Monday, May 28, 2012

Manager Mondays: Repairing The New Gap in Customer Expectations

Welcome to Manager Mondays, this busy little blog's weekly feature on workforce messaging.  This week, our train stops at the station of Customer Expectations, and the conductor (me) warns you to watch the gap.

The other day at a trade seminar, I heard a panel of internet marketing experts talk about the growing explosive impact of social media on business.  Their theme: an increasing percentage of physical retail transactions at brick-and-mortar stores start with a web search or a recommendation via social media.  More and more people first check out a retailer's virtual presence on its website before they step inside its actual property.

This is true of any organization that has a public-facing presence online.  Churches, charities, institutions, and service providers across a host of industries all reach out to attract new clients/members/users by spending oodles of money to create beautiful websites.  And the public cruises those websites the way it used to browse newspaper ads or window-shop at the mall.  People form  first impressions based on online branding.

This means by the time many people pass through a store's entrance, or call a service company's Contact Us phone number, they've already halfway decided to give that business their "custom" -- to use the optimistic old English meaning of the word that signifies loyal, repeat purchasing of goods or services.  In other words, web surfers come ready to buy.  They're newbies who are already primed to be regulars.  But that predisposition is based on distinct expectations forged on the slick screens of an oh-so-perfect company website.

So in the doors they come -- and here it is: the critical pivot point when your public image stops being virtual, and starts being visible.  At that moment, the glossy world they've glimpsed on your snazzy site may devolve  into a ghastly human reality.  They may encounter a grim hostess. A gum-popping cashier.  A grumpy phone rep.  A grungy deliveryman. When your customers interact with that person -- their first real human face of your corporation -- will they get a good experience?  Or will they get a letdown after the flash and dazzle of everything they've seen so far?

It's not just about getting your staff to perform their duties well. That part needs to be excellent; that's a given.  But to keep the gloss on that first internet-generated impression, your client-facing staff also needs to be in the know about what your website is saying. They must be ready to interact with clients about its latest slogans, current promotions, and even its new color scheme.

What if companies don't keep staff updated about website goings-on?  Then customers can encounter a pretty wide gap between expected service and perceived service.  And for these situations, social media presents another fresh hell: instant negative customer reviews.   These can happen via tweets, Facebook posts, Youtube (yes, Youtube!), or apps such as, where people even name individual employee names, e.g.: "Tyler the delivery guy from Papa's Pizza on Franklin Street didn't know about their Summer Sizzler offer.  He argued with us over the bill until we pulled up Papa's website on our iPhone and showed it to him." (See an article about Tello by clicking here.)

With so many online outlets, dissatisfied customers can do reputation-sinking any time, for any reason. And they do.  Complaints range from justifiable (dirty sheets, damaged orders) to just trivial (phone reps who speak without enough pep, clerks who grant other customers too many perks).  In between, there's a bevy of besmirching opportunities for staff who seem ignorant, evasive, or out of date with their outfit's latest internet-posted price discounts, policies, or promises.

If you lead a team that has contact with the public in any way, your challenge is clear: you need keep their actions and speech consistent with your website's messaging.   Do you have the tools and systems in place to achieve this?

Here are some ways that you as manager can help your team close the gap and create a seamless impression:

1.  Incorporate your company's online marketing phrases and campaigns into your own staff communications.  If everyone hears you quote them, it increases awareness, underscores the importance of staying current, and fosters  ownership.

2.  Use available company resources to increase your staff's familiarity with the website.  Does your organization provide links to the website on its workstation monitors?  Does it post updates about it in the company newsletter?  If so, promote these to your troops in a creative way.  Send out a pop quiz about the latest website offerings, encourage people to fill it in during their shift, then hold a prize drawing for the correct entries.  Got tech-savvy admins or interns?  Have them grab screen shots and create a simple media presentation about the website that can be staged to run continuously where staff can see it, such as in the employee break room. Utilize any other methods that the head office gives you to cultivate website awareness.

3.  Send your staff a "Buzz Bulletin" heads-up whenever your company changes something on its website.   Present it as helpful preparation: "Here's the buzz, just wanted you to be aware..."  (Hint: this is also a useful awareness-building tool whenever your company makes the headlines, takes a stance in the media, or starts a new message in other public arenas.)

4.  Supply your staff with a FAQ (Frequently-Asked Questions) sheet for new promotional campaigns, menu items or product lines.  The idea is to give them stock responses -- simple scripted messages containing authorized ways to say things.  (To be on the safe side, take these directly from the website or other corporate-generated material, such as press releases -- the top brass and/or the legal eagles have already vetted out any language there.)

5.  Give your team "hot line permission" to call you and ask you a question about internet promotions or tell you about anything that they didn't feel prepared to handle.  Give those calls top priority for response, and use them as heads-up warnings to track issues that are escalating in frequency.

6.  Regularly affirm that good brand communication is everyone's job.  In your messaging and meetings, tell your own personal horror stories about situations when you yourself were blind-sided by a customer who knew more than you did about the company's latest web-posted campaign.  Give a supportive shout-out to any team member whom you observe integrating web-generated marketing and PR wording into their client interactions: from quoting the company catchphrase, to answering sales questions  with spot-on accuracy, to referring customers back to the website for future guidance.  Even better, tweet your appreciation!  (Using social media to close the social media gap in customer expectations -- how wicked is that?)

In a way, all the trappings of  the impersonal internet set a trap for in-person customer service. There's even more to live up to, now, with multiple layers of marketing impressions in the mind of each consumer.  And -- perhaps -- there's even more of a disparity between the staff's jaded insider perspective and the would-be customer's highly-marketed, well-shaped, idealized impression of the store brand.

Watch out for that gap, and repair it whenever you need to.  The bottom line to your troops: whenever you're on duty, you need to be on message. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: How To Describe A Job (So People Will Do It)

Problem #1: You can't get people. You have a big thing to do.  It's too much for you alone.  You need to draft some helpers; but when you ask, they scatter.  No one seems to want to come on board.  Are you doomed to paddle solo, sink, and drown in the Sea of Overwhelming Responsibility?

Problem #2:  You CAN get people.  It just seems like you've gotten all the wrong ones.  You did your asking, and they responded.  But now it seems like everyone wants to revamp the project to suit his or her own agenda.  There are conflicts and wounded egos. Your progress is hobbled by the volume of continual one-on-one interventions you need to do to set things right.  What happened to cooperation?

It's never easy to get people to commit to a volunteer effort.  It takes a compelling vision to get them to even consider joining a cause, staffing a charity event, or donating their expertise.  But even if you can paint a motivating picture, you still might come up short when gifted volunteers refuse to give their time.

In a workplace situation, you face similar issues.  A special project often requires you to ask people to go beyond their set job descriptions.  Sure, there's a compelling business reason for action -- but it may not feel compelling to the people you need to recruit.  And even if you can present it as a great opportunity (for career advancement, personal fulfillment, or whatever), they may still balk.

The issue, in both instances: fear.

People are afraid to say yes to something until they know exactly what it is they're saying yes to.  And that goes double for the best people --  the people who take commitments seriously and are reliable.  They're that way because they are careful to say yes only to those things that they know they can do.

What about the people who aren't so reliable?  Sometimes they're your only takers for that "please help!" emergency assignment.  But they come with a cost.  Make no mistake: however noble your cause, and however altruistic your intentions, human nature is still in play -- and some people who agree to take on extra work will only end up being extra work.

Their issue: self-interest.

People who do something because they're asked to, usually feel entitled to get something in return. This means that they often assume they have permission to ignore timelines, boss their fellow workers, and/or apply their own enhancements, workarounds, and exceptions to the task at hand.  

So how do you kill these two birds - fear, and entitlement -- with one stone?

Simple.  When you do your asking, don't leave things to chance.  Instead, make the scope of the commitment clear by presenting a short but pithy description of the task you want your askees to do.

An effective explanation of the job at hand should:
 a) establish a framework - answer all your potential volunteer's unvoiced objections (before they can use them as excuses for not signing up)
b) set boundaries - give a clear understanding about what is, and what isn't, involved (before people start inventing their own interpretations)

My personally-developed formula for a Volunteer Job Description follows the acronym SPAN.  It outlines four key elements of a job, giving just enough detail so the prospective recruit can understand the scope of his or her commitment.

Think of a task you've had to recruit for recently -- or one that you've wanted to recruit for, but haven't felt comfortable doing so.  It could be large or small; at your job, at your charity, or even at home. As you read through the four elements below, try relating them to your task and see how they apply.

The SPAN Job Description

S = Service - First, tell how this task will serve a meaningful purpose.  Relate it to a larger mission that fits the values of your potential recruit.   People want to feel that their actions matter.

P = Process - Next,explain the mechanics of the task.  What will the person need to do, and when?  People want to know enough about a task to determine whether it's a good fit with their capability and availability.

A = Accountability - Go on to outline the chain of command: whom the recruit will report to and who will report to them.  Also clarify what support resources are available to the recruit, such as advisers, substitute staff or emergency contacts.  Finally, what will the recruit be accountable for in terms of documentation, reporting, etc.?  People need to know what the rules are, where they are allowed autonomy, and where they are not.

N = Non-Routine - This is simply a catch-basin category for anything out of the ordinary that may otherwise blindside your gifted volunteers.  You need them to know, ahead of time, that they may also be called upon to handle some non-routine (and possibly mundane) situations.  So end your job description by saying something like, "From time to time, you may also be asked to (attend training sessions, collate materials, drive someone to the airport, etc)."  People need to know where they need to be flexible -- but they also need to know the boundaries of that flexibility.

When your request for help features the four elements above, you get fool-proof results.  You attract the right people, and repel the wrong ones.  And you set the stage for success by setting expectations for success.

I've used this SPAN outline for years, in both non-profit and business environments, with great results.  It has become my ATM card for withdrawing good, reliable help from the Bank of Goodhearted Givers.  That's why I now devote serious SPAN prep time to any request for help that I need to make.  I want to be sure that I frame out the request to help my volunteers -- and me -- begin on the right foot, and end with the right results.  That's also why I supply a written (not just verbal) SPAN Job Description to every recruit.   If troubles arise, I want to be able to go back and ask any one of them, "When I asked you to be on the team, I thought the job description made it clear that we need to do X. Is there a reason why you changed that to Y?"  With SPAN, pivotal points are made plain up front, so performance issues can be quickly resolved.

So next time you need to round up a posse to get something done, don't go into it blind.  Get yourself the best volunteers, and guarantee everyone the best experience, by setting solid expectations beforehand.  Use SPAN job descriptions to tell people what they're saying "yes" to.  You'll get more yeses -- more cooperation -- and more remarkable results for your project.  

PS:  Please post a comment if you have found this helpful! Also, I have a sample SPAN Job Description that I'll be glad to send to anyone who requests it.  Just leave a request with your comment on this post and I'll get it to you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Making Your Message Stand Out

"I've explained the same concept over and over again, but it's not sinking in.  I just tried again, and got more blank looks."

"This is the third time I've told them what to do, and they're still doing it wrong."

"Nobody responded to that urgent email I sent out last week.  It sank without a ripple.  What do I do now?"

Chances are that you heard yourself declaring your own variation of one of these comments recently.   

What's your communications brick wall today?  Where are you struggling to get traction?  

In this super-saturated media world, with endless assaults on your audience's attention, it's difficult to get your own voice heard.  When your messaging isn't getting remarkable results, maybe it's because it simply isn't getting out. In fact, it may be getting drowned out.  

So is there a way to make it stand out?

I've got six ways for you.

They're found in the book Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.  

Best.  Messaging.  Book.  Ever.

It outlines six characteristics that make communications memorable:
  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotional
  • Stories
My acronym-happy soulmates have probably already noticed that the first initials of these words spell SUCCES.  Add another "s" for stupendous, and you're all set.

Click here for a very good, quick summary read about the Heath brothers and each of the bullet point particulars above -- that is, if you're too busy (or cheap) to purchase and/or download the whole book and read it from cover to (virtual) cover.

The stories that Chip and Dan use to prove their points are fascinating.   Each of their winning principles is described in engaging detail, with practical tips and tools.  (Hint: Jared, the Subway sandwich spokesman, is in here. Did you know that Subway's marketing folks were dead set against using him at first?  He turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Subway advertising.) 

For example: of the two bikes in the picture above, which one do you notice more?  Obviously it's the one with the flowers in its basket.  That little touch of unexpectedness captures your attention.  In the same way, it's the unexpected punch line of a joke that makes us laugh -- and repeat it at our next party.  And it's the unexpected ending of many a story or a movie that makes it memorable enough to recommend it to our friends. 

Lesson learned:   If you can retell your unheard message with a surprise twist of some kind, it will skip past your audience's defenses, charm them into full attentiveness, and create a lasting impression.  And in their chapter on Unexpectedness, Chip and Dan give plenty of illustrations for how to do it.

The basic theme of Made To Stick is this: It takes a lot of creative engineering to make people remember what you say.  Yes, that's a bit of a burden -- but it's also a big bonus.  After all, if you take the time and effort to insert some of these attention-winning characteristics into your messaging, and your competition doesn't, you'll probably own your audience -- and they won't.  

I'm planning to do a deeper dive into each of these stand-out tactics in future posts, so stay tuned!  But in the mean time, remember:

Your idea won't just sell itself, and your message won't just tell itself.  So don't just say something.  Hone it. Craft it. Make it stick.

At bare minimum, this means whenever possible that you should sit on a piece of writing for 24 hours before you send it out.  Never send a first-draft message to do a fully-strategized message's job.  Take the time to look it over, and you'll usually see something you've overlooked -- something that you can tweak to make your message memorable.

When your messaging stands out, you'll win out.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Manager Mondays: Believe They Can Reach for the Stars

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a series about workforce messaging.  I started this series to give practical tips on how to talk to employees effectively.  

There's a lot of bad workforce messaging out there. What about yours?  Is how you're saying what you're saying keeping your staff from hearing it?  Keep reading these Monday posts for ideas on how to modify your memos and revolutionize your remarks, so that you can inspire performance by making every communication a relationship-building opportunity.  (And if you're new to this blog, use the Blog Archive on the right to search back for older posts in this series.)

This week the topic is the essence of true encouragement.  

One of my personal core philosophies for workforce communication is "Aim, don't blame."  In other words, instead of complaining about what people are doing wrong, give them a clear idea of how you want them to do it right, and the tools to do it -- including your belief in their power to succeed.   And that's where encouragement comes in.

If you're not an intentional encourager, your employees will:

  • tend to tune you out.
  • suspect your motives.
  • give you less-than-optimal performance.
  • engage in passive sabotage.  
Encouragement is key.  But true encouragement has to come from a real place.  

The movie October Sky tells the story of rocket scientist Homer Hickam, who grew up in rural Coalwood, West Virginia.   In one scene, his high school principal reprimands his science teacher for encouraging her students to dream beyond a life in the coal mines.  She stands up to him, declaring that she needs to believe that they can make a better life for themselves: "I have to, or I'd go out of my mind." 

That's me, too. I believe in the person sitting in the learner's seat. I believe in his or her potential to rise above.  On the job, I believe that when people learn to perform their work with increased competence, it will lead to greater personal  fulfillment and professional opportunities. 

Do you believe that about the workers you lead?  Do you regard them as people in process?  Do you accept that you can be a catalyst for betterment in their lives?

I have a friend whom I'll call Theresa.  We were introduced a few years ago by another friend of mine, Elaine, who is a social worker.  Theresa had come to her office depressed and desperate.   She had no job, no money, and an upcoming court appearance on a felony charge.  She struggled to take care of her two small girls. She had been physically abused by their father - at one point he beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized - but she still let him freeload at her house whenever he needed to crash.  

Elaine saw something in Theresa.  She told me, "Beth, this woman is ready to move on and make changes.  She just needs some encouragement."  Elaine wanted me to believe that Theresa could reach for the stars.

I took Theresa out to lunch and we bonded immediately as I listened to her story. Her life had been rocky, spent shuttled between foster care and relatives.  Her opportunities had been few.  Yet she still had a spark of determination.  We talked about faith, family, and the future. Theresa showed me pictures of her daughters -- charming faces, bright smiles, cute outfits --  then she looked me in the eye and told me, "I want to break the cycle."

In the years since, Theresa and I have inspired each other.  She's in a much better place now.  She kicked out the ex, got a job as a health care aide, and is on the road to a better career. Most of all, she continues to fight for her children's stability and education. It's a lonely road sometimes, but she's staying on it.

Theresa has given me the gift of her friendship and a window on her world of hardship and fragile hopes.  I've seen her confront and conquer the dark forces that try to pull her backwards, and I've been humbled by her spirit. Most of all, I've come to revere that spark of hope and determination that I saw when I met her, and recognize its glimmer in others.  

Being that it's May, there are seedlings on my kitchen windowsill.  Basil, squash, zinnias -- the life force inside each tiny seed causes it to reach for the sun and grow into a strong plant.   I believe that inside each human being there's a similar intrinsic desire to reach for the stars, to thrive and contribute to the well-being of the next generation.  Sometimes it gets frozen by neglect and abuse, but give it just a little dollop of the right soil, and the spark still ignites and reaches for the light.  

If you lead people on the job, can you see them in this way?  And can you see yourself as a steward of their yearning for the stars?   

Your job as manager may be to get the optimum level of work from your underlings -- but your role as manager goes far beyond that.  You are a key player in the lives of those who report to you.  Their fragile hopes for a better life are mostly invested in the activity they do for you, day in and day out.  Can you find the words to encourage their spark?  Can you help them find meaning and magnificence in their work, however mundane or menial?

To the degree that you can beckon forth your people's desire for betterment, and link it to skill-building on the job, you will gift them with permanent assets that will help each one break his or her own cycle of negativity.  Your encouragement can help them defy the gravity of their own previous poor choices. Your praise can help them turn their momentary positive impulses into habitual, productive behaviors.  And in the process, they will become more valuable employees.

Homer Hickam progressed from being a little coal-town kid to a leading force in NASA's aerospace engineering program.  He went on to train astronauts for shuttle missions.  His science teacher would never have imagined to what degree her influence would end up transforming his life.  

What will your influence empower your employees to achieve?  How will your presence in their present fuel their future?

I would like to encourage you to start to speak encouragement into the lives of those who are entrusted to you at your workplace.  Help them improve on the job, not just for the purpose of reaching your business targets, but for the sake of empowering their own best destinies.  Be the booster rocket that helps them break the cycle.  As you do so, you will ingrain new purpose into your own professional growth and personal mission.

True encouragement starts with believing in a person's possibilities, and caring enough to tell them so.  

May we all aim for those stars together.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Agenda Specifics

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series that explores fail-safe ways to improve your communication skills.  This week, it's about another humble little item called the agenda.  I wanted to trumpet the virtues of this little device because I recently attended three events that didn't have them, and I couldn't help but notice how their absence deflated the effectiveness of each occasion.

As communicators, when we go to the trouble to stage a group event of any type, we're usually focused on its main content.   Whether it's a speaking engagement, conference, seminar, office brainstorming session, or club meeting, there are critical messages to present.  We work and work at those to get them right.  Usually, there are also lots of event logistics to nail down.  We go over details to make sure we have covered everything.  But in the midst of all our planning, we may forget to generate an agenda: a simple list of what we want to happen when.  Or we may actually decide not to publish one.  But that's a mistake.  A formal agenda enhances audience focus.  Without one, people will be continuously distracted in a myriad of tiny ways.

Agenda-less meeting-goers are like tourists without a map.  Here in Manhattan, when we come across lost out-of-towners on our streets, we New Yorkers love to help them.  First of all, they're instantly recognizable, in a kind of adorable way: they're the fanny-pack-wearing folks doing that slow whirl at the curb, unfocused eyes sweeping over a bewildering skyline, face muscles tensed like sixth-graders at a spelling bee.

When we natives step up, explain where they are, show them where to go, then see their look of relief and gratitude, it's like hitting a mini-jackpot right there on the street.   That's because we know we've helped them engage with our city.  They came to New York to have a good time, and they truly weren't having a good time just then, and now they can again -- because of us and our superior city-smarts.  How good does that feel?  We like to be ambassadors for the Big Apple and build relationships with people on its behalf.  (The stereotype of the rude New Yorker is mostly false. As a group, we tend to feel that visitors need to be taken care of, like puppies, and above all profoundly pitied because they don't get to live here.)

A published meeting agenda accomplishes the same sort of effect.  When people come to an event, they're wondering what to expect.  That mental state of wondering is a constant undercurrent of distraction.  They can't position themselves on the Map of What Happens Next; their inner GPS is constantly saying, "Recalculating."  Meeting attendees turn into furtive detectives, feeling compelled to look for clues, because they don't know how to modify their behavior to fit upcoming situations that have yet to be revealed.  They may be gritting their teeth in polite smiles, but at some level, they feel stupid, stymied, powerless -- and angry about it.

That's a great combo if you want your audience to shut out what you are saying!

At the agenda-less events I attended this past week, the tension manifested itself in a few different ways.

  • At a business association breakfast, people milled around, uncertain about when meal service would begin.  Sponsors stood at their display tables around the edges of the hall, ready to chat, but attenders weren't sure whether they had time to go mingle before coffee was served at the tables.  And since coffee was on everyone's mind, a kind of diffused hesitation paralyzed the room for most of the first hour.
  • At a financial planning event that happened in the evening, the main speaker was working from a dense, graph-heavy PowerPoint deck that seemed endless.  A start time had been given on the invitation, but not a finish time.  Moreover, the speaker kept saying "This is the last point I want to make." He wasn't reading the non-verbals in the room, but the audience was reading each others' -- and it was becoming clear that desperation was eroding everyone's attention span.  The last 30 minutes of that expert's presentation were wasted.
  • At a midtown seminar I attended yesterday, the instructor distributed a handout, then proceeded not to follow its flow.  Attendees were left in the dark:  which items would he cover, and when?  At one point (having rushed to the seminar directly from another appointment) I knew I needed a rest room break.   But I also knew that I had come to that seminar for one topic in particular, and it hadn't been covered yet.   So I suffered in my seat, not hearing much of what was said. Many of us were in the same state when we went to see the movie Titanic, bought a large Coke, then had to bolt for the bathroom before the iceberg hit, hoping the ship wouldn't sink while we were gone.
My point is this:

An agenda is an important tool to build trust and keep your event audience engaged.  Don't neglect to tell your attendees what will happen and when.  

  Here are some good points to remember when you make your agenda:
  • Make it visible.  An announced agenda is good, but verbal announcements tend to be remembered poorly, especially when lots of other content is being communicated.  You don't need to print an agenda for everyone, though that's a good option.  Save money:  write it on a whiteboard, feature it on a flip chart easel, or simply post a hard copy at the door and/or place a few printouts out on tables.    
  • Use simple structure. On the left, show the time interval.  On the right, show what's happening.  For example:
      • 7:30      Registration & Raffle Sign-Up            Front desk
      • 8:00      Member display booths                      Concourse
      • 8:30      Breakfast service at tables                  Ballroom
      • 9:15      Awards and Featured Speakers             " 
      • 9:45      Raffle winner drawing                          "      
  • Be lean.  No prolonged welcomes, credits, announcements, or explanations.  The agenda should serve a single purpose: to tell what will happen, and when.  (And where, if segments of the event will be staged in different locations.)
  • Include a header with meeting identifiers.  Being lean does not include failing to put at the top of the page the event name, venue and date.  If different people have the podium for long intervals, you should show when each is scheduled to speak, and include their names, titles and topics if possible. Remember, our point is to reduce confusion, so put in any clarifiers you feel are appropriate.
  • Call out breaks and end times. This is important! It manages the squirm factor (and reduces under-the-table email-checking and texting).   
  • Keep to the schedule.   Once you've finalized your agenda, you need to make sure all your principal event stakeholders understand that they need to keep to it.  Go over it with them before the event so they can bring up their questions, but make it clear that this is how we will roll today -- period.  
  • If you must make last-minute agenda changes, announce them as early in the event as possible, and refer to them at least three times during the event in case people arrived late or didn't pay attention the first time.

An agenda helps the rest of your messaging succeed.  Even informal gatherings are enhanced by one.   It decreases participants' uncertainty, and increases the facilitators' accountability.  Both are good for effective communication.

Like rescuing tourists lost on a street corner, publishing an agenda is great way start building a positive relationship with your audience.  Not publishing one means risking audience distrust and detachment.

There's a reason we use the term "hidden agenda" negatively.  At your next event, don't hide yours.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Team Loyalty, Part 3: To Cultivate A Team Culture, Esteem Your Team

Welcome to the last in a 3-part Manager Mondays series about how to communicate on the job to build team loyalty . You can use the blog archive on the right to view the first two parts which were posted on April 30th and May 7th.

Workforce messaging is all about the end result, so before we go further, I'd like to revisit the Why behind building team loyalty.  What's the benefit to the boss? If a manager can get a person to perform his job well, without needing to spend extra energy on his emotional state, then why be bothered to cultivate a team culture?

That's a legitimate question -- except for the fact that it carries a false assumption.  It is this: success is not just about leading a group of individuals who each performs his or her job well.  For the maximum benefit to the mission, those individuals need to do their own jobs, and then some.  They need to make themselves available to each other for a host of informal support consultations and problem-solving opportunities.  They need to leverage each others' strengths, skills and experiences. They need to feel free to connect with each other in ways that you, the boss, don't even need to know about, in order to get the job done. 

A team culture is a "go beyond expectations" culture.  And it is worth cultivating.

Building Team Loyalty, Part Three >>> Message to encourage collaboration, not competition.

Let's go back to the Rangers hockey fans that I described in Part 1 of this series.  Their exuberance expressed three key loyalty factors:

  • identification with their team. 
  • enthusiasm for the mission. 
  • confidence in their mutual awesomeness. 

Notice that this loyalty is not celebrity-centered.  It is not a cult fueled by a cult leader.  It is a culture fueled by concepts.  The team identity and the corporate mission comprise two of those concepts.  The third is team member esteem: the belief in each others' value and contribution to the whole.

A real team culture breeds collaboration, with or without the boss present.  Would your team stand up for each other and help keep each others' projects going if you went missing in action for a month?  Yes, they would, if your messaging has laid the foundation for "mutual awesomeness."  On the other hand, if your messaging is always pitting one team member against the other in competition, you place limits on everyone's output, and you sow the seeds for unhealthy behaviors. 

My absolute favorite guru on this subject is Dr. Bret Simmons, business professor at University of Nevada, Reno, and author of the Positive Organizational Behavior blog.  In one of his posts on teamwork, Dr. Bret cites a study's findings that strengthening the bonds between team members and supervisors enhances not only their work experience, but also their performance.  This is because team members that feel loyal to each other are much more likely to  intentionally increase each others' performance by engaging in what Dr. Bret calls Organizational Citizenship Behavior.  This can exhibit itself in small ways, such as helping a colleague carry boxes to the loading dock, or in large ways, such as brainstorming an alternate project strategy.   However it happens, your team's willingness to serve each other means that your group's output is bigger than the sum of its parts.

So how can you as the supervisor message to cultivate a collaborative team culture?

Here are three ideas for starters:

1.  Talk up the individual strengths of your team.  Observe how each person thinks, works, and makes a difference to the mission.  Then, pepper your team meetings with acknowledgments of each one's unique contributions.  Recognition doesn't need to come with a plaque and a handshake.  Regularly cite behaviors that got results, or identify actions that you appreciated: "Paula, when you talked about research grants last week, that really got me thinking, and I followed up with a friend of mine at the university who's going to help us explore that approach.  I wouldn't have gone there if it hadn't been for your insight.  I value the way you bring fresh ideas to the table."

2.  Invite team members to cross project lines and consult with each other.  Very often, team members feel constrained by their modesty, or simply hemmed in by their own To Do lists, so they won't offer to help their colleagues. Give your team frequent verbal permission to offer each other help: "Chris, you were our lead person on the audit team last year.  Can you be Dan's point person as he works on this new audit?" 

3.  Encourage your team to contradict you for the good of the mission. Whoa, did that one come as a surprise?  As leaders, we don't like to be wrong.  And we like even less to be told that we are wrong.  But in his landmark book, Good To Great, Jim Collins describes top leaders (Level 5 Leaders) as people who "are ambitious first and foremost for the mission, the organization, the work -- not themselves -- and they have the fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.  A Level 5 Leader displays a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will."

Part of the humility of a good leader is the ability to admit non-omniscience.  You don't know everything.  Your team members will sometimes have better ideas than yours.  Saying things like "That's my viewpoint, but can anyone else see a different side to this?" will give your team three powerful esteem-building gifts:
a.  The power to voice their own potentially conflicting opinions;
b.  The experience of seeing you deal with those opinions in a just and open way;
c.  The satisfaction (and inherent responsibility) of knowing that whatever the outcome, their opinions are valued and welcomed.

In a strange way, when you speak from this place of humility, all of your surrounding messaging automatically becomes more valued by your team, and therefore more respected.

Esteem your team as one that is made up of people with unique gifting.  Visualize their worth, not just to your organization, but to the planet.  Give them credit. Give them respect.  Message so that they know you think they are awesome, and they will start being more awesome.  Message to give them permission to use each others' unique gifting, and you will see team performance, as well as team spirit, lift and soar.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: The Biggest Botch of All: Going Too Long

Welcome to another post in our series of Friday Fundamentals, where we present some very basic and fail-safe ways to improve your communications skill.  This time we're expounding (or actually trying not to expound) on one of the simplest, yet hardest, skills of all: brevity.

No matter what you're trying to communicate, it's a safe bet that you're more in love with your topic than your audience is.  And though that might be good in some respects, it also brings some risk.

Your deep affinity for the topic may make it difficult for you to understand that others don't share your passion.   They are nearly always less interested in your topic than you are; therefore they are significantly less motivated to hear you out than you think they are.  If you assume otherwise, you automatically increase the danger of audience detachment, meaning that they will either tune you out, or turn you off.  We live, after all, in the age of the channel surfer.  So to make sure your message hits its mark, the basic rule is:

Keep it brief!  Stop talking before they stop listening.

Marketing guru Seth Godin calls this the Permission Marketing principle.  Your audience is very gracious to give you permission to enter their attention-span space.  Don't run the risk of outstaying your welcome.

I have to share with you quite personally that this is a big challenge of mine.  I am so in love with words, ideas, and communication itself that I carry within me the universal danger of overdoing every message I send.  Only by recognizing this propensity and managing it have I been able to grow as a writer.  It's also why I've become a sought-after editor.

Here's the story of how I learned this lesson the hard way.  I used to write a monthly company newsletter.  When I sent each draft out for review, the Chief Operations Officer would routinely fax me his "minor revisions" -- a hard copy covered with black pencil marks that crossed out whole sections of text on every page.  At the bottom he would scribble: "Less is more!"

I resisted at first, but eventually I got it.  He was not failing to appreciate my awesome writing; he was merely helping me keep readers from bailing.  I started to try for lean instead of long.  The corrections diminished, and my writing quality improved immeasurably.  When that COO left for greener pastures, I sent him a card to thank him for his positive impact on my career -- blanketing it with flowery crossed-out prose in homage to his editorial style.  (He loved it!)

To this day, when I review my own material, I prod myself to "think like Bob" and consider what my audience needs to see -- as opposed to what I want to say.  

I still might get it wrong, but I try not to be too long.

As another communications hero of mine, Frank Luntz, puts it in his excellent book Words That Work:

"Be as brief as possible.  
Never use a sentence when a phrase will do, 
and never use four words when three can say just as much."

Here's my challenge.  Take another look at some of your latest messaging. This time, have your Bob pencil in hand.  What could you have said more simply and succinctly?

In the spirit of this topic, I'm ending now.  So remember, good communicators:

To tell it well, tell it briefly!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Messaging for Remarkable Results, Part 2: Stage To Engage

Welcome to Part 2 of a 3-part series that explores three errors that commonly lead to ineffective communication, and how to avoid them. The first post in this series appeared on May 2nd.  

Is your messaging ineffective because it doesn't grab your audience's attention?

When messaging fails to hit its goal, it's often because no one has set a clear goal to begin with.  In our last post in this series, we dealt with the problems that occur when objectives aren't clearly defined -- that is, when you don't know what you want to achieve.  

Here's a real-life illustration of this truth.  This past week I was invited to attend a post-mortem evaluation for a large (and expensive) public event.  I listened as the project team spent the first ten minutes talking about what went right and wrong.  Aspects of the event's marketing, staging, and content were very thoughtfully reviewed and rated. I noticed, however, that no cohesive standards were being applied to determine how well each factor had contributed to the production's overall effectiveness.  

Eventually I turned to the project leader and asked, "I'm just curious -- were any formal goals established for this event?"  The answer was no, not really.  Like many team efforts, this event had a basic intention, but no established objectives.  So evaluating success was highly subjective.  We spent the next hour having a good discussion about what could have been done better. We made decisions about whether to repeat certain elements at the next event.  But without clear goals to measure against, all conclusions remained open to interpretation.  

The moral of this story echoes last week's Part 1 post in this series: having solid objectives is the first defense against shortfalls in communication. 

If having a Why is important when you craft a message, so is having a How.  And that brings us to the second common communications error that thwarts message effectiveness.  

>>> Messaging fails to meet its objectives when you present your messaging without preparing your audience to receive it.  

We tend to trust the power of our words too much.  We think that if we tell someone something, our work is done.  The truth is, we may have told it beautifully, but if our audience is not tuned in, our words will either have no effect, a partial effect, or a negative effect on our hearers.  

Just because you verbalize an idea, that doesn't mean you have communicated it.  Or as one of my own messaging mottoes (and I have many) puts it:

Just because you've said it,
And just because they've read it,
Doesn't mean they get it.

You may think you can get away with just saying something on the fly.  But whether a communication gets its desired impact depends on how well it's aimed.  It's not what you say or mean; it's what people hear and retain.  

So, after you've first identified your communications objective, one of the most helpful things you can do to ensure you meet that objective is to mistrust your ability to do so.  That is, think beyond words.  How do you want to stage your communication so that you can engage your audience emotionally?

As you might guess from its name, the Book of Proverbs in the Bible is comprised of an ancient group of pithy sayings.  It's quite entertaining to read, actually, and not in the least part for its amazing relevance to human affairs today.  Apparently, people have been struggling with good communication for ages, because one of the proverbs (in chapter 25, verse 11) deals with just this problem:

A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. 

Isn't it interesting that this little nugget of thousand-year-old wisdom compares the art of good messaging to the art of designing jewelry?  We can imagine the ancient metal worker plying his craft with care to create a decorative piece for a princely patron.  He wants the effect to be captivating.  So he makes the focal point -- a still life portrait of apples -- from his most precious material: gold.  But, significantly, this Old Testament Tiffany sets it inside a frame of his next-most-valuable ore: silver.  He knows that in visual art, the context matters almost as much as the featured idea itself.   That's because the context has the power to focus the viewer's attention exactly where it needs to go. 

For all we know, King Solomon, who is attributed to be the author of this proverb, was thinking of a favorite ornament maker's signature style when he wrote these words.  Whether or not that's true, he was certainly advocating the strategic use of context, both in art and in communication.  As a head of state, Solomon  might have related the jeweler's craft to his own word crafting as he dealt with rival factions in his own court or negotiated treaties with surrounding countries. He knew that, to get the desired impact, how he staged his messaging was just as important as what he said.

The right context, or staging, can engage the audience in a way that nothing else can.  It has the power to:

  • set the emotional tone and prepare the audience;
  • heighten the perceived value of the message;
  • strengthen both the power and the clarity of the presentation, and
  • maximize the effect of the final impression.  

Staging to engage is a big, big, big subject. I hope to return to it repeatedly on this blog because it's both tremendously tactical and terribly overlooked in modern-day communications, in both public and private venues, and traditional and social media.  So keep tuning in!

In the meantime, the takeaway is this:  if you want your message to have any staying power, you need to frame it carefully.  

So before you press Send on that next communication, ask yourself these questions:

1.  What is the desired outcome I want to achieve with this message (the objective)?

2.  What's the situation that surrounds this message's delivery? List the following:

  • Where will people be when they get this message?
  • What will likely be their emotional state?
  • What are their likely assumptions?
  • What will have just happened prior to them receiving this message?
  • How will the message be delivered (through what medium)?
  • Who will deliver it?
  • What will happen to people right after this message is delivered?
Finally, ask yourself this question:

3.  How can I supply a context that captures the audience's attention, sets up retention, and achieves the objective?

If you treat the message itself like gold, but treat its context like junk, your audience may think that the gold is just cheap street bling and reject your message's value. But if you prepare your audience with a well-thought-out staging, the gold in your words will take on a fascinating glamour, like Harry Winston jewels on the neck of a Hollywood actress. (Incidentally, the red carpet runway of Oscar night is a perfect example of staging to engage.)

Bottom line:  Communicators who think they can write a message and send it out the door without regard to context are either uninformed, narcissistic, or willing to gamble on the results. 

Rule Number Two for  achieving your messaging objective:

 >>> Frame your message for optimal effect, so your audience can absorb it with ease and value it without question.

Coming up: Part 3 of Effective Messaging.  See you back here soon!  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Team Loyalty, Part 2: How's Your Alignment?

In this week's Manager Mondays post, we're continuing to explore ways to build team loyalty.  This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 was posted  on April 30th.

Are you sending mixed messages?  

Last week we talked about how a team leader can build team loyalty through consistent, intentional messaging about that team's purpose and distinct assets.  That's a great way to help a group feel inspired, unified, and awesome.  But it comes with a warning: 

A team's sense of mission must always be in sync with the greater mission.  

Does your leadership put your team at odds with the company line?  You as team leader need to regularly, verbally align your team's purpose with the Big Purpose of your organization.  If you don't, your team might absorb your "We're awesome!" messaging and add on, in an unspoken sneer:  "... and they're not."

Leaders must not allow team loyalty to become tribal rivalry.  

The truth is, tribal warfare within your organization already exists.  It's a natural outgrowth of competition for resources.  Which department gets the extra head count during a hiring freeze?  Who has to release funds over to another group's hurting project?  Where's the most premium office space, and who gets to occupy it?  

If resentments like these aren't brewing right alongside your crew's daily coffee pods, yours is a stifled environment indeed.  Human nature loves to pout "It's not fair" -- and the everyday business of doing business always gives employees plenty of grievances to gripe about.

You'll never be able to seal off some sources of family squabbling. But that's the point --through it all, everyone has to remain family.  Regrettably, in some companies, the family is breaking up, disassembled in part by mixed messages from misbehaving management. 

Don't let that be you.  Hear your team's cries. Sympathize. Roll your eyes.  But also realize: you are the one who needs to keep your team inside the company compound. 

Which brings us to:

> Building Team Loyalty, Part Two:  Talk constantly about how your group's purpose connects with the overall company mission.  

As we've stated above, the danger of having a healthy, well-articulated team purpose is that it may start to override, or compete with, other departments' purposes.   Can you preempt that possibility?  Yes -- by always linking your group's contribution to overall company goals.  Here's how:

1.  Tie in the corporate message.  Which great products or services are the mainstays of company pride?  Make sure they're referenced in your team communications.  Did the founders leave you with an inspiring history or legacy?  Refer to it.  Is there a tag line in the new marketing campaign?  Quote it.  Does a distinct brand identity set you apart from competitors?  Mine it. Use it.  Celebrate it.  

Above all, if your organization has a mission statement, memorize it, hang it on your office wall,  and relate it to your every one of your team endeavors.  And, speaking of which...

2.  Keep the company's main thing your main thing.  Update your people whenever executive management sets new business objectives and targets. Refer to them explicitly and regularly.  Challenge your team to think about how their tasks relate to current corporate priorities.  How does their work move the needle?  Look for ways to loop in formal values or ethics statements whenever they're even marginally relevant to the discussion. All of this will help your tribe act, and feel, in unity with the other tribes they do business with every day.  And when that greater unity is threatened...

3.  Frame interdepartmental squabbles as transient struggles necessary to achieve the big mission. Don't let your troops see you as a sniper in conflict other managers. As situations arise, allow everyone to talk about issues openly, but also state clearly that the team policy is to get along.   Explain that it's your job to fight for the resources your team needs to accomplish its part of the mission; it's their job to take the mission to the front line and execute it with their colleagues from other departments.  Craft your communications to control conflict --  not create, condone or continue it.  Let your direct reports see you going after the big company win, not the small departmental score.

In the long run, your super team can succeed only to the degree that it "plays well with others" in your corporate kindergarten. When you deliberately align your team's mission with the overall mission, you help your people form alliances and win accolades.   By doing so,they can position themselves (and you) for greater personal growth and professional opportunity.   

Bottom line:  You want your team to be less tribal, and more global.  So message accordingly

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Reducing Complexity With Table Timelines

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a showcase of basic tips and tools to improve your communications skill.  This week it's all about a simple way to organize a complex team project so everyone stays in step.  I call it the table timeline. (You can see one by scrolling down this post to the sample shown at the bottom.)

When you're faced with a really big job, it can be overwhelming, both to you and to others involved.  There are so many nuts to crack.  Even if you get to the point where you understand all of a project's elements, it's a struggle to put them in priority order and keep everything moving in sync.  Think switching a whole organization over to a new payroll system, or staging a huge charity event (as in the real-life example here). 

Yes, there are entire software packages dedicated to this sort of thing, and that's wonderful -- but that can also be also the limitation.  You need specialized software to use specialized software.  What if your team members don't all have it?  What if your task force is spread across multiple organizations, with differing systems -- or no systems at all?  In such low-tech or mixed-tech settings, a very basic table is a perfectly good platform -- a plain wrapper for your project plan.  

Remember, the objective is to help people feel on top of the project -- not petrified by all its complexity.  

A  timeline grid like the one shown below can:
  • document the various tasks to be done;
  • group tasks by type;
  • show target times when tasks need to be accomplished;
  • assign task owners in a collaborative, non-threatening way (see the Practicality bullet point below). 
It's not hard to use the Word table feature to create a timeline.  Even if you're a Word beginner (or a confirmed Excel fan), you can master the basics of Word table.   Just click Insert on the toolbar or ribbon, then Table, then try a click here and a click there till you get a feel for things.  Once you can format a basic table, you can create a week-by-week action list, broken into sub-tasks, such as the one here.

My favorite features of this tool:  
  • Simplicity -- As already stated, this is a mainstream Word document, so you can attach it to an email without worrying about whether it will transmit.
  • Printability  -- You can also print hard copies very easily.  Excel's onscreen format doesn't correlate to hard-copy page restrictions or differing margin settings on different computers, even when you go through Excel's Print Preview process.  A Word table, on the other hand, is set up to show up onscreen  just the way it does in a print-out.  This means that you can get a good end product with minimal fiddling.
  • Practicality -- As a talking-points document, the table timeline is a real winner.  When you meet with your group, you can pass out hard copies, talk things through, and get people to commit to various project elements.  As they do so, you can write their names next to the tasks they sign up for.  At the end of the meeting you can photocopy your sheet with hand-written names alongside, or you can tell the group that you'll input the names into the table and send it out for them to review.     
  • Adaptability -- Revisions are easy to make and distribute (though revised deadlines don't ripple forward as they do in Microsoft Project).
  • Scaleability --  Once you've got your table put together, you can cut and paste each weekly column onto a new document of its own and use it as a master checklist for that week.  
  • Doability -- Finally, having the whole project on one sheet of paper, clearly bucketed, gives a great psychological lift to your team -- as well as a little jolt of accountability. It makes everything feel more doable, and at the same time, more serious. It's easy for everyone to see how his or her part dovetails with the rest, and therefore people tend to feel more implicit pressure to get their tasks done on time (in a good way).    It's like giving everyone a friendly but firm handshake as if to say, "You're in this with us -- right?" 
Do you need to rally people around a common goal that has lots of complicated stages and pieces?  Use a table timeline to do it.  You'll find that a table timeline provides a visual time and task map that everyone can wrap their heads around.  It will help you mobilize your people and resources to make your project succeed -- even if it's one tough nut to crack.  

Project Element 
April 29 – May 5
May 6 – May 12
May 13 – May 19
Recruitment / team communications
Recruit organizations and staff

 Appoint team leaders

Send welcome email

Recruit donor contact team
Finalize team lists

Send email with formal MST orientation packet to all MST volunteers

Recruit supplies team

Send team job descriptions to volunteers

Meet with supplies team

Recruit set-up team
Generate list of supplies and giveaways needed

Brainstorm list of potential donors
Start asking donors for supply and giveaway donations

Set up supply collection point

Set up process for receiving supplies and, generating  paperwork  for tax write-off

Print materials

Draft team job descriptions

Finalize team job descriptions

Draft referrals handout & send for review

Finalize referrals handout

Draft site map
 & set-up
Define tent service  areas

Determine approx. space requirements for each area

Brainstorm how to achieve “quiet area” for audiology testing

Finalize set-up specifics:  tent size, placement, quantity of  tables & chairs, generator placement for electricity

Adjust tent layout, floor plan & flow
Confirm space requirements with contacts for health organizations & mobile units

Finalize tent floor plan & flow