Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Rest and Recreation for Writers

Happy Last Days Of Summer 2012!  Here in the United States we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September.  It's traditionally a time for barbecues, beach lounging, and basking in the last rays of sunshine before autumn revs up the pace of everyone's life.

Yet how many of us are planning to spend this weekend doing more work of a different kind?   Yard work, school work, home repairs, or mall shopping (which I consider to be hard work, too)?   

Rest is a good thing -- if we allow ourselves to partake of it. 

As writers, we need to take breaks from our word-wrangling routine, too.  Our brains tend to fry if we write too long at an uninterrupted pace.

This past week one of my freelance writing projects heated up, and I spent many long hours at the computer, deep in the throes of rephrasing, rejecting, condensing, positioning and polishing strings of words.  In situations like this, I get so wrapped up in crafting the perfect messaging that a whole day can pass by in the blink of an eye.  You know how that is, my fellow wordsmither. It's work we love, but it's work. Making verbal containers for ideas can be every bit as fatiguing as a day spent digging in the garden or painting the living room. 

Fortunately, I have a foolproof alarm that signals when I have reached my Maximum Writing Output for the day. It's a little spark of realization I call, "Hey-I-Have-Been-Stalled On-This-Same-Paragraph-For-Close To-An-Hour-Now."  Works every time!

Do you get that alarm, too?  Some writers call it Hitting The Wall, or Losing Your Muse, or Brain Drain, or simply I Need Pizza. But whatever you call it, you find that you suddenly, REALLY need to quit for a while so you can refill the old inspiration tank.

This past week, I obeyed that inner alarm and stopped writing -- but what I did next was a mistake.   

I "relaxed" by watching the Republican National Convention.  

Talk about a flood of words!  All those podium speakers, commentators, and convention-covering reporters!  All their assertions, interchanges, and analyses!  All the scripts, speeches and sound bites!   My inner messaging maven was mesmerized.  It was like I was sitting on the couch with a ten-pound box of Russell Stover chocolates on my lap, delving into one cream filling after another.  

There was Ann Romney, whose speech I experienced as a perfect sugar-dusted bonbon with a surprisingly strong burst of raspberry cordial inside.  Then my hometown hero Rudy Giuliani punched out his talking points with double-espresso intensity as if they were stamped-out pieces of dark chocolate.  I crunched through Chris Christie's comments like so much toasted-coconut-coated fluffy nougat.  

The speeches kept coming.  Addicted, I couldn't stop. There was Condoleeza, with her stately Dove bar delivery as smooth as silk.  Paul Ryan's words mixed a young peanut brittle edginess with a butterscotch warmth, and Marco Rubio's speech exuded the fresh, sharp flavor of Florida key limes. Then Clint Eastwood frosted his rambling remarks with the breezy chill of chocolate mint -- or was it whiskey?

By the time Mitt himself took the stage, I had gone into a total communications coma.  I couldn't take another bite.  I pushed away the political candy box and stood up, dizzy from the sugar rush.  


Come on, my fellow communicators, surely you understand how all this volume of diverse vocal styling was a mental overdose for my already-verbiage-saturated brain!  Watching the convention may have given me a break from writing, but it sure as heck wasn't a break from words.  

It's a funny fact: when you're in the communications business, the opportunities you have to take an actual total break from communication are extremely rare.  So when you do have a chance to get some down time, you probably need to find ways to distance yourself from words.  Sit in the sun.  Snooze on the sand.  Or, at least, paint that living room and dig in that garden -- in silence.

I'm taking one of those opportunities now.  So I'll be taking a blog-writing break for a week or so. I know I need it.  Hopefully it will help me get my current word overdose out of my system.  Soon I'll be ready to poise my fingers over the keys again and let the current of creative communication flow through them once more.  

For now, give me the deck chair overlooking the water, the salt breeze, and the spacious sky.  

If we don't take breaks, we wind up broken.  

Will you join me on the porch? 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Manager Mondays: Sending Your Folks Into New Situations

At this time of year in the United States, children are starting the new school year.  It's a memorable occasion for most families. I have photos of my own little ones as they first stood at the school bus stop, red tags pinned to the front of their new school outfits to show the world that they were brand new kindergartners.  They are smiling and brave.  But there is a fragility reflected in those little faces, too.   Years later, I still marvel at the staunch way they climbed into the school bus, and at the focused intensity on their faces as they marched forward and forgot to look back to see me tearfully waving goodbye.  

Do you remember your first-day-of-school experience?  Take a moment, right now, to think back.  Remember the familiar comfort of your home and the taken-for-granted safety of your family unit.  Then think back to the emotions that you felt as you thought about walking alone into that big, big building called School.  What were the fears that haunted you most?

Your memories of your own first day of school can inform your management-employee communications today.    

My elementary school was just a few blocks from my home.  A beautiful building, it was perfectly proportioned for small children, and I felt totally at ease there -- except when I went to Art Class.  This was held in a big room downstairs in the basement.  The teacher, Mr. Boyer, was very nice.  All went well until he showed us the art supply closet the first day.  At its far end, a stark corridor lined with huge white pipes receded into the dark.  Ominous clanking noises came out of that black nothingness.  

I hadn't even come to terms with the monsters in my own basement at home yet.  How was I supposed to relax and draw pictures when, in the closet a few feet away, unknown terrors lurked down that passageway to hell? 

Life would have been so different if Mr. Boyer had taken a moment to tell us about boiler rooms, radiators and steam expanding metal.  But he was an Art teacher, after all.  I'm sure he had a lesson plan to follow, and explaining the physics of heating systems to small children was not included in it.  So for the first months of school, Art Class was a nail-biter for me.  

I'm sharing this reminiscence as an illustration of what we often forget, now that we are the ones in authority: firsts are fear-inducing.  

Whether it's taking on a new assignment, stepping into a new role, or being promoted to a new level, there are plenty of "first days" in the workplace.  Firsts mean change; and change, even good change, has a tendency to distort one's inner reality and call up one's deepest insecurities.  It's a basic tenet of psychology that, as human beings, we suspect monsters in the closet whenever we march into a new situation.   

As a leader, you're the one to whom your team looks for reassurance and guidance whenever they enter new territory.  Are they getting it?  Or are you a Mr. Boyer, so intent on your action plan that you are oblivious to their fears?  

You need to have checkpoint conversations with your team when you assign them new tasks.  This needs to happen whether they seek you out or not.  If they don't get a chance to air their worries, they may be distracted by uncertainties or constrained by false assumptions.  And that can hurt performance and have bad consequences for the end result.  

Assume that any employees starting something new are probably experiencing the jitters -- even though they may be getting on the bus all smiling and brave.   Make it a priority to have a first-day-of-school conversation with them.  Ask how they're feeling. Give them some tips.  Invite them to come to you with any concerns.  Ask them to put a meeting on the calendar next week to catch up with you about how it's going.   Commit to being available.  Give them autonomy, but be their back-up. 

Remember what the grown-ups in your life told you as you got ready for your first day of school?  Don't talk in class.  Stay in your chair.  Be good.  Share.  Do what the teacher says.  If you don't understand something, raise your hand and ask a question.  Bring your lunch money.  Take turns.  Don't take off your shoes at recess.  If you have trouble doing something, ask for help.  Remember your room number. Stay in line. Don't worry. The teacher is nice.  School is fun.  You can do it!

Not everything they told you mattered.  But some of it did.  A lot.  Some of it made you feel prepared, and capable, and aware of the pitfalls.  Some of it made you feel ready enough, and even smart enough, to go through those big doors and do what you needed to do to be a big kid.

How do you communicate reassurance to your troops when a new initiative gets underway?  Do you stage an official kick-off meeting, or do you just have casual hallway conversations?  Do you give a loose verbal sketch of what's expected, or do you create a formal written job description?  Is your communication perceived as empowerment, or a mere pep talk?

When you send someone into new territory, it helps the overall project immeasurably if you can help that person feel that they are entering an opportunity zone, not a danger zone.  Take time to clarify, encourage, inform, and reassure.  Express belief in their ability.  Set them up with support. You'll be setting the project up for success.  

No basement monsters ever really showed up in my art room.  But the fear of them clouded my creativity, and colors my memories to this day.  Take the time to communicate with your team and kill off any monsters that might impair their performance.  Find the source of their fear, then seize the chance to say, whenever you can, "It's only steam in the pipes."   They'll thank you, and their creativity will soar as they march forward to master the unknown.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Get Them Coming And Going

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, the place to get great little once-a-week  tips and tactics about basic communication skills.  This week I want to nudge everyone with this old communications saying:

Tell them what you're going to tell them; 
then tell them; 
then tell them what you told them. 

We forget sometimes that the clearest, simplest and surest way to get our message out is through repetition.  So when we really need people to walk away with the right message, we need to give it to them three times:  at the beginning -- in the middle -- and at the end.

Do you follow this rule?  

Do you go back over each of your writing projects and check to make sure your driving theme appears, clearly stated, all three places:  in your introduction, in your exposition, and in your summary?  

If you find that your main idea isn't boldly evident in any one of these three places, do you find a way to insert it there before you send out your final version?  

Just saying your main thought once or twice is not going to drive it home.  I've noticed that in many cases, speakers or writers are so keen on engaging their audience that their main idea gets lost in a maze of supporting points, stories and illustrations.

Is it okay with you if your audience leaves all the happier, but none the wiser?  If they retain a pleasant memory of your communication, but nothing more? If you succeed at entertaining them, but fail at enlightening them?

 I didn't think so.  Then follow the "tell them 3 times" rule, and:

Make The Main Idea The Main Idea 

Of course, all this talk about stressing the main thought assumes that you do have a main thought.  That's not always a sure bet.  Before you start writing, you need to ask: What am I trying to change or accomplish?  What do I want my readers or listeners to KNOW and/or DO when I'me done communicating?

You need to have a crystal clear idea of what your main idea actually is.  If you're hazy about that, or if you're trying to say two or more different "main things" in the same space, then heaven help you.  Get your message clearly defined for yourself first; then design a way to give it a one-two-three punch in your communication. 

The Hazards Of Repetition

Are you worried that repeating your message at least three times will sound, well, repetitive?  Don't be.  Your audience will take it in stride.  

As media consumers, we're all used to hearing product names over and over again within a 30-second TV commercial or radio spot.  That's because marketers know that brand recognition depends on repetition.  In that respect, marketing ideas is no different than marketing cars or beer.  In fact, the more abstract your idea is, the more your audience needs to hear it restated time and again.  

"But won't it get wearisome, or even insulting?" you may wonder.  

Nope. Actually, your audience will probably appreciate it.  Hearing the main idea over and over has an anchoring effect -- and possibly a clarifying one.  After all, your listeners might have been checking their email or daydreaming the first two times you said that payoff line, so that third time is a bonus for their eventual comprehension.  

If you use some of these guidelines, your audience won't even realize they've been told the same exact thing a few times over:
  • Vary your phrasing a bit.  Keep the core statement the same, but use different supporting words.
  • Pose one of your "repeats" in the form of a question. "Why is ______ so important?"
  • Use sentence start-ups that imply sequence and progression: "Today we'll set out to prove that _____..." / "As we think about the importance of ______..." / "So we've seen that _______."
  • Be obvious about your intention. "If you don't remember anything else, I want you to remember ______." 
  • If you're using slides, visuals or graphics, incorporate your main idea into these as well.  Insert your core statement into a diagram, or superimpose it over a picture, or include it as part of a cartoon illustration.   
  • If your delivery is via live meeting or webinar, get your audience to tell you the main point:   "How many of you can tell me the one concept that is the basis of all we've said today?"  That way, your listeners hear their own voices saying it -- a powerful boost for retention.
  • Be sure to incorporate your main idea into any Q & A activity or quiz that you offer at the end of your presentation.  If you're composing your communication as a written piece -- for example, if it will be read as part of a newsletter or web-based article -- then conclude with a question that prompts your reader to mentally respond with your main idea.  (A current ad campaign for a certain credit card is a great example of this tactic;  each TV commercial closes with a character asking, "What's in your wallet?")
Make Repetition Work In Your Favor: Establish A Running Joke

Another way to drive your main point home is to emphasize it by linking it to a recurring image, metaphor, or gesture to which you return periodically throughout your presentation.  Famous comedians us this gambit all the time.  They know that the crowd will start to anticipate that running punch line, gear up for it, and respond when it comes. It's a real engagement-booster in the world of stand-up comedy.  Use this same effect in your world to drill your point home to your hearers.

In fact, you might choose to go the reverse-psychology route and emphasize the opposite of your main idea.  Present its negative in an entertaining way.  You'll set up your audience to spot the difference, "right" the picture, and affirm the positive one by contrast.   

Here's what I mean.  A couple of years ago I developed a sales training course for a group of personnel who didn't visualize themselves as salespeople.  They weren't used to actually selling the company's service;  they were order-takers, plain and simple.  The training course's main objective was to stop  their deeply-ingrained habit of merely pushing an order form at the prospective customer.  Instead, the new idea was to get them to have a conversation with the prospect first to identify his or her perceived needs, creating a bonding experience (and an up-selling opportunity) in the process.

To get this idea across, we included a bit of vaudeville schtick in the classroom training.  In the opening module, the trainer displayed an order form clipped to a large clipboard, which was the way these forms typically appeared in the showroom.  The trainer then introduced the difference between merely hitting the client with the order form and engaging the client in a dialogue. To illustrate the first (undesired) behavior, she comically swung the clipboard at a trainee in the front row and shouted:  "Here's the form! Fill out the form!!"  This drew laughs from the group as they saw themselves through the eyes of the potential buyer and realized the pushiness and insensitivity of this approach.  Next, as the trainer talked about the right behavior -- engaging in dialogue -- she casually tossed the clipboard aside and stepped forward, her empty palms extended to symbolize a friend-to-friend contact with nothing in the way.  This time, there was silence as the learners absorbed the contrast between these two pantomimed episodes.

The end result was that the main concept was made completely clear, right from the start, in a non-threatening way.  At the same time, a precedent was set.  The two behaviors now had symbolic gestures associated with them, making it easy to refer to them in visual shorthand throughout the rest of the training course.  Whenever there was a choice between pushing for an order or having a friendly sales dialogue, the trainer would pick up the clipboard prop -- the symbol of everything wrong with the old process.  She'd brandish it at the group and say, "Get them to fill in the form, right?"   Then, she'd let the group correct her -- "No! You haven't done the dialogue!" Smiling, she would toss the clipboard away again.  The main point was getting across.

It was a simple and powerful tactic. The trainees not only absorbed the idea, they were actually won over by it.  At the very end of the training session, the trainer repeated her exaggerated "hit 'em with the order form" motion and asked the group what they needed to do instead.  "Drop the form, and make a friend!" they replied. They got it!  (Sales success followed, too; some managers reported a 40%  increase in revenue immediately following this training. Yessss!)

The Third Time's The Charm

Whatever your message, don't fool yourself that you can just say it once or twice and leave with it imprinted onto everyone's brain.  Here's my own motto about this:

Just because you've said it,
And just because they've read it,
It doesn't mean they get it!

Three repetitions is the minimum.   It takes at least three repetitions to plant any idea firmly inside another person's awareness.  So make it your habit to go for the triple-whammy.  Our culture is so distractable today, you can't afford to do anything less... if you want your idea to stick, that is.

Now, quickly -- what was the main idea of this post?  Did you get it?  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Manager Mondays: The After-Project Thank You Note

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a series dedicated to great workforce messaging.  Today we're looking at why it's good to mark a project's completion by sending out a formal thank you.

Last week when we wrapped the Global Leadership Summit for another year,  I walked around the premises as volunteers took down the huge simulcast screen, dismantled the video projector, packed up the registration table, and lugged countless trash bags out to the dumpster.  This two-day event allows me to be part of a large team that coordinates logistics and performs behind-the-scenes event management tasks.  My role as Event Producer can be exciting, but it's lightweight compared to most of the others' do-lists; when I closed up my laptop and left the control booth, most of the others were still hard at work.

As I helped them clear out the last boxes and reset the main conference room, I reflected about how much I love being part of a team putting on a live event.  And this particular team rocked!

When a project is over, it's tempting to go right on to the next challenge.  But we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to recognize everyone's hard work.  A pause is in order to give everyone the recognition they deserve.  Otherwise, when life goes back to its normal pace and things settle down, it can be a real letdown.

Several years ago, the Summit's organizers at the Willow Creek Association asked me to write a special section of their event handbook dedicated to saying thanks to team members after the Summit.  I share that page now with you, my blog reader, because I hope it sets up a solid case for marking the end of every significant project with a verbal bouquet of gratitude.

So take a page from my playbook, literally!  Express your appreciation whenever your team wraps up a group endeavor.  Do it before they disperse and get busy on the next big thing.  They'll love you for it -- and they'll feel validated for all their hard work.

(The following is adapted from the WCA Global Leadership Summit 2012 Producer and Technical Director Handbook.) 

Ten Things a Final Thank You Message Does

by Beth Rickert, Host Site 131

1. It leaves everyone with a positive last impression of their collaboration experience.
2. If a person's experience was good, a final thank you makes it even better.
3. If a person's experience was, shall we say, less than good — it makes them feel better.
4. It signals that your door is still open for feedback about processes (which can often lead to key process improvements for future events).
5. It gives people permission to contact you to clean up any hard feelings, concerns, or unresolved issues.
6. It models good leadership for your up-and-coming leaders.
7. It paves the way for further collaboration between you and various team members.
8. It encourages novice volunteers to volunteer again, and again.
9. It lets you recognize peoples' specific acts of service.
10. It provides one last chance to love people.

It would be a shame to overlook this powerful relationship-building opportunity!

Four Basics Things to Keep in Mind for a Killer Thank-You Communication

1. Who —Send a thank-you to anyone and everyone who was involved in any way. They all need to know how important their contribution was! (Tip: Go through your meeting invite lists and past emails to make sure you don't overlook anyone.)
3. What — Keep your message warm, direct, and upbeat — and keep it clean! By that we mean, this message is not the place to recruit people for your next project. It's a thank you. Period.
2. When — Send your note within a week after the team's last organized project-related task. (If you wait any longer, it may become old news.)
2. How — Use some kind of written format to convey respect. A mailed thank you card is best, but if pressed for time, an email is fine. Phone calls or personal conversations seem too off-the-cuff and aren't as effective. And absolutely NO text messaging — even for your close buddies, it's too informal.

Expressing Gratitude with the Right Attitude

Remember, as a final message to the team, the tone of your message is important. Speak from your heart and, when in doubt, write a first draft and show it to someone else to make sure it "sounds" right. Your final thank-you should be something that resonates all the way until next time — when your wonderful team members will once again climb back in the saddle for the next project!

What are your best strategies for acknowledging the hard work of your team?  Post a comment and let us know.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Peace, Love and Editing

This week's edition Friday Fundamentals gets psychological and interpersonal as we take a look at the moral issues of editing other peoples' work.

It might be a Power Point for a co-worker, or a job resume that  a relative is painstakingly composing, or an English essay shoved under our nose by a belligerent adolescent  who happens to dwell (reluctantly) under our roof.  Eventually, anyone who writes gets tapped to edit others' writing, the same way that doctors get cornered at backyard barbecues and treated to recitations of  others' medical symptoms. 

This brings up the two perennial questions of Editor's Etiquette:  

1. When do you accept an editing assignment, and when do you refuse? 

And -- 

2.  If you accept, and do end up making corrections, how deep do you go?

A lot depends on your individual tolerance level.  Editing is odious for some of us.  It's actually fun for others.  And for many of us in the writing profession, it's simply a curse that we can't turn off: we find that like it or not, our brains are permanently set on Auto-Proofread.  

So, what to do?  

If you're in the hate-to-edit category it's simple.  Just say, "I can't stand editing.  Don't have the patience.  I'd do a rotten job.  Can you find someone else who's good at it?"

If you're an editing fan, or a compulsive editor, you'll probably accept.  Why not?  And then you'll have to face the "how much is too much?" issue.

I fall into the compulsive editor category.  Personally speaking, no restaurant dining experience seems complete to me unless I've found at least one typo on the menu ("Ha! Calamari with an e instead of an i!  Who checks this stuff before they send it to the printer?")  For those of us who are compulsive editors, it's not so easy to know how much editing is appropriate when we look at others' work.  consider these two examples: 

 "Make your entrance down the same French Grand Staircase as Coco Chanel
 and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor."

Or how about this one:

"The executive committee shall review the membership, specifically their adherence to the constitution and by-laws, and make recommendations for revising the roster."

If you don't immediately sense the off-kilter quality of those examples, then you're spared the difficulty or deciding whether to adjust them or not.  But If you're wired like me, you fret at problematic grammatical structure the way a musician winces at an off-pitch melody line. And you want to fix it, improve it, make it perfect. 

But are these examples wrong enough to justify tampering with them?   Will you offend the originating author if you try?  Will you come across as a nitpicking crackpot?  What's your verdict?  Should you rewrite, or not?   

I don't claim to have a one-size-fits-all answer, but here are my general guidelines about editing for someone else:

1.  Don't take on editing jobs unless you're enthusiastic about the project.  

2.  Try to edit only if you have the time to do a good enough job. 

3.  Use the language and phrasing that makes the most sense given the intended audience.

4.  Be a supporter, not a stickler.  

Writers' egos are a intertwined with our artistry.  When we produce our own words, we can let that artistry and that ego go hand in hand where we want them to go.  When we edit others' work, though we have to separate the two.  We have to check our ego and adjust our artistry a bit.  We are not, after all, writing with our own voice -- we are trying to let another artist's voice tell another artist's message.  So we need to lean back, stay objective, and wordsmith with humility in whatever way best connects that artist with his or her audience.

The truth is, our culture is getting less formal in its language usage, and literary purists are in the minority.  So for the best end results, we need to take on editing with a sense of detachment and devotion to the end result.

What will make the end product successful?  That's the ultimate question to ask.  

There are a million ways to write something.  That's what makes writing so powerful. When we come alongside to help another person put their thoughts into final format, let's do so with respect.  Let's give our skill graciously and pay attention, not to fixing grammar, but to meeting needs and encouraging craftsmanship.  

When you say yes to an editing job, be sure to edit out of love for the author, the subject, the audience, and the goal.  Then etiquette will be besides the point.  You'll be helping someone communicate exactly what they mean to say, and keeping them from being misunderstood.  

And no more than that is necessary.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

Manager Mondays: Power To The People, Part 2

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature about workforce communication.  This week we're continuing to talk about how a manager's communication can fuel employee empowerment.  This post is a continuation of a conversation that we started last week.  If you haven't read that post yet, click here to catch up.

Just as a refresher, here is my definition of empowerment:

Empowering employees means cultivating a team that thinks freely and acts in fresh ways to accomplish your firm's fundamental objectives while staying within intended parameters.  

Sounds like a great place to be, right?  But how do you get there?

Going Beyond Rules To Get Real Results

Ideally, employees should feel free to go beyond mere rule-following to exceed expectations.   When your communications only emphasize following the rules, employees get the message that procedures are paramount. But in the end, that's a negative mindset. It can only bring neutral or negative outcomes.

The best-case scenario in a rule-based culture is that employees will always follow the rules.  They will do what they're told.  They will color within the lines.  They will stay inside the fence.  They will march-step in predictable ways.  Does that sound like success to you?

Do you think you can stay on the leading edge of any industry by merely having obedient employees?
If you said yes, just consider your competition. Do you think they're only going for "good" employees?  Wouldn't you suspect that they'd love to enlist employee help to retain business, grow new markets, identify new strategies, invent creative solutions, and suggest cutting-edge improvements?   That kind of innovation doesn't come from people who perform only standardized behaviors and concentrate only on getting procedures right.  The truth is, some of your competitors are already striving to get their staff to look past the mere following of rules, and go for bigger prey.  Isn't it critical that you do the same?

Rules, after all, are limitations that govern how people should curtail their efforts.  In a rules-emphasis environment, people strive to achieve compliance out of fear for negative consequences.  And in a rules-emphasis environment, consequences are normally arbitrary, sudden and severe. When workers fall short, they're first made aware of their performance gap via reprimands, bad evaluations, or even dismissal. Does that sound like a step towards empowerment?

What if, instead, you gave your staff the guiding parameters for how, when and where they should direct their efforts -- then rewarded them for doing it?  People want to be valued for their unique contributions.  They appreciate the opportunity to use their skills and initiative to promote their organization's mission and goals. When you continually give clear guidance for how to do that, the rules don't disappear; they just become secondary.  The focus is switched from rules to results.  That's a very different focus, and it's the key to empowerment.

Do your employees know how they need to behave to make your organization successful?  

Last week we talked about tying rules to reasons, so that your staff knows the why behind the what.  When people know why they're doing what they're doing -- when they understand the bigger context for their actions -- they tend to engage more positively.  So to fuel engagement, always give your staff the reasons behind the rules.  Without engagement, there is no empowerment.

Let's take it one step further  now. To be truly empowered, your staff also needs you to answer three more questions to fill in the rest of the picture.

1. What are the target outcomes that we want to achieve as a company ?

2. Do employees have permission to act in the moment to achieve those outcomes?

3. What will be the consequences if employees do so?

Let's delve deeper into each of these questions.  If you're the boss, you need to be very clear about them if you're going to communicate them clearly to your staff.

1. Tell Them The Target Outcomes

Empowerment needs vision.  What will success look like?  What are we looking to have happen?  What observable outcomes will we see when it does?  Stating simple, hard-edge, identifiable and measurable outcomes will help everyone be crystal clear about where their efforts should always lead.   State these observable outcomes in no uncertain terms, using action verbs: "We want to see..."  "We want every customer to get ..."  "We want everyone in the company to do..."  Describe results that are visible immediately, in the moment.  (Do NOT use language like "We want to ensure / grow toward / maintain / benefitmake it possible for / enable, etc.  Those words are okay for mission statements, but not for outcome statements.) And by the way, desired company-wide outcomes should be whittled down till they are simple, succinct, and few in number: three or four at most.  Otherwise people will be too hazy about the main vision to ever find it, much less fulfill it.  

2. Give Them Permission To Aim For The Outcomes

Empowerment requires ownership.  If employees are in a fear-based environment, they will stay frozen.  Where the power structure can act capriciously to blindside workers with disastrous consequences for the least little thing that they do out of line, those workers will always stay far within the lines to avoid the dreaded repercussions of overstepping.  This is great for compliance, but bad for problem-solving. When contingency situations arise that require workers to think outside the box, workers in a rules-based culture will remain firmly in the box, in order to prevent anyone from punishing their initiative.  But if employees know what success looks like, and if they are given clearance to act in ways that promote that success, even if there's nothing in the rule book to back them up, then they will often save the day by taking action based only on the strength of their spur-of-the-moment discernment.

3. Reassure Them That Their Efforts Will Be Supported

Empowerment requires back-up.  If workers know what success looks like, and feel that they have permission to act autonomously to achieve success, they will come up with creative solutions.  But what if those solutions fail?  Employees need to know that their manager will come alongside them and defend them to the powers that be, as long as their actions stem from the desire to achieve success.  When you give permission to act freely within company parameters, you must also pledge your loyalty to your employees.  You must continuously give the message that if anyone on your team does what he or she thinks is right, based on company goals and values, you will run defense for them if their actions are called into question.  

The Price of Empowerment

If all this sounds like a lot of communicating from management, it is.  Empowerment starts with you and what you say every day.  You need to use your own organizational-specific terms to clearly frame the three messages described above in words your team will understand with great clarity.  Then you need to deliver them constantly and consistently:
  •  in formal meetings
  •  on the shop floor
  •  in emails
  •  in employee publications 
  •  on the PA system
  •  during hallway conversations
  •  in the midst of idle banter
  •  over the phone with your remote workforce
  •  at your one-on-ones with your office team
In short, you need to deliver these same messages in all your interactions to ALL your staff, from direct reports to those who are two or three levels down.

For more about cultivating a culture of empowerment,  I highly recommend a new book by one of my favorite communications gurus, Patrick Lencioni, called The Advantage.   I just heard him give a presentation on this book last Friday at the Global Leadership Summit, and it sounds intense, scary, and wonderful.

Actually, those three words -- intense, scary, and wonderful -- can also describe the journey toward true employee empowerment.  It demands a greater honesty, consistency, and attention to detail than most of us are willing to embrace. But the results are worth it.  Do you have the courage and perseverance to transform your communication habits --  so that your employees can transform their performance -- and your organization can transform its future? 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Crafting Quotes and Sound Bites

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, where we talk about simple ways to improve the effectiveness of  your communication.

This week I'm participating once again in the Global Leadership Summit.  This two-day event, presented annually by the Willow Creek Association (WCA), is always a high point in my year.  Read more about it here:

We're listening to some great speakers talk about leadership strategies.  The ideas are complex and abstract.  They're wonderful.  I'm on a high!  But I'm also noticing how our presenters all take special care to crystallize their concepts from time to time.  They do so for a good reason. When you are giving people a great idea, it tends to slip away -- unless you make it memorable in a well-crafted quote, slogan, or summary sentence. 

This is especially important for ideas that are communicated via verbal delivery only.  If you have a very important message to say in front of a crowd, and you want the crowd to act on it, you'd better give them a sound bite as a take-away.

For written communications, summary statements help combat eye fatigue and increase comprehension.  They corral a string of ideas into a neat thought package that is easy to circle, highlight, or cut and paste.

In the English language, we have  a saying about transmitting ideas.  We talk about "getting your point across."  Across where?  Across the distance that exists between your consciousness and the awareness of your audience.  Thoughts tend to start losing power as soon as we put them into words and send them forth.  But when we punctuate our delivery with great summary statements, we provide handles that make it easier for people to grasp, and use, what we are saying.

Do you take the time to craft good, solid take-aways?   Are your quotes quotable?  Or are your sound bites more like sound crumbs?

Bill Hybels, founder and keynote speaker for the Global Leadership Summit, puts it this way:

"If anyone had tried to tell me thirty years ago that my effectiveness as a leader would often hinge on something as 'inconsequential' as word choice, I'd have rolled my eyes and written them off.  'As long as I can convey an idea in general terms that everyone can understand,' I would have said, 'I'll do just fine.'  The truth is, leaders rise and fall by the language they use.  Sometimes whole visions live or die on the basis of the words the leader chooses for articulating that vision.  The very best leaders I know... coin creeds and fashion slogans and create rallying cries, all because they understand that language matters."

Here are some examples of great sound bites from yesterday's Summit speakers.  Read them and ponder:  Am I giving  a great take-away that will crystallize a concept?  Will my message inspire people, motivate them, or make them think?  Or are my ideas going nowhere and taking my audience with them?

Sound Bites From The Summit

"Things that once seemed impossible, afterwards can seem inevitable.  Lead impossibility to inevitability." -- Condoleezza Rice

"The only mistakes you can learn from are the ones you survive." -- Jim Collins

"Organizations that fail to scale do so because senior leadership fails to communicate." -- Marc Keilburger

"The central moral issue of this generation is gender inequity." -- Sheryl Wudunn

"Don't resent, fear, or judge the next generation.  Instead, believe in them." -- Craig Groeschel

I hope these examples challenge you to take what's in your next message, boil it down to its essential points, then fashion those points into some firm, short, powerful  slogans.

When you sprinkle your delivery with summary statements:

  • You help your audience stay interested.  
  • You give clarity. 
  • You convey your own belief in the importance of what you're saying. 
  • You build your own personal brand.
  • You provide rationale for subsequent action.
Most importantly, you help your message become super-effective and super-memorable.

If you have trouble crafting good quotable quotes, it may be due to your own lack of inspiration.  I'd like to suggest that you pick up a good book by an inspiring author and assign yourself some homework: read it, and circle the powerful statements that move you the most.  I plan to start reading Jim Collin's latest book, Great By Choice.  Want to be in my book club?

What slogans and sound bites have you found most moving in your own life recently?  If you don't have any, you haven't been growing much, have you?  Good communicators need to constantly be absorbing good communication.  Put down the novel, turn off the TV, and find your next life guru.  (Hint: anyone I've quoted in this post would be a likely candidate.)  Then study the way they communicate.

To be inspiring, be inspired.  That's my take-away for you today!

I'm heading off to the final day of the Global Leadership Summit this morning... next up: Patrick Lencioni and William Ury!  I'm in messaging heaven!

Who are you listening to today?  Can they inspire you?  If not, why are you listening to them?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Manager Mondays: Power to the People, Part 1

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly discussion about improving workforce communications to enhance business performance.  This two-part series of posts is all about how a manager's messaging can increase employee empowerment.

Like many corporate buzzwords, empowerment is a term whose original meaning is now smudged and barely discernible, due to overuse.  Just to clarify, here's my definition:

Empowering employees means cultivating a team that thinks freely and acts in fresh ways to accomplish your firm's fundamental objectives while staying within intended parameters.

Have you ever been involved in an endeavor that  that seems like it should be getting somewhere, but instead it's going nowhere, while negativity is lurking everywhere?   That's a good description of a situation where people lack empowerment.  I hope you're not going through this right now... but if you are, I hope you're the one in charge of the mess.  Because I have a strategy for you that might help.

Tell Your Team The Whole Story  

Last week a friend contacted me about a restructuring program he wanted to initiate at his company.  He talked in great detail about the new processes he wanted to put in place.  He was obviously excited about his plans for revising roles, workflows and teams.  When he wrapped up his description, I asked him whether he'd run his ideas past other people in his organization.  "I can't stop talking about it," he enthused.  "I tell anyone who will listen."  Then I asked what kind of feedback he was getting.  His voice tone and expression changed immediately.  "Well..." he said, and hesitated. Apparently, not everyone was as in love with his plan as he was.

"I think I see the problem, and it's in two parts," I said. "Just now you've been talking to me about processes.  But you haven't talked about purpose. If you're hitting your people with all the structural change, you need to be crystal clear about what you hope to accomplish. People may understand what you want them to do, but until they know what you're hoping to achieve, they can't feel part of it."

I then asked my friend to tell me all of the goals he had for his pet program.  As he talked, I took notes.  I came up with four main concepts.

1.  The new approach would alleviate bottlenecks by allowing people to share work in ways that they couldn't before.  This would make the organization more nimble and responsive to market needs.

2.  The different workflows would make it possible to increase the quality of the end product by making sure there were more quality checks along the way and opening up more channels for quality improvement.

3.   The new system would provide continuous training to deepen and broaden peoples' skill sets, so that they would be able to contribute more to the process and grow professionally.

4.  The restructuring would pave the way for a long-awaited company expansion into an additional location.

I asked my friend if he had voiced any of these benefits to the people with whom he'd shared his restructuring plans.  He looked at me sharply.  "No.  They're obvious, aren't they?"

Downed Power Lines

This true story illustrates a communications problem that many leaders unknowingly have.  And it's a real roadblock to growth.  Just as companies need more electric power lines as they invest in more machinery, they need more lines of communication as they invest in more people and their organizational layers get more complex.  But those lines of communication have to transmit power, not static.  And when you just tell your people the what, and not the why, it's as though you're sending static through the line.  

Management is great at making up new rules.  Rules are where they live.  Rules are what they focus on.  Rules are easy to state.  They feel great going out of the gate:  "Here you go! New rules!"  Then management sits back and waits for the people to do what they're told.

And that's the problem.  The best case scenario in a rules-only communication is that people will merely do what they're told.  But in a rules-only environment, even that modest scenario becomes harder and harder to achieve. (Ideally, employees should feel free to go beyond mere rule-following to exceed expectations, but with rules-only communication, that's out of the question.  More about that next week.) 

When rules are stated, but not followed 100%, bosses can feel betrayed.  But what management needs to realize is: Rules Run On Reasons.  If you only tell people what to do, and they are excluded from seeing the bigger picture, they will not feel empowered.  They will only feel ambushed.

Let me explain by way of an example. Suppose I'm your boss, and I tell you, "Draw a circle."  You do,  Then I say, "It's not big enough."  You draw another one.  I say, "Now it's too big.  I need it to be seven and a half inches in diameter." So you get a ruler, a compass, and painstakingly construct a circle with the correct diameter.  "All right, but I need it to be cut out," I say.  You get scissors and cut out your paper circle.  I look at it, then I take a paper plate from behind my back and say, "Can you sort of bend it up along the edges?  It should really look more like this."  

As an employee, how are you feeling right now?   Aren't you seething to yourself, "Why didn't my boss just show me the paper plate in the first place?"  That's exactly how employees feel when they are  trying to follow rules without a bigger picture.  When humans feel uninformed, they feel unmotivated. And when they feel unmotivated, their own inner voice starts a destructive dialogue that becomes a distraction: "What are those idiots in the back office up to now? How do they expect me to do this?  Why can't they come out here and see what we're up against?"  Polarization sets in.  The static becomes so powerful, the lines of communication are now barely working at all.

Managers often make the mistake of assuming that people know the reasons behind the rules.  But the truth is, they don't.  The first step in empowering your people is to give them all the context behind what you're telling them to do.  That's a great way to decrease polarization and increase partnership.  

Rules without reasons don't work.  You can push that button on the blender all you want, but if it's not plugged into the wall outlet, there's no smoothie in your future.  In the same way, you can tell your staff to do something over and over again, but if they don't see the reason behind it, your pleas just seem pushy, and the only thing that gets empowered is their resentment.

Today I close with a poem, because oddly enough, one just occurred to me.  

What plans are in play at your workplace today?  
If asked, could you say you've explained them okay?
Clear reasons must fuel
Every order and rule,
Or people's resentment will get in the way.

Next Monday:  the three things you need to make clear about every thing you tell your staff to do.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Writing When You're Stuck In The Mud

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series devoted to bringing your writing and communication skills to the next level.

What do you do when you're stumped?  When you need to launch a writing project, but the winds of inspiration have totally left your sails?    When people are looking to you to produce a decisive piece of communication, but your very emotional state is making it impossible to do so?  When frustration, worry, anger, depression, and/or apathy is draining you dry?

It's easy to panic in a situation like that.  You feel simultaneously hyper and helpless.  The weight of the project is threatening to sink you, and your impulse is to flee, but instead, you're immobilized by your own sense of alarm.  The fear makes it even more difficult to lift yourself out of your uninspired state.

"This is ridiculous," you say.  "I shouldn't be feeling this way." You grit your teeth and force yourself to focus.  "I. will. get. this. done," you vow to yourself as you face your blank computer monitor.  But now you've added ANOTHER layer of energy-sapping emotion to the mix - denial - and it's sucking you down even more.

How can you get unstuck?

The first thing to remember is that this state is temporary.  Low tide doesn't last long.  It's smelly and muddy right now, but a fresh wave is coming.  So get ready to ride it.  Here are a few tips to get you going.

When your creativity craters, you need help to pull yourself out of the mud.  I've been there. I've gotten out.  So now, I'm throwing you my rope.  Here it is:

R = Reset your expectations.  I find that as a writer, I often get overwhelmed merely because I expect too much of myself.   "I'll dash off this article before lunch,"  says that breezy and annoying character inside my psyche who also believes that it will only take me five minutes to get ready for work in the morning, or that I should be able to do 60 minutes on the elliptical at the gym.  Do you have a similarly over-confident voice inside your head?  If so, it's time to sit yourself down for a sympathetic heart-to-heart.  Change your self-talk to make it more realistic.  Remind yourself that there's a reason they call work work, and this writing
assignment is going to be work.  You're going to need to dig in.  It may take you longer than you want it to take, or be harder than you wished it to be.  But it is what it is.  So just breathe.  Something will happen. Life will go on, and you'll get it done.

During this self-talk, acknowledge your emotional state, and explain to yourself that there are elements about life that you can't control right now, but you still have to get your work done.  Schedule a meeting with yourself for sometime in the future to unpack the emotional side of your situation further.  Then go on to the next step, which is --

O = Organize your objectives.  On a piece of paper -- NOT on your computer -- start writing down the "why's" behind your writing project.  What do you want to accomplish?  What is important?  Pencil in everything you want the final product to achieve.  Then put your pencil down and survey the list.  Is it all achievable?  Or is it too much?  If so, which parts are most vital?  What's a need-to-have, and what's a nice-to-have?  Pick up your pencil again and rank the objectives in priority order.  Then, on a new piece of paper, write them out again, this time putting them in order of importance and bucketing them into groups.

Note that during this exercise you should NOT be trying to write.  You are merely organizing.  Don't get caught up in how you phrase things.

Once you have your project goals clearly prioritized, you can step back and survey the landscape with fresh eyes.  Objectives empower objectivity.  Clear your head, browse down your list, and some patterns may emerge.
  • Things may seem less murky. Answers and structure may start to come to you, just because you have the project in better focus now.  If that's true, start writing down key words and ideas, randomly jotting down any inspiration that comes to mind.  Don't get into the meat of the writing process yet -- just make quick notes that will serve as guideposts later on.
  • You may discover that the goals for this communication were too ambitious, or just too numerous.  Sometimes a piece is hard to write because it's got too many pieces.  Are you trying to load too much into this one communication?  If so, simplify your approach.  Eliminate some of your objectives, or choose to handle them through a different vehicle.  
  • You may uncover big issues that aren't related to the writing itself , such as missing information, mixed messages, half-baked logic, or lack of other project support processes.  I've had some writing assignments that were doomed from the start because they were based on faulty premises.  Others failed because there were not enough other resources -- time, tools, etc. -- to get the message out effectively or support its execution.  If any of that is the case, you need to rethink the whole endeavor.  Make a list of the possible deal-breakers and bring it to someone's attention.  Or re-scale the project to turn it into something that can be effective.
P = Plan your approach.  Your objectives have given you good answers to the "why" question.  Now, start asking yourself "how."  Planning a piece of writing is like planning a trip.  Where is the audience's mindset now?  Where do you need to bring them?  What do you need to say in order to get them there?  What's the best route to take?  Visualize what success will look like.  Then, make a list of action steps to help you get there.

E = Engage your creativity.  By now you're looking at a collection of outlines, lists, ideas and notes.  These are like dots that are waiting to be connected.  Stare at them long enough, and a couple of concepts will start to suggest themselves.  When they do, record them.  Don't worry about sequence. The tide has started to come back in.  Just jump into the water and start swimming.

Eventually,  you'll feel all the mud slide away as you enter the current of a cohesive idea and go with the flow.   Let go of the rope now. You'll be fine, as long as you avoid the paralysis of perfectionist thinking and just keep moving.

Remember that with communication, as with everything else in life, there are a million different ways to do something.  Just pick a way that seems workable, and go with it.  As you do, you'll say goodbye to the mud flats, and head toward the open sea.  It's amazing how wonderful productivity feels.  Go after it, and get it done.

Then, as you wrap up your writing, watch the sun set on your tranquil ocean of expertise, and smile.