How Do You Learn to Manage People?

We’ve taken an interest in people managers since the beginning of the pandemic. Because as we supported different experiences across companies, we quickly saw the pressure point was people managers. And we wrote and coached about how to handle worry, loss, loneliness…. and inconsistencies in work. That order was the priority during the pandemic as managers were told to “look after people” first.

Then, we saw the “return to work” phase, as managers had to pivot to manage the work versus managing the people. Some stepped in and took it on themselves so they could look after people and look after work when the two were in conflict with each other.

And now with company plans firmly in place, people managers are expected to be firmer in managing people. In the last two years, people managers have come full circle with giving feedback, reviews and sometimes performance ratings that communicate less flexibility and more expectation. And through it all, new pain points for people managers have emerged.
Anecdotally, we set out to learn a few things from both perspectives: the managers themselves and the people being managed. And we came away with interesting insights.

When people managers were asked to rate themselves in terms of effectiveness, (scale of 1-5; 1=poor and 5=outstanding), the average was a 3.5. Some were threes and some were fours, but everyone we talked to considered themselves average or a little above.

But when we asked for the same rating of effectiveness from people who are managed, the swing was much greater. Some employees rated their manager a five, and some rated their manager a one. And the wide discrepancy led to another realization. The people managers who were rated the highest had been managing people for more than 10 years. And those who were rated very low started managing people during the last five years.

Our hypothesis became: your skill set at managing people has a lot to do with when you became a people manager.

People managers with a lot of experience under their belt now say the pandemic chaos was an anomaly. As their companies reset, they reset their management skills to conversation guidelines, feedback processes and team expectations that they learned to do a while ago. They have a toolkit that needs some refinement, but they find the fundamentals of managing people to be the same.

People managers who took on teams in the last five years see their role as inconsistent, and their experience has only been the frenetic shifts described above. Many say they aren’t confident being a people manager, and they don’t feel that they have much of a toolkit to guide them. They’ve been handed a new playbook every year and the guidance swings from “anything goes” to “enforce expectations” with smaller pivots in between.

If you ask the more experienced managers how they developed management skills, they all say their skills evolved over time and they learned by watching others and asking others for guidance.

That wasn’t a model that was sustainable during remote work and high-stress situations. So, it’s little wonder that newer managers feel they didn’t get the same guidance or support. And it’s why we’ve taken an interest in helping these younger managers feel more confident in the tools and their skills in managing people.

Work situations are different today, and both experienced and inexperienced managers told us that they find feedback conversations to be challenging.

Today, they’re managing a false sense of confidence from young employees, a stronger demand for personal preference and exceptions, and a concern that every conversation will be a negotiation. They brace for resistance and feel good when they can avoid conflict.

The seasoned managers have a better perspective on assessing behaviors and showing empathy without trading off work.

So while all managers feel they’re being tested by some of their employees, the more experienced managers have “seen things before” and feel more confident in their ability to work things out and get to resolution.

And interestingly, employees see the difference. When we asked those who rated a manager low what skills the manager needed, they say managers need to set clear goals and hold people accountable. They want constructive feedback, and they want to advance in their careers. But they admit they’re impatient about it and often feel the younger manager is in the way of their advancement rather than supporting their path.

The pain points were easy to identify with young managers and their teams. But as we’ve prioritized this development need, we’ve also talked to HR leaders to be sure we’re aligned on what the gap actually is.

And it has multiple components.

Guidelines for Hybrid Work – All managers need a reset on dealing with the blurred lines created by a new way of work. Every company has a return to work strategy, but in most cases, the strategy is different enough that managing people in a hybrid setting is still a development need.

Manager Network – Young managers can’t evolve over time as their predecessors did. In fact, many of their role models are no longer in the workforce to mentor them. The early retirement and remote work of seasoned managers has created a gap in companies. And managers need a structured network and sounding board to support each other.

Manager Toolkit & Tools – While they may have some tools, they want training that brings all the tools together. They don’t have time to find different pieces. They want the best practices for feedback and crucial conversations and guidance on applying them to their situations.

Brand & Confidence – Open dialogs have led to direct feedback from their teams. Sometimes charged with emotion, and sometimes just deflating. But demanding employees can erode a manager’s confidence, and they want to understand how their brand is perceived and how to hold their own in a tough conversation.

We’ve taken an interest in people managers because we know how critical they are in companies, and we hear the pain as we talk to them in workshops and coaching sessions. While it’s no one’s fault that the gap developed, it will be everyone’s problem if young managers don’t gain confidence in their ability to manage.

And that’s why we’ve developed a program that focuses on the components above. We’re talking to companies about how to leverage it and how to tailor it to the needs of their managers. And if you’re experiencing similar challenges, we’d welcome a chance to talk to you as well.


Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates


Why is it that the best communicators fall flat when put in a studio to produce a video?

The seasoned communicators who’ve tried it will tell you it’s because it’s too scripted. They prefer a more informal and conversational approach. Or they say, it’s too constricted.  They believe their energy comes from movement, and they want to move around like they would on a stage.

And while both the tighter content and the limited movement are concepts that take adjustment, the biggest difference that communicators struggle with is the lack of an audience.

It’s ironic because when you ask communicators in other settings what makes them nervous or throws off their focus, the common issue is the audience. “The group was bigger than I expected, I didn’t know a senior leader would be there, or they weren’t as interested in my topic as I was told.” If you find the audience to be a challenge as a communicator, you’ll find the lack of one makes video production even harder.

Ask anyone who’s produced a lot of videos and they’ll tell you: the hardest part of video is understanding how to lead a one-sided conversation as if it were a two-sided one. And essentially, that’s what changes the most.

For years, we’ve guided our executive coaching clients to get comfortable with video as a medium. But we couldn’t have predicted how quickly it would take hold as different ways of work evolved, and leaders weren’t in front of employees as frequently. Today, more than 50% of internal communications is done via video. And by video, I don’t mean live communication that’s hosted on a virtual platform. I’m referring to taped communication that is produced for sound bites, promotion and engagement on topics.

And it’s not just leaders who are using it. Video has become an easy way to get information out in a short format. Companies are adding studios to their offices, and they’re creating pre-taped messages to support most internal initiatives. The only piece missing are communicators who are effective with the format.

That’s because it’s different enough that skills don’t easily adapt to it. Communicators need some help translating and adapting what they know about energy and engagement to the new format.

In fact, whether you’re the coach or the coachee working on a video format, it’s important to make sure the skill set of the communicator starts with an understanding of intent more than technique.

Too often, people who coach communicators give tips and techniques that mask poor habits rather than working through them.

And when a communicator tries to translate those techniques to a different setting, it seldom works because the old habit is still there.

Across all settings, our focus always begins by talking to a communicator about their toolkit. Every communicator has the same one: their body, their voice and the listener. The tools don’t change across settings; a communicator’s understanding of how to leverage them does.

So how do you coach a communicator to be impactful through video?

First, you talk about scripts. Some communicators have learned to use teleprompters for keynotes and large stage events. In this setting, they can use headlines and short-form bullets as an outline. But when producing video, the content has to be much tighter. Videos have 2-3 minutes to be compelling and succinct. It’s sound bites, it’s phrases – and it’s always scripted. The conversational tone most communicators want to convey comes through in style, not content. Coaching someone to read a script in a conversational way is step one.

Second, you focus on the body. Video requires a more settled presence. Movement is distracting. Some people like to stand to get involved in what they’re saying, but most people do their best seated on a stool. Either way, the goal is to get someone forward toward the camera. Coaching focuses on helping a communicator feel settled and involved at the same time.

The third coaching area is the voice. Video requires someone to be able to land a point and create energy through effort behind the voice. Foundational skills translate easily to video in terms of articulation and projection. The harder coaching concepts are landing a point and putting emotion behind words and phrases.

And that leads to the missing element: the audience. Communicators leverage energy and engagement back and forth with listeners in other settings and when it isn’t there, their own energy drops quickly. Unfortunately, it’s easy to spot. Someone who doesn’t know how to connect through video will look as if they’re staring. The eyes become hard, and it’s easy to see them reading the script.  That’s less about reading and more about keeping expression active in communication.

If you’ve worked with SW&A on presence and style, you know the answer. Connection is less about looking at someone and more about drawing response from someone. Again, it’s the intent of connecting with someone and less the technique of eye contact.

When we coach someone how to engage with a listener, we illustrate the two-way interaction of connection. And if you understand the essence of connection, you can translate it to video. It is the concept of leading a one-sided conversation as if it were a two-sided one. You have to work for emotion, you have to work for response – even though you won’t get it. What you will get is expression through the communicator’s eyes and face. And that’s what makes video feel as if a communicator is talking directly to a listener.

Video is a powerful medium when it’s done well. And it’s a frustrating one when seasoned communicators don’t know how to execute it.

We can help!

SW&A coaches communicators to connect through video in 1:1 coaching and group workshops. And we can ensure that when the lights and cameras come on, there will be great energy on your side of the lens.

As always, we’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

The Art of Answering Questions

When we work with individuals or teams to prepare for important presentations, our debrief always includes interest in the questions asked throughout the presentation. And the response is varied. Some presenters say they received no questions, others share a few and some presenters can’t remember.

Sometimes, they brush it off and want to talk more about how they did than how the listeners reacted. And yet, questions are arguably the most important part of most communication.  The questions asked by listeners reveal how the information was received and how it’s likely to be used once the meeting wraps up.

When we coach big moments, we talk to presenters about how to impose questions on a group as a way to gauge what they heard and whether they’re aligned before the presentation ends. Questions are the clearest indicator a communicator gets on how well they transferred knowledge.

But answering questions is not a skill that most communicators learn or practice.

And that’s because questions aren’t considered to be critical or challenging early in your career.

In fact, as you begin to present to colleagues, questions may be easy to manage. You know the audience well, and when they ask questions, it’s easy to understand why they’re asking.  They want to know how a topic impacts their work or their role.  And chances are, the questions ask for more detail around something in the presentation.  So, you can go an inch deeper or restate a concept to offer more context.

There may also be a manager in the room who manages the scope of questions for you.  So, when someone asks for more detail or challenges a detail, you may get air cover to shut down a line of questioning or keep the topic in scope.

Early on, communicators rarely say they didn’t understand the reason a question was asked.

And yet, as opportunities expand and audiences become more diverse, that’s the most common complaint we hear from communicators. “I have no idea why they asked me that question.”

In the toolkit of communication skills, the inability to answer questions effectively will become a vulnerability for a communicator. And in fact, it will also become a determining factor of whether they continue to gain visibility to different groups.

As leaders interact with communicators, they always gauge how well someone shows up. Style and presence matters, clarity of messaging matters. But the ability to transfer knowledge through how questions are answered may matter the most. If confidence and clarity got you in a high-stakes meeting, it’s the ability to manage questions well that gets you back to the next one.

In fact, the ability to answer questions well is one of the most universal skills of communication because every manager and leader has to answer questions. Questions transcend across every setting from conference keynotes to media interviews, from investor days to board rooms, and from customer meetings to employee round tables. If you learn to manage questions well, you will leverage it in every step of your career.

It isn’t easy.

Questions are dynamic. They come from listeners, so you prepare for them the same way you prepare your storyline. You can anticipate about 60% of what will be asked if you consider the listeners’ perspective. But questions require real-time, in the moment content that means thinking on your feet and being as clear and focused as you were throughout the presentation.

As your career advances, questions become harder because audiences and listeners get more diverse. You don’t have the understanding that you did when you spoke to colleagues. You don’t always know why someone asks a question or how they’re trying to apply your response. It takes a new skill set and an intentional process to think on your feet and manage questions effectively.

We coach a three-step model for answering questions.

STEP ONE:  Adjust the Question.

On any given topic, presenters have a defined sweet spot. It’s the scope of what they know and the depth of what they can answer. And yet, they rush in to answer things that they may not understand. They stumble when they try to answer anything and everything.

With broader audiences and more senior leaders, questions aren’t as simple or as clear. Leaders ask questions to connect recommendations or challenges to their areas of a business. And often, the communicator won’t know their area or can’t easily transfer their knowledge to it. So, they have to listen to the question and adjust the questions to what they can answer. Confidence in answering questions begins with the ability to adjust the question to your sweet spot.

STEP TWO:  Answer in a Sentence.

Because the presenter often feels that the Q&A section is more informal, they shift from being “on point” to a more casual communication style. They think out loud and often ramble through an answer to get to a point. That makes it hard to follow a response, and it annoys the more seasoned listener. Learning to pause and organize a focused response is a discipline that comes with answering questions well. A one sentence answer signals a definitive response, whether it means a definitive answer or not.

STEP THREE: Illustrate a Response.

Once a listener reacts to a clear response, you can expand on an answer and offer more context or illustration of how your response applies to a function within the company. The more complex questions tend to evolve into a back and forth with a listener, and communicators need to be comfortable with managing questions that don’t have easy answers. They lead to more questions.


Questions with tougher audiences and more seasoned listeners are still a sign of transferring knowledge. But the application of concepts isn’t as clear, and questions often open up more discussion. Communicators become facilitators who can guide a diverse group to common takeaways.

If you’ve reached a point in your career where communication has shifted from informing groups to trying to influence decisions, then answering questions is now a critical skill. And because it’s a common gap and frequent request, we’ve pulled it out of our content programs and developed a workshop focused solely on the art of answering questions and thinking on your feet.

Check out Handling the Q&A as an upcoming Open Program or get a tailored one-day program for your team!

As always, we’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Your Time vs Their Time – The Mystique of Promotions

It’s January 23… and you’ve wrapped up one year and launched headfirst into another one. And buried within the holidays and celebrations is an end-of-the-year touchpoint. In that touchpoint discussion, managers will give feedback, a compensation review and sometimes a promotion.

It’s the “sometimes” that has created tension inside organizations. And while we work with many people to prepare for the end-of-year conversations, we also start coaching with people when they didn’t get what they want.

Promotions, or the lack of them, create tension in organizations, hard feelings between managers and employees – and a lot of misunderstanding with everyone. In fact, the tension around it has increased in recent years.

People managers feel like they get asked about promotions 3x more often than they used to. Most feedback sessions lead to “what’s in it for me,” and many employees want to meet frequently to be sure that their “promotion” and advancement is on track. Managers say that the language has shifted from “What’s my next opportunity?” to “You need to promote me” and “You owe me a promotion.” That’s a pretty demanding employee!

Employees are worried about falling behind. They’re worried about an increased cost of living. They want to hold onto the more flexible lifestyle and work style, and they’re impatient about getting to the next opportunity. They’re trying to shift the timing from when they want it to when the company is ready to do it.

That suggests that some employees don’t really understand how the timing of promotions works.

And the answer is: it depends.

There are some concepts that are universal for all companies.

  • Promotions never happen because an employee asked for it. Promotions happen on a company’s time and when an opening or increased responsibility call for it.
  • Promotions are rarely the sole decision of one leader.
  • Promotions are best impacted by what you do vs. what you ask for.
  • Promotions are more relational than transactional.

The concepts may seem clear. They may also seem rigid as if there’s little you can do to influence them in your favor. It may feel like there’s an invisible playbook inside a company, and some people seem to have one and you don’t. It’s more likely that some employees seek guidance and coaching and developed their own playbook for career advancement.

Here’s how we’d guide you to do the same.

Appreciate Feedback. Act on It.
Even though you aren’t in charge of when promotions happen, pay attention when these touchpoints occur. Even if you weren’t promoted, your career was discussed. Managers are most likely to share their thoughts –and the sound bites of others – as they go through a review.

Don’t challenge your manager’s perspective. Seek to understand it. If you come across as defensive or resistant, you won’t get much more. When you have constructive feedback, act on it. Not by trying to prove a leader wrong, but more by trying to shift an impression.

It doesn’t matter if impressions are accurate. It’s someone else’s perspective. And they have a right to it. You need to change it, not debate it.

In a coaching session, we ask you: what feedback you’ve gotten recently and what you’ve done with the feedback. Everyone answers the first question. Most people say “nothing” on the second one.

Managers vs Coaches.
Everybody has a manager, not everybody has a coach within that manager. And that’s OK. You shouldn’t put your career opportunities in the hands of one person anyway. Most promotions are decided by committee. But you should be savvy about where you stand with the manager you have.

In a coaching session, we ask you: where you stand in a manager’s pecking order. Are you the right-hand person for your manager? If not, are you second? And if not, chances are your manager may not be your best advocate. You have plenty of support in your current role. You just might not have the coach who’s going to help you move beyond it.

If there were an invisible playbook, page two would tell you to build an internal network. Build champions and coaches inside an organization, and they will support your future steps.

Results Speak Loudest.
There is an “I’m owed” mentality that is showing up in touchpoints. And it doesn’t fare well in a corporate setting. Promotions start with company needs, not individual ones. They will align, and promotions are likely. But you do more to promote yourself by your work vs. your words.

In a coaching setting, we talk to you about how you position your work and your brand. And this is often where some employees outshine others. They know how to package themselves more effectively. And instead of talking about what they should get, they talk more about what they’ve done.

Stop By, Say Hi!
We are still adjusting to new ways of working. The advantages of flexibility outweigh the trade-offs for most employees, but promotions are about visibility and relationships. And if they don’t know you…they don’t promote you. That’s not your manager’s responsibility, it’s yours. No matter how you’re working, you need to put added effort into relational time with your leader and others.

While we’ve heard a lot about how much employees need flexibility in their schedules, we’ve also heard what leaders say about adjusted work environments.

“If I’ve seen you in three Zoom meetings with 10 other people, I don’t know you.”

We know that promotions start with relationships. To promote you, I don’t just need to know your work. I need to know you to endorse you within the company.


Promotions are key points across a career, and as a result, they get a lot of attention. But worry less about timing and more about effort. Because there’s a lot you can do to greatly improve your chances.

If your year-end touchpoint didn’t go as you had planned, let’s talk about how you can proactively improve your opportunity.

As always, we’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

The Expectations of Executive Presence

In the last few months, we began our research for an updated release of our first book, The Hidden Factor. Written more than a decade ago, the book defined presence and offered executive-level insights on how presence helps some employees get ahead while the lack of it holds other employees back. Presence was viewed as a collection of attributes and expectations that increased with more visibility and responsibility across a career.

Our first book provided executive-level input on how employees show up in a business setting, and we’ve coached to those impressions and expectations for thirty years. In fact, we would say that the concepts of presence: Confidence, Commitment and Connection, are validated over and over again as we talk to managers and leaders about impact and influence.

But a decade ago now seems like a lifetime ago. And as we continue to provide expertise on presence, we’ve collected new insights to challenge and confirm our direction. And in our recent surveys and interviews, we researched two different perspectives: how employees think about presence in a leader and how leaders observe presence in employees.

As our work continues on our fifth book, here are some preliminary thoughts that may help you consider presence in your work environment today:

A Leader’s Presence – the Employees’ Perspective

Ten years ago, we ranked the attributes of presence. And while most of the original concepts are still there, the order of importance has shifted. While confidence, credibility and professionalism led the pack originally, today’s employees focus more on authenticity, believability and engagement.

It doesn’t mean that confidence and credibility are less important. It means to really influence an employee, a leader has to have more than that.

And leaders got a lot of that feedback and coaching during the pandemic. They were guided to share more about themselves and to start with a human connection before a business concept. It has elevated expectations of a leader to a compelling communicator. And leaders are seeking skills to become memorable and repeatable. It taps into our work on storytelling, and in many cases, the pandemic helped leaders get a jumpstart on this skill.

Storytelling is valued enough to be considered an expected attribute of presence in leaders. If you lead a large division or a function with multiple teams and you haven’t mastered storytelling, you’re behind your peers. It’s the element of presence that brings content and style together by helping a communicator establish lasting impressions and repeatable sound bites.

But if leaders are a little ahead on new expectations, employees themselves may be behind.

An Employee’s Presence – the Leaders’ Perspective:

When you ask leaders to think about how they notice presence in employees, there are some new dynamics to consider. Working remote or hybrid has had an impact on how easy or difficult it is to establish presence with leaders. And in several of our discussion groups, managers called this out directly. They say establishing presence is harder because they just don’t get as many opportunities. And it seems leaders feel the same.

Here are three themes we identified in surveys and conversations with leaders.

First, presence hasn’t changed. Choices have.

Leaders have stayed consistent to impressions and how they describe the impact of presence on someone’s visibility and opportunity. Bottom-line: “Like everyone else, I form an impression of you from how you communicate and how you present yourself in business settings.” But as employees have shifted with flexible hours, flexible settings and flexible everything else, the opportunity for comparison is more obvious.

Leaders would say an employee with presence stands out so much more today because of all the other choices being made around them. From how people show up in meetings to when they show up in the office, from lack of focus to lack of clarity, from being prepared to being unclear. And by extending the boundaries of how we work, we’ve also opened up more opportunities to miss the mark.

Second, in-person presence trumps virtual presence. Every time.

“You can’t confuse the convenience of virtual with the influence of in-person.”

A good analogy is this: You’re sitting in a room with a person and the television is on. You’re watching something together. But as you engage with each other, it’s easy for the show to be drowned out as you take more of an interest in your conversation with each other. You feed on each other’s enthusiasm which is expressed through body language and voice energy. There’s just more to take in and more to influence when you’re with someone.

It doesn’t mean that virtual can’t work. By focusing on the television, you and the other person in the room can choose to make the television the focal point. But it takes agreement and combined focus to make it happen. And in a business setting, a really good facilitator. And that puts your ability to make an impact in the hands of someone else.

Third, leveraging impressions is a lot about relationships. They matter.

If your presence is established as an initial impression, it takes repetition of that impression for people to attach presence to your brand. It’s how people begin to think about you and talk about you when you’re not around. They describe you to others, and they leverage you in different places.

Presence opens the door to new relationships. But leaders are talking a lot about the lack of relationships with newer employees.

In our discussions, one leader said: “If I’ve seen you twice a month in a virtual meeting and you’re one of ten people, I don’t really know you. I don’t think of that as a relationship. I only know you related to the skills you’re discussing in the meeting.” And without the more relaxed opportunity to form a relationship, it’s harder for leaders to assess expanded responsibility and consider promotion. For employees, it’s harder to have a network of champions.


As we head into another year of hybrid working and expanded choices, you should think about how presence shows up in your business setting. From leaders to managers, the expectations of presence have stayed consistent. But a lot about how we establish a presence has changed. And that’s going to take more effort around fewer opportunities. It means learning how to have a presence in the way you’ve been asked to work or the way you’ve chosen to work.

Resetting presence is a priority for us in the year ahead. And we anticipate 2024 will add another book to our resources.

As always, we’re here when you need us and hope you’ll consider how we can help you and your team reset presence in the year ahead.

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Influencing Without Authority

TAKE US WITH YOU! Listen to this article on the go:

There’s a path in career advancement that isn’t always easy to navigate. It’s the spot between individual contributor and seasoned manager. And for some, the path never appears and for others, it’s as if the path was clear all along.

There’s some mystique to who finds the path and runs up it quickly and who turns a different way and misses the path altogether. Maybe some were given specific landmarks and guidance so they wouldn’t miss it. Maybe some knew where to turn and chose not to.

And it begs the question: who picks the path and who guides the turns?

Sometimes an earnest employee does it on their own. They jump in and seek guidance and can find their way. Sometimes it’s circumstances around a project or a big initiative that forces someone into management. But most often, it’s a mentor, a sponsor or a leader who sees something in someone that signals manager potential:

  • Where do they see it? In everyday meetings or quarterly presentations.
  • How do they evaluate it? Group reaction and response.
  • And what do they call it? The ability to influence without authority.

It can be as subtle as someone who gains alignment with conflicting perspectives or as bold as someone who knows how to set options and impose action. It’s a skill that, once learned, will follow you throughout your career. And it’s a differentiator between an individual contributor and a management candidate.

The most common feedback employees get as they begin to gain visibility is: “You’re in the weeds. You’re sharing too much detail.” It’s feedback that means we’re asking you to recognize the difference in what you’re actually doing and how we’re asking you to communicate about it.

Let’s take two employees and consider what they missed.

First, John, a product supervisor. John has responsibility for upgrading a product and getting it back in the market in six months. John scoped the project in order to get buy-in and financing. And now, every day, he leads a huddle with the five developers working on it. He has a project manager who works with him to manage the flow of changes and incremental sets. Most days, John’s time is spent problem-solving with one of those developers.

John’s Mindset: John is in the weeds. He understands where he started on the project and he understands the end game of what he’s trying to deliver. He was a part of the conversations when the decision was made to invest in upgrading this product and why it matters to customers.

How John Communicates: If you ask John to attend a meeting and report on this project, you’re going to hear the play-by-play steps of what they’re changing, how they’re changing it, where they’ve gotten stuck, and what they’ve done to solve it.

Your experience of Emily will be similar.

Emily runs a lead gen process for a B:B sales team. She sits within the marketing organization, but her customer is sales. She runs weekly campaigns based on targeted personas, implied needs, and new verticals. She has a team of four, and they are deep in the weeds of watching website activity, tracking outbound mailings, and making real-time changes to adjust to activity.

Emily’s Mindset: She meets with her team daily, and she works with each individual on the specific campaigns they manage. Emily is deep in the weeds and close to the adjustments made on each activity or data point.

How Emily Communicates: If you ask Emily for an update, you’re going to get the play-by-play of each campaign’s activity and adjustments.

So, let’s go into meetings and see how others respond to them.

Assume you’re the VP Product and, quarterly, you meet with the VP Sales to let her know how things are progressing, so that her team can communicate what’s coming to customers. You invite John to give an update on the product upgrade and within five minutes, the VP Sales is shaking her head. After the meeting she says to you, “I didn’t understand any of that. What am I supposed to do with that information?”

John provided an update on the workflow and progress behind the update. He didn’t provide the strategic message that the VP Sales hoped to hear. She wanted to know how the update would impact the company’s customers, not how it was literally taking place. John was not effective in that meeting.

Now assume that you’re the VP of Sales and you have your regional directors coming in for a meeting. You’ve asked Emily to provide an overview of lead generation. At the end of Emily’s presentation, your district leaders were confused by the amount of data and didn’t understand what to plan for next quarter.

Just like John, Emily approached this visibility moment as an opportunity to showcase the work of her team. Her audience wanted to align her actions to their opportunities. Emily was not effective in her meeting.

In both meetings, the listeners’ impressions were:

  • Too in the weeds…
  • Misses the point…
  • Unclear on the takeaway…

We describe it as the difference in talking about what you’re doing versus talking about the outcome you’ll deliver. But if you’re John or Emily, they would say that’s oversimplifying their biggest challenge. And the challenge is they don’t always see the difference in doing the work and communicating about the work. And it’s a skill that our team calls communicating and influencing without authority.

It’s communicating from the listener’s perspective and thinking about the value your listeners will take away from your insights. It’s worrying less about reporting on what you’re doing and putting in the context of a strategic mindset. This is the skill that allows some people to climb the manager path early. They’ve learned to speak someone else’s language so that communication aligns to what someone else is trying to accomplish.

Employees like John and Emily need help understanding the difference in supporting outcomes versus partnering on outcomes. It’s a shift from communicating activity to communicating outcomes.

When we coach that skill, it changes an employee’s momentum within a company. It improves their ability to influence conversations today, and it increases high-visibility moments, which leads to the next steps in their career faster.

And as we continue to see companies ask managers to step up quickly, we know this skill belongs in their toolkit. And that’s why we’ve packaged it as a new program for 2024. If you’d like to help one person step up for a promotion or your entire team partner more effectively with internal groups, give us a call. We’ve got the solution you need.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Advancement vs Development

There’s been a shift in employee conversations.

To people managers, it feels a lot like a long car ride with young children. “Are we there yet?” is asked so many times that it stirs feelings of frustration and exasperation.  Ask any people manager, and they would say the most common question from an early career employee is “Am I there yet? Am I ready for promotion?” And while most people leaders have a faint memory of feeling eager and impatient themselves, there is more frustration and exasperation with their newest employees and the repetitive “Am I there yet?”

No doubt it creates an impression of someone who seems self-focused. But it’s worth noting that this generation of newest employees are considered to be a very smart generation. They have a skill set that many around them in the workforce don’t have. They’re tech natives, so they can do almost anything faster. And in the early steps of their career, they’ve experienced unusual trends with a workforce shortage and hiring salaries off the charts. So, it stands to reason that they’re being coached at home and by friends to “ask for anything… and you’ll probably get it.”

It makes sense that their focus is about what’s next. And if people managers take a deep breath and a step back, they’ll find that enthusiasm and motivation is driving the annoying impatience.  We all made mistakes in our early steps, and this group‘s impatience will likely be one of their missteps.

But if you have a motivated, even an impatient employee, you can shift the conversation.

Some managers feel hesitant to do this. They, too, lived through unusual trends. And they were told to look after people, to be very flexible with people. So having any conversation that stands firm or offers a little humble pie, makes them nervous.  But when you balance the worry of disappointing someone with the responsibility of guiding someone, you’ll find that honesty is the best policy.

Here’s how you shift the conversation.

First, compensation can’t be a gray area: Every employee needs to understand how compensation works inside a company. 90% of individual contributors don’t understand pay bands. They don’t really understand how talent ratings work within companies, and so they’re very naive about their manager’s capabilities and limitations around advancement. 50% of managers don’t understand how this works beyond their team.

People leave companies because they make assumptions about how things work, and they assume managers can do whatever they want to do to advance them. Advancement is a process within a company, and the assessment behind it happens for most employees at the same time each year. Navigating advancement requires instruction. When an employee understands the rules, timing, and the process companies use to advance an employee, they realize they’re asking their manager for the wrong thing in those weekly conversations.

Second, distinguish between advancement and development: Good managers lean into development which makes the annual advancement conversation easier.  If Joe is your employee, the conversation shift may sound like this:

“Joe, I have an advancement conversation with you twice a year from a standpoint of compensation, position changes, and increased responsibilities. Our company does that once a year, and at midyear, I’m happy to talk to you about how you’re tracking. But I’m more a steward of your development plan than your compensation plan. In terms of growing your skills and experiences, I’m happy to have an on-going conversation with you. As your manager, I have a lot of ownership for helping you get the experience that will lead to advancement down the road. And while the company guides the conversation we have once a year, you and I can set a unique and individual development plan to set what you want to see and what you want to learn.”

Third, build a multi-step career path with an employee: Shift their thinking from what they want to do next to where they want to be in ten years.  This paints a picture of multiple experiences and relationships that will happen over time versus a specific event of taking one step up the career ladder.

If an employee can’t tell you where they want to be, explain the importance of having a path.  While the path may change, it will help them shape the experiences that they need along the way, and it adds some direction to what they should explore. It also gives them something to talk about as they network within your company.

As companies continue to evolve and reset quickly, we see many people who get stuck or sidelined because no one understands the longer journey they’re pursuing.  They only see an employee’s current skills, and it may be too much or too little for a company to apply their skills. But when companies have more intel, where someone is today AND where they’d like to be in the future, it’s easier to adjust a role short-term and keep an employee on course from the longer career path.

This missing element, the ability to talk about your career path, was the inspiration for our book, Disrupted! How to Reset Your Brand and Your Career. In fact, people managers have their own stories to share about how experiences led to career opportunities. And managers should share them often. Young employees need a broader view and a longer game plan. They also need relationships.

And that’s the Fourth element. Encourage relationships that may lead to mentorship: This is another misunderstood corporate norm. Young employees are “coached” to find mentors quickly in a company. Maybe the right intent, but it’s often executed poorly. Leaders get frustrated when someone they don’t know asks: “Will you be my mentor?”  The answer is maybe, but probably not.  To the employee, mentorship means someone who is going to tell me what to do to accelerate my success.  To a leader, it means added time focused on someone you don’t really know. So maybe, but probably not.

Mentoring happens over time, and it’s a one-in-a-hundred relationship that grows beyond advice to common interests and trusted camaraderie. No one knows who will take hold as a mentor, but coaching an employee to build multiple relationships starts the beginning of a network that may reveal a mentorship.


People managers are the critical factor that gets high performance out of employees today and guides career development for where employees will end up tomorrow. But it takes a shift in conversation, and a people manager who can put the four steps above into place.

If you’re finding employee conversations challenging, let us help you shift the conversation.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

It’s All On You: Will Your Keynote Speech Be a Home Run?

TAKE US WITH YOU! Listen to this article on the go:

It’s all been leading up to your 20 minutes on a stage…

The events team has spent a small fortune planning it…

The marketing team has spent six months promoting it…

And the sales team is waiting in the wings, eager to capitalize on it…

And all you have to do as the keynote speaker—is hit it out of the park!

Easy enough, right? Actually no. Most leaders say it’s one of the hardest things they’re asked to do. Few leaders like doing it, and no leaders like hearing the expectations described above. So, they wait too late to begin planning for it – and they strike out.

It happens more often than you might think. About 60% of all the keynotes that will be delivered in this upcoming conference season will fail in their main objective: positioning new opportunities for the company.

How can that be? After all, most company keynote speakers are senior executives with an entire support staff. So how can more than half of their keynotes fail to leave an audience impressed?

The truth is that most keynotes follow the same formula: the usual cliches to shine light on the brand, mixed with this year’s fresh coat of paint and a presentation about what you’re doing and why your customers need it.

And while this formula is easy to pull together by an internal marketing team, it rarely meets the expectations of what an audience came to hear. The audience wants a broader view. They want to hear industry insights and comparisons, they want perspective that is relevant and useful to their companies and their plans, and they want to be entertained by how the keynote speaker weaves it all together.

We’ve witnessed countless keynotes over the years, and this disconnect replays itself time and time again. A keynote speaker takes the stage to great fanfare and spends the next 20 minutes talking about their own company. They don’t connect the dots to marketplace issues, industry opportunities or their customers’ priorities. And the audience is left to figure out: does this matter to me?

It takes alignment on three key elements to make a keynote memorable and repeatable. And it’s why we developed our formula for a winning keynote:

A Clear Storyline + Memorable Stories + A Compelling Storyteller


The Storyline:

Impactful communication leverages the power and clarity of a storyline to lead listeners to a clear takeaway. It’s the right structure that leads listeners on an incredible journey with a blend of insights, discovery and a little fun.

The journey looks different from one keynote to the next, but great keynote speeches lead to big Aha’s. If there’s nothing new, the keynote just diluted the value of the entire conference. These are the headlines; these are the proof points, and this is the foundation that supports all the other sessions.



Audiences love stories because they’re repeatable when they’re told well. But only about 22% of stories that are told in business settings are memorable. And in our years of research on stories, there’s one pretty clear reason why: the story being told wasn’t aligned to the journey for the listener.

Successful storytelling ties together key points. We often say that a successful keynote can be measured by a listener who remembers your message and can validate it by repeating a story from your presentation.

Stories make a message real and bring complete ideas or data to life for an audience. But by themselves, their impact is limited. It’s the combination of stories within a storyline that gives a keynote its shelf life. Without a set storyline, stories entertain without leaving a lasting impact. And without stories, a storyline often struggles to bring points to life.

A keynote speaker needs both in order to make a message resonate until next year’s conference. And that leads to the differentiating element … the presenters themselves!


The Storyteller:

We tell many presenters that communication is a blend of head and heart. Good data points align with the brain and good stories align with the heart. Presenters who can engage both head and heart have a much better chance of connecting with an audience.

Great storytellers don’t just want you to hear their stories. They want you to feel the story and they inject emotion into stories in the way that they tell them. Think of a favorite speaker in business, comedy, politics, or religion. They all have a certain energy and conviction that seems to pull you in.

Most speakers aren’t willing to invest the time to learn how to do this well. They’re relying on the communication style they’ve had for more than a decade. And while it’s good enough for running a business meeting, it isn’t good enough to engage an audience from a stage. It takes coaching, it takes effort, and it takes the right blend of all three ingredients in our formula to bring it to life.

A Clear Storyline + Memorable Stories + A Compelling Storyteller


Conferences are back and bigger than ever. Your customers are giving you 2-4 full days of their time, and most companies are counting on only a few people to lead a journey that catapults everything else into place next year.

Are you one of the people they’re counting on?

It’s a lot of pressure, but we can ensure you’ll deliver on it. Invest the time and effort to improve your skills, and you’ll knock it out of the park.

If you’re the next speaker, commit to being the best one.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Harnessing the Power of Effective Communication

From CIO Business Review – Top 10 Most Inspiring People in Leadership Consulting 2023

In today’s fast-paced world, communication has become more important than ever. Whether you are a business leader, a public figure, or simply someone who wants to make a difference, the ability to communicate effectively is essential. And when it comes to mastering this skill, Sally Williamson is the name to know.

As the president and founder of Sally Williamson & Associates (SW&A), Sally has spent more than three decades coaching leaders and teams to deliver impactful messages that resonate with audiences. By coaching clients to organize ideas with a focus on listener expectations, Sally helps communicators develop compelling storylines that engage and influence audiences in any situation.

Taking Steps to Bridge the Gap

Sally’s passion has always been communication, which began with her interest in public relations and journalism. She learned to write with a listener in mind and had a growing fascination with business and business leaders. As she observed how business decisions were made, Sally noticed commonalities in why ideas failed and she soon realized the correlation between individuals who could communicate effectively and those who could not. Sally knew that this was an area where she could make a significant difference, so she shifted her focus to executive coaching. And she began to develop a methodology and supporting tools to help others communicate to achieve their goals.

Building the Business

Sally began the firm as a solo entrepreneur with a keen interest in the impact of communication on business outcomes and a desire to help individuals influence results. The first clients were enterprise sales teams who recognized the importance of coaching to create a winning presentation, and the coaching worked remarkably well.

By 2004, Sally had assembled a team, and SW&A opened its first brick-and-mortar office to host workshops and coaching sessions. As SW&A’s reputation grew, success attracted more success, and the SW&A team continued to expand, with the development of a coaching curriculum and the launch of Tailored Programs across nearly every industry and every function in the corporate world.

Today, SW&A is a consulting firm that helps managers and leaders become persuasive communicators. Its approach shifts communication from a technique-based toolkit to an intention-led methodology that empowers anyone to become more compelling in what they say and how they say it.

Although the firm’s mission remains the same, the skills it teaches have significantly expanded, enabling the team to solve client problems today and anticipate communication needs in new contexts.

Leading with Determination

If Sally had to be described in one word, it would be determined. As the head of the firm, she cannot oversee every aspect of the company’s operations, but she still cares deeply about it. Sally believes that her primary responsibility is to instill that same level of caring in every member of the team. To achieve this, she splits her time between managing some of the more complex projects the firm takes on and supporting other team members to ensure that they bring their best work to every engagement.

Sally’s workdays are never typical, which keeps her work challenging and rewarding. Every client presents a new challenge and a unique situation. Some days, she spends up to 12 hours coaching individuals and then works under a tight deadline to ensure that they are ready for a presentation. On other days, she may deliver a full-day workshop to a small group or a keynote presentation to a large audience. But every day brings the joy and passion of helping others leverage communication to influence and connect with others.

Addressing Major Issues for Impactful Change

SW&A prides itself on embodying its values through its actions, methods, and team collaboration. The company’s competitive advantage stems from its genuine desire to make a positive impact and its dedication to continuing until that goal is achieved. This approach is reflected in their coaching style, which prioritizes adapting instruction to best fit the individual’s needs.

As society and the business landscape have evolved, SW&A recognizes the need to address sensitive and critical human issues in business settings. While progress has been made, there is still much work to be done to solve challenges and evolve cultures. It will require thoughtful communication and authentic and sincere engagement from leaders. Sally hopes to continue to help leaders advance culture change and make a real difference.

Embracing Life Fully to Live with Fulfilment

Balance varies depending on your stage in life. Sally was fortunate enough to prioritize raising a family and during that time, family took precedence over work. She made trade-offs and missed opportunities on the professional side because she prioritized her personal life. Although she missed some significant professional moments along the way, she was able to reset the balance as her children grew older, and she made building her business her top priority. Today’s professional settings are much more flexible and allow men and women to balance priorities and take the initiative to define how aspects of the career journey fit within their life.

As a leader, Sally strives to support each employee on their unique journey. Some are still developing their careers, while others see SW&A as their final chapter. Her aim is to create a culture that allows for all of it and one way they do that is taking the time to celebrate each other frequently.

Gaining Wisdom Through Overcoming Challenges

Through her experiences, Sally has gained knowledge from every challenge she has faced. While reflecting on some of the more difficult situations, she has come to realize the value of hindsight and objective analysis. Despite her small business, Sally’s clients are often large corporations, and sometimes individuals make choices that don’t seem like the right ones through SW&A’s lens. Then, according to Sally, “Over time as more pieces fall into place, we see the full picture and can understand why a poor decision was made. Several years ago, my mantra to my clients and to myself became: ‘everything makes sense.’  If you’re in a situation that doesn’t make sense, you’re missing information. And I’ve learned to seek that missing information or simply move on knowing that it will be revealed eventually.”

Success Hinges on Effective Communication

According to Sally, success for any coach, whether they are coaching communication skills or tennis skills, is measured by their clients’ takeaways. Although effective communication is well-understood, its value is only realized when one can impart it to others. She says, “We see initial success when we improve someone’s confidence or strengthen their impact. And over time, I’ve seen the value of that success reinforced as clients come back again and again because they value your input and partnership.”

Expanding the Reach

Over the last few years, many businesses have faced unprecedented challenges and opportunities, and SW&A was no exception. This compelled her team to reconsider the business’s tools and restructure some of their offerings. It also opened up new opportunities for them to transform communication from being just a skill they teach to becoming a final product they can offer. Apart from coaching individuals to be effective communicators, SW&A now helps companies improve their communication in various situations and uses their expertise to bring teams and ideas together to drive impact.

Looking ahead, SW&A has planned to expand their communication offerings over the next five years. They also aim to publish two new books and develop programs that leverage the insights from these books to influence and impact new communication situations.

Customer Conference Outcomes: It’s Harder Than You Think

TAKE US WITH YOU! Listen to this article on the go:

Customer conferences are back, and attendance is strong! The brief hiatus to virtual events didn’t hold up as a viable option. And the data proves it out. More than 70% of event planners say it’s too difficult to mimic a real-life experience virtually, and 67% say the brand narrative doesn’t come through. And that’s why 98% are back in convention centers, ballrooms and other venues to drive their marketing strategies.

But it’s a little different this time around.

Historically, the customer conferences belonged to the marketing team. They built the hype and positioned new products and ideas on a big budget with lots of bells and whistles to create a fun event. Sales jumped in post-conference and scheduled customer conversations and visits to generate an opportunity. The marketing investment was measured by attendance, customer fun and sales follow-up.

In the last year, sales leaders learned the hard way that conference expectations have to go up.

Here’s why:

In-person sales meetings have plummeted by 52% since the pandemic, and over 70% of buyers no longer want to invite a sales rep into an office. The “pitch” has been reduced to a virtual format and is easily delayed or stalled until a company is ready to buy something. That diminishes the sales team’s ability to pick up where the conference ideas wrap up, and in many cases, it eliminates an opportunity for a positioning conversation.

That may be why groups are disappointed in the gap between the event investment and the sales revenue. It doesn’t mean the events aren’t a good use of marketing dollars. But it does mean that focus and format may shift as expectations go up.

As your group begins to think about 2024 conferences, now is the time to add a new lens on your event and adjust expectations with your planning team. And that’s where we’ve jumped in to help sales and marketing teams rethink their conference to ensure outcomes are more than just fun and games.

From our perspective, there are three opportunities for connection: messaging, people and takeaways.



All companies work on themes and topics. But only a few really connect the dots across all the storylines. In most companies, marketing sets a plan and then hands topics to presenters and gives them general direction to build their talk track. When communication teams get involved, the keynotes improve but the thread of ideas across breakouts, demo sessions and all presenters is rarely evident.

That used to just be a lofty ideal state. But now, it’s the only way to ensure that messages are memorable and repeatable. You’re arming the conference attendees with thoughts that they will need to recall months later to consider your salesperson.

It’s aligning all presenters to a narrow group of messages that support a theme. It means that each portion of the conference builds on what came before it rather than heading in a different direction. And it works. Companies that we’ve helped link all pieces together see better results in continuing conversations and generating sales.



This seems like an easy one, but your customers find it harder to walk into a setting where they don’t know people. And even when they’re on site, they make choices not to do it.

You can host a cocktail hour, but you won’t see the easy engagement from a few years ago. We’ve learned this the hard way as small group programs came back on our calendar. People are more reticent to jump in and network. It’s been an awkward reset that hasn’t happened easily.

You have to organize and plan connection. You have to impose opportunities on people. And you have to put small groups together with a purpose. Mini events inside planned events make it easier. Time and time again, we see that people like a plan for fitting in, and they respond well to an activity to do with a small group.

We’ve seen the “miss on connection” play out many times. Earlier this year, we were on-site for a conference that included evening events. In hindsight, the marketing team realized there was little communication about plans for the first night’s dinner. They invited people with a time and location, but they didn’t say anything about what would happen when you arrived. And that’s probably why 65% of their attendees didn’t show up. The marketing team was shocked, and the CEO was mad. I’d seen this hesitancy before and suggested a different approach for the second night. Through light-hearted comments from the CEO, we added details for the second night and shared plans for assigned seating, planned discussion and activity. 95% of their attendees showed up the second night.

Take the hesitancy and awkwardness out of joining in. Make it easy for people to lean in and feel included during the conference.



Once the conference begins and a group settles in, your on-site team needs to work much harder to frame the next steps while your customers are there. This can work in conjunction with a plan to impose engagement. But it often takes a structured plan and a little coaching to help your team execute this.

You need to take advantage of your customers’ willingness to spend 2.5 days with you. You won’t get it again any time soon. Create a 10:1 ratio between people attending and people you have on-site. Leverage every employee to run a playbook that helps you get two steps ahead with needs, ideas and timetables with customers.

Sales teams show up at conferences and see their lead role as entertaining. That’s too low of an expectation. You need to be able to forecast, prioritize and strategize based on the insights you get at the conference. Rotate your top people through these groups and find ways to gather good insight and timing on a customer’s plans in the months ahead.

All conferences use apps, but you may not be leveraging all the capabilities available. You can build small groups in apps; you can change small groups in apps. And you can send a personalized agenda to each attendee every night. It may seem overwhelming to manage hundreds or thousands of attendees. But your employees can easily manage a group of ten. Test different ways to engage and different times throughout the conference for 1:1 conversations.


Conferences are at an all-time high, and customers are showing up in record numbers. But your sales team needs more than just interest and entertainment as a takeaway. It’s a different playbook that drives the ultimate connection through messages, people and takeaways. And we can help you get there.

Let us be your sounding board as conference planning gets underway.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates