearing the stories of their successes and failures, joys and tragedies, fears and courage makes me a better leader.  It helps me internalize the lessons.  And some times, helps me find the strength to persevere in my own challenges and struggles.

I am fortunate to have a great leadership team that really takes the time to pass down the stories and lessons to make the next generation stronger.  They hold discussions on leadership tenets every other month for all of the senior managers and above in the department.  The last session was a couple weeks ago on communication.

I wanted to share with you the learning’s from 47 Minutes well spent….

I’ve always admired Tim Yatsko (SVP at Sam’s Club).  I knew him when he was in transportation, consulted him when I was thinking about making a career change, worked with him as a partner, and now have the pleasure of working under his leadership at Sam’s Club.  Tim led the meeting that I am referring to.  Below are a few key lessons/reminders that I took away from this session.

Tim said, “Knowledge is power” (we’ve all heard that before), but he followed with “So, share it”.  Leaders don’t keep all of the information for themselves, but rather share it with others for the greater of the organization.  Granted, there are some things that we are required to keep confidential based upon the position that we hold, but do you withhold other information to leverage it as power?  Or, do you share it with those that need it so they can succeed?

Tim also said, “Leaders share how they make decisions”.  They don’t just make decisions, but teach others how to make good decisions.

Think before you speak” is something many of us have heard since childhood, but many of us don’t practice.  How many times have you fired off that email in haste that you wish later you could have recalled?  How many times did you respond out of emotion to a challenge that you wish you could have retracted later?  There are times that we THINK we must respond quickly and urgently, but in reality there are very few times that don’t allow us an opportunity to pause (even if for a second) to stop, think (and is some cases rethink again) and then respond.  Taking a moment to be thoughtful may be what differentiates a good manager from a great leader.

Another tenet that acts in parallel is our ability to listen, which is the #1 communication technique.  Have you ever watched Doug McMillon (CEO of Walmart International) when he is listening to someone?  He has great listening skills, but what he is doing is absorbing what is said and formulating the questions that he is going to ask you next.  His questions are often very thoughtful, but they are also open ended, which elicits a better response, which gives him time to absorb and continue to think.  Using the time that you are listening to who you are talking to formulate thoughtful questions and/or responses to the topic at hand is another great way to set yourself apart.

When dealing with written communication, thinking and rethinking is especially critical.  Why?  Written communication is documented, archived, held forever and often times is the most misinterpreted of all the communication methods. Without having the benefit of body language to observe, or tone of voice to listen to, people often try to “read between the lines”, add emotion, and speculate about the purpose of your communication.  More importantly, written communication doesn’t require an immediate response.  While it may feel that you need to be immediate, you still have extra time that you don’t have when someone is face to face with you.  So writing, pausing, rewriting, and having someone else proof the email are all possible before you hit that send button.  Be brief.  Tell them what they need to know, not what you know.  A personal trick that I use is to keep the TO line blank until the email is ready to send so that I don’t accidentally send it before I am ready (I’ve made that mistake one too many times).

Tim told a story about when he worked for Lee Scott (our former CEO) back when Lee ran Logistics.  Much earlier in his career, Lee (wisely) had Tim proof a memo that he was sending up to elicit an action from his leadership.  Tim said that Lee was being way too detailed in the document (e.g., using logistics lingo that others wouldn’t recognize) and that in the end he basically said, “…and if we don’t do this, we’re stupid”.  Tim challenged back to Lee and through the story, here were my takeaways:

  1. If your leader has you proof something, be honest, help them win.  There is a reason they brought it to you in the first place.
  2. Make sure that your audience will understand what you are saying (lingo).
  3. Be brief.
  4. If you want approval, don’t call people stupid (even if it is masked nicely in flowery language).

While there were many other good lessons, I will close with this one.  As a leader, “Don’t assume people know things”.  Tim was clear that you have to tell them and set the appropriate expectations.  If you don’t, how do you ever expect them to do things right?

Cameron Geiger (VP at Sam’s Club) added, “It is our responsibility to share our culture.  If we don’t and it isn’t passed down, then it’s our own failure as leaders.”

This article was much longer than I originally intended, but is full of great information to absorb and pass on.  I’m going to post (in a separate article) several bullet points they had in a handout on communication.

My question for you is what will you do with this information?

Enjoy!

~Jason

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