The Most Important Skill Any Leader Can Possess

“When you’re first thinking through an idea, it’s important not to get bogged down in complexity. Thinking simply and clearly, is hard to do.”

 Richard Branson

Most people would agree that when communicating details, the audience will determine the level of depth to pursue, the vocabulary to use and the general focus of the message. Richard Branson, Founder and Chairman of Virgin Group asserts that communication is “the most important skill any leader can posses”. In conversation, emerging leaders (those transitioning from management or individual contributor positions) must learn to step far enough away from the operational focus they are accustomed to and embrace topics of discussion at a level more relevant to the executive audience; all without diminishing or understating the importance of operational details. Many individuals who find themselves in this situation are not actually executive level leaders but are called upon to either provide an overview from their perspective in the absence of that role or to be present in hopes that new faces and perspectives will lead to fresh ideas. This can become quite the balancing act – but it is doable.

Leading Edge: If you are called upon to participate in this setting, I have one piece of advice: Listen for the need or purpose of the meeting. As managers and individual contributors, group meetings are often driven by process improvement or quality assurance, where answers to questions are presented and next steps for accomplishing the goal or fixing the problem are assigned. Efficiency is key in these meetings and time is valuable. Each member participates from the perspective of her/his own area of expertise and seeks to make the work manageable and profitable for their individual areas.

In executive meetings, areas of the organization are discussed in a manner that may not necessarily end in the formulation of a solution or the implementation of a process to improve efficiencies. Sometimes, there is high level information or idea sharing which leads to further meetings – rather than to a solution. An example of one such discussion includes organizational goal setting (identifying what success will look like in ten years and how to accomplish it).

Another example could be the presentation of a new product line or service opportunity; a decision about which will affect multiple teams. The discussion prompts the finance team to explore contractual agreements rather than manufacturing the product or providing the service onsite, leads the production team to analyze productivity and provide insight into the feasibility of the decision, and motivates the research and development team to pursue alternative product specifics in search of a better quality option.  

Once you’ve been invited to the table, emerging leaders will be expected to move back and forth between management and executive leadership roles. Recognizing your audience and understanding the purpose of each gathering is key to being able to communicate at various levels within your organization. If you’ve been invited and you don’t have this information ahead of time, take note of who else is in the room and LISTEN for the need. As an individual contributor or manager, you have been asked to participate for a reason.  You are valuable to the organization. Make the most of every opportunity you are given to prove that you are the next executive team leader that your organization needs.

Contracts Aside…

Most recruitment processes begin with a video or phone interview. Questions are scripted, and there is a specific amount of time allotted so as not to favor one candidate over another from the outset. During the initial exchange, everyone is cordial, and interaction can be somewhat superficial. Though emotion may be detectable, attempts to read body language aren’t always reliable nor can comments be interjected as smoothly as if speaking in person. Answers to the scripted questions are hopefully well prepared and short; but substantive.

The second exposure in the recruitment cycle is the in-person or F2F interview. An agenda is prepared for the candidate to meet with key individuals. She/he may be hosted by groups during meals for more extensive interview exposure. Variations of the same superficial questions are asked as each interviewer does whatever they can to find out what sets this candidate apart during the brief time they have. Before being sent home, some companies offer to drive candidates around for a glimpse of local culture. Others arrange a real estate tour or offer additional time to explore the area on their own.

A week or so later, the candidate is notified that they’ve been selected for the position. An offer is extended under the condition that a response is received within 5 business days. After discussing the offer with family and friends, the following determinations are made… Financially the offer is sound. The atmosphere was pleasant, and the people seemed nice enough. The role would be both challenging and rewarding, and the benefits comparable. It’s a positive career step and the location is manageable… What else is there to consider? Everyone is onboard… So, the candidate accepts.

The details of this scenario are standard. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know… but, let’s continue from the perspective of the candidate… YOU.

The next day, you receive a contract electronically. There’s language included that you were informed of during the interview process which doesn’t surprise you. All seems in order – but you have a legal friend review it anyway. You sign and return the document within the allotted time.  

You give your notice and begin to wind down your current position, make relocation arrangements and say your goodbyes. A month later you step into your new office for the first time. The people you interviewed with are busy doing their jobs. Your office is bare and needs some TLC. You don’t know what your first day will be like because you hadn’t heard from anyone in your new company since they sent the welcome letter acknowledging receipt of your signed contract.

There are some papers on your desk – an org chart, a company directory, and a 3” binder with company policies and procedures. You identify at least a dozen pages that have been marked by signature/initial flags screaming for your attention. Before reading until your eyes blur, you reach out to support personnel for contact information of those with whom you will be collaborating in your new position. You send a few emails introducing yourself and setting up meetings for the rest of the week.

You venture out to lunch on your own and return to find more light reading on your desk, so you dive in. The first day is now over. It was rather uneventful. Tomorrow will be better.

Most organizations have a combination of some of these elements intertwined in their recruitment efforts. No two companies manage recruitment alike. It is important for both the candidate and the employer to recognize that the care for and genuine interest in a candidate that takes place during this vital time should continue long after the contract is signed. Retention requires it!

With recruitment, the organization and the candidate are beginning a relationship journey in solidarity.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know how much of what we experience as a candidate is first impression staff training at work and how much is genuine relationship building which will continue beyond the honeymoon phase of the relationship.  The quality of organizational culture isn’t found cannot be measured in a brief interview period and is not usually available in the fine print of an employment contract.

However, there are ways that a candidate can determine if the espoused values, culture and mission are the foundation of the organization’s daily reality. Here are a few suggestions in making this determination…

  • During your F2F interview, invite direct support personnel to meet with you. This type of meeting may already be part of the interview schedule. In general, support personnel assigned to the role for which you are applying will be transparent about culture and working conditions in hopes that you will either fit right in or take up their cause to make the changes they feel necessary.
  • Ask for any verbal commitments to be put in writing and sent to you electronically. This way, you can review them in a more leisurely setting – after your visit. Oftentimes F2F interviews will reveal areas of congruence where the employer can accommodate or is willing to support a request specific to a candidate – should they be offered the position. Since these details had not been prepared prior to your visit, discussions should be chronicled and revisited to ensure that everyone heard the same thing.
  • Prepare a list of questions that go beyond what you’ve read about the organization. Here are some suggestions, the responses to which can be used to dive deeper into the actual vs. espoused organizational culture…
  • What has been the toughest organizational decision you’ve had to make in the last 6 months?
    • How did this affect the staff?
    • What measures have been taken as a result and what steps are still in process?
  • How would you measure moral of within the organization?
    • What would you like your employees to rally around or focus on?
    • What measures are in place to increase employee engagement?
  • What do you value most for the person filling this role?
    • Why?
    • How is this role perceived within the organization?
    • Are there any challenges that I can get in front of?

This may not be a necessary admonition but: Questions that you ask should always be relevant to the context in which you find yourself. In other words, please take time to listen, ensuring that your questions during an interview are relevant. Don’t just use what I have outlined as examples.

The main takeaway… As a candidate, respectfully and professionally… Interview the Interviewers. Simply engaging in conversation beyond what you’ve read; either in the contract or on the published website data will increase your understanding and knowledge of the organization; hopefully leaving you with a sense of whether this organization maintains a culture in which you can thrive. Set yourself up to make an informed decision – with eyes wide open.  

Directing the Multi-Functional Team Part II: Synergy

Leading multi-functional teams can be exciting! As a leader, visionary dynamics begin to arise within as you recognize the potential for increased efficiencies, identify force multipliers and engage team leaders in collaborative discussions to increase overall effectiveness, accessibility, presence and reach.  As a leader, this is one of the best feelings you can experience. You’ve got the direction – now, to communicate it. Knowing your team, they will be eager to participate – right?

Synergy is defined as the interaction of elements that, when combined, produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements or their contributions; cooperative action.

As a director, you can make these visionary opportunities just as exciting for your team leaders as they are for you. Here’s how…

Create and Protect Synergy. Meet with your team leaders together, if possible, to start the process. Share the goal and prepare a presentation showing and telling them who is responsible for what and why.  Let this first meeting be a time of information sharing and answering of initial questions. Also, use this time to introduce your team leaders to one another. Stress the need for synergy among all in the room. They are all leaders and have a responsibility to protect the very thing that will keep them moving in a positive direction. Partner team leaders who will likely be collaborating (or have overlapping priorities) so they can engage in conversation about their roles and share contact information. Provide your team leaders with the presentation materials used during the meeting so they can meet with their team members to introduce and discuss the new direction.

Expand the Synergy Circle. Schedule time with each team leader individually, focusing on their specific areas of implementation and their team needs. They should bring any barriers (perceived or real) to light in this meeting so that you can provide insight and direction as needed. Their team meeting should be schedule so that you can attend (not to conduct – but to observe). You are a visible symbol of support for their team’s success and your presence demonstrates your accessibility to their leader.

Arrive a few minutes early for each team meeting so that you are able to greet all who attend beforehand. Again, your early/on-time presence sets an expectation for others and further cement your support for the team leader. Listen intently to the presentation (with a friendly demeanor) – not for content (which you have provided) – but for tone, inflection and inference. Make sure that the team leader is conveying the “spirit” of the message as well as the information. If you have communicated to well, the message will delivered with clarity and ooze synergy. Interjection from you should only occur if the team leader is veering off track; at which time you gently bring them back (a display of empathy as well as synergy). Otherwise, your positive presence and silent engagement will carry the weight needed to support the team leader as they engage with team members.

When team members recognize that they are part of something larger than themselves, that they are not alone in the endeavor and that what they contribute to the goal is vital across teams, cooperative action is fueled and synergy is embraced. It isn’t hype or emotion… Perspectives change. Team members begin to see their role as a piece of the larger puzzle and not a mere task to be performed. The connections between teams become meaningful rather than just names on an org chart. Their value to the organization grows and productivity increases as they embrace the greater responsibility of maintaining for synergy.

Keep Synergy in the Forefront.  Nothing destroys the effects of synergy faster than isolationism. Some organizations call this the silo effect – when a team or any of it’s members are separated (either by proximity or perception) from the common goal. This separation creates space (real and imagined); and since nature abhors a vacuum, the space is filled with things like misconception, miscommunication, mistrust and rumors; all of which, if left unchecked, gradually dismantle synergy. Genuine relationship is the strength of synergy and is key to keeping isolationism from unraveling your good work.

Organizational goals will change, succeed and even fail – but your teams can be among the healthiest and most productive if synergy is kept in the forefront. Engage in meaningful communication with your team leaders regularly; not just to check boxes for goals that are in process but, to join your strengths and experience with theirs in monitoring the pulse of the teams they lead. Lead them… and they will learn to lead. Ensure that team members and leaders are communicating regularly with other team members and leaders. These acts of engagement not only create accountability, but serve to continually nurture synergy – through mutual respect for and acknowledgement of each team’s contribution to the organization.

Directing the Multi-Functional Team : Part I

One Team – One Purpose

Positive team dynamics often center around a shared sense of purpose. By this I mean… having a clear understanding of the “why” behind the strategy, processes and procedures can be a positive motivator for the individual; creating tangible and even effortless unity among team members.

“It’s the type of interaction that can turn a day full of heavy, mundane, treadmill-like tasks into a weightless and exciting adventure.” COMM Envy

The all-important “why” is provided by senior leadership. It’s the rallying cry for the organization as a whole – the thing that makes everyone want to give their best. It’s the bigger picture that tells the whole story – the mission; the vision; the purpose… the reason the organization exists.

When purpose is effectively communicated and well-developed strategy is devised to support it, productivity levels will rise. However, when that purpose is either miscommunicated or misrepresented as ambiguous and irrelevant to the team, levels of productivity, moral and overall connectedness among team members will decline and turnover rates will increase. The reason for this is quite simple. Where there is lack of transparency, there is lack of trust.

I recognize that information cannot and should not always be shared at the team level. There is a reason for executive level decision making. However, there are ways to keep team members engaged without making them feel as though they are less important to the decision-making process.  

Don’t worry… this isn’t a lesson in employee manipulation or deception. What I’m referring to is something that takes quite a bit more integrity, courage and sustained effort.

Building respectful and inclusive relationships with team leaders and then training them to do the same with their team members – from the outset – creates a foundation for the trust needed to sustain them in times of flexibility and uncertainty.

For more on Ambiguity, visit COMM Envy

Leading Edge: One Team – One Purpose

When directing multi-functional teams, it’s important to clearly and decisively communicate one “why”. In other words: the same purpose applies to all teams.

The organizational purpose doesn’t change because the strategy (processes and procedures carried out to meet goals) differs from one team to another. For instance, if excellent customer service is a core value for your organization – it is integral to your purpose. That means that if you are part of the call center team, servicing the customer directly or if you are part of the sanitation crew and you don’t interact directly with the customer – your goals collide at the point of excellence, for which you both strive. When one team’s performance affects the other. Here’s how: A customer service complaint to the call center can occur if the bathrooms were not adequately stocked. Or, a customer service survey could reveal that the facilities are immaculate, but the results are overshadowed because the service center staff is seen as being unresponsive. One Team!

As a director of multi-functional teams, you don’t necessarily have to memorize intricate details of team processes, but you do have to ensure that your leaders are saying conveying the message you’ve received from senior leadership accurately and effectively. Since the main objective should be communicating the organization’s purpose in a way that causes your team leads or managers to understand it, understand their team’s place in it, take hold of it and pass it along to those who are on the front lines of service, you will have to ensure that you can do the same. One Purpose!

Stay Tuned for Part II

Reminder COMM Envy is here for you. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on any subject involving communication. Let’s talk!

Communicate Unity at the Table of Ideas

Communication requires two major actions: the act of listening and the act of speaking. But there is another aspect of effective communication which is well worth mentioning. Good communicators exercise their ability to identify the meanings beyond the conversation. It is from this vantage point that they develop strategy for managing the situation effectively.

Both interpersonally and professionally, good communicators rely not only on the words expressed during a conversation or meeting, but they read body language, take note of situational cues and ask questions about related details to form a more complete picture of, what would otherwise be, a more complex issue. This technique, though only somewhat sophisticated, should never be relied upon at face value as the sole interpretation or explanation for a situation or circumstance.

J.K. Rowling, Author

“We are only as strong

as we are united,

as weak as we are divided.”

Good communicators surround themselves with people whose goal it is to collaborate to find solutions in the most effective ways possible; while maintaining a common sense of purpose and mission. This position of unity is an important one in protecting the integrity of the organizational structure, the interconnected relationships involved and safeguarding the communication and resolution process itself.

Good communicators listen to and learn from these individuals – who have been invited to the table of ideas – on purpose. Individually they bring knowledge, experience, wisdom, perspective and insight that would otherwise be lacking. Ideally, these are not individuals who relish the status quo or who are content to wallow in or pacify symptoms while ignoring the root of an issue. These are business partners, agents of change; people who shape policy, create culture and willingly accept responsibility.

When a situation is complex, good communicators will listen to these business partners: an exercise critical to helping them embrace a higher-level view or perspective; identify the symptoms from the disease. These conversations, where everyone provides notable and valuable input, are what drive the subsequent courses of action and facilitate solutions to symptomology or answer ancillary questions.

Leading Edge: If you want to be a good communicator but the skill doesn’t necessarily come naturally to you, start by invite others from differing but relevant perspectives, to share in the conversation. Make known your agenda at least a week in advance so that invitees can give the matter some thought prior to coming together. Clearly answer these questions for them…

  • What is the goal of the meeting?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • What is expected of each participant? (i.e. How will a decision to _______ affect your area?)

You may even decide that the solutions you seek cannot be reasonably accomplished in just one meeting. If that’s the case, ask that invitees come prepared with their availability to schedule a follow up meeting.

Then, listen to the problem from the varying perspectives and begin to prioritize solutions as the conversation ensues. Read the room… Who is staying quiet and why? Who is outspoken and what might they be missing? Is the discussion valid and on point or do you need to steer the conversation back to the topic? Are there items, conditions, situations or people being overlooked or undervalued? Are there issues that should remain separate from the task at hand?

Though you are the leader – remain in control of the flow of conversation or facilitate the discussion rather than lead. Ensure that the focus remains consistent and that each person has an opportunity to share from her/his perspective.

Remember – you invited each of them to the table of ideas for a reason and together, you are stronger. Don’t let them leave without offering insight. If they aren’t sure why they were invited –tell them why you chose them. This simple and honest interface may be all they need to begin to share exactly what you, as the leader, need to hear.

Always “ON”

I once worked with an organization where most of the employees were expected to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We were always “ON”. I didn’t realize at the time, that salaries were set slightly above the hourly wage rate (exempt) in order make the positions more attractive and to protect the organization from labor law violations; while company phones were issued to make accessibility more “convenient”.  

The first couple of years at that pace were new and exciting. My family was supportive, and I was thrilled that others were dependent upon me, entrusting me with such responsibility. Then, I noticed co-workers who had been there longer than I had, becoming disgruntled, angry and even sick from exhaustion. When they would complain or look for new opportunities, I just assumed they weren’t cut out for the job.  But I was determined to be.

Side Note: Since the salaries were set at exempt rates, there were no open positions in town which would come close to offering the income and benefits we had come to rely on.

My personal life also began to be put on hold in order to meet the needs of the organization – much more often than I had become comfortable with. The expectation had been set and because I needed the job, I consistently exceed it.  Just to be clear… I was not a surgeon, a psychiatrist, a priest, an astronaut or a member of the military… or any other position where one might expect to have “scheduled on-call” responsibilities.

In the current employment market, organizations provide a variety of examples highlighting appropriate and inappropriate work-life balance. Some of them – along with providing cell phones and tablets for ease of access – invest in additional conveniences (employee benefits and perks) which make working longer hours a more attractive proposition. These include onsite amenities such as cafeterias and restaurants which are open 24/7 and provide a variety of healthy and traditional fare, healthcare clinics, gym and pool facilities, showers, barbershops, nail and wax salons, massage parlors, fold-out cots or nap rooms and even psychotherapy services. As benefits, these sound amazing and add value to your professional life experience. The issue I have is that they are located “ON”site. Essentially, these organizations have become self-contained communities or compounds (depending on your point of view), providing every reason for you to stay and logically minimizing your reasons to leave. Some research suggests that these environments also help to create isolation, loneliness, depression and burnout in employees and may not be as financially sustainable as the architects had perceived.

On the flip side, there are companies who have communicated policies outlining what the expectations are for employees in communicating during scheduled time off as well as throughout the working day. Some companies are now mandating email and phone free time during each day or at least a couple of times per week – making creativity and productivity much easier to accomplish. We can’t expect employees to protect and utilize their time at work wisely if we don’t honor their scheduled time off.

Research shows that working longer hours doesn’t consistently satisfy the need for increased productivity. There is room to step away and prioritize activities and relationships outside of our chosen professions. If we fail to see the value in our presence and existence outside of work, we will fail to create traction in those areas and we may miss out on significant treasure.

Leading Edge: It’s one thing to miss out on the rest of life intentionally… but another entirely to miss out on life inadvertently. Even if you own the company – always being “ON” isn’t the best use of your time, your talent or your treasure. It could actually be seen as an abuse. Take a break and allow yourself to gain perspective. A change of pace and an alternate environment allows potential for creativity to blossom and a fresh outlook to enter the organization upon your return.

Leading the Charge in Cultural Transformation

The demand for higher organizational standards is on the rise. Not only is company leadership responsible to define success in terms that will keep shareholders and external customers content (with consistent revenue, quality products, stellar customer service and visibly measurable corporate responsibility initiatives), they are now expected to undergo significant cultural changes which will improve the “employee” experience.

Some would question why these changes are necessary if the organizations in question are financially successful and comfortably positioned in the market. The treatment of employees has come under scrutiny – even for the most successful companies in highly visible industries. This is a reminder that without them, (the human resources to which success is directly attributed) profit, customers, market share and every other tangible measure of success, cease to exist.

Facilitating an organizational culture transformation is not the path of least resistance for leaders; especially if the organization is guilty of neglecting its employees. This doesn’t mean that you haven’t provided them with annual increases or earned benefits, but you may have increased outcome expectations without adequate training or support, you may have left them in the dark when major decisions which affected them were made, you may have changed the rules of the game without their knowledge or input, you may have treated them as though you were doing them a favor by allowing them to show up everyday in support of your mission and vision… Leadership isn’t providing a paycheck. Leadership is relationship… and healthy relationships require communication and effort.

Some organizations may choose the “wait and see” approach to the issue of cultural transformation… in hopes that the revolution will end in a minor skirmish and quickly fade; leaving them to continue with business as usual. Others have been rolling the dice, betting that their employees will remain loyal through continued dysfunction. Then there are those who have taken the “do-over” approach; finding reasons to release employees without cause and start over with a fresh batch; with no intention of changing their leadership style or taking responsibility for the existing culture.

Despite the warning signs and red flags which crop up along the way, leadership is often late in identifying and/or acknowledging the need for cultural transformation. What leaders in each of these situations fails to realize is that their employees are fully aware of the value in what they are missing… and they are actively in search of higher quality professional relationships with which to align themselves.

How much does it cost an organization to ignore much needed improvements in culture?  Let’s remember… cultural dysfunction starts with leadership.  Miscommunication, confusion and instability flows from the top, down to management levels. The managers then communicate the same (intentionally or not) to the frontline employees. Costs incurred include loss of trust, inconsistent messaging, inefficiencies, morale degradation, an increase in customer complaints about products and/or services, loss of revenue, nicks in the armor of brand reputation and, as a result, penal responses from leadership which flow through management, down to the frontline (those whose work directly effects the bottom-line).

Leading Edge: When an organization comes face to face with the reality that cultural transformation is no longer an option, leadership is presented with two options.  

1) Ignore the elephant in the room… You know, the one lifting its trunk in every meeting, wasting valuable time, halting meaningful conversation with divisiveness and consuming clarity and open communication like oxygen; spewing attitudes which reek of superiority and entitlement rather than rendering solutions and building bridges, digging holes and leaving scars for resentment to grow and mistrust to fester; creating an atmosphere where demeaning comments are tolerated and where disrespect insights fear among staff members who genuinely value their positions; putting them on edge… or worse, encouraging them to actively seek healthier professional relationships and opportunities elsewhere. Or…

2) Step up to the plate, dig in, set yourself and lead the charge for cultural transformation.

For some, this second course of action will challenge you to your core. It will require personal and professional self-examination; accompanied by changes of heart and mind. The internet is full of suggestions to get you started and you may have peers who are engaged in similar activities. But if you need a boost… Keep Reading.

Some leaders and their companies apply what’s commonly known as The Golden Rule. It comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in the Bible (Matthew 7:12). One translation says “…in everything, treat others the same way you want them to treat you”. Arguably, we are not all the same and therefore don’t all prefer the “same” treatment. For instance, you may want a phone call or an email whereas I might prefer a text message…

So, there are other leaders and companies who simply Employ Empathy (capturing the essence of the earlier admonition). They do this by engaging in an active search for ways to reach into the worlds of their employees. Simple displays of common courtesy and human interaction are masterful at communicating appreciation, acknowledging efforts and celebrating mutual commitment, meaningfully and positively.

For some leaders, facilitating cultural transformation may be quite natural… and for others it may require a fresh perspective or hands on assistance from others. In either case, it is not a task designed to be accomplished in a vacuum. My advice would be to choose your allies wisely. These agents of cultural change (some of whom exist within your organization) are patiently waiting for you to make the call. They can’t do it for you, nor do they want to. Their desire is not to usurp your authority, but to support you as you lead the charge. Be consistent. Let them know you value their contributions enough to change and grow with them. Give your employees something worth following.

Leading the charge for cultural transformation is a bold and courageous step; and the organizational and personal savings will be well worth the effort. You will see increases in management confidence, efficiencies, personnel energy levels and creativity; uplifting your employees, securing your customer base, rescuing your reputation and protecting your brand for the future. As a bonus… clarity, stability, fresh ideas, and revenue can now freely flow from the healthy organizational environment created as a result of your willingness to lead the charge for your organization’s cultural transformation.

Cheers to your Successes!